I read this article a little while back 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.
QUESTION: What is your definition of happiness in family life?
CHALLENGE: Re-evaluateyour expectations for happiness in family life.
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Vicky T says
I love this. I am surrounded by so many at work that tend to always talk negative about parenting: it’s hard, it’s challenging, tiring, even some wonder “how do parents do it?” But I refuse to let these descriptions make me even doubt a bit of the great happiness & satisfaction that I get everyday from being a mother. While others resort to the gym or extreme healthy habits, I resort to my family for happiness, for peace, for love, for acceptance. Happiness in family life to me means knowing that at home I will feel loved, accepted, not judged; it is knowing that my little ones & husband need me, that we all complement each other, that we are walking hand in hand towards the same goal together, it means laughter, purity, cleanliness. Love my family life & it’s so sad how many are letting go of this great organization called the family and replacing it with other worldly satisfactions. I don’t care who you are, what you do, how important you think you are, how much of a traveler you are, how fit you are, etc…at the end of the day, you need love & you find that comfort always at home.
Allyson, I think you’re so right! Those wonderful moments are so wonderful because at the end of them, we have a family to go back to. A family who needs us. A family who makes this whole life worth it. Thank you so much for this article!
I love this too. As I set my goals for this year, I realized that what I wanted to improve the most and become better at was motherhood. Sure I’d love to learn to play the piano, write a book and do a million DIY projects around my house, but to feel really satisfied and happy, I want to be an Olympic Mom–well-trained and one who practices her talent every single day. I will always make mistakes, but one of those mistakes won’t be taking my job lightly. It’s so hard, but as Allyson said, so fulfilling because it’s hard.
An Olympic Mom–Great image!!!
Great post! I heard about the study you referenced on the radio and the DJ’s were saying how true it was. They were saying it in a joking way, that their kids made them miserable, but I think a lot of people in some ways do feel that way. It really does speak volumes about why our society is the way it is. It really boils down to if we are going to be selfish or selfless in our lives. People feel entitled to having what they want, when they want it. No one wants to put in the work required, that is exactly why we have a high divorce rate, high debt rate, and why we see family size shrinking. It is a crazy world out there! I am glad that we have the truth in our lives that keeps it all in perspective. Thanks for sharing your feelings and insights with us.
I don’t think having kids makes you less happy or not having kids makes you happy. I know lots of people who are unable to have kids and are not happy at all. Maybe it’s more about things not working out how you want or thought or planned. I’m still learning to be happy with whatever happens because life goes on no matter what. And I’d rather enjoy it by being happy.
Although I could use a few hours alone once in awhile.
Laurie Brooks says
This is excellent Allyson – some of your best words yet girl!
Brooke Liljenquist says
I saw that article a while back and thought it was a sad commentary on the general state of our nation that people CHOOSE to be parents and then COMPLAIN about it. Yes, we all have moments with our kids where they drive us crazy, there is not getting around that. But I’d wager that people have JUST as many, if not more, negative feelings about their co-workers. And complain about them as much. People just want to complain it seems. The power of positivity is something that seems to be dying with the “greatest generation”. What it comes down to is CHOOSING to be positive about our children, even when they’re driving us nuts with little things. At times like that I think about my friends who struggle with infertility and remember how blessed I am to have six little people making messes in my house. Happiness in family life is having a family life!
LOVED this Allyson!!!!! This has been at the forefront of my mind for months now. Still working on the answer…. I suppose for me, in answer to your question, I’m learning to cherish and appreciate the small moments and to take a minute to put things aside and laugh. This is a HUGE process for me.
As a side note, you look awesome and your little girl is just adorable!!!! Hope our paths will cross again one day 🙂
Just what I needed! Sometimes it’s so exhausting & I just want to “poof” disappear… So maybe I just need a moment(my own little California coast) of quiet away to reflect and rest, to put things back into perspective so I can be lifted up to continue and endure with the people and things that I love that truly make me “happy”, and then get back to it!
Whoops I’ve been a slacker, I guess that’s where mommy nap time comes into play, gotta get back on that!
