Being a parent has never been easy but it is now a conspicuous source of distress and anxiety. Increasingly, adults see the years spent in active childrearing as a grueling experience, imposing financial burdens, onerous responsibilities, emotional stress, and strains on marital happiness. A recent crop of books and articles give voice to this complaint. They happen to be written by journalists who are also well-educated and affluent mothers, but when it comes to parental discontent they are not alone. Evidence suggests such discontent is widespread. In survey after survey, parents report lower levels of happiness than nonparents. What’s more, according to one report, married couples now see children as an obstacle to their marital satisfaction.

The question arises: Why is this happening? Are parents simply engaging in whiny trouble talk? Or is there an objective reason for their existential angst?

The social facts point to an objective reason. There has been a dramatic change in the shape of the adult life course. This change has profoundly affected the psychological experience of parents and diminished the social centrality of parenthood.

Within living memory, the larger share of most Americans’ adult life consisted of years spent with minor children in the household. This is no longer the case. Today, the larger share of adult life course consists of the years before children are born and the years after children turn eighteen. Women now marry later, wait longer after marriage to have children, have fewer children, and thus devote fewer years to hands-on childrearing.

Moreover, with the lengthening of life expectancy, the period after children has gotten longer. Adults today are far more likely to survive to age sixty-five, and women who reach their sixty-fifth birthday are likely to live another nineteen years. For men at sixty-five, life expectancy is shorter, estimated at slightly more than another sixteen years.

The years of life after children are also healthier. It’s no longer the case that the emptying of the nest is soon followed by the arrival of the rocking chair, much less the hearse. After the rearing of children, many adults will have decades of vitality before they begin to experience debilitating health problems.

As the childrearing share of the adult life course has shrunk, so too has the dominance of childrearing adults in our society. Parents once stood at the center of society. Now they are moving toward its margins.

There has been a corresponding shift in the status of the nonchildrearing years. The years before and after children used to be brief and transitional. They’ve now become full-fledged and well-defined life stages. Once people passing through the nonchildrearing years stood at the entry and exit points of working adult life. They were marginal as workers and consumers. Today, in both domains, they are much sought after. Childless young adults are suited to life in a 24/7 work world that prizes mobility, flexibility, and freedom from competing obligations. Empty nesters are increasingly valued for their experience, particularly if they have been engaged in knowledge or technological fields. And a growing number of the young and old have money to spend on themselves. “Affluent single” and “affluent senior” are no longer oxymorons.

The popular culture has revised the once dreary image of the youthful years before marriage and parenthood. Television shows like Friends and Sex and the City have created iconic images of young adulthood as a time of life devoted to hanging out, hooking up, and having fun. The empty-nest years have likewise been made over. Books like Gail Sheehy’s Sex and the Seasoned Woman have transformed the postmenopausal years from frumpy to fabulous. The AARP magazine-formerly known as Modern Maturity-now features stories on sex, dating, relationships, and “having a baby after fifty.” A television spot for Fixodent features one well-seasoned couple making out in the back seat of a limo.

With these changes has come a new sensibility, designed to appeal to the fantasies and unfulfilled desires of nonchild¬rearing adults. Its ethos is libertarian. Its pursuits include a restless search for sex and romance; the quest for adventure and new experience; an exploration of the experimental and the novel; a preoccupation with youthful appearance and sex appeal; a denial of the inevitability of loss and finitude; and a bold confidence in personal transformation through the makeover and the second chance.

Of course, neither the popular image nor the new sensibility accurately captures the real-life experience. (As an empty-nester myself, I can testify that its hedonistic attractions are greatly exaggerated.) But in shaping aspirations and ambitions, fantasy can be more powerful than reality. In this case, the values associated with the child-free life stand in sharp contrast to values of childrearing. Indeed, childrearing values-sacrifice, stability, dependability, maturity-seem tired and musty by comparison. Nor does the time-consuming and bone-wearying work of childrearing comport with the new sensibility. Indeed, what it takes to raise children today is almost the polar opposite of what popularly defines a satisfying adult life. This is why parents today feel out of joint with the culture and why their cri de coeur is more than cranky complaint.

Published in the 2006-06-16 issue: 

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture (Knopf), directs the Center for Thrift and Generosity at the Institute for American Values.

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