The Happiness Wars: Why the Child-Free “Beat” Parents

unhappy momWant to be a happy parent? THINK first.

One thing about the child-free community is pretty certain: most of us give a lot of thought to the child question. Even “early articulators” (people who know when they’re relatively young that they don’t want children) tend to give it a lot of thought throughout their lives as they encounter people/TV shows/books/movie characters/family members who express a certain expectation of children.

Several fairly recent articles cite studies showing that the child-free are generally happier about being child-free than parents are about being parents, and parents (mostly mothers, who shoulder a majority of the child-rearing burden) have started sharing their displeasure with parenthood online.

The first quote below is excerpted from a post titled “I hate motherhood.” The others are excerpted from selected comments.

Why is it that we are conned into thinking that motherhood is a blissful, satisfying, and rewarding blessing? I attend a mothers group for young mothers and the other day one of the social workers asked…”Who hates being a mom?” Everyone looked at each other as if they were afraid of the question and that admitting to it is a mortal sin. My hand shot up. After a year of being a mother I can’t hate it more. It just prevents me being truly happy.

Me too. You are not alone.

I just told my screaming kids in the van I was going to work, hiring someone to take care of them, because I quit! Seriously, I want to quit being a mother, a parent and a wife. I think you feelings are normal. I don’t have any other answer than that for you.

There is not one aspect of motherhood I’ve enjoyed not even since pregnancy… I love my daughter, I just don’t want to be the one to raise her.

I am glad to find this post. I have not enjoyed motherhood at all and find it hard to connect with other moms who feel the same. Everyone seems to glow and adore motherhood and their children.

There’s a lot of back-and-forth online about who’s happier (parents, non-parents, parents of one, parents of many), and most of it is presented as a shallow, petty Happiness War: “Parents are happier because we have bundles of joy!” vs. “Child-free are happier because we’re unburdened!” (It goes further – see “The Happiness Wars: Who’s Winning?”)

Instead of the happiness factor having anything to do with parenthood vs. non-parenthood, isn’t it more likely that who’s happiest has most to do with who’s doing what they always wanted to be doing, what they gave serious thought to, what they considered and weighed carefully?

How many people really think about having kids before doing it? How many people think beyond pregnancy, or the momentous day of the birth when excitement and enthusiasm is high? How many parents thought beyond pregnancy glow, baby showers, the thrill of telling family members the news? How many people got beyond the romance of it?

How many gave it any thought at all?

“I have three children,” wrote a woman who sent me a Dear Sylvia confession. “I had them because my mom had kids, her mom had kids, her mom’s mom had kids… and basically, I never really gave it much thought. You got married, you had kids – end of story, right?” (Bold mine.)

She’s obviously not the only one to have had kids “just because.” A lot of people don’t give it more than a “squee!” (if that). In No Children, No Guilt, I recall a day with my ex when I actually said “Let’s just do it” to getting pregnant during a moment of embarrassing pressure-caving. Thank goodness we didn’t follow through.

From the “I hate motherhood” thread:

Needless to say my pregnancy was unplanned and unwanted. I was 21, unmarried, and still in college with hopes of attending medical school. I dreaded being pregnant and the permanent scars it would leave on my already flawed body.

…I got pregnant unexpectedly…

I discovered that I was pregnant at 35 when I went in for my blood work before my tubal ligation. I wanted the surgery when I was 22 but was told I would have to wait until 35.

I thought I had it all figured out and was not worried about becoming a mom, thinking it would only enrich my life even more and provide that little puzzle that was missing – beinn educated, having a loving husband, working and being a mom who adores her beautiful baby.

And then reality hit – I have not slept more than four hours straight for about a year and I am exhausted dealing with my son’s constant crying, neediness, desire to play, cuddle, eat, poop, sleep. Of course, I love and adore him. He is all I could ask for, but I am so tired of living my life for him.

That’s a random sample taken from 48 comments. One of the women above gave thought to having children, but not very much.

(My husband has argued that it’s probably a self-preservation measure that we procreate without thinking – otherwise, too many of us might not reproduce. But seeing as how there’s little danger of our society dying out any time soon, there’s little “danger” in that danger.)

