Thursday, August 29, 2013

Does Having More than One Child Mean Less Happiness?

Yesterday I was reading an excerpt of a new book on Slate that a friend had shared where the author writes quite a bit about why having one child is the best decision for anyone who wants to be happy.  She goes into studies about how much more work each additional child brings for the mother and comes to the conclusion that parents are losing themselves and that our democracy is suffering as a result because apparently we can't be trusted to see the world clearly while we're inside "a domestic cocoon."  Here are a couple paragraphs that stood out:

"...But the issue today isn’t as simple as washing sippy cups and dirty socks, or even the sheer number of hours we spend away from our friends and our thoughts. As the demands of the workplace have expanded to swallow up our lives, clashing with our consuming love affair with our children, parenting has simultaneously morphed into something grotesquely extended beyond traditional ideas of care. It’s hard to imagine how anyone can find time to make a living. Or read a newspaper. Or have a conversation with one’s partner about anything but what errands need to be done, who is covering pickup or making dinner...

...We may not have the time or energy to organize and participate in movements for social change, or even read the newspaper, but we can bake organic cupcakes and supervise algebra homework and spend our lives driving from soccer to ballet and watch Nick Jr. in our media rooms. All that overparenting seems selfless for a reason: Parents are literally losing themselves. Our communities and democracy are losing them too. Imagine if all that devotion wasn’t just directed inward to the family, but outward into the world? It’s hard to, isn’t it? The world can sound and look remarkably hazy from inside a domestic cocoon..."

I have to begin by wondering exactly what she means by saying that our current time with our children has morphed far beyond "traditional ideas of care."  The answer may be found in another part of the article where a study says that half a century ago a mother on average spent 10 and a half hours a week on child care and that now that number has sky rocketed to 13 hours a week (oh the horror!).  So is our model for "traditional" to come from the 1950s and 60s?  Another study she sites claims that each additional child adds 120 hours of work a year to a mother's schedule.

I guess this means I'm going to be running out of hours in the day soon, and I imagine many of you who are reading this are having to add hours into the 24 hour cycle to make up for all those additional 120 hour blocks that have been thrown into your year with each additional child.

You see, I haven't found these studies, or the author's conclusions to hold true in my day to day life.  And to be honest, I spend far more than 13 hours a week on "child care."  My kids are with me all the time and if I had to estimate my time spent on child care I guess I'd have to say that 7 days a week 13 hours a day would cover most of the time from when everyone gets up to when most of the little people in our house tend to be asleep.  Amazingly I somehow also manage to get other things done, like making meals and running a small business.  Still, I guess I'm 7 times over this "grotesque" average that is said to swallow a mother's self.

Yet I don't find feel like I've lost myself.  On the contrary I feel like I've found myself in my vocation as a wife and mother.  Before I met my husband and we began our journey together through these last seven fast paced years I was stumbling through my life, day by day and month by month, searching for meaning.  I had a vague notion of wanting to "do something big" to "change the world" but I felt increasingly jaded and disenchanted with the world that I saw around me.  Thus I began to pray again, after years of not doing so, not expecting much from the short, dry words that I muttered before I fell asleep each night, and yet saying them all the same, because my soul, deep down, thirsted for far more than I was feeding it.

I'm not sure exactly what I expected, but I'm certain it wasn't what I got.  The life that blossomed in the months and years that have followed those first prayers, while not easy, have been far greater and more rewarding than anything I could have designed or imagined for myself.  And I am far happier than I was when I was the center of my own little rapidly spinning world.  I haven't lost myself as a wife and mother. I've found myself here, in my vocation, in who I'm called to serve and love.

This idea is contrary to what the world tells us.  It tells us that happiness is in pleasure and in seeking what we think we want.  In being who we are.  To be honest, the facade I showed the world and the goals and desires that I held to be incredibly important, feel shallow and empty in retrospect.  They wouldn't have filled the void in my soul that was always seeking, searching, waiting for the chance to say yes to grace, to ask forgiveness and be reconciled with my creator.

In truth, I do see the world differently now.  Some people might say it's because I see it through the lens of the "domestic cocoon."  I don't think so.  I think that I now see the world more clearly, and while I certainly struggle with wanting more than I actually need, I've found that if I slow down and take a good hard look at my life I know where the value truly can be found.

