Are parents happy?

Guest post by Alissa
Alissa and her daughter.

It seems like every year or so a new research study comes out declaring this or that about the “reality” of parenting, as opposed to the idealized view of it that parents seem to hold, or, even worse, preach to others.

It was last July when a couple facebook friends of mine linked to an article titled, “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. Parents worry more, fight with their spouses more, and even struggle with stuff like depression and negative thoughts more, according to the studies.

Yet, in what seems like a surprising, or at least dishonest turn, parents self-report 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. I was reminded of the article again when earlier this month a study published in Psychological Science (abstract here) generated a lot of press having basically the same conversation. Parenting is bad for you — look, people we tested say it makes them stressed!!! — but somehow those same people claim it’s awesome. What is going on?!

As I think about these articles and the cultural conversation they’re generating, I can’t help but look back on the last sixteen months of my life, and my own experience of parenting. In some ways, I can see what they mean.

For example, last May our eight month old 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, but they didn’t work. In those first weeks of summer, my husband Andrew and I had more heated discussions (what passes for “fighting” in our relationship) than usual, were more irritable, and I was definitely less “happy.” Which makes sense for a family that was generally sleep deprived and cranky, and for parents who were and 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. No wonder we weren’t happy. Lack of sleep + pressure to make a choice + fear of judgment = some serious stress. And sleeping is just one of the many roads a parent must walk alongside a child. Let’s not even get into feeding/schooling/television/chores/discipline or any of the others. 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:

I don’t think parenting is supposed to make you happy.

As an adoptive parent I’ve read more books on parenting, been to more parenting classes, and had to justify my desire to be a 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, ways that help me make my own happiness and find my own joy in the world. I don’t expect my baby to bring the happy, but I hope I can teach her how to find it within herself and not expect relationships or specific experiences to produce it for her.

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’re 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 daughter — they are the ones who walk a less pleasurable path so that I am not alone.

I wonder 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 have kids, then perhaps people would take the choice more seriously.

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, fears, triumphs, glory, innocence, and sunlight. More than that, it is an opportunity to walk with another human being through it all, as her guide, protector, guardian, teacher and, if you are lucky, good sweet friend. It is not for everyone.

Parenting isn’t something that everyone should or needs to do.

I wonder 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 have kids, then perhaps people would take the choice more seriously. Perhaps the takeaway from all of these studies could simply be that before deciding to have kids we should all seriously consider not having kids. 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 — and without over idealizing my experience — I can honestly say that I’d rather never sleep again than miss sharing life with my daughter (but fortunately 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’ve all been sleeping just great for a while now. Which is good, because we’re going to have to decide on pre-school (or not) soon, and then there’s the college savings plan…

Comments on Are parents happy?

  1. I saw a mini-TED lecture once that (basically) said that parents seemed to be overall less happy than their non-parent counterparts because the “lows” are really low but the “highs” are really high. This seems to go along with the moment-to-moment theme . . .

  2. I think this post has some really great perspective. I’ve been mulling over those studies for a while now, too. There are so many missing pieces in the conversation, like fluctuations in individual happiness, and like you pointed out, the way “happiness” is measured from one moment to the next. I also notice how few of the articles on these studies suggest any kind of solutions, improvements, or addressing the “happiness divide” on a broad or personal level. The majority of the time is spent on “Parents say they’re happy, but they’re not!”

    I think you hit the nail on the head with “The thing about babyhood, childhood, and adolescence is that it’s hard.” I would extend that into every life stage. Life is hard! And longest lasting deep-satisfaction comes with trudging along through it, kids or none.

  3. Love this. I wondered when I read those articles whether the researchers differentiated between people who intentionally became parents vs. those who either accidentally became parents or became parents because of social pressure.

    The first year with my son was very stressful but all that stress was balanced (for me) by the ineffably huge, totally incomparable and intoxicating love I had (and have) for him.

