The Paradox of Modern Parenting

by Site Author

In a 2004 study, Daniel Kahneman, Alan Krueger, David Schkade, Norbert Schwarz, and Arthur Stone surveyed 900 Texas women about their previous day. They asked respondents to divide their day into “episodes,” and then to rate how much they enjoyed each episode. The following table comes from that study.

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The numbers above represent the self-reported happiness of the respondents during each episode. Notice that episodes that involve taking care of children are close to the bottom of the list, almost as unenjoyable as time spent with a boss.

Interestingly, if you survey people on the activities that they most enjoy in general, they put being with their children at the top of the list. But if you ask them about specific episodes, they report that those episodes were not very enjoyable at all. As the authors put it: “The contrasting results likely reflect the difference between belief-based generic judgements (‘I enjoy my kids’) and specific episodic reports (‘but they were a pain last night’).”

On the one hand, people love being parents. About 80 percent of women end up having children, and about 80 percent of those who decide to have one child end up having a second. And yet, in the moment, the children don’t seem to make them very happy.

This is the premise of a new book by Jennifer Senior: “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting.”

The book explains that there is a big difference between how we feel in the moment and how we feel after the fact. Kahneman calls this the difference between the “remembering self” and the “experiencing self.” We don’t remember experiences very accurately, and so there is an enormous gap between how we feel about an experience after the fact and how we feel about the experience as it occurs.

And so the paradox of parenting. We can look upon having children in general as an incredibly positive experience, even when so much of the day-to-day work can be unpleasant.

In a sense, much of our lives are like this. Some people hate their jobs, but can’t imagine quitting. Our feelings about difficult experiences—boot camp, graduate school, marathons, child birth—after the fact might be positive even when much of the experiences were negative.

Kahneman’s work, and Senior’s book, then give us permission to hate the difficult work that we have to do in the moment. You can hate your work even while you love your job, and you can hate parenting even when you wouldn’t give it up for the world.

What matters more than happiness in the moment is meaning. And a meaningful life is more than just the sum of its moments.