Like anyone else living in this imperfect world, I don't feel "happy" all the time (although I would say I'm much happier than I was before I set off down this path).  I have my off days where the basement floods and I feel like everything is going wrong.  But the greater gift of joy, even in the midst of suffering, remains.  And that joy is not something I could have found if I'd kept clinging to my own ideas of what I believed would make me happy and the plans that I was building in my mind.

The path I've been called down may seem little and unimportant to the world, but I have found it is the path to who I truly am and I am thankful that so far I've been able to accept the grace to follow where it leads.


  1. I have 5 daughters between 22 and 6 and there is definitely a change in the level of care expected of children in that time.
    For example, with my oldest 2, it was perfectly acceptable to send them out to play in a fenced in yard in a rural development for several hours, with just an occasional peek out the window. With the youngest two, I could be charged with neglect if they are outside in they yard alone. If I don't stand outside directly supervising them at all times, I am in danger of legal problems.
    The older girls could walk to the library a couple blocks away and get books and walk home when they were 10, a couple years ago, my teen and tween got picked up by the police for walking without an adult.
    The model for parenting is more like a paid babysitter with the parent doing nothing but directly observing the child. I remember how much I ran around the neighborhood with other kids in elementary school and little adult supervision. I even walked home a mile from first grade alone. Now it is illegal to let a child under 13 walk alone anywhere. So I would agree, that if this is the model of parenting, of course parents will be less happy. You wanted a shower? Not until another adult comes home to take over. You want to sit on a bench at the playground while your kids play, no, you stand by the equipment to make sure no one gets hurt.
    As well, I am in my late forties and yes, at this point, even though I still homeschool and don't work for pay, I know that in a few years the kids will be grown and so I have started taking on outside adult interests like volunteering in the church office, being part of the book club, and being part of a Benedictine group, all without the kids. So while I don't want to sound like I am being superior, you are in your twenties, with very young children and this absorbs much of your life but in your late 40s or early 50s when you will approaching your youngest child becoming fairly self-sufficient, you may need to find other interests not related to kids to feel happy. I mean already you run a home-based business which means you are not totally absorbed by your kids and have blogger friends and I presume, church friends without whom, you would feel pretty isolated.
    I know I am rambling but I am saying I think there is some truth in the premise that the intensity of parenting has increased from keep the kid fed, safe and train him morally to prevent the kid from ever experiencing injury, provide the perfect diet, maximum educational and extra-curricular stimulation, and never let him have any negative feelings. The latter style is bound to decrease the happiness of the parent because it is so intense and relentless and leave no time for the parent to recharge their spirits. Obviously, there is no guarantee that less kids will automatically make for more happiness but it can help with the level of intensity. I actually know plenty of people with only one, who are very sad because that is all they were able to have.
    This is why people have warned you about the intensity of your homeschooling, not that it is wrong but because a day will come when Patrick is tearing the house apart, Maggie is melting down over some simple assignment and Sadie is pontificating over the state of Maggie's soul(A similar situation has happened to me)and you will need some reserves of strength.

  2. I'm not quite as young as you think I am since I didn't marry quite as young as a lot of my fellow mom bloggers who weren't as rebellious as I was (in other words, I'm not in my twenties).

    The thing is, I do still have lots of interests, and I'm pursuing those interests while having children. But my interests are homemaking. I've been quilting since I was 12 and I'm pretty sure I will be quilting as an old lady. I've been knitting since I was 19 and I'm sure that's another interest that will last into old age.

    Maybe part of it is that I am introverted and don't need to be around tons of people to get my daily energy allocation, but I don't quite see it the same way you do.

    I don't know. I think the things I love to do along when I am watching the kids, like baking and cooking up new recipes, sewing and knitting and crocheting and quilting, and even traveling as we've done as a family, would easily expand to fill the hours when our little ones are out of the house.

    And of course the volunteering that was possible before I had kids will be possible again then.

    I just haven't had the same experience. I don't feel like all I do is watch the kids. I watch the kids, they play together and I get my work done.

    Maybe it's that I'm young and don't know much, but people told me the exact same thing when I've converted, that the passion I felt would putter out, and so far I haven't experienced that either.

    I think part of it is that I have accepted that Patrick and Maggie will tear apart the house when I'm homeschooling, Maggie is already likely to melting down, and I'm still having a blast.

    If I were relying on my own strength I would be done. I would have been done two years ago when Paul started law school. But I'm not relying on my own strength, God's grace is carrying me along, and I pray that it will continue to!