Why so many unhappy parents? Well, according to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy,

About one in two pregnancies in America are unplanned. That is, over three million of the 6.4 million pregnancies in the United States annually are unplanned.1 Moreover, about two-thirds of unplanned pregnancies—two million—are unwanted. In other words, about one in three pregnancies are unwanted.

Isn’t this a somewhat more logical, and simpler, explanation for the unhappy parent vs. happy child-free question? It’s just desire. Doctors who went into doctoring because their parents were doctors probably aren’t as happy and fulfilled as doctors who were fascinated with stethoscopes as children and knew they wanted to be doctors since they saw their first episode of House.

And this is actually something of a tragedy. Not only does this thoughtlessness affect the lives of the people caring for the offspring, but those poor offspring are growing up with unhappy, resentful parents – many of whom decide to divorce after the first child, according to Carol Delaney and Deborah Kaspin (Investigating Culture: An Experiential Introduction to Anthropology).

Even pregnancies that aren’t unplanned aren’t necessarily “planned.” There’s little consideration given to what it will be like when it’s not a leaf-playing, gurgling, tiny-socks moment. No one wants to think about cleaning up poo/vomit, devoting so much time (medical visits, shopping, cooking, watching), arguing with a partner over discipline methods, worrying, being exhausted, etc. That’s not “fun” to think about.

If you haven’t yet had a child, please, for the love of God, THINK about it. This isn’t bringing home a goldfish (which you should also research before bringing home for proper care) or a potted plant.

1. Can you afford it?
2. Do you want your life to change completely?
3. Are you done doing what you want to do for yourself?
4. Have you thought about more than what the “cute little baby” will look like and gone further into the future – 2 years old, 5 years old, 8 years old, 13 – 17, each with its own challenges and parental responsibilities and stresses?
5. Are you prepared for your marriage to change?
6. Do you give a shit about any of this, or are you ignoring it and thinking, “Whatevs. I want a baby, and I do what I want”?

Yeah. Why bother? It’s just a kid, right? It’ll all work itself out.

~ ~ ~

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12 thoughts on “The Happiness Wars: Why the Child-Free “Beat” Parents

  1. Susan

    From some of the confessions I read at the “Hate Being a Mom” blog that I came across recently, I noticed there was a strong pattern. The women who seemed to hate it the most all had babies or children under five and finding it particularly stressful. Personally, I am very happy that DS is now a young adult and the baby/toddler days are long behind. If I had caved in to the demands of “society” to have the “normal” two, I would be a basket case.

    1. I want to look more into this, because I seem to remember reading an article somewhere that supports what you’re saying – that, generally, the most stressful (and probably least rewarding) period of parenthood is during the early years. It would make sense.

  2. I have one more “test” question: “Are you prepared for the child to be less than perfect? What if s/he is born with physical or mental defects? What if s/he has an expensive-to-care-for medical condition? Are you physically and fiscally prepared for that possibility?”

  3. Susan

    Lori, I think that’s one of the most essential questions people contemplating having kids need to ask themselves, yet so many never do. Then they’re totally shocked — not to mention angry — when their child does turn out to be handicapped in some way and even take their resentment out on their child, who never asked for that condition or to be born, for that matter. I firmly believe that if more people have REALLY serious consideration to the fact there’s a 50-50 chance their child could have a physical or mental handicap, more people may realize they don’t want to cope with that possibility and decide not to have children. IMO that would be the best decision for all concerned.

    There’s an old saying, “if you think too much, you’ll never have kids.” My response to that is: “and someone’s NOT having kids would be bad thing…WHY, exactly?” I’ve actually asked that question on online forums when I see it posted. Funny how the people who DO post such nonsense never seem to have an intelligent answer, isn’t it.

  4. I think this was one of the most frightening things for me to realize when I entered the infertility-online-community. These are not people who are having unplanned pregnancies – they are spending epic amounts of money, time, and pain in an uncertain-to-succeed attempt to get with child. And still, some haven’t thought about the true long term consequences of having a child.

