Cherlin thinks happiness is too narrowly defined as a major goal of life. "Having kids makes you less happy in terms of what you're doing today, yet it's deeply satisfying," he says. "If you ask parents with newborn kids how happy they are with they're marriage, they're less happy. But if you ask them how satisfied they are with their lives, they're deeply satisfied."
If changing family structures are making parenthood more stressful, they also are making life harder on kids. Children from poor, uneducated households where their parents are not married face huge stresses. Toss in high divorce rates for those households where the parents were married, and the toll on children is enormous.
"There is more instability in the American family than in any other country," Cherlin says. "I'm worried that that's bad for children's well-being, and it's not good for parent's well-being, either."
"Kids who grow up with a lot of family strain are more likely to display higher-risk behaviors," says Debra Umberson, a sociologist at the University of Texas. Beyond the marital status of their parents, children of parents with low incomes and little education often must cope with households where parents aren't around much, and where the quantity and nutritional quality of their food is unhealthful. "Adultification," a term used by Duke University sociologist Linda Burton and others, describes a world where circumstances force children to assume many responsibilities of adulthood. The results are often stressful and reduce children's current and future happiness.
Happiness is, of course, not the end-all of human existence. As many experts note, achievements often require very hard work that does not by itself produce happiness. This work, however, is essential to creating conditions that produce happy outcomes, and supporters of parenthood argue that this type of linkage is frequently seen.
Gilbert notes, for example, that one of the stressful consequences of parenthood is that people are so committed to raising their children that they freely forego lots of other satisfying life activities. "Children crowd out all the other pleasures" for parents, he says. "You don't have sex as much anymore, you don't go out to the movies, and you don't have other sources of joy."
Given the momentous impact of parenthood on the lives of parents and children alike, experts agree there is an alarming lack of thought and planning before many people decide to become parents. "I think a lot of people aren't aware or don't think about the impact of having a child," Umberson says.
For prospective and existing parents, experts say, planning is essential to remove some of its stresses. Areas that experts emphasize include budgeting for the added expenses of having a child, arranging solid baby sitting and childcare relief, working on maintaining friendships and other social ties, and formally including vacations and other "time off" activities. Parenthood can also be very damaging to romance and intimacy, so it's crucial to protect that part of the relationship.
It's important for couples to think about the implications of becoming parents, to make sure it's the right choice at the right time for them.