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Wait—Maybe Having Kids Doesn’t Bum You Out

Last summer New York magazine published a cover story explaining why having a kid more or less ruins your life. It featured beautifully forlorn photographs of a couple with twins and mostly dismal conclusions from psychologists and sociologists about the effect of offspring on parental happiness. The headline: “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting.”

But before you abandon junior at the mall, consider a new study that argues that reproducing probably won’t make you any less happy in the long run. There’s a chance it might. But there’s also a chance children might add significantly to your bliss.

It’s not a straightforward conclusion, which is exactly the point. The authors argue that previous researchers may have erred in thinking of parenthood as a “unified phenomenon,” lumping parents together and then reporting, on average, whether they were happier as a group. But what happens if you look more closely at individual differences?

In the study, researchers tested the subjective well-being of participants four years before and four years after the birth of a first child. Most parents (84.2 percent) reported no difference in life satisfaction. A small group (7.2 percent) had significant declines and an even smaller group (4.3 percent) felt much better post-progeny. Other research has suggested that income and education play a role in whether a child bucks you up or bums you out. And previous studies suggest that moms and dads tend to have different reactions to the challenges of parenting (though, interestingly, this new study found no gender differences).

Maybe the problem is that measuring the effect of children on well-being is just really hard. For instance, one oft-cited study asked 909 Texas women to rate daily activities, labeling them with words like “frustrating” or “annoying” or “happy” and “enjoying myself.” Child care came in sixteenth, just behind housework and just ahead of the evening commute. So from that we could conclude that mothers don’t really like taking care of their children.

But child care isn’t a simple, easily categorizable task. Sometimes it means picking strawberries in the backyard garden together. Other times it means washing toddler vomit off the floor mats in the car. Meanwhile, napping—which ranked 11th on the list of activities—is always, always awesome and never, ever gross.

(The paper, titled “What We Don’t Expect When Expecting: Evidence for Heterogeneity in Subjective Well-Being in Response to Parenthood” is not online. The authors are Isaac R. Galatzer-Levy, Anthony D. Mancini, and George A. Bonanno. It was published the Journal of Family Psychology. Thank god for rubber floor mats.)

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