Stumping for Marriage: Bundles of Joy?

In a recently published study, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers  assessed the subjective happiness of women and found that despite greater opportunities, higher wages and increased education, their perceived feelings of well-being have decreased steadily over the last 35 years. In addition they identified a widening gap in the levels of subjective happiness experienced by men and women.  This finding touched off a flurry of responses and rebuttals, in the attempt to determine whether we really are unhappy and if so, why.  Among the popular hypotheses for female misery was the stress of motherhood due to the disproportionate role of women in child-rearing, along with the lack of supports within society for those who are struggling to balance parenting and careers.

Did all this depress you? Need a pick me up? Then maybe you should forget everything you just read and go pop out a baby instead of popping pills.


There’s a new study on the block by Dr. Luis Angeles, suggesting that that having children enhances feelings of life-satisfaction, and that this effect increases with each new addition. But before you race for the bedroom (or the sperm bank) you’ll need to make a pit stop at the altar – the positive effects were only noted for married couples.  Dr. Angeles asserts that “married individuals are arguably the most appropriate group to study the effects of having children on happiness, as the act of marriage can be interpreted as a signal of the partners’ willingness to experience parenthood” and having children may enhance the lives of people “under the right conditions”.  As Bonnie Rochman over at DoubleX  accurately points out,  the findings and the conclusions drawn from them seem less about touting the benefits of having children and more about the supposed benefits of marriage.

So, get married, have babies, be happy, right? Not so fast.  Upon reading the study it becomes apparent that to reap the benefits of being a parent it isn’t enough to simply be married, one must have a certain kind of marriage. Dr. Angeles attempted to account for individual differences of  marital status, gender, age, income and education. On the surface, none of the results are surprising. What is surprising are the reasons put forward for these results.

With regards to marital status, people living together as unmarried couples did not report the same increases in life satisfaction as married couples.  Dr. Angeles claim that this finding “dispels the idea that the positive effect on married individuals is due uniquely to the fact that they can pool together resources, such as money and time, to raise their children.” He also goes further to claim that “what separates married and unmarried couples is arguably not the possibility of pooling resources for the aim of raising children but the willingness to do so in the first place.” This interpretation conveniently ignores the fact that marriages are a norm that are rewarded and reinforced within our society whereas other family structures are not. It could be that people within marriages are happier because they are validated by the world around them and benefit from being a part of unions that are honored and privileged. What about people whose unions are not currently recognized, such as members of the LGBTQ community?

Examination of the data for income and education reveals similar trends regarding the reinforcement societal ideals and the rewarding of those who happen to meet the criteria. For those persons who earn less then 50% of the average family income in the sample and did not complete high school, having more children had a negative effect on their feelings of life-satisfaction. The greatest positive effects were seen among those respondents that Dr. Angeles describes as “the middle class” – those earning 50%-150% of the average family salary who possessed a full high school education. Class as manifested via socioeconomic markers such as income and education as a mediating factor concerning the choice to marry or not is something we have been talking about on this blog for a long time . And just as marriage is more likely an indicator of middle class status than a catalyst for attaining it, increased life-satisfaction upon procreation within one such union is more likely an indicator of general prosperity as opposed to the cause of it.

The consideration of age and gender also led to conclusions that bear closer examination . As in prior studies it was found that women are the chief beneficiaries of increased life-satisfaction when they become parents. Dr. Angeles findings supported this, in keeping with the popular notion that women are “more keen on having children” than men. However,  since life-satisfaction is measured via self-report I am wary of this measure and possible interference due to internalized attitudes developed in response to fear of social censure. The recent furor over Penelope Trunk tweeting her miscarriage is great example of why women may feel uncomfortable expressing or ascribing anything other than positive feelings to motherhood. Because the whole condition is constructed as sacred, to be critical of it for some is a dereliction of your “duty” as a woman to carry and nurture children.  We don’t see the same effects with men because notions of rearing children are not intimately linked with maleness in our cultural consciousness the way they are with femaleness.

Dr. Angeles admitted the data was not ideal for exploring how age interacts with having children to affect life-satisfaction. The persons considered were those who had children under the age of 16 still living at home. However, prior research by Kohler (2005) found that positive effects of children on happiness, which had been obtained on a sample of individuals aged 25–45, tends to disappear when the investigations are carried out with individuals aged 50–70. Dr. Angeles claims that when people are asked “simple” questions about the most important things in their lives, their children are at or near the top – is this how they really feel or simply what they know they’re supposed to say? This may be related to the point on gender, in that once children have been successfully raised to adulthood there is sufficient evidence to rebut any claims of negligence on the part of parents, particularly mothers. Hence the passage of time may allow for greater candor about how being a parent affected them.

After reading this study,  I am wondering what the utility of it is. Itpoints out that people who are doing reasonably well in life and have a partner are potentially made happier when they have kids. I don’t think this is new information. What I want to know about are the prospects of people whose lives and loves don’t fit into the model presented as the ideal.  The more worthy question is this:  how do we create the world where they can also attain happiness whether by means of increased equity or greater support and  acceptance of the validity of diverse life choices? Is there a way to construct the calculus surrounding fulfillment and self-actualization without a zero-sum equation with “conventional” choices on one hand and ” liberal” ones on the  other? At 27, unmarried and childless with no prospects, I sure hope so.

Read the rest of the “Stumping for Marriage “ posts here and here

Shouts out to our much beloved play-cousin and member-in-good-standing of the Grape Drink Mafia, Jeremy Levine for helping me get my hands on the journal article.

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