When you’re about to have your first child, parents of actual, free-from-the-womb kids will chuckle knowingly and warn that you have no idea what you’re in for. Read all the books, attend every class, but you can’t really anticipate the wonder and the challenge. I found this to be annoying and untrue. Turns out it’s a lot like what the books say, and pretty much what I’d imagined. In a good way. But still.
A forthcoming paper, “What Mary Can’t Expect When She Is Expecting,” by L.A. Paul, a professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is stirring conversation even before it has appeared in the journal Res Philosophica. The paper is a 30-page knowing chuckle with footnotes, and it doesn’t do justice to what we’ve learned from the (admittedly imperfect and sometimes contradictory) social science about parental happiness.
Paul argues that you can’t make a rational decision about whether to have a child because you can’t know how having a child or not having a child will truly affect your life. She writes:
Moreover, since having one’s own child is unlike any other human experience, before she has had the experience of seeing and touching her newborn child, not only does she not know what it is like to have a child, she cannot know. Without having the experience itself, she cannot even have an approximate idea as to what it is like to have that experience. Like the experience of seeing color for the first time, the experience of having a child is not projectable. All of this results from the fact that having one’s own child is transformative—and far more so than the experience of seeing color for the first time.
It’s even more hopeless than that, according to Paul. If you want to lower the standard for a rational choice to, say, a semirational choice, you are out of luck because you are incapable of evaluating what having a child will mean to you “with any degree of accuracy at all.” Not any degree. Not approximately. Having children is so “transformative"—a word that crops up 22 times in the paper—that it’s a leap in the dark, an undiscovered country, impossible to fathom.
The paper mostly breezes by the research on the effect of children on their parents. In a footnote, though, Paul writes that “the negative impact of children on happiness and life satisfaction has been widely discussed in sociology, psychology, and economics,” which makes it seem as if the verdict is in and science has officially deemed procreation a huge bummer. But that’s not the case. In fact, the article Paul cites as providing a “nice overall summary” contradicts her brief summary of the literature. That 2008 article, by Robin W. Simon, a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University, does indeed highlight associations between parenting and negative emotions (the title is “The Joys of Parenthood, Reconsidered”). But Simon also writes that “studies indicate parents derive more purpose, more meaning, and greater satisfaction from life than nonparents.”
So maybe it’s not that bad.
Still, Simon is less than sanguine about the whole reproduction thing, and she’s not the only one raising doubts about raising kids. A much-cited 2004 study of the daily activities of 909 working mothers in Texas found that they ranked taking care of children as less pleasurable than shopping and napping, though more fun than working and commuting. A 2012 review of the literature concluded that having children lowers well-being levels, particularly for mothers and those with less money, and that the evidence suggests that “people are better off without having children.”
But a couple of recent papers take issue with that anti-offspring assessment. A working paper by three economists at the University of Zürich, published last October, asks the question “Does the stork deliver happiness?” They looked at the reported life-satisfaction of mothers and nonmothers over 20 years and found that motherhood was associated with “substantial positive satisfaction gains.” They found similar results for fathers, concluding that “both men and women seem to benefit from having a child.” Likewise, a 2012 paper says that the relative happiness of parents increases over time—what the authors call “parental happiness surplus"—and they criticize previous studies for using “outdated surveys” and not looking at trends over longer periods.
That’s not to say children always lead to bliss. The variables make absolute assertions ridiculous. Parents whose annual income is $200,000 are likely to be less stressed than parents who make $20,000. Studies suggest unmarried parents and single parents score lower on well-being measures. Plus there is no one, straightforward measure for or definition of happiness. Is it pleasure in the moment? Satisfaction over years? And are we talking about one child or a big brood? A 2005 Danish study found that both men and women experienced gains in happiness after a first child. Additional children slashed those gains for women but somehow didn’t bother the men. Perhaps Danish dads need to change more diapers.
Saying it’s not clear, though, is not the same as saying that we have no information about the effect that children tend to have on their mothers and fathers. We know a few things, and we’re learning more. Granted, Mary (or John, for that matter) can’t predict a postnatal experience with complete confidence, but let’s not exaggerate the mystery.