IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Parents vs. Non-parents: Who are happier?

Kids take away their parents’ complete autonomy. But does that mean that parents are really unhappier than their childless friends, as some studies suggest?

Kids are game changers. They take away their parents’ complete autonomy. But does that mean that parents are really unhappier than their childless friends, as some studies suggest? All Joy, No Fun Author Jennifer Senior argues why that may not be the case, as she dissects the difference between the joy and happiness of parenthood.

How many kids do you have?

Jennifer Senior: I have a 6 year old son and two grown stepkids.

The title of your book, “All Joy, No Fun.” What’s the difference between joy and fun?

JS: Fun is a thin superficial emotion. Fun is eating a Snickers bar. It’s focused on the self. It’s immediate gratification.

Joy is something else. Joy is, and I am now quoting a psychologist named, George Vaillant. It’s outwardly focused. It’s a very thick emotion. It’s not a thin emotion. It means having a lot at stake and being deeply bonded and connected to something.

So that is more often the kind of feeling one associates with having children. How many times have you heard a parent say that they’re looking at their kid in the crib, and they are so overcome with love that they suddenly become scared that they’re going to lose their kid? Joy is almost a harder feeling to tolerate than sadness because embedded in it is this idea that you might lose this thing that you love so much.

What Vaillant said, which I’ve never forgotten, is that joy is grief inside out.

In your research, you found that couples with kids only spend about nine hours a week of alone time.

JS: Yeah, and that’s a decline. They used to spend twelve back in the 1970s...

What’s the impact on couples – and do their relationships improve once the kids leave the house?

JS: Yes, marriages improve once kids leave the house, but what happens is they tend to go back to where it was before the kid was born. It’s like it never happened. … I don’t know if it’s the loss of couple time per say. It can't help. Certainly, there's a decline in marital quality. With each successive kid, [studies would indicate] it gets worse, certainly after the second kid. There's mixed data on what happens once you have the third.

A lot of it still has to do with simple, old-fashioned things like chores. … That's the biggest thing that couples fight about, after their kid comes along. The biggest thing that couples fight about are their kids, and then the biggest specific thing regarding their kids - childcare.

What advice do you have for couples in their 20s, 30s, 40s, who are hesitant about entering parenthood?

JS: First of all, don’t be afraid of it because the joy can’t be measured by social science. … It’s capable of being captured. …  For people who are anxious, the joy is this unrivaled, transcendent feeling. You’re not going to get that from pretty much anything else in your life, and for that alone, you do it.

Also, you do it because it’s a privilege to serve someone. Duty is important. We shouldn’t be so fixated on happiness. Happiness is a very slippery preoccupation. I think there are more substantive concerns that one should have. Service, duty, and responsibility are legitimate. They surpass the idea of instant pleasure.

The other thing I’d say is that there are ways to mitigate the drudgery. You can decide not to hover as much and not to overschedule as much. And guess what? There’s no evidence that if you do hover, things will be better. There’s none, so you might as well ease off the gas.

If you want to shore up your marriage, discuss with your spouse who does what. Hammer out your contract ahead of time and get as finely detailed as you can, so that there are no surprises when the kid is there. You’ve already worked that out because some of the worst arguments are ones that happen in real time. … It’s much better if there is a very clear division of labor….

If men aren’t feeling their half of the bargain that they’ve cooked up with their wives beforehand, they feel bad. They want to fulfill their end of the bargain. They don’t want to be feeling like they’re getting away with stuff. Most dads really want to be good dads.

Watch Jennifer Senior on Morning Joe: