I consider the decision to have a child (or to not have a child) to be the single most significant decision people make in their lives.
Sure, there are lots of big decisions we make over the course of our lives: where to live, how to make money, whether to partner up (and with whom).
But none of these decisions are as life-altering and as irrevocable as the decision to become a parent. You can always move, train for a new profession, or get a divorce. But you can never undo having a child. You can’t just decide, ten years in, that parenthood isn’t for you and somehow return the kid (notwithstanding Bill Cosby’s classic threat to his children: “I brought you into this world and I’ll send you right back!”).
I was discussing this with my boyfriend, and he told me I was wrong, because suicide is just as irrevocable and life-altering as having a child. And he’s right. In fact, as I thought about it more, I realized that having a child is, in a sense, the exact opposite of suicide.
With suicide, you end a life, which is a permanent commitment. When you have a child, you create a life, which is also a permanent commitment. They’re both life and death decisions, and they’re both final.
So, considering that the decision to have a child is so incomparably HUGE, so existentially weighty, why is it that we have virtually no tools to help us make this decision?
Two years ago, I wrote a post titled Does Having Children Ruin Your Life? It was a tongue-in-cheek venting of my frustrations with trying to figure out the kid question. And I got a lot of really thoughtful, interesting answers from happy parents, not-so-happy parents, and the childfree.
Those comments sent me on a mission to try to figure this parenthood thing out. I wanted to know why some people enjoy parenthood so much while others are either neutral or actively dislike it. I ordered and read every book on the subject I could find (including Salon's "Maybe Baby") and every study and article I could get my hands on. But I was still left with more questions than answers, because the fact is, there is simply no real data on this issue.
Now, I know that some people have simply always known they want kids, or that they don’t want kids, so the question isn’t a big deal for them. And those people are lucky! I truly envy them.
But for the rest of us, what do we have to go on? Not much. If I were trying to decide what kind of car to buy, I could find pages of statistics, data, and reviews to help me make an informed decision. If I was considering getting a chihuahua or a dalmation, there is loads of information on these breeds to help me decide. But when it comes to becoming a parent? Not so much.
The social science says that on average, parents are slightly less happy than non-parents. But that’s about it for hard data, and it’s decidedly unhelpful. Clearly not all parents are less happy, so what are the important differences between parents who are happy and those who aren’t?
For instance, does one’s religious views affect enjoyment of parenting? Does one’s optimism or pessimism about the future matter? What about one’s relationship with their own parents? Does it matter if you live in the city or the country? If you’re an animal lover or a sports nut? Does it change things if you’re a morning person or a night owl? If you’re introverted or extroverted? Does it even matter if you “like kids” in general or do you only need to like your own kid?
We don’t have answers to any of these questions.
You would think this would be an area of serious concern and research. After all, it’s not only incredibly important to the individual people trying to make this decision; it’s also important to society. It does no good for anyone when people who really aren’t cut out to be parents have children. If we had better information showing us what kind of traits make for satisfied versus miserable parents, we might be able to avoid a lot of heartache.
So what gives? Where’s the research?
The only answer I can come up with is that for the vast majority of human history, there was no choice about having kids. If you had sex, you were going to end up with babies.
And our culture is still essentially built around that base biological fact. We’ve only had reliable and widely available control over our reproduction for a fraction of history, a few decades. So I suppose our research hasn’t yet caught up to the fact that parenthood is now an option, not a given. Our culture still simply assumes parenthood; it’s the default position. So our memes and social scripts and even the research performed by social scientists reflect that assumption.
There is, perhaps, even a pro-natalist bias at work here. In effect, if lots of babies are considered good and necessary for society, then we don’t want to discourage anyone from having one. So if it turns out that introverted night-owls are 300% more likely to dislike parenting than extroverted morning people, then perhaps people don’t think it’s worth knowing.
Well, I want to know.
So I've done the only thing I can think of (and yes, I know this shows what an insufferable data-loving nerd I am): I created a survey. It's designed to tease out those traits that might be correlated with satisfaction or dissatisfaction in parenthood versus childlessness. It looks at demographics, worldview, values, lifestyle -- really anything I could think of that might be correlated with one's happiness as a parent.
And while I'd like to get a lot more responses, the results so far are interesting. The good news is that most people are happy with whatever decision they made, whether they chose to have kids or not. But at this preliminary point, there do appear to be some differences between the happier and less happy parents. And there's also some differences between happy parents and the happily childfree. For instance, it appears that people who are happily childfree are much more likely to be animal lovers, and, in particular, to have cats rather than dogs.
But to get more robust data, I need more responses! So help me out and take my survey -- I need men and women, parents and non, satisfied and not so satisfied. The more responses I get, the better the data.
If you'd like to help, you can take the survey here.
I'll be posting some of the results as they roll in. And thanks in advance!