This month’s Atlantic article, “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy,” immediately brought to my mind the many scientific studies that prove parents are more unhappy, or at least no more happy, than their childfree peers. These articles cite the high cost of parenthood–the emotional, intellectual, and physical sacrifices necessary to successfully parent–as the reason why the experience is so draining and, ultimately, so unsatisfying.
Because parenthood is now a state that we enter into largely by choice (instead of by force, tradition, or accident), it makes sense for us to question whether it is a choice we should make.
So if scientific studies tell us that parenting will make us unhappy, perhaps that means we are fools to choose to have children!
The Atlantic’s article dares to ask: is happiness all that important anyway? Or is it possible that focusing on happiness prevents us from facing challenges that would give our lives meaning and purpose? The article cites a forthcoming study about happiness which has found, paradoxically, that meaningful lives and happy lives don’t always look alike:
Scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different…. How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want.
The article goes on to say that people with meaningful lives are more prone to worry and stress, and are more likely to argue with their peers and loved ones. It seems that pursuits of high value bring these ills into our lives:
People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people.
So, in essence, parenting does make us unhappy. Which is a good thing, because it proves that parenting is important.
Parenting complicates everything. The Atlantic article goes on to cite a study which claims that parents are happier while exercising, eating, or watching TV than they are while spending time with their kids! And that is true; sometimes playing with my infant feels like an unending cycle of practice-the-skills and perfect-the-milestones rather than a fun romp around the playmat. Eventually I’ll have to worry about how he treats other children, whether he enjoys the organized sport I’ve signed him up for, or if he is good at sharing. And I would love to spend time exercising when my mind is not reeling with a million unanswered parenting questions I need to research, would love to eat a meal unencumbered by the many thoughts that plague me: Should I drop dairy to improve my breastfeeding relationship? Can I drink two beers before the midnight feed? Will my kid be scarred for life if he sees me inhale this giant piece of cake? Did the peanut butter I ate while pregnant make it more likely that he will develop an allergy? Should I let him snack or force him to eat the family meal? Will I do BLW or purees? Will I ever lose this baby weight?
Yes, after all that heavy thought I am often glad to put my baby down for the night and retreat into the comfort of junk TV!
But perhaps it is better to be sick of the questions than to live a life without them.
I’m not trying to imply that parenthood is the only way to add value to a life. I know and love plenty of childfree people who are filled to the brim by their work, family, romantic relationships, art, and communities.
But the fact that one finds meaning in those activities does not diminish in any way the unique value of the parenting experience.
And furthermore it is important to be mindful that many people, for many reasons, desperately want to parent but cannot, and as a result feel extraordinary sadness.
The reality is that having a child makes every hard decision more difficult, makes every small lack feel like a void. The highs are so sweet that they often feel painful (How long will I get to see that smile? What happens if it goes away? How can I keep him smiling always?), and the low moments can drive you mad with fatigue or grief.
So no, being a parent doesn’t always make me happier, but it does make me more fully alive.