    The most interesting comment I believe I saw was from someone responding to a series of normal (and understandable!) complaints about fertility treatments. She politely told everyone to suck it up. See, fertility treatment takes over your life – you are at the doctor every week, sometimes every day during parts of a cycle. You give yourself injections two or three times a day and have to schedule your life around having access to a fridge to keep the meds cold and still trying to hide all the drug paraphernalia from your boss and coworkers. Your sex life goes to hell – the “forced-sex death march” – and everything in your life centers around this one thing. You constantly worry that something you are doing is making it worse – no coffee, no booze, don’t exercise too much, remember to exercise just enough, be careful what you eat, don’t let your weight get too high or too low. It’s exhausting. You just can’t wait for it to be over. And this commentator said, basically, “Um, doesn’t this sound like being a parent?” If it succeeds, this ISN’T going to be over, it’s just getting started. If you can’t handle cutting back on luxuries to pay for treatment and can’t handle the emotional toll of fertility, can you really handle raising a CHILD? She basically, and politely, said to get over yourselves and consider it training to be a parent.

    So immediately, people jumped all over that with statements like, “Oh but I’ve always known I was meant to be a mom! It will all be fine when I get the baby!” And I’ve always got to wonder if that’s really true. For some it certainly is, but I think others are so brainwashed by a pro-baby society (and by infertility clinic staff who are awesome, but who rarely ask “why are you doing this”) that they can’t even see the warning signs when they’re right in front of them. (Might explain why postpartum depression is so prevalent post-IVF.)

  5. Susan

    I just thought of another good test question, which is: “Do you really LIKE babies and children, or do you believe people are “supposed to” have kids?”

    This is another one that people seem to ignore completely but really DO need to consider. Because if you (speaking generally here) really don’t like children at any stage, it’s probably not a good idea to create one that you’ll have around 24/7/365 for the next 18 years.

  6. We’ve never wanted kids and I, as the woman, feel particularly weird when so many married couples have them (and when people ask WHY we don’t have them!). For us, we’ve never understood the assumption that just because you’re married, you should produce children. And, yes, we still give the issue thought from time to time after having been married 20+ years.

  7. I agree, if you don’t feel like you can be happy with children, don’t do it, because the unhappiness will only get worse when trying to rear children the first few years and having children is a very stressful change to one’s lifestyle. Your 1-6 list is good, but can we every really afford a baby and what happens when we lose our jobs.

  8. Alex

    Another question that came to mind as I read this: what if you and your child don’t really like each other?

    This happens far more often than people think. There is a difference between like and love. For example, I love my parents, but I don’t really like them. We have NOTHING in common–hobbies, politics, personality, life goals…you name it, we’re complete opposites. If it wasn’t for the physical resemblance, I think we’d all swear I was switched at birth.

    A lot of people assume that genetics are destiny and that their kid will OF COURSE like the same things they do, see the world the way they do, etc. when if you think about it for even a nanosecond it’s obvious there is absolutely no guarantee of that. My favorite are the people who have bad or nonexistent relationships with their own parents who think that somehow, magically, it will be different for THEM and THEIR kids. I think for a lot of people, lying to themselves is a prerequisite for having kids. Then, they turn around and lie to their kids about how great parenthood is and how you’re so incomplete without it. Gee, whatever happened to wanting your kids to have it better than you did? It was only AFTER I told my parents I was childfree that my mom said she was happy we wouldn’t be bringing any more innocent people into a shitty world. But I guaran-damn-tee that she would have been thrilled if I had wanted to have kids. I don’t think these people even know what they believe.

  9. Susan

    Alex, I think you are spot on with that assessment. Many parents seem to get really upset when their children begin to differ very much from them, especially when they become adults and don’t have the same beliefs or lifestyles the parents do. For example, religious parents who are homophobic are often unbelievably cruel to any children they have who may turn out to be gay. As another example, one or both parents who believe that “all women want to have children” will often get angry at — and intolerant of — daughters who tell them they’re going to be childfree.

    If people can’t handle the fact that their someday kids might NOT turn out exactly like them, then in my view, they shouldn’t BE parents at all.

  10. anonymous

    I like reading this. My husband and I are thinking about having a child and we are an older late 30’s couple. We have all these same questions. I believe he will have a child with me, though I think he could live without one. And it’s a desire for me to have a child. However I have all these concerns as mentioned in this article. We are looking at it rationally and I haven’t read one good answer about the rationality of having a child. It’s disconcerning, that it seems all my friends and relatives don’t think one iota about the reality of it and just take it for granted that being a parent is something everyone does. I love children and would love to have a child of my own, but seriously – What’s love got to do with it and it’s not rational?


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