    But we worked very hard to have him so maybe I’m able to put our trials in perspective better than parents to whom kids came more easily or accidentally?

    • I hear this a lot, that some people feel like parents who had to go through more to have their children have a better perspective and enjoy it more. But I think it can go both ways. I’ve also read that parents who go through a lot to have their kids can have a pretty serious backlash because of the expectations and build-up of investment, emotional and otherwise.

      For myself, I feel guilty sometimes because my son had heart surgery as a baby and still has a couple of heart conditions. When I am feeling cooped up and aggravated, I have a huge guilt trip over “I am so lucky to have him, how can I be so aggravated with him? I promised myself I wouldn’t take him for granted.” I hate to even say it, it makes me feel so awful. But there it is, and I think it is probably a pretty common, human reaction.

      I think another facet to this line of factors is one’s personal conceptualization of an unplanned/accidental pregnancy or of an easy conception. There is such a huge spectrum of experience under those ideas. I would be really interested to see research in that area. At the same time, I wonder how they would be able to get any kind of strict definitions of how surprising a pregnancy was, how hard or easy a couple feels it was to conceive, and the social factors around those people that help shape how it affects their feelings toward parenthood.

      • “I’ve also read that parents who go through a lot to have their kids can have a pretty serious backlash because of the expectations and build-up of investment, emotional and otherwise.”

        Exactly this. I read a lot before Tavi was born about how women who’ve dealt with infertility can be at higher risk for postpartum depression due to the massive weight of all those months/years of expectation.

        • Right. Your points make sense. And I certainly have my days of feeling frustrated with parenthood–even though I wanted it desperately and spent enormous amounts of financial and emotional currency to get here. I guess I was thinking particularly of some couples I know who seemed to only have kids because that’s what was expected of them or what all their peers were doing. Obviously I’m taking a huge leap by making that assessment and I fully admit that it’s only based on a feeling I get about them. But these couples have seemed less patient, less interested in, and more frustrated with their children from the getgo overall to me. And I just wonder if they were never invested in parenthood in the first place whether they could ever achieve happiness in the middle of it given that parenthood does involve so much hard work and stress. Which is why I love the poster’s last point: Parenting isn’t something that everyone should or needs to do. I just wish more people understood that.

        • There is a lot of similar stuff about adoptive moms getting depressed after placement. It’s partly the big involved process beforehand and partly that the process is so big and unpredictable that it’s hard to really focus on getting ready to parent.

          • I don’t know about all adoption, but the fost-adopt training process kind of forces you to reconcile expectations with reality beforehand. The training is so brutally honest and often negative that you can’t help but walk out of there thinking “Jeez – do I want to DO this?!?” So much so that after we completed our first training, we stopped and took an entire year off to think about whether we wanted to be child free. We chose to go back, complete the process and adopt and now, 18 months down the road, we could not be happier. Life is far more complicated than before, but it’s a very happy complicated.

            As we went through that prep process, my husband and I made many comments about how, in an ideal world, all prospective parents would go through training like that beforehand. I think societal expectations (to have kids…by a certain age…have more than one kid…be a perfect mom who’s happy all the time with your kids…etc.) set people up for a fall.

      • This makes sense to me, as a person who really did *not* want to become a parent. I became a single mother by accident and was utterly miserable to be pregnant. I went in expecting motherhood to be horrible and my daughter’s infancy to be a terrible slog that I would endure just because I had to. Going in with such low expectations provided me with the opportunity to be genuinely surprised and pleased by how much joy I felt during my daughter’s infancy. I’ve frequently wondered if I had such a blast in part because I expected just the opposite.

  4. Brilliant article. I generally hate all those ‘parents are/aren’t happy’ articles. I’m just not sure one can compare the life experience of having a child with the experience of not having one… apples and oranges and all that. I’d just say it brings different rewards.

