I read this article almost two months ago and have been thinking about it ever since. In a nut shell, the article cites several research projects conducted over the years that conclude children not only do not add to our happiness as parents, but they actually increase our misery and depression. Nice, huh?
But there are many parents (like myself) who would strongly disagree. Why the discrepancy?
I think it certainly has something to do with the definition of happiness. When my husband and I recently vacationed alone for a few days on the California coast to celebrate our anniversary (something we haven’t been able to do much over the years because of, yes, our children) I felt a sort of painful bliss as we meandered around aimlessly doing what we wanted, when we wanted to do it. I felt happy, in the way Merriam-Webster defines happiness: “a state of well-being or contentment, a pleasurable or satisfying experience.”
I say it was a sort of painful bliss for two reasons. One, I couldn’t help but ask myself about every five minutes, why can’t life always be like this? And two, because I already knew the answer to that question: real meaning and purpose in life is found in hard work and sacrifice. And for me, that translates into being a mother and a nurturer of family life.
Which is why I think this discussion about children making us happy or unhappy is putting parenthood under an unnecessary spotlight. If we really stop to think about it, it’s not just children that detract from our “happiness” (as it is loosely defined in these studies), it’s really anything worth doing. Housework, exercise, going to work everyday, volunteering in your church or community–the list of hard, mundane things we do on a regular basis for the good of ourselves, others, and to keep society turning in a positive direction rarely feels like a vacation to the California coast.
Likewise, I think most people would agree that the more we work and sacrifice for something, the more we value and even love that thing. And that is never more true than in family life, the most difficult and rewarding of all pursuits.
I hate to break this news to anyone, but love and happiness are not always synonymous. We’re a little mixed up about that in our culture today. I wonder if part of the problem for these “unhappy” parents is that there is an expectation that “bliss is normal.”
I first read this quote as a young mother struggling against self-induced postpartum depression, and it sobered me up fast:
“Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he has been robbed.
“[The fact is] most putts don’t drop. Most beef is tough. Most children grow up to be just people. Most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration. Most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. …
“Life is like an old-time rail journey—delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed.
“The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.”
Family life is hard, and loving amidst the struggle is even harder. Confusing love for bliss (or happiness) is why I think some people divorce after “falling out of love,” and why still others leave their children for other pursuits. (Translation: easier pursuits.) Happiness as it is defined in these studies is about me. Love, on the other hand, is about others. Real love requires hard work and personal sacrifice, but if kept at long enough will most definitely yield it’s own brand of happiness.The kind that comes from knowing you’ve lived a life full of purpose and meaning.
While I loved every millisecond of eating shrimp cocktail, watching the sun set on the ocean, and talking with my husband uninterrupted, when I thought about actually living that kind of life day in and day out, it sent shivers up my spine. What would my life really be if it were nothing but one big vacation? Fun and happy? I guess.
But then again, maybe I only felt so good because I was stepping back and reflecting on how great my life really is. I had something to go home to after all. Specifically, little people to go home to. People that needed me. People that required a lot of me. People that have made me into more than I ever was without them. People that I love who love me back. Now that’s real happiness.
I’m writing this on Memorial Day, so I can’t help but think of the ultimate sacrifice made by the brave men and women of our country over the years–a sacrifice they made “for love of country.” Does anyone really think the men and women in uniform, both now and in the past, did what they did (and do what they do) because it makes them “happy?” Well, that depends on your definition of happiness, now doesn’t it.
So thank you, dear soldiers! Thank you for reminding us that there are things worth sacrificing for; things far more important in this world than our own personal, and temporary, comfort and bliss. Thank you for ensuring we still have claim on those unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
QUESTION: What is your definition of happiness in family life?
CHALLENGE: Re-evaluate your expectations for happiness in family life.