The New York Times ran a piece in the Saturday edition by psychology prof Eli J. Finkel on the “trauma of parenthood.” He stresses that postpartum depression and the drop in well-being are not only a hormone-induced phenomenon. “The circumstances parents face,” he writes, “are often demonstrably miserable.” Perhaps insisting on purely biological changes helps us cope better with postpartum ordeals, but life-conditions and other environmental factors also play a large role in what is considered the poorer quality of life of parents. We all know how hard it can be for the new mothers, but he also points out “that men on average experienced significant increases in depressive symptomatology across the first five years of fatherhood (if and only if they lived with their child).”
The “trauma” of parenting? “Bleak” and “miserable” circumstances? As a dear friend—a working mother of two—replied when I emailed her the piece: “Dude, really? Read the paper. First World problem!” I also thought that the picture painted in the op-ed was too gloomy. And this is not because my kids never make me lose my temper, or that my wife and I miraculously found a way to enjoy some quality time together on a regular basis since we became parents. Our own parents do not live in Montreal and we do not have a sitter. My boy is fast approaching terrible twos territory, and my otherwise adorable daughter is well in what many call the “fucking fours”. I barely remember the time when I thought of myself as a rather soft and patient man. I am madly in love with my kids—I honestly didn’t think that there was that amount of love in me before becoming a parent—but they make me crazy pretty much every day. As we all know, young children are miserable at regulating their emotions, and it sometimes feels that I’m barely better. The worst is when I start fighting with my lovely wife just because I spent all my willpower, reasonableness and empathy trying to get Léanne to dress while holding Charlie in my arms because he makes me feel like I abandoned him to foster care every time I put him down. So, in a nutshell, my wife and I are deep in the trenches, and I don’t think that we are romanticizing parenthood.
I certainly do not want to deny that a significant proportion of new parents go through depressive episodes. The data is there. My wife tries to help many of them in her private clinical practice and in her work with general physicians in a family clinic. And yes, biological and environmental reasons are surely intertwined, as they always are. I worry however about the story about parenthood that is being told and that has come to loom large in our social imaginary. Yes, things change and get rocky when you have kids, but it improves life-satisfaction for many of us in many ways.
Claims about the relationship between parenthood and well-being or life-satisfaction or happiness are always controversial, and people like to fight about it. Among other reasons, it is a controversial issue because well-being is notoriously hard to pin down and quantify. The answers parents will give vary enormously depending on what is being measured. Parenthood is an emotional rollercoaster. A typical day will include episodes of pure joy and bliss—that delightful picnic at the park, the kids totally immersed in their games, the effusive expression of love—and several moments of exasperation and anger—the stubborn refusal to taste the meal that took you more than an hour to fix, the tantrum in public, the (literal) slap in the face, and so on. Of course if you try to measure positive emotion or pleasure from moment to moment, I might end up on the losing side compared to someone who sipped Riesling all afternoon on her terrace reading the weekend edition of the NYT. But if you’re trying to measure meaning, purpose, accomplishment, or life-satisfaction over the lifespan, raising children is likely to provide a big boost.
Finkel mentions social isolation as one of the sources of parental misery. He is right. My wife and I spend lots of time and energy trying to maintain meaningful relationships with friends. Thankfully, we have many friends who also think that friendship is a highly valuable good and who are prepared to do what it takes to keep our relationship with them alive. But food shopping, cooking and having people over is demanding when you ran around all week trying to reconcile work and family life. The temptation to hunker down is strong. So we’re often tired when the week begins and we sometimes wonder whether we are taking sufficient care of ourselves. We all know that fatigue is bad for health, mood, work, sex, you name it. Something has to give. We don’t have a magical formula for leading a perfectly balanced life. But that doesn’t mean that parents who say that having children is the most wonderful thing that happened to them are delusional or rationalizing.
The tendency to generalize and extrapolate from our own subjective experience—the fallacy of induction—is of course hard to resist. Full disclosure: I just had a refreshing dip in the pool at Parc Laurier with the kids. And yes, I know what adaptive preferences and ex post facto rationalization are. It’s an extraordinary blessing that most parents sincerely believe that having children was the most beautiful thing to have happened to them. It is of course possible to adapt our preferences too much to our life circumstances—think of a battered women who believes that she is still better off with her violent husband—but the psychological capacity to adapt and make the most of what life throws at us, and to be resilient, is absolutely vital. In the end, I do not care if there is an evolutionary or any other deterministic reason why I think that my identity as a parent and spouse is my most precious and meaning-giving practical identity; what matters is that I truly feel and believe it.
Caring very deeply about vulnerable and dependant human beings is surely not a moral experience that is overabundant in today’s world. As I will explain in Part 2, I wholeheartedly believe that one can lead a meaningful and inspiring life without having kids. But we should not let the “trauma of parenting” story overshadow the awesome nature of having children in our collective narrative. Yes, Finkel is fully right, let’s pursue “kindness [and empathy] over ideology” when it comes down to other people’s choice to have kids or not. That includes those of us who become a little nuts when we talk about our children.