It’s no surprise that Jennifer Senior’s insightful, provocative New York magazine cover story, “I Love My Children, I Hate My Life,” is inciting much chatter—nothing gets people talking like the suggestion that child rearing is anything less than a completely fulfilling, life-enriching experience. (Remember the heat that novelist Ayelet Waldman took for merely implying that she loved her husband more than her children?) Rather than conclude that children make parents either happy or miserable, Senior suggests we need to redefine happiness: instead of thinking of it as something that can be measured by moment-to-moment elation, we should consider being happy as a past-tense condition. Even though the day-to-day experience of raising kids can be soul-crushingly hard, Senior writes that “the very things that in the moment dampen our moods can later be sources of intense gratification, nostalgia, delight.” Apparently that selective, evolutionarily advantageous amnesia that makes women forget the pain of childbirth lasts well beyond the first years of your children’s lives. According to one long-term study in California, no participants regretted having children, but 10 people in the study reported regretting not having a family.
The New York cover showing an attractive blonde mother holding a cute, chubby, blue-eyed baby is hardly the only Madonna-and-child combo on newsstands this week. There’s also Real Housewife Bethenny Frankel above the People magazine headline “My Baby Saved Me,” a possibly pregnant (but probably just bloated) Jessica Simpson (OK! magazine’s “Baby for Jess”), and “Baby No. 2 on the Way!” (despite any evidence of conception whatsoever) for reality-TV personality Kourtney Kardashian on the cover of inTouch. There are also stories about newly adoptive—and newly single—mom Sandra Bullock, as well as the usual “Jennifer Aniston is pregnant” news (at least the third such rumor about Aniston this year, but this is a slow year). Practically every week features at least one celebrity mom, or mom-to-be, smiling beatifically on the newsstands.
In a society that so relentlessly celebrates procreation (especially when done by attractive celebrities), is it any wonder that admitting you regret having children is tantamount to admitting you support kitten-killing? It doesn’t seem quite fair, then, to compare the regrets of parents to the regrets of the childless. Unhappy parents rarely are provoked to wonder if they shouldn’t have had kids, but unhappy childless folks—those freakish nonbreeders—are bombarded with the message that children are the single most important thing in the world: obviously their misery must be a direct result of the gaping, baby-size holes in their lives.
Of course, the image of parenthood that celebrity magazines like Us Weekly, People, inTouch, and OK! present is hugely unrealistic, especially when the parents are single mothers like Bullock. According to several studies concluding that parents are less happy than childless couples, single parents are the least happy of all. No shock there, considering how much work it is to raise a kid without a partner to lean on; yet to hear Sandra, Britney, and Padma tell it, raising a kid on their “own” (read: with round-the-clock help) is a piece of cake.
It’s hard to imagine that many people are dumb enough to want children just because Reese and Angelina make it look so glamorous: most adults understand that a baby is not a haircut. But it’s interesting to wonder if the images we see every week of blissful, stress-free, happiness-enhancing parenthood aren’t in some small, subconscious way contributing to our own dissatisfactions with the actual experience, in the same way that a small part of us hoped getting “the Rachel” might make us look just a little bit like Jennifer Aniston.