Does Being a Parent Make You Happy?

Okay, here we go again, with another flurry of conversation swirling around the topic of parents, children, and happiness. Specifically: Does becoming a parent increase or decrease happiness? Do kids make you happy? Are parents happier than non-parents? And my personal favorite: Why do we all work so hard at this parenting stuff without it making us happy? AREN’T WE SUPPOSED TO BE HAPPY, FER CHRISSAKES?

This has been circulating in old- and new-media circles this muggy month in part thanks to an article in New York magazine, by Jennifer Senior, that has, as they say, gone viral. It’s been Tweeted and Facebooked, blogged about, and discussed on the radio (one good interview with Senior took place on my local NPR station, WNYC, on Brian Lehrer’s show the other day. You can listen to it here, if you’re so inclined).

Um, what do I have to say on the topic? What makes you think I have something to add to the discussion? 😉 Hahaha, as the social-media types like to type. Of course I have something to say.

And it’s this: Really? Really? We’re still talking about this? Have we still not come to terms with the fact that becoming a parent doesn’t magically bestow happiness on your head, any more than getting married does? Apparently not. Apparently we’re still, as the article suggests, “surprised” (and of course bemused and not a little bit annoyed, if I may editorialize) that bringing our children into the world didn’t up our happiness factor.

Senior takes as her premise the statement that “most parents” expect having children will make them happy.

They do? I didn’t.

Oh, I get that many people use that word, “happy,” as shorthand for other things, like fulfillment and an increased sense of purpose, but it all boils down to the same idea. We’re all always looking for the magic, make-me-happy bullet, and guess what folks? You are the only person who can engineer your own fulfillment, nurture your own sense of purpose, and create your own contentment, all of which are hard to find, and all of which are unfair to ask a baby or child to give you. Unfair, and impossible.

Yeah, I know–I’m taking what’s essentially a pop-culture article to the extreme; after all, it is a well-written, thought provoking piece, that’s mostly for, you know, passing interest and diversion. Plus, it’s getting people talking, especially about thorny issues like why American parents may be, according to research on such things, unhappier than those in, say, Sweden or France, where support for working families mitigates some of the modern-life issues that make parenting such a tough row to hoe for many of us. Things I pine for, like paid maternity leave, subsidized quality daycare, healthcare coverage, and free or very low cost higher education. Just think — as Senior’s piece points out — how may of the woes of modern American parenthood those things erase!

She writes, as well, of the difference between our generation, armed with our educations and our choices (and the attendant, for some of us, sense of entitlement), and that of our parents, who (speaking broadly here) went from their own parents’ homes to their married homes and leaped right into parenthood. The idea being, no choices to ponder, plus no time to think, equals no crazy-making false assumption that becoming a parent will Make You Happy. (This, incidentally, has always been my mother’s take on our blah blah blah navel-gazing generation: “You people have too much time on your hands. Less talking, more doing, okay?”)

And yeah, there is a big gulf there, leaving to one side all the jawing about choices or lack thereof and what that has to do with how happy (or not) we are. But where does that leave me? I’m smack-dab-bang-on in the cohort that should be wrestling most mightily (and, if you agree with some of the online commenters to Senior’s article, whining the most with the belief that if I’m feeling something, everyone must be) with this problem of unhappiness in parenthood.

Just check it out: I’m well-educated. I had a solid, successful career before I even got married, much less decided to have a child. I was 36 when I had my son, for heaven’s sake. Not to mention I am (or was, at the time) urban. East Coast urban, no less.

And I had that baby. And while I expected that I would feel pride in his being, joy in the sight of his face and a renewed sense of being needed and wanted, purely physically at first, but psychically, too, as I raised this human being; while I anticipated that I would fall madly in love with my son and any other children who followed him out of my body, it honestly never, ever occurred to me that he would make me happy. Or that parenthood would be all joyful, or even, I don’t know, as much as 25% joyful. I knew it would be a lot of shit (literally, at first), a lot of snot, a lot of laundry, a lot of money, not a lot of sleep, not enough sex (in the early months and years), and other scary and amorphous non-happy-making things later. Can I just say “teenager” and leave it at that?

Later in Senior’s piece, she makes the not unfamiliar point that in the “olden” days, children were essentially economic commodities. Adults had children in part because they had little to no effective way of controlling whether they had them or not, but also because their offspring provided vital help on the farm or whatever, as well as childcare help with the subsequent new siblings. Those who survived, that is. Fast forward to now, and after a bunch of generations during which we got increasingly better at choosing the timing of parenthood and the number of kids, and we’ve reached a point where kids are not home and farm helpers (or, as they were in the heyday of the Industrial Revolution, potential money earners in factories and mines). We’ve reached the point where they’ve turned instead into projects. Says Senior: “kids went from being our staffs, to being our bosses.”

Oh. Ick.

I’m not my son’s serf. I met his needs as a newborn, an infant, a toddler, and continue to do the things for him and his brother that they can’t do themselves. I feed, I clothe, I see to their education, I organize their things and their social lives and read to them and get their hair cut and wash their bodies and wipe their butts (still, with the five year old. Sigh. He promises that by his sixth birthday he’ll take the toilet paper into his own hands). When they get older, I’ll still do a lot of those things, and more (hey, I still expect a meal prepared for me when I go to my mom’s house, which is as it should be), but I’ll also expect that they will pick up quite a lot of the slack.

All this is not to say that I want my sons to, when they are able-bodied enough, become my staff (first of all, I don’t have a farm, so there’s that). What I am aiming for? We’ll all serve each other, the needs of the family and of the home. Funny, just yesterday I was talking to Daniel about the things he can do (put the waffles in the toaster, stack his dish in the dishwasher) and the things he can’t yet (grill the hot dogs on the barbecue), and said that as he got older, he could — and would — do lots around the house. I started ticking them off: Change your sheets. Do your laundry. Help mommy cook. Dust and vacuum. Rake the leaves. Mow the lawn. Shovel the snow. Wash the car.

“And if your friends say, ‘hey, Daniel, why did you have to do all that stuff?’ you can say, ‘because we all do things for each other in our house.’ ”

Because, I want him to understand, while we all have the human responsibility (and ability) to effect our own happiness (he can’t “make” me happy any more than I can “make” him happy), we have the familial responsibility to lighten each other’s loads, and each other’s lives.

No whining necessary.