I think that while no one truly understand in advance what parenting involves or the endlessness of being a parent, I think so many swallow the pill that the goal of the American life is to get married, buy a house, and have kids without really knowing what they are choosing or if it really is THEIR dream. In addition there is a lack of education from the generation before us about how to parent, how to value what is important, and how to take the tough times in stride…how to remain a person and strike a balance between self and selflessness, clean houses and children’s needs/happy memories, work and home, your own talents and time vs. you kids’. There isn’t the support system of multi-generational involvement and investment in families. Culturally, it seems absurd for a stay at home mom to get a sitter just to have time alone, to renew herself, or to plan for her family. It seems so strange in a culture of “me, me, me” that moms find it difficult step away to then come back and be better moms. Although, it might be this very cultural attitude that can trick us into standing stale and resentful in a role that puts others first. Plus in a disposable society that anything that isn’t instantly gratifying goes out the window (like marriages), kids are not disposable or go away. My vote? Study this website and journal about it, choose to invest in yourself, train yourself in your mothering role, join an educational mothering group, take time out (because you matter) but jump right in when it is your time to be present with your family, and know that there are many stages and seasons to mothering and your life as a woman…in the heat of the moment of mothering (especially toddler or teen years) it may seem like it will never end, but, you will soon be looking back on it—keep perspective. Be the hero of your own family history and persevere for excellence while excellently supporting yourself, the one setting the tone of your family and self-esteem of your children. Attitude is everything and if you are struggling as a mom, get some mentors or a counselor. Definitely don’t do motherhood without a good friend! I don’t feel like a lot of culture supports mom or her motherhood journey, even though the majority of women are mothers. Be bold and go against mediocrity to invest in your family. While it won’t be a degree to put on a wall or line to put in a resume, it will fill your picture album and your heart. It will be the sweetest, most proud accomplishments of your life and will echo through generations. Like April said, don’t just survive, be delibrate and thrive!
Thank you for addressing this in such a beautifully written piece. I especially love the quote from Lloyd Jenkins. I remember reading the study that you referenced, and being very disturbed by it. Being a mother is by far the most meaningful aspect of my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And it brings me more joy than anything else in the world. Yes, it also brings me a lot of stress and anxiety. This is partly because my son has medical issues, among other things. But the joy far outweighs the challenges.
Powerfully written! True happiness is found in loving others!
Beth NC says
Wonderfully written on such an important topic.
It seems to have to do with how “happiness” is defined. You write about happiness as focused on self and love as focused on others.
For me, it’s a distinction between happiness and joy. Happiness from outside things that happen to you. It’s a beautiful day. I had a good night’s sleep. My child is cooperative. Hooray!
Joy comes from within – it’s a spiritual feeling of peace and love that we can maintain even when times are tough. Unlike happiness, it doesn’t depend on outside factors being just right and not feeling stressed. [I think of it spiritually, but you don’t have to be religious to feel joy.)
I don’t think these studies are addressing joy.
Ginny Kubitz Moyer says
Thanks for sharing this. I actually wrote about this very topic in one of the chapters of my book, so it’s something I’ve pondered a lot.
I’ve seen the studies, too; some say parents are happier than non-parents, some say that people without kids are happier. What I’m not convinced of is how you can measure or quantify happiness. Things that bring happiness and satisfaction in the longterm often involve periods of sacrifice or (frankly) yuckiness in the short-term. And it’s not that parenthood is the only thing in life that can bring you a sense of accomplishment or achievement … but even when it’s hard and the kids are driving me crazy and the house is a total mess with their toys and I never seem to have enough time to myself, I still believe that parenthood is worth doing. And that goes a long way towards making me happy.
I love your words Allyson! Thank you!
It is hard to measure happiness in a “scientific study.” Doesn’t everybody’s happiness level fluctuate? Can’t a choice make us both happy in one moment and unhappy in another? For example, sitting on the couch watching TV while eating several brownies may make me feel “happy” in that moment but later on I might feel unhappy about having made that choice. Similarly, going out for a run everyday might be grueling and unappealing in the moment of running (and it is!)–but feeling healthy and fit and awake during different moments throughout the day creates happiness. Working hard to get through college can cause sleep deprivation, unhappiness, and maybe an empty wallet, but earning that degree and with it an increased ability to earn money can generate greater happiness and satisfaction for many years. So it is with children. Sometimes children can decrease our “happiness” but other times they can increase it. When I have to clean toddler poop off the carpet or pin that same toddler down to put eye drops in his pink, infected eyes I don’t feel elated joy in those moments. But there are other amazing moments full of pure joy that totally make up for the eye drops and poop!