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December 19, 2014

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Is parenthood overrated?

Newly married couples walk blissfully into childbirth, eager for the bonding and the cooing and the joys of a newly arrived baby. But a study just released in Britain reports a surprising fact: Couples without kids are actually happier than those with them.

Crying again? It hasn’t been a half-hour. Four in the morning, and I haven’t slept more than two hours at a stretch for the past month.

The state-funded inquiry surveyed 5,000 people in all manner of relationships. The results were complicated. Married couples seemed happier than unmarried but cohabitating couples. Single mothers seemed the happiest of all. But still, the cross-cutting variable that made a difference for all couples — straight or gay, married or not — was children. Children made it hard to keep a relationship strong and enduring.

Come over and sit down with me. A glass of wine? I thought they’d never settle down. Mmm, your hair smells good ...

Mo-o-o-om!!!

Argh.

Trying to figure out the impact of kids on relationships is a favorite topic of sociologists and psychologists. A 2006 U.S. investigation, for example, tracked 13,000 people and found that those with kids were more depressed. There was a political aspect to that conclusion, with some analysts saying the depression was due to the United States providing less support to those with kids. The solution: free day care, parental paid time off, mandatory maternity benefits. I suppose a government-provided maid would help too.

What do you mean you don’t like peanut butter and jelly? You have it every day. Strawberry yogurt? We don’t have that. Look, the bus will be here in like two minutes, and I’ve got to go to work. Can we do the sandwich today and yogurt tomorrow? OK, OK, stop screaming. I’ll drive over and drop it off during the morning, all right?

Part of the reason for the dissatisfaction with raising kids is that it’s not much fun. In 2004, economist Daniel Kahneman found that, of the pleasure to be derived from 19 everyday tasks (such as watching TV, shopping and child care), child care ranked 16th on the list. Others have come to the same conclusion: Parenting is filled with drudgery and rarely gets a thanks in return.

I’ll pick up May at 2:30 from school and then drop her off to dance, then get Ben at 3:15 for karate, then swing back to school around 4 to get John from afterschool, then get May and then Ben and head home. I’m not sure what’s in the fridge, but we have to have dinner by 6 so they can do their homework.

Meanwhile, researchers from Stony Brook University and Princeton University this month released another analysis claiming that the days of those without kids are more even-keeled. Childless couples go through life as if driving on a flat racetrack while parenthood is like a roller coaster — both start and end at the same place, but the latter have a far tougher ride. “People with kids have more joys and happiness as well as more negative emotions, like anger, worry, and stress,’’ said co-author Arthur Stone.

Hello? Where are you? It’s 2 a.m.! A ride? Really? You’re what? Yes, I know I told you that you should call. OK, I’ll be there shortly.

Parenting is expensive. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the cost of raising a child from birth through age 18 is now $241,080 — and that doesn’t even include paying for college.

Did you see this bill? $25,000!

$25,000 for one year? That’s insane.

No, not a year — a semester. Forget the vacation. Forget retiring. And I need a second job.

All of this makes for a cautionary tale for those contemplating pregnancy: Only have a child if you’re prepared for the consequences. Sure, infants are adoring and dependent, the subject of envious looks. But kids quickly develop their own contrary and often surly minds. If you’re looking for a buddy who regards you as all-knowing and wise, get a dog.

So given all this — the work, the financial pressures, the daily crises — I guess if you had to do it all over, you’d just never have had the kids in the first place, right?

No, not a chance. I wouldn’t change anything.

Tom Keane is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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