Why Non-Parents Are Happier Than Parents

New York Magazine's cover story sports an article on what I have always experienced, but never yet confirmed: that non-parents are happier than parents.

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The current issue of New York Magazine's cover story sports an article that says what I have always experienced, but never yet confirmed: that non-parents are overall happier than parents.

I am child-free by choice and have honestly never looked back and wished I'd had children. I've seen too many of my friends stressed out by their own work-life juggles to have wanted that for myself. They all love their children and say they wouldn't have it any other way. But I've also seen a lot of women (it's almost always the mother, not the father) give up promising careers for motherhood and never being quite able to fight their way back into the workforce. That's a sacrifice I could not have made. I wanted to follow my own dreams, not spend my life helping someone else follow his or hers. Very few women succeed at doing both.

As data now show, some 20 percent of Americans over 40 years of age do not have children--I guess I'm part of a pretty large trend. My reasons for not wanting children were strictly personal: too much work, expense, and responsibility for me, AND I fear we are living at a time when overpopulation is killing the planet. So I felt no need to contribute to that. (I do not, by the way, see all parents as contributing to overpopulation, just those who have large families. Here comes the e-mail onslaught!)

Back to the article. The author, a mother, traces her own expectations as a parent and how reality clashed with those expectations. She cites mountains of data and studies showing that, as far as she can tell, American parents are more stressed and less happy than non-parents. She also found that in Denmark, where childcare is subsidized to the max, parents there are happier than non-parents. But what I like most about the article is her explanation of why American parents find child-rearing less rewarding than they expected it to be:

As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed. (The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child’s value in five ruthless words: “Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”) Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses.

How true and thank you for that! 

When I was born, in the 1950s, we were just emerging from the "children should be seen and not heard" era. Over time, our values morphed from seeing children as something that married couples were routinely supposed to produce, to these incredible trophies and treasures. I, quite frankly, never "got" that. I saw parent after parent obsessing over the accomplishments of their children, when their children were no different from anyone else's, yet the parent was deluded into thinking his or her child was decidedly different. And if I may be brutally frank, there is nothing more boring than listening to a parent obsess about his or her child or children. I let several friends go on and on about their kids because I love my friends and enjoy other aspects of their personalities. But it's tough, let me tell you!

In fairness, the New York Magazine article ends on an uplifting note about parenting: that tough as it may be, it enriches one's life in a transcendent way that non-parenting simply cannot. I get that. But I hope this article has broken or bent the limits on talking publicly about the costs of parenting to parents, too.