I recently read this blog post that was inspired, in part, from this fascinating article (and fascinating comments) in New York Magazine. There is so much to say that I am afraid I will only touch on it superficially, but it is too interesting to pass up.
In a nutshell, the article discusses whether or not having kids makes people happier. Personally, I think they got the question wrong. Well, actually, I don’t know what the question is, but I don’t think it is about happiness. But, I’ll get back to that in a minute.
There are a lot of truthful gems in the article:
a) Mothers, on the whole, are less happy than fathers (shocker!) and single parents are even less happy.
b) of 19 possible activities, one study found that women rated child care 16th in terms of pleasurability: coming in as less pleasurable than napping, shopping, exercising, and even ranked lower than food prep and housework.
c) My favorite quote: “They’re a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit”
We got together with two childless (child-free?) couples this last weekend. Both couples have pets, which they dote on more than we dote on our kids… just an interesting aside. Of course, any similarities with life with pets vs. kids ended as one couple described going out to lunch to watch the World Cup final, drinking 3 margaritas and taking a 3-hour nap. I thought to myself: “Wow, I can’t even remember what that kind of freedom feels like.” 3 daytime margaritas and a 3-hour nap is unheard of in the pack that I run with.
Now, obviously, I am not anti-kid: I have two of the little buggers running around half-naked somewhere. I mentioned the article to my husband this evening as we watched them playing in ecstasy together with a little piece of rope, laughing until they had hiccoughs, running, falling, giggling, hugging. He said: “This is pure joy.” I countered: “and in 5 minutes it will all be ruined as we fight them to get PJs on and teeth brushed and into bed.” Life is like that with kids: there are moments of intense joy and moments of intense frustration.
What the article brings to light, although it is nothing new for parents, is that parenting is not all joy. There is a lot of struggle, a lot of hard decisions, and lot of responsibility, there is competition and comparisons, there is school work and good manners, hygiene and hidden talents to find, and most of all, a lot of tedium and good old-fashioned hard work. The more kids you have, the more work there is, the bigger the strain on your relationship with your spouse, the harder it is to balance career, me-time, socializing, personal growth, etc.
The article discusses the impact of kids on relationships… as being potentially detrimental because kids are such big stressors. For me personally, having kids has both improved and detracted from my relationship with my husband. The only thing we have ever really argued about is distribution of household labor. Having kids has had a way of magnifying all the little inequalities of the relationship. Because I am the one who picks up after the kids, if my husband leaves something out carelessly, he gets a “gentle reminder.” When household chores and child-related duties are not even close to fairly distributed and we are both exhausted, tensions really escalate.
Yet, having kids has also helped our relationship grow. There is nothing sweeter than watching your husband help the kids repot their little tomato plants or giving the kids a bath. There is something divine in getting to see your husband in your kids’ little faces and getting to see your husband through your kids’ eyes.
This is one of the curious juxtapositions of life: when you have the energy, and the house is clean and the kids are in bed and you don’t want to boot him to the curb or scratch his eyes out, your relationship with your spouse is richer, deeper, and more fulfilling.
To me it is odd that there is an article claiming that parenthood won’t necessarily make you happy. I guess my response is “Duh!” I don’t think kids are the answer to happiness, much like fame, fortune, good looks, and a fabulous job don’t seem to be very good answers. Humans are funny when it comes to predicting our own happiness. Mostly, I don’t think we know what will make us happy. Of course, when you imagine yourself as a parent before becoming one, you always imagine one of those moments of utter joy and baby bliss, never one of the moments of tedium, so I can see where the misunderstanding comes from.
I am not trying to convince anyone of anything, really, just entering into dialogue with you and with myself. I know we have a lot of choices today as far as how we form families and I know that some people don’t have as many choices as others, either circumstances or biology or psychology…
Yet, the question of whether or not to have children is so interesting. Apart from the biological imperative, I am not sure why people want kids, like specific reasons. I always wanted kids, it was never really a question of if, but when (of course, I insanely thought four would be the perfect number and have since repented). At one point, when I thought I wouldn’t get the chance to have kids, I was devastated (and I try to remember that at certain melt-downish moments). But I am not sure I could verbalize why I wanted kids. I am not judgmental about choices, but I am honestly not sure why some couples decide not to have kids. Are some people just not meant to be parents? Is it selfish to remain child-free? Is it selfish and vain to insist on having kids in a world such as ours?
I get it: having kids changes your life for a long time. I get it: parenting is not all about reaping emotional rewards. But what in life IS all about joy and happiness? What aspects of life don’t suck up your time and aren’t dull and tedious sometimes? What major life changes aren’t hard on a relationship?
For me, there are definitely valuable lessons to be learned from parenting (and perhaps they can be learned through other experiences as well, I don’t know): selflessness, sacrifice, priorities, simplicity, sweetness, patience, compromise, importance, trivialities. They are lessons I learn and relearn every day. Some days I am tested and I fail, others I pass with flying colors. To me, being a parent is about loving someone more than myself, it is about learning to share my time and put others first, it is the ultimate journey of self-discovery and finding the ways in which I am like my mother and the ways in which I am not, it is that unmistakable sweetness in belonging to something bigger than me.
The end of article is fascinating. One point the author makes, that I have always said, is that most regrets are about things you didn’t do: very few people regret having kids, but quite a few regret that they didn’t (some don’t regret not having kids, I know). Then she briefly mentions a paradoxical study that found that women with children were less depressed than their childless counterparts, in part because the study was more about existential matters and less about momentary happiness, per se, which is fleeting, at best, and possibly non-existent. The author questions, as I did, whether the notion of happiness as it was used in many of the studies (as moment-to-moment happiness) is adequate to represent the gamut of emotion involved in parenting.
Then she mentions words like transcendence and purpose and retrospective gratification and you say, ah yes!