Can Kids Make Us Happy?

Can Kids Make Us Happy?

Smile Freedom and happiness woman on beach. She is enjoying serene ocean nature during travel holidays vacation outdoors. asian beauty

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.

Book Review: All Joy and No Fun

Book Review: All Joy and No Fun

By Kristen Levithan

Book Review All Joy ArtNearly four years ago, journalist Jennifer Senior wrote a piece for New York Magazine that examined “why parents are no happier than nonparents, and in certain cases are considerably less happy.” The article, called “All Joy and No Fun” and provocatively subtitled “Why parents hate parenting,” went viral, inviting comments from parents and the childless alike. In her new book,  All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Senior picks up where her New York Magazine article left off and embarks on a quest to look at and knit together the findings of countless studies “in order to articulate—and in some cases quantify—what today’s parents find so challenging about their lives.” Unlike many parenting books whose focus is on children (or, at least, on how parents affect their children), Senior states from the outset that hers is “a book about parents” and an attempt—wholly successful—to show how children both strain and deepen our lives.

Senior’s book benefits from exceptionally clear, evocative writing throughout. (At one point, she deems parents “avid volunteers for a project in which we were all once dutiful conscripts.”) But its greatest strength and, I would argue, its most significant contribution to contemporary parenting literature is her decision to use the stories and experiences of middle class families to explicate relevant neuro- and social scientific research. (She focuses on the middle class, she explains, because the concerns of the elite are not “relatable” and those of “poor parents as parents are impossible to view on their own.”) Offering her readers a chance to identify with, say, a mom trying to edit photos for an afternoon deadline while the cries of her supposedly napping son blare through a baby monitor and her five-year-old daughter interrupts her repeatedly for help rewinding a movie, makes the countless studies she cites both more digestible and immediately more resonant.

Senior also makes the wise choice to deliver her findings systematically in stage-by-stage fashion. To explain the “bunker years” in which adults trade the autonomy of their child-free lives for the gear-laden, demanding days of parenting young children, Senior shares relevant findings through the stories of families she met through Early Childhood Family Education classes in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Senior elucidates studies on sleep deprivation, flow, and multitasking to show how they help explain why life with little kids often feels like “a long-running experiment in contained bedlam.” In an excellent chapter on marriage and the stresses parenting places upon it, Senior introduces us to Angie and Clint, a shift-working couple of two young sons, to reveal academic research on time-use, social isolation, child compliance, sex, and a fascinating concept called “unentitlement,” in which parents—especially mothers—prioritize family and household chores above their own needs. In the third chapter, Senior introduces the “simple gifts” parenting can bring and the science behind them as she follows Sharon, a 67-year-old raising her 3-year-old grandson alone. Sharon is also the lens through which Senior discusses research on the ways in which parenting children—who, Senior eloquently reminds us, “still have their hands on the world”—allow adults to reconnect to the pleasures of tangible, tactile pursuits; to ponder philosophical questions; and to embrace the chance to practice being our best selves.

Senior departs both the bunker years and Minnesota in her chapters on the later years of parenting. She devotes a jam-packed section to the “obdurate challenges of the middle parenting years” and, especially, the effects the overscheduling of kids has on their parents. For this stage, she heads off to suburban Houston, home of demographically diverse parents trying to help their kids balance schoolwork and demanding extracurricular activities (like the pervasive Tuesday night football practices) in an uncertain culture devoid of the folkways that helped parents navigate for generations before ours. In this chapter, Senior also looks at the shifting pressures on women over the last half-century from “keeping an immaculate house to being an irreproachable mom.” Senior’s chapter on adolescence is not for the faint of heart, chronicling as it does the experiences of several Brooklyn families who deal with everything from sons egging neighborhood houses and surfing Internet porn to daughters shoplifting and self-mutilating. Particularly fascinating in this section is Senior’s suggestion that, though “adolescence, more than any other phase of child-rearing, is when the paradoxes of modern childhood assert themselves most vividly,” its fraught reputation may be because we adults are at a loss when the children who’ve relied on us for so much somewhat suddenly, but quite naturally, begin to pull away, leaving our relationships with them and our partners, not to mention ourselves, up in the air.

If the rest of the book is superb, the final chapter of All Joy and No Fun is transcendent. Senior goes beyond the usual nonfiction tactic of revisiting her earlier arguments to discuss how, despite its trials, parenting gives us access to unparalleled joy, imbues our lives with meaning, and offers us the chance to redeem our past mistakes and leave a positive legacy. Explaining why it’s so much harder to quantify “how it feels to be a parent” rather than “how it feels to do the quotidian and often arduous task of parenting,” Senior leaves parents lucky enough to read her outstanding book with the distinct impression that, both in spite of and because of the sleepless nights, mind-numbing responsibilities, and heart-rending challenges, this parenting business is the most meaningful kind there is.

Kristen Levithan writes about motherhood, women’s history, and mother-writers for print and online publications. Currently at work on a non-fiction book about writers who were also mothers, Kristen lives in New England with her husband and three children and offers cultural commentary and musings on modern motherhood at her blog, Motherese.

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