Bundles Of . . . Misery

(By Adam Papadatos/nonstock Photography/veer)
By Elizabeth Agnvall
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Just as we're taking down the tree, organizing the new toys and stepping onto the scale comes a study finding that may make us wonder why we do it all: Parents are more likely to be depressed than people who do not have children.

Published last month in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the study of 13,000 U.S. adults found that parents, from those with young children to empty nesters, reported being more miserable than non-parents. The researchers analyzed data from a national survey of families and households that asked respondents how many times in the past week, for example, they felt sad, distracted or depressed.

Unlike earlier studies, this one found moms and dads equally unhappy.

So: After all the sleepless nights and drowsy mornings, the cycles of feeding and throwing up, the American Girl doll accessories bought on credit, the toothpick models of the solar system and the algebra tutors . . . we would have been happier without it all?

In a word, says study author Robin Simon, an associate professor of sociology at Florida State University, yes.

"Parents don't do as well as non-parents," she said.

Simon's own kids -- she has an adult daughter and a teenage son -- were unimpressed by the study results. "They're like 'Whatever,' " she said.

For her part, Simon felt oddly cheered: "It's validating and consoling to know that you're not alone."

But how can the findings stand? Politics, culture and history -- to say nothing of those annoying Baby Gap ads -- all reinforce the message that having children is the greatest pleasure in life.

Michael Lewis, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry and director of the Institute for the Study of Child Development at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J., says that the idea of parenthood as pure joy "was always a bit of a wonderful myth." He said he's surprised the study findings were not even more negative.

Over the last 150 years, he said, children have moved from being an economic advantage to an economic burden in the United States. We used to be able to send children to work in the fields; older kids tended to the babies. When not pressed into service, they mostly stayed out of the way.

With the advent of Dr. Spock, the parenting industry, obligatory music and soccer lessons and a colossal marketplace that propels kids to desire and parents to guilt, children have become the center of the household.

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