    It’s fine not to love parenting – my daughter is an utter joy and has actually provided remarkably little stress (lack of money as a result of childcare costs is more stressful than she is), but I still looked forwards to going back to work and feel slight trepidation at the thought of 9 months’ maternity leave with two to take care of on my own most of the time. It’s draining, it can be boring. But the happy-making moments, like her contented smile as we sing the goodnight song, are just amazing.

    We’re bracing ourselves slightly for baby #2, as we’re not sure we’ll be as lucky with them as we have been with #1 (slept well early on, rarely ill, lovely temperament) and I’m aware we’re totally unprepared if we have a baby who is in any way challenging (colic, not sleeping, tantrums) and stress-inducing. But I know whatever happens, I won’t regret it for one minute.

    I’m aware we’re quite lucky in that we have a lot of family nearby, so have been far more able to have a good social life than people who don’t have that support network. Both us actually feel surprising unchanged by parenthood, though let’s see how we feel after another one joins the crew!

  5. Yes. Thank you so very much for putting words to this idea, which has been bouncing around my conversations without clear distinctions like you’ve provided.

    Our three-way family is currently at that 8/9-month phase to which you refer, so I’ve been having a lot of mind-chatter due to sleeplessness, anxiety, and worry. Am I happy about it? Not according to the accepted definition of the word. Would I change it? Nope. This is exactly where I want to be.

    Right in the thick of it, living in relation to other humans, figuring it out on a daily basis and living with choices made. It’s the happiness that comes from action, from making progress, from living.

  6. I also read these articles, and I must admit, it was like someone pointing out the plotholes in your all-time favorite movie, except much, much worse because this is a life-altering decision that I personally enjoy looking forward to. But, like you, I reluctantly agree with them.

    I am currently engaged and planning a wedding with sparse income due to my limbo status in employment. This leaves me with a lot of time on my hands to think about motherhood. But I find that I spend about 5% of that time fantasizing about my future children and how wonderful my life is going to be, and 95% of the time thinking about and researching the decisions you pointed out above (school, TV, food, etc).

    I get sore when reading articles such as these because I think my entire situation — planning a wedding, being married, wanting 4 children in a 6-year span, going to school, starting a business — will indeed bring me much stress, but it’s the kind of stress that makes me happy because the outcome is so worth it all. I personally believe I would feel unaccomplished if I didn’t take it all on. I’d feel like I wasn’t working for anything meaningful.

    (Ofcourse, I don’t disagree and have nothing against those who feel differently about it.)

  7. I can relate to those parenting surveys. Even though my decision to have children was very examined and intentional, I’m not one of those parents who perceives every moment with my kids as magical and meaningful. Parenting is really hard work. Managing four people’s lives means I’m constantly running on a hamster wheel of paid work, housework, childcare, and personal schedules. Maybe my expectations were too high because my relationship with my partner is extraordinarily intimate and satisfying, and I thought babies would mostly add to the love-fest.

    Becoming a mother was gradual for me, like building a foundation. Five years in, I compare it to paying off a mortgage–the first years are a huge investment and you’re not getting much back, but eventually you get a payoff when the kids start to communicate and have interests and ideas and start becoming little people. That’s the part I like. But the day-to-day, for me, has the scores of troughs and occasional dizzying peaks that others have mentioned.

    • As someone who’s never been a “baby person” I expect this is how I will feel in the first few years as well. I’m generally not very interested in kids until they can talk/be reasoned with, but you have to go through the baby stage to get to that.

    • Definitely agree with how it is like building a foundation and also with having overly high expectations. I really wasn’t prepared for how much loss of self there was and I felt like the hard stuff was harder than people ever told me. Baby and toddler years were really a grind for me (with not very many dizzying peaks), and it started to get more rewarding around 6 or 7. My now-13-year-old is really one of the people I like to be around most, and I feel like it’s a return on my investment.

