Thursday, July 22, 2010

Why be a parent if it won't make you happy?

A couple facebook friends of mine have linked to this article a in the past few days and I can't stop thinking about it. The title of the article is "All Joy and No Fun: Why parents hate parenting." It addresses studies that have come out in recent years showing that people who are parents aren't as happy as people who aren't, and that married people who are parents aren't as happy with their marriages as their child free counterparts. The suggestion (broadly, I do recommend reading the whole thing) is that moment-to-moment there is less pleasure in the life of parents than there is in the life of people who are not parents. Parents worry more, fight with their spouses more, and even struggle with stuff like depression and negative thoughts more, these studies say. Yet, in what seems like a surprising or at least dishonest turn, parents self-report seems to be that they are happy, despite all the measurements saying they are not. These studies measured happiness moment-to-moment, a definition that makes sense in a culture that tends to be about the moment-to-moment with focus on products that provide quick fixes and instant pleasures.

As I think about this article I can't help but look back on the last month of my life, and my own experience of parenting. In some ways, I can see what they mean. The past month of our home life has been characterized by sleep issues and what feels like giant decisions about how to deal with those issues. In May baby J began waking at night, taking longer to get to sleep, and fighting naps. We tried a number of different options to get us all sleeping well that didn't work. In the past four weeks Andrew and I have had more heated discussions than usual (what passes for "fighting" in our relationship) have been more irritable, and I have definitely been less "happy." Which makes sense for a family that is generally sleep deprived and cranky, and for parents who are receiving tons of mixed messages about what to do. Our society is full of opinions on how to manage sleep, there are literally HUNDREDS of books on the subject and the main camps are quite vehement in their views. Your baby needs you when she cries and your sleep is less important than her comfort, one camp claims. A child needs to learn independence and be able to self-soothe, says another. Both camps (those are the main ones although there are other opinions) in their most extreme views claim that failing to care for a child's sleep the way they suggest will permanently (permanently!!) damage the our child for the rest of her life. No wonder we weren't happy. Lack of sleep plus pressure to make a choice plus fear of judgement equals some serious stress. Ask any parent these days and they'll tell you that stress is familiar. So - does that mean that the article is right, and parenting is failing to make us happy? A couple responses come to mind:

1. I don't think parenting is supposed to make you happy. I've read more books on parenting, been to more classes, and had to justify my desire to parent to strangers more than most of the parents I know. I don't recall ever claiming that I wanted to parent because it would make me happy. In fact, I don't suppose I really expected that it would. Why? Well, because that's not what intimate relationships are ultimately for. Shocking, but I didn't engage in marriage because I expected that it would make me happy either. Most of the big projects in my life have by certain ways of measuring had the effect of making day to day living more complicated (trip to Russia as a monolingual teenager! Marriage! Home! School! Band/Tour/Performance! Baby! Vocation!) Of course, I wouldn't be who I am without those experiences - I didn't mind the complication and stress because the work was good work. It formed me in good ways.

2. I think about the relationships in my life, especially the most intimate ones. The choice to love another person is rarely a recipe for absolute daily pleasure and contentment. Some relationships are built with the luxury of stepping into them for pleasure and out of them when things aren't fun. But "intimate" and "close" aren't words that describe those relationships. There are a few people who I walk with in sickness and in health, rich or poor, better or worse. These people, these intimate beloveds of mine, when they are unhappy? So am I. And guess what? I don't always bring sunshine and light into their lives either. Sometimes I am the unhappy one and they - my family, my husband, my inner circle of dear friends, and yes my baby girl - they are the ones who walk a less pleasurable path so that I am not alone.

3. The thing about babyhood, childhood, and adolescence is that it's hard. The choice to be a parent is the choice to become family with a person (without dating first) who is embarking on the hardest and biggest of tasks - starting a Life. Being a parent means choosing to re-live babyhood and childhood and adolescence with all the bumps, bruises, heartaches, limitations, triumphs, glory, innocence and sunlight. More than that it is an opportunity to walk with another human being through all that, as her guide, protector, guardian, teacher and, if you are lucky, good sweet friend. It is not for everyone.

4. Parenting isn't something that everyone should or needs to do. I feel that if as a culture we were as supportive of people who don't want kids and celebrated those lives in the same way we do folks who do want kids than perhaps people would take the choice more seriously. Similar to marriage, I believe it is possible to have a full, beautiful, complete life without parenting children. For some, life might even be better that way. Parenthood shouldn't get pitched as something that brings, in and of itself, happiness because it doesn't. And as a parent who has several friends who are not parents, I can speak for how wonderful it is for my daughter to receive love, attention, and care from adults who are not distracted by their own children!

All that being said - for some crazy reason I would rather struggle through months of sleeplessness than go more than a couple hours without my baby. But we didn't have to. What did we do about sleep? We did our job, as parents, and though it wasn't easy it was successful. We're all sleeping now. Which means at the moment we get the joy and the fun.


  1. I think it's the judgment I fear that makes me unhappy as a parent. Other then that I'm happy to be this girls momma.
    So, if I can ask, how did you resolve the sleep issue. We're back to having problems again after we moved and are at a loss of what to do and it's getting bad.

  2. I'll email you Debbie! I am reluctant to go into it here because it is such a lightening rod issue. I may do a separate blog post that goes more deeply into exactly what we did, haven't decided yet. :)

  3. Very very thought provoking, thank you very much.

  4. Interesting what you've said about parenting being a re-visitation of baby- and childhood, etc. and guiding our children through it (as much as they will let us). We often get caught up in considering parenthood from the perspective of "how does this affect my ability to continue living my life the way I want to?" . . . thanks for reminding us what we are really here for.

    I'd be interested to read your post about your sleep "solutions". I'm 100% positive that this is something we have all been through and perhaps struggled with our decisions around how to approach the situation. I blogged through our CIO process and it got me through that first night. Thankfully it was a complete success for us (at least at bedtime - we are in the midst of nap wars : )


  5. Interesting article, though I didn't really relate to much of it.

    Not long after Claudia was born, I became aware that while being a parent would be the most meaningful experience I would ever have, it would not be "enough" - that I needed to have a sense of purpose and sources of happiness that are independent of parenthood.

    In a sort of indirect way, parenting has made me happy. It has compelled me to seek (and find) happiness in ways that I hadn't before - both because I don't want my child burdened with the notion that my happiness depends on her and because I think that the best way to teach her to find her own happiness is to let her watch me find mine.

  6. As a Buddhist, we are taught that everyone deserves to be happy. However it is a struggle, a battle sometimes. Happiness is not something you get inside a box of Cracker Jack, it's not something one gets when you get the girl, the guy, the Mercedes Benz, the child you've wanted for years. It doesn't happen even when you win the lottery, though it could certainly make all your dreams come true. It isn't dependent on the weather, or your relationships or your neighbourhood.

    The trap of infertility is that conceiving and delivering a child becomes the holy grail and you can lose perspective. I finally realized that a child would not make me any happier than I was at any given moment in my life. That is not the child's job.

    In so many ways, I agree with you. Happiness, for me, is more related to unshakeable faith, gratitude and appreciation for all that I do have, and wanting others to achieve the same.

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