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...

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About the Author

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