By Rachel Pieh Jones
Some parents I talk to seem rather disillusioned. They thought having kids would make them happy. They thought having kids would satisfy a longing or fill a hole or bring a sense of hope and purpose to their lives. Turns out though, for a lot of us, having kids reveals our selfish natures, impatience, inner rage, and makes us really, really tired.
What if our expectations are upside down? What if the reason people had kids was not to make themselves happy but to make themselves better people? Not to fulfill our own needs but to learn about service, not to satisfy our own longings but to help another person achieve their longings. There is fairly clear evidence anyway that children don’t make parents more happy, though it can be reasonably argued that ‘happiness’ itself is a difficult emotion to quantify.
Personal evidence: I don’t know about other parents, but I didn’t consider myself an angry person or a worried person or a controlling person. And then I had kids. Hello, impatience, rage, anxiety, and obsession.
Researched evidence: “Daniel Hamermesh and his colleagues published a study…finding that mothers reported a sharp rise in stress after the birth of a child…Another study published this year (2015)…found that the average hit to happiness exacted by the arrival of an infant is greater than a divorce, unemployment or the death of a spouse.”
I’m happy I have kids, don’t get me wrong. But it is a different kind of happiness than is implied by the simplistic, ‘kids will make me happy’ idea.
In All Joy, No Fun, Jennifer Senior writes that:
“Having worked so hard to have children, parents may feel it’s only natural to expect happiness from the experience. And they’ll find happiness of course, but not necessarily continuously, and not always in the forms they might expect.”
I’m not angry or mean all the time. I’m just surprised by how often and how angry. I’ve also been surprised by the joy, love, gratitude, and awe I experience as the mother of my three kids. The intensity of these emotions is what has shaken me, both the good and the bad.
The point people like Jennifer Senior are trying to make, or at least one point, is that happiness is not a guarantee when it comes to parenting and that people who think having a child will fill them with endless rivers of continual delight have another thing coming. Parents-to-be could be greatly served by coming to terms with this before the shocker of that first middle-of-the-night who will get up with the baby fight.
Expecting a baby, toddler, middle-grade kid, or teenager to make us happy is an awful lot of pressure to put on another human being, especially one that will go through ridiculous rages of hormones, will demand to use our bodies and physically transform our bodies, will absorb our sleep, time, and money, and who will eventually leave us, off to conquer the world while we stand weeping on the front stoop. We know all this, it is inevitable, and yet, we continue to get pregnant and adopt and then feel shocked and surprised when we aren’t happy and when we are, in fact, less happy than before we had children, in general.
One danger in holding these expectations is that when our children fail to give us joy, when we feel the rising impatience or frustration, we will retreat. This was supposed to be fun. This was supposed to make me happy. So when it doesn’t, we disappear or distract ourselves.
I read in the book Sacred Parenting–“If we have only a selfish motivation, we will run from parenting’s greatest challenges… not by retreating to our bedrooms or backyards, but to our offices, boardrooms, workout clubs, Starbucks or even churches.”
But what if the expectation was not that having kids would make us happy but would make us better? What if people had babies and expected, sure a little joy, but also a whole lot of challenge and the need for creativity and the desperation for community support, the humility to ask for help, the relinquishing of whatever life plan they had previously mapped out? What if at least one of the motivating factors for having a child were self-improvement? This seems fairly radical and almost selfish. But then again, the idea that a kid should make me happy is also pretty selfish.
This idea that kids can refine their parents takes the pressure off the kids to please us and to succeed and excel and obey and be talented, pleasant, intelligent, good-looking, and to fit into our categories of what we consider successful and pleasing. Instead, the pressure is put back on ourselves as parents. The kids become useful tools in our lives, even as we are training them to become productive adults in the world.
When a child whines for candy at the grocery store, I might lose my patience and then feel miserable – both for losing my temper and for failing to raise a child who doesn’t whine – this also comes with a huge dose of guilt. Now neither one of us is happy and in my mind, it is all the kid’s fault – for being a whiner. Or my fault – for raising a whiner. Either way, we both lose.
Instead, I can recognize my impatience, apologize for losing my temper, and see it as an opportunity to grow in character. My kid still probably won’t get the candy but instead of wallowing in self-pity (her) or guilt (me), we can both experience progress toward becoming better people, one tiny step toward being more patient or toward more self-control. It’s a small example but like so much with parenting, small things illuminate larger ones.
If we parents used the challenges inherent in parenting: sleepless nights, financial strain, marital disagreements, and decided to see them as an opportunity for growth rather than a failure of our children to reinforce our happiness, we might actually become…happier.
Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.