      • That’s so encouraging, Amanda. My son is almost 5, so he’s fascinating and semi-rational but still pretty taxing, and my daughter is 11 months old, so she’s pretty feral but with little glimpses of humanity. My husband and I both agree that our life feels like a complete circus. Comments like your are my version of “It Gets Better!” 🙂

  8. This is an amazing post *APPLAUSE!* It really brought together a whole host of ideas which has been bouncing around my head as a result of reading these sorts of articles. I’m still in the camp of the undecided, but its so good to hear someone say ‘Parenthood probably won’t always make you happy, but if it’s what you really want, then it’s worth it’ (which is what I heard when I read it). Thanks!

  9. Those articles used to trouble me as well! Now I’ve started comparing raising my son to getting my PhD. Did I do it to become more happy? No. I did it to enrich my life, as a way to challenge myself, and have new experiences. Working on my PhD was hard and stressful and I’m pretty sure I was unhappy a lot of the time. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t rewarding in the end. So far it’s been the same being a parent.

    • Thank you for the analogy. I’m also working on my PhD right now (and expecting a baby), and have felt anxiety from these types of articles, as well as the “oh, you’ll see…” comments I get from people who seem to feel it necessary to tell me how horrible parenting will be, and that if I *really* knew what I was getting into I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant. (They, of course, know nothing about how much thought went into this decision for me.)

      I definitely feel that as stressed out as I get over grad school & my research/work, I’ve never thought it not worth it. It’s possible to be stressed out and still love what you’re doing! So, I’m really thankful for the idea that parenting might very well be the same way. : )

  10. This is a truly tremendous article you’ve written. Parenting is a challenge, like many things we choose in life. I’m not a parent, but as a grown daughter I know damn well that parenting me wasn’t a bed of giggly roses.

  11. There is a difference between fun and happiness. Even though getting spit up on, pooped on, and kept up all night aren’t fun, I’ve never been so happy in my whole life than I am with my daughter.

    • This. I was scrolling through the comments intending to post this and then I saw your comment. I think as a society we believe happiness=fun. I should be having fun! At work! At home! All the time!

      Of course, children (like any responsibility) aren’t always fun. But when you ask old people what they’re most satisfied with in their lives, they always emphasize what was meaningful over what was fun. They talk about having families, volunteer service, starting businesses and so forth.

      Commenting on blogs is my hobby. It’s a lot of fun, and I look forward to doing it after my son is in bed. But let’s be honest, when I’m an old lady, I’ll remember reading bedtime stories to my son and I’ll have forgotten all about these blog comments.

  12. THANK YOU for writing this! I’m so ambivalent about the decision to have kids, and one of the main reasons why is that I really don’t want to give up the moment-to-moment happiness of my life the way it currently is. I also didn’t particularly enjoy being a kid, and I’ve had trouble in the past articulating why this makes me hesitant to have kids of my own. Your statement about how having kids means you revisit your childhood and adolescence hits the nail on the head.

  13. This is a wonderful post, and I wholeheartedly agree. Parenting is hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s not really, really good. My biggest problem with the debate over who is happier is that it elevates happiness as though that were the end all, be all. There is so much more that I want out of my own life than happiness. Ice cream and bike rides and rollercoasters make me happy, but they don’t make me feel fulfilled. Having a deep, soul connection with my husband and my child doesn’t always make be feel happy, but it gives me something much deeper, and I’ll take that over smiley faces and rainbows any day.

  14. I think its worth mentioning that expectation counts for a lot. Having expectations about what your kids will be like and what you will be like as a parent is natural, but being super attached to those expectations can sure cause a lot of unhappiness. Focusing on what parts of your life are not how you thought they would be makes it very easy to miss out on the awesomeness that IS happening.

  15. I used to be terribly disappointed in being a parent. Where are the fireworks? Where is the extreme happiness? But it was only after I let go of my expectations that I really enjoyed parenting. I am happy now, but not BECAUSE I’m a parent, but because I have love and am loved.

