Parenting And The Myth Of Happiness
Tonight was one of those family dinners that just doesn’t go according to plan.
“Mom! What is wrong with these carrots? Don’t you care about my food!?”
“I don’t like chicken anymore.”
“Dad! Charlie just poured his juice all over his food!”
“You’re sitting on my chair! Off. My. Chair!!!”
As I poured juice and peas down the sink, accompanied by the background noise of howling over-tired, just-back-to-school kids, a simple truth dawned on me…
I love my kids much more than I love parenting them.
Before you stone me as an ingrate, or victim of negativity and self-pity, stay with me until the end of this post, will you.
The other day I heard a childless dude brag how happy he is:
‘I LOVE my life – exactly the way it is. My job, my girlfriend (who doesn’t want kids), nothing competing with my career progress, my itty bitty convertible, trips to beaches all over the world. And peace and quiet… I’m just so happy!’
Can I be honest? I was a little jealous. For two reasons.
MORE HUMANS ≠ MORE HAPPINESS
I was jealous because happiness is so important to us all, right? Research and polls that question what people think is the most important thing in life, consistently report happiness as the top answer. This sentiment is not new. Long long ago, Aristotle said, ‘Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence’.
And yet parenting clearly erodes daily happiness. Look at any longitudinal study of happiness over the course of an average life, and you will see a marked happiness dip between ages 25 and 50 – the same years we have offspring living in our homes. Researchers call it ‘the parenting happiness gap’. In countries like the US and UK, various studies document a 10-13% reduction in happiness levels when we become moms or dads.
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
I was also jealous because I vividly remember that kind of happiness in my earlier years with Julie. Okay, we didn’t have a convertible, but we used to travel every second year with our savings. Weekends were wide open canvases. During the weeks, after work, we would freewheel. We played beach bats and had sundowner picnics on Fourth Beach. During the week. On a school night. Every week. Followed by a movie (an actual movie, not Netflix). Followed by uninterrupted times of romance and sleep. (I had to look up how to spell ‘uninterrupted’ – a word that has fallen out of use in my home.)
One poll I read about asked people whether if they could, would they rather go back in time or forward into the future, parents were much more likely to want to go back in time, whereas non-parents were 30% more likely to lean into the future. As for us parents of small kids, we’re still near the base of a mountain, obscuring from view the very distant life of imagined ease on the other side.
I LOVE MY KIDS, HONEST
Please don’t hear what I am not saying: I am not being negative. I am being truthful.
I love my kids. But loving them and loving the act of parenting are not the same thing.
Of course my kids have provided unparalleled moments of joy.
I think of their birth (perhaps less of a highpoint for Julie). And their first steps, and first words. And those times when they spontaneously tell you they love you. And the thrill of seeing a rock-pool or sunset, as for the first time – vicariously through the wondrous eyes of your toddler. I think of the waves of intense affection I feel when I look upon them sleeping. And how much pride Julie and I had on my day off at a nearby wine farm with our twins, whose cuteness and co-operation mingled in a rare moment of synchronicity.
Muso and fellow father, John Legend gives words to the ecstacy: ‘I don’t know who’s gonna kiss you when I’m gone. So I’m gonna love you now, like it’s all I have. I know it’ll kill me when it’s over. I don’t wanna think about it.’
There are times of transcendence when I look upon Eli, Fynn, Ivy, Charlie or Sam and they seem to be an extension of me: my heart walking around in someone else’s body. Time stands still.
LIVING THE DREAM
I watched a viral video today of a dad and 4-year old daughter, locked eye to eye, as they sang a duo of ‘You’ve got a friend in me’. While watching I wished I had yet another daughter. Then I flashed back to yesterday, when Ivy (my one and only sweet princess) physically attacked me like a feral cat.
Songs, poems, and cute videos perpetuate the myth that parenting equates to a never-ending lift in your life’s happiness.
Sure, some moments are euphoric. But they are far and few between. And fleeting.
More often in the early years, kids provide unrivaled moments of stress, exhaustion, frustration, tedium and worry – all of these recurring more often and lasting much longer than the moments of parenting bliss.
Earlier this week, I walked past a trendy-looking father of a child in full tantrum-mode. I was impressed by how he kept his cool. As I walked past him, he looked at me with a deadpan expression, and said in slow monotone, ‘Living the dream.’
KIDS ON PAR WITH STRANGERS
Even spending time with our kids is less emotionally nourishing than we realize. In a Ted Talk, Jennifer Senior quotes Matthew Killingsworth’s conclusion from his research findings: ‘Interacting with your friends is better than interacting with your spouse, which is better than interacting with other relatives, which is better than interacting with acquaintances, which is better than interacting with parents, which is better than interacting with children. Who are on par with strangers.’
This parenting data, as well as the lived experience, comes as a shock to most of us. One popular narrative in society is that parenthood would make us happy. But when kids come along, in secrecy we find ourselves thinking, ‘Wait, this is my reward? This twenty-year grind?’ And research says that the longer we wait before having our first child, while believing these cultural promises, the bigger the letdown.
Much better to have tempered expectations. (And even better to have better reasons to have kids in the first place, goals higher than momentary happiness, aims I will suggest in my next post.)
DATA AS BIRTH CONTROL
Head of Google X, Astro Teller, summarizes the data that undermines the myth of parenting happiness like this:
The picture that emerges from existing data is that parenthood does not make people happy on a moment-to-moment basis, and while parenthood may be rewarding, it is not more rewarding than, say, career accomplishments, volunteer activities or religion. Childlessness does not appear to be an intrinsically less happy state than parenthood. This is not to minimize the suffering of those who cannot have the children they desperately want, but merely to point out that existing evidence does not support the notion that having children is a formula for a happy life.
Want more anecdotal evidence? I read of some researchers who collected 1540 hours of footage of 32 middle-class, dual-earner families with at least two children, all of them going about their regular business in their suburban homes. One of the post-doctoral fellows who worked on it described the video data as “the very purest form of birth control ever devised.”
A bit late for him, though – he already had two kids.
My next post will be more inspiring. In it I will explain why parenting kids is still, by far, the very best thing Julie and I have done with our lives. (We’d still have five kids even if we had read this post!) After that, I want to explore three parenting mindsets that guarantee needless misery. But in this post, I have started with reality. Apart from it, we won’t be able to fully make sense of the profound dignity and meaning inherent in this most sacred and sacrificial of roles.
Also published on Medium.