Remaining puzzle #11: Why Parenthood Makes Us Unhappy

The reason why parenthood sucks.

Posted Aug 18, 2008

I have discovered this to be the case in my own work as well. In my analysis of the U.S. General Social Surveys, I find that marriage and parenthood have a significant positive interaction effect on happiness for both men and women. In nontechnical terms, it means that simultaneously being married and having children make Americans much happier than does the sum of being married and having children. There is an additional boost in happiness if you are both simultaneously. Since reproductive success -- being in a pair-bonded relationship and raising children together -- is the ultimate goal of all humans, this makes perfect sense from an evolutionary psychological perspective.

It made perfect sense, that is, until a reviewer pointed out to me that the main effect of being a parent was very large and negative, slightly larger than the positive interaction effect. In essence, what the totality of my data analysis shows is that being a parent sucks, but it doesn’t suck as much if you are married. Or, conversely, it means that being married is great, but it’s not as great if you also have children. Of course, the question is: Why does being a parent suck? Why does parenthood make us unhappy? This does not make any evolutionary psychological sense at all.

The only reason I can think of for why parenthood may make us unhappy is that we are raising our children today in a wholly unnatural environment, in an entirely unnatural manner, relative to our ancestral environment. And our brains, still stuck in the Stone Age, are not designed for us to be parents in the modern world.

Biologically, childhood ends at puberty. After puberty, girls are designed to leave their family and marry into a neighboring tribe, and boys are designed to become self-sufficient and economically independent hunters, in the hope of attracting mates soon. Of course, this is not what happens in the modern family today. We have artificially prolonged childhood called “adolescence” when the children are biologically adults but socially and legally still children. Adolescents past puberty are economically still dependent on their parents, and parents are still expected to raise them. This, incidentally, is at least part of the reason why teenagers rebel against their parents. They are not biologically designed to be economically dependent on their parents and subject to parental control for many years after puberty, at least not nearly to the extent that our laws and social customs require them to be today.

We have to send our children to school, under mandatory education, and the parents sometimes have to support their children through college or, worse yet, graduate school. We cannot use our children for economically productive purposes because there are laws against child labor, so children are net economic burdens. We have to drive them around from ballet lessons to soccer practices. It’s no longer sufficient to make sure that they are well fed and healthy enough to live until sexual maturity so that they can start their own reproductive life at puberty. It is instructive to note in this context that longitudinal research demonstrates that parents were much happier and less stressed in the 1950s when parents (especially mothers) did not have to juggle careers and parenthood than they were in the 1970s.

I am not certain that this is the only reason why parenthood makes us unhappy today. I also wonder whether the “more purpose, more meaning, and greater satisfaction from life” that parents derive than nonparents do means that parents are in fact happier than nonparents despite a whole host of negative emotions they experience more frequently and positive emotions they experience less frequently. At any event, why the very act of reproductive success makes us unhappy, when we are designed to achieve it and everything we do is ultimately geared toward it, remains a mystery for evolutionary psychology (and, once again, only for evolutionary psychology).