  3. I can see a little where the article is coming from but think that overall they're missing the big picture. Yes, we have become a little bit more of a "hovering parent" society that, in my opinion, we could do without. It's one thing to make sure your two year old doesn't fall off the top of the slide tunnel (seriously, when did Abby learn to love to climb so much?!) but it's another thing to call the professor of your college student to find out about why your child got a C grade.

    One thing I think the author is missing is that many of us women ARE finding ourselves and our worth AND feel that we are contributing MORE to society by being stay at home moms or moms of more than one child. I dislike it when someone tells me that my chosen lifestyle is wrong for someone else so therefor it must be wrong for me, too. I'm just too stupid/ignorant/stuff in mommy mode to understand it.

    So while I try very hard to let Abby explore her boundaries, make mistakes, take falls, and generally experience a hoverfree parenting lifestyle I'm also going through medical assistance (Catholic approved!) to get pregnant with another child because the love I have for my daughter is something I want to expand with another child. I want my daughter to have siblings. I think that having more children is only going to better our family not worsen it. And my husband agrees!

  4. Becky- There's a growing movement called free-rangers that is in response to helicopter parenting. When my patio was fenced my children certainly played outside with limited supervision. And regardless of what the law says I expect my kids to walk to school or the library by themselves if it isnt far. Catholic teaching says parents are the teachers and I want my children to learn autonomy and not be babyfied. My sons will learn how to change a tire and cook for themselves.

    As for outside Cam, a lot if my interests involve my family. Protests,marches, and whatnot don't have to exclude children. So I'm not sure why it has to be either or?

    Sure my children get into stuff when i shower. That's why i baby proof. My house doesnt have to be immaculate just safe.

  5. The types of studies and books like the one you referred to always make me sad.

    Maybe from a purely statistical point of view the idea that one kid makes you happier might make sense (though I still have my doubts) but there is no way you can convince me that most people experience this as truth. I've known many women with big families in all stages of development and never once has one indicated to me they were happier when their family included only one child.

    As a homeschooling mom of 4 little ones (and one on the way) I am the first to admit that there are hard days. But the truth is the joy I experience raising my children is immeasurable. Motherhood/homemaking seems to be one of the few vocations where people discourage you from continuing on based on difficulty. When we have been candid about the idea about welcoming another child into our family people often say, "But it's just too hard! You need to stop making life hard on yourself!" I can't imagine those words being spoken to me if I were planning to embark on a medical career or other more worldly accepted vocation. In those instances, the hard work is deemed "worth it" but in motherhood it is assumed you are wasting your potential. Or limiting your happiness.

    I am a very extroverted person but have found that I can still pursue things that I enjoy while also enjoying the satisfying pursuits of motherhood. I take classes. Engage in ladies' Bible study. I have time to go out with friends. My children don't limit those things. If I allowed myself to feel martyred all the time perhaps my attitude would prevent me from doing things like that. But, I just look at my children as being a part of our family's life not a hinderance to it.

    Yes, there are hard days. And, yes, there are days where I selfishly long for more "me" time. But my daily prayer is that God would give me His heart for my children. Not because loving them is hard, but because I want to love them like He does. Unfailingly. Unconditionally. Unwaveringly through every trial and tribulation.

    These feelings of satisfaction and joy in motherhood are impossible to measure in any scientific study. It is an intangible thing. But, to me, the blessings I experience as a mother are precious beyond words and are in no way hindered by the number of children God blesses me with.

  6. The glaring error I find is this: " Imagine if all that devotion wasn’t just directed inward to the family, but outward into the world? "

    So many societal problems stem from problems in the family. Strengthening families is the very heart of strengthening society. I don't believe that the world's problems are the result of parents hiding in "domestic cocoons." Rather, problems come when children grow up in families where there isn't that sense of safety, security, boundaries, and love.

    I also take issue with the author's assumption that being involved with our children's activities somehow doesn't count as being involved in the community. Soccer, ballet, school, church, etc. are all examples of organizations which can help strengthen children and families, and the contributions parents make to those groups should be seen as admirable. The family is the basic unit of society, and should therefore be given the respect and consideration it deserves.

    Family size is a decision which should be between husband, wife, and God. I'd be curious to know if the author thinks that China's family size limitations have been a boon to that society.

  7. Oh I could write a long book bout this! I feel so sorry for the author. I just came cross this on FB and thought it fit.

    What marks you as remarkable? Maybe someday, you will make the Hall of Fame for Such and Such. And if you do? I’ll be there cheering you on.

