“Why did you change jobs to take care of us, and not Dad?”
My mom sighed. It was the first time I’d ever asked her this question directly.
Like many families, we hadn’t been able to see each other in person for most of 2020, so we were on a video call. But unlike many families, our conversation was being recorded.
I’d set out to make an episode of our YouTube Originals series Glad You Asked about a question that has been on my mind often recently: “Do I want kids?” My mom had agreed to be part of it. It was one more way she’d agreed to make herself uncomfortable in order to support me — like pregnancy and early morning swim meets and that time I stuck a bead up my nose in preschool and she had to leave an important work meeting to take me to the doctor.
“Well, it wasn’t completely voluntary,” my mom finally answered. “I was young and very ambitious and I just thought I could do everything, no matter what the environment. And that turned out not to be true.”
“I’m really afraid of that,” I confessed.
For most of my life, I’ve assumed I want kids. But as the question gets less theoretical, it gets harder to answer. A 2017 report from the United States Census Bureau shows that among married heterosexual couples, the average female spouse’s earnings fall significantly immediately after childbirth, and do not recover until the child is 9 or 10 years old. The average male spouse’s income only rises.
Also, in many countries, including the United States, survey data suggests parents are less happy than childless adults and report higher levels of anxiety and depression. Researchers call this the “happiness gap.” Professor Jennifer Glass, who ran several parental happiness studies in the US, tells me parents are often surprised by her results. “If we asked parents, ‘Have your children made you happy?’ They would all say yes. I would say yes! Everybody I know would say yes, no one is going to say that their children have made them unhappy. But what their children have brought into their lives in many ways is anxiety, stress, and financial trouble that they would not have experienced.”
What else would my mom have done with the time, energy, and money she spent on me? I imagine her reading a book on a Sunday morning instead of carting me to those swim meets. Running for office. Taking a trip to Nepal.
But when I share the happiness gap research with my mom, she tells me it’s missing “all the joy” — the emotional highs — that children provide. “There’s this little flame somewhere in you that’s lit and it never goes out.” Professor Glass agrees: “The emotional tenor of life is flatter without children.”
I’m afraid of missing out, but I’m not sure what exactly it is I’m afraid I’ll miss out on. As the image of a “flat” life stretches in front of me, I imagine creating hills, like my decisions are a RollerCoaster Tycoon game. But I can’t tell if those hills are the emotional highs of having children, or the projects and pursuits that might be easier without them.
This video — the first of five new episodes of Glad You Asked — is an exploration of this enormous life decision. How do I decide whether to have kids? How long do I have to make this decision? How can we make this decision freer and easier, both for people who want to be parents and those who don’t?
Before our call ended, after I laid out my anxieties about having kids and what it might mean, my mom reminded me: She’s been to Nepal. I’m the one who hasn’t yet.
- “Parenthood and Happiness: Effects of Work-Family Reconciliation Policies in 22 OECD Countries” by Jennifer Glass, Robin Simon and Matthew Andersson
- “American Time Use Survey Summary” US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019 Results
- “The Parental Gender Earnings Gap in the United States” 2017 US Census report by YoonKyung Chung, Barbara Downs, Danielle H. Sandler and Robert Sienkiewicz
- “Racial Disparities in Seeking Care for Help Getting Pregnant” by HB Chin, PP Howards, MR Kramer, AC Mertens, and JB Spencer
- “The Impact of Female Age and Nulligravidity on Fecundity in an Older Reproductive Age Cohort” by Anne Z. Steiner and Anne Marie Z. Jukic
- “Is Childcare Affordable? Policy Brief on Employment, Labour, and Social Affairs” OECD 2020 report
- “The Age That Women Have Babies: How a Gap Divides America” by Quoctrung Bui and Claire Cain Miller
- “Should I Freeze my Eggs?” by Nicole Ellis