In her article in New York City Magazine Jennifer Senior rounds up a number of studies and experts who conclude, for the most part, that parents hate parenting. She tempers the claim a bit, noting that these studies tend to focus on an in-the-moment standard for happiness self-reporting, while there are other standards out there that may account for why parents usually claim that parenting makes them happier despite the data. For instance, a life of purpose, though not weighing heavily in the moment, offers a criterion beyond just present psychological states to contribute to the overall evaluation of happiness. Likewise, asking about regrets over a lifetime allows more reflective evaluation than bare “how do you feel today?” questions.
Although the sting of the claim is alleviated by these alllowances, there is still something that rankles. What is important about the claim that parents hate parenting?
For one expert interviewed for the article, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, what’s important here is that people are not very good at determining what will make them happy. Furthermore, criteria like purpose and regret shouldn’t matter in the calculation because, for him, what’s important in determining our happiness is our everyday emotional state: what do we deal with all the time? Out of the moment standards are irrelevant. So despite what parents say, they are just wrong about parenthood contributing to their happiness.
I don’t feel utterly mistaken when I say that being a parent makes me happy. But I see that the every day tasks of parenthood are not really joy-makers. So what’s going on here?
I like driving. I like driving long distances, in the night or in the day, through different scenes and for different reasons. I like being on the road whether I have a destination or not. When I think about driving, I think “Driving makes me happy.”
But there are a whole host of things involved with driving that I can’t say I like. Filling up the gas tank, for instance, is not very pleasant. And if I focus really hard on each element of the drive I’m not sure that I actually enjoy the majority of them: flexing my foot to accelerate, then maintaining it in a fixed position in order to keep speed, moving it over to the brake and hovering there and then pressing it down. None of those acts are enjoyable: they are stressful. Likewise gripping the steering wheel firmly enough to maintain control, and then constantly twitching it back and forth in micro-movements to keep the car between the lines on the road. And what about those lines? How much of my time is spent looking at the lines rather than at the scenery? How much time is spent staring at license plates or thinking about how to get around the car in front of me? If I added up all of those moments I’d have to think that I actually hate driving. No matter what I think about the trip before or after I’ve taken it, when I’m actually doing it, if I focus on the tasks involved, I hate driving.
But I really do like driving. To steal a Whitman line, do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. My brain contains multitudes.
See, when I’m driving the “I'” that’s doing the driving is a host of network connections unified by geography more than metaphysical identity: my brain can handle navigation and acceleration and steering…and enjoying the scenery and thinking about how great the song on the radio is and how great the rolling motion of the car on the road feels. I am not, in the moment, focused entirely on any one task. What makes me focus on a single task, pleasant or unpleasant, is when it becomes a problem. For instance, if the car in front of me brakes too quickly then my “accelerate-decelerate” task becomes a problem and I have to focus on the adjustments. Focusing on the adjustments takes resources away from the other elements of the drive I had been attending. If I focus on the tasks, I have no resources left to be happy: I’m too strapped by problem-solving and stress.
Parenting is like driving a car that breaks down all the time on a road that is nothing but potholes behind a semi that keeps coughing smoke out of its tailpipe. Parenting is an activity that becomes tasks because it has little agents in it constantly demanding attention. Imagine if your parking brake kept yelling “I want ice cream!” while you were driving. You would focus on the parking brake.
So when research tells us that parents hate parenting the lesson isn’t a dramatic one: people hate tasks. There is no grand wisdom in that. But tasks are not always tasks. When the activities that become tasks when they are problems are not exhausting our cognitive resources we are more than capable of being happy with the over-project. So we can say that parenting makes us happy when we are able to resist focusing (or over-focusing) on any one element.
While parenting has more task-problems than something like driving, and so more stressors, I’m not convinced that it’s something inherent to parenting that makes parents respond negatively in the happiness studies. A study that breaks parenting down into tasks is already inclining its subjects to think of parenting as a series of problems and so it’s no wonder that study results confirm that parents hate parenting. But ask them about parenting, rather than the elements of parenting, and the answer is much different. This is not because, as Gilbert suggests, we are just bad at determining what makes us happy. It is because we are vast.