Is Parenting Worth It?

I’ve never read a blog’s first post, let alone written it. I’m about to do both, at the same time. Two birds before they even hatch.

This blog was inspired, in part, by a discussion I had with another dad this summer about Why Parents Hate Parenting. He was shocked to hear that:

Most people assume that having children will make them happier. Yet a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so.

The research is dismal, but it only confirms the obvious: people who clean up poop and pee every day aren’t quite as happy as people who don’t. Instead, they’re more stressed, and their marriages are strained and less satisfying: less romance, less traveling, less clubbing, less sleep, more poop (our 3-yr-old pooped her pants three times today). So the article reminds parents that raising human beings sucks, in case they’d forgotten, and it encourages people without kids to high five each other.

But by page 5 it gets to the nitty gritty, the definition of happiness, suggesting that parents, who seem lunatic for their decision, might be trading the moment-to-moment for the long-term satisfaction. The research doesn’t reflect this trade off. Gauging a parent’s deep love and commitment, the fulfillment and gratification often only felt in hindsight, requires much more than the cortisol in a teaspoon of saliva (a stress indicator in many of the studies cited).

So there’s more to parenting than research can uncover. The real question is, do the benefits outweigh the costs?

The costs: time, money, energy, sanity. Everything.

The benefits:

  1. Perpetuating the human race, increasing our odds of survival in the event of a killer tomato invasion.
  2. Paying it forward – somebody reared us, right? Someday, after they hate us, they might thank us, as we probably thanked our parents.
  3. Paying it backward – we change their diapers, they might change ours.
  4. Distribution of cheap labor – my son will happily do most chores for free, and when I can’t convince him that a tedious chore is really a game, I just pay him pennies on the dollar, or skittles.
  5. Reliving our childhoods – bikes, forts, legos, whoopie cushions, firecrackers, roller coasters, and videogames; lots of socially acceptable immaturity.

But these are mostly practical benefits, and they’re definitely not worth all our time, money, energy and sanity. That would be like hiking Half Dome for the exercise. No, I think most of us are in it for the simple, intangible, sometimes impractical rewards, the view from the top, brief as it may be:

Parenting is a grind, and most parents are stressed out much more than they are happy. But when parents think about parenting, they don’t remember the background stress. They remember the cuddle and the kiss.

I disagree with the rest of this article, especially the likening of parents to lab rats, gamblers, and junkies, but parenting really is a long series of crappy times interspersed with moments of triumph. And these profound moments, though sometimes fleeting and immeasurable, outweigh all the misery and despair.