    But most of us? We’re being made in the simple, holy, ordinary moments in unpretentious places. We’re living the remarkable, in days that some find unremarkable. We’re taking out the trash, and feeding the cats, and packing school lunches, and folding denim. And if we’re parents, we’re raising our miniature humans to be people of light in a world that can sometimes feel desperately dark.

    The moments that really shape you? ... Are the moments that might never get noticed. And *those* are the marks of a remarkable life.

    Love you!

  8. Cam - I had no idea you weren't in your twenties, you look it! I guess when I think about your discussions of college and work, it makes sense, but still...

    Becky - I completely understand! I will be 49 in a few days, so I can remember the same times as you. And there IS a difference between when I was young and now. I was often sent off to play at the playground by myself at the age of 5 - and so were all the other neighborhood kids. A mom sitting around would have been the exception. Now, a mom would be in trouble for not being at the park with the kids. With the increase in child crimes, I understand the need for more supervision, and yet I think we have lost something in the process.

    Presently, my kids are older (14,16) and yet I am definitely "expected" to be far more involved in their schoolwork, etc. than my parents ever were. If their grades aren't great, people will still look at me and ask what I am going to do about it - talk to the teacher, tutor them, etc. Don't get me wrong, I am happy to help out if they need something to be explained (assuming I can at this point.... honors chemistry and I were not friends! LOL) But, the focus is different now.

    Have you heard of John Rosemond? He talks about this type of thing, and how kids need the experience of doing things without the parents always in the background to rescue them.

    I don't agree that having only one child necessarily makes for happier parents. For some - yes. Being perfectly honest, my hubby would have been happier with none or one. :( But, I know other families with several children that just love it, and wouldn't change a thing. I think they are blessed in ways the author of the article could never imagine.

    As far as focusing on the outside world.. well, the time when the little ones are little is short. If we want healthy, functioning adults in the future, someone needs to be around to raise them when they are young.

  9. This is one of my favorite posts you have written. I can relate to your experience of finding fulfillment within your vocation as wife and mother. If Becky met me she would probably make the same assumptions about me being a 20 something, naïve, overzealous homeschooler. I am actually a 30 something mom with a former career as a healthcare provider. I have no regrets about walking away from a successful medical practice to fully focus on my family. Additionally, I have no concerns about "finding other interests not related to kids" as my children become self sufficient. I realize that this is a short season in life and try to be fully present in the moment, toddler tantrums and all. Being a devoted mother and wife does not mean giving up all of my own intellectual pursuits or hobbies, it simply means prioritizing my time differently than I did as a single woman. Books and articles like the one you referred to always make me sad as well. Motherhood is not an all or nothing proposition. It is about finding balance to serve our families without losing our selves. I think your blog shares the story of a mom striving to do this with warmth, humor, and grace. You are doing a fantastic job, Cam.

  10. LOL, just to show you never know... a couple nights ago I sold a bed to a sweet lady. Turns out she used to teach AP chemistry and physics in high school, then went on to get a PhD in engineering, and NOW stays home as a full time mom to 5 (yes, 5) kids 5 and under - 2 adopted, 3 biologic, and she is as happy as a clam. She certainly did plenty of things "in the world" and now wants to focus on family.

  11. Great post and great comments. I think everything I would have said has been said beautifully from others. Of course I'm not currently working from the perspective of a mother, but a newlywed who benefited hugely from the richness of her parents' devotion and wants to give the same to her own someday children.

    Parenting a large family might indeed lead to loss of self it were considered as a job. In my growing-up experience I never felt like I was a job that was stealing time to live. On the contrary, my parents had a life that was richer because they took a huge interest in their children as people. So many books that wouldn't have been read if we hadn't been clamoring to hear, so many woodland walks that wouldn't have happened if we hadn't wanted to get out and explore, so much music that wouldn't have been discovered if one of us hadn't decided to start playing the violin... children are capable of enriching our lives and opening us to new ideas and experiences just as any other person if we see them that way rather than as an obstacle to our growing and learning.

    The world didn't suffer from their devotion to us, either. People appreciated what we had to offer to our parishes, our sports teams, our neighbors, and our communities at large. And all that inward devotion to family eventually works its way outwards when the children grow up and move on. My mom didn't impact the world with just the one person of herself, but with seven in addition to her. lol.


I love comments and I read every single comment that comes in (and I try to respond when the little ones aren't distracting me to the point that it's impossible!). Please show kindness to each other and our family in the comment box. After all, we're all real people on the other side of the screen!