If Parenthood Makes Us Unhappy, Why Do We Keep Going Back for More?

I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. I have a toddler (and a newborn just weeks away from making his grand entrance) and I’m wasted. My two-year-old is deliciously cute and charming, and he has also recently gotten the memo that he’s supposed to be following some trend called the “Terrible Twos” along with his peers. To say that putting up with constant tantrums and limit-pushing is a challenge would be an understatement. (And don’t forget mealtime emotional tyranny.) And yet here we are, about to welcome another little boy into our home who, in the short term, will deprive us of sleep, and in two years follow in his toddler brother’s footsteps. Are we crazy? I sometimes wonder. All I do know is that we’re not alone, because clearly my husband and I aren’t the only ones procreating.

Sheril Kirshenbaum recently looked into this phenomenon: if parenting seems to make so many of us unhappy (for various reasons), then why do we even do it?

According to her article in the Washington Post,

Parenthood isn’t easy, but lately it seems to be getting an unnecessarily bad reputation. One widely cited study of 22 countries recently reported that parents tended to be unhappier than non-parents. And they attributed this “parenthood gap in happiness” to the financial and other stress of raising children “in countries that do not provide public assistance,” such as subsidized day care and paid parental leave.

But Kirshenbaum found that there are a lot of biological factors that come into play when we become parents:

Early on, we enjoy a kind of natural high by staying close to and caring for a baby. A newborn’s scent triggers an increase in a mother’s brain of dopamine, a chemical associated with anticipation and reward. This neurotransmitter brings about feelings of intense pleasure and is associated with addiction. Dopamine essentially makes us crave being with the baby.


Yale University scientists have found that both mothers and fathers experience a rise in levels of oxytocin when a baby enters the family. Often called “the love hormone,” it promotes attachment, a sense of euphoria and intense love while decreasing stress. It also helps to buffer against challenges like sleep deprivation.

Most importantly, beyond the hormones associated with having children, Kirshenbaum discovered that forming a close bond with a child (which is a reward in and of itself) brings out a nurturing side in us. And while having kids can cause parents to experience extreme highs and extreme lows (something that isn’t necessarily true for those who remain childless), “[w]hat data do reveal is that under the right circumstances, kids have the capacity to bring out our best selves, emotionally, chemically and biologically…”