  16. I have an 8 month old daughter and she is amazing. Being a mom has given me a sense of wholeness that I never even knew I didn’t have. That being said, this has been the most stressful and emotional year of my life. I did not plan on ever having children and she was a big surprise. Overall, I am much less happy then I was before. However, the older she gets, the more I learn how to deal with things and I have noticed that I am slowly regaining my normal happiness. I assume that all of this is normal for parents and is just not talked about.

  17. I’m not a parent, but I’ve read these studies before, and I can’t help but think that they’re….measuring happiness poorly. Like…I may not be actively grinningly happy every moment of my day, but that doesn’t mean I’m not happy with my life. In fact, while sometimes I think being super happy and satisfied with everything in my life all the time would keep me almost…bored and complacent. Having some struggle may be a pain, but it doesn’t lessen my general happiness, so while I might report to some survey that I’m stressed, I don’t think that stress would negate my overall sense of happiness. Can’t one be both stressed-yet-happy at the same time?

    Interesting read!

    • Yes I agree with this completely! I’m not currently a parent but a few years back I went from being a young adult focused only on what made me happy to really making my life meaningful. Now I’m incredibly busy with school and volunteering and buying a house with my life partner and it’s really stressful. Life was easier then, but I was depressed anyway. Life is harder now but I’ve never been happier.

  18. i’ve found that happiness & unhappiness for both marriage & parenting comes in waves. some times are difficult while other times are blissful. children grow and change and parents are forced to adapt and change along with them and that can cause tons of stress.

    also, one thing i didn’t see mentioned here is the money factor. the number one biggest stress factors in families i know is money. or rather, lack of it. most couples i know who struggle, do so not because of emotional problems with each other, but emotional problems brought on my money stress.

    when my daughter was little & we were struggling so hard, i had several people tell me that if i couldn’t afford to raise a child, then i shouldn’t have have had her. while i understand the cold logic of that, it’s not how life works. no, i couldn’t afford her, but i’m hardly in the minority in that aspect, but we made it work, got through it and we’re fine now. yes, we have a lot less fights now that we’re above the poverty level, but frankly, it was difficult, but worth it.

  19. I came from an abusive background and some of the resulting maladaptive, self destructive behaviors carried over into my adolescence and early adulthood. However, when I became a parent, I didn’t want my child to go through all the things that I did so I knew that I needed to become a better person for my child’s sake. Due to that, I would have to say that I actually am much happier being a parent than I ever was beforehand. That doesn’t mean that being a parent is always easy or fun, but the motivation to be a better person in order to be a better parent has made the lives of my whole family better.

  20. I’m having a hard time with the word “happy” because it means so many different things to different people and because there are different extremities of happiness. I’m happy to have a cup of tea or sit down after a long day. It isn’t a word that can encompass how I feel about having a family. It cannot hold the weight of what having a child has given me.

    More than anything, having my son (unplanned at age 21) has helped me define the kind of person I want to be. It makes my life easier in that I know better where I want to go and how I’d like to get there. Yes, I am stressed but I don’t think that *feeling* stressed and *being* happy or satisfied are mutually exclusive.

    I don’t think happiness or fulfillment are determined upon the decision to have children or not. Those things come from the perspective of an individual and the ability to carve your life in a way that makes you happy.

    Anyone who thinks that there is something they need to attain to make them happy or expects happiness from having a baby, getting that job, going through the ceremony will often be disappointed because life is far more complicated than that.

    I have some days where I am downright miserable and it is easy to imagine a day without the hefty responsibilities of caring for a child but I wouldn’t trade it for anything because overall, I couldn’t be happier.

    Great post- sorry for the rambling!

  21. wow, a lot to take in, both in the articles and the comments. I really don’t know how I would characterise my life, as “happier” now that I have a baby or less happy. I know for sure I would characterise it as more meaningful. I had a”suprise” baby, one that I wasnt expecting. if you polled me on my overall happiness at 3 months, it would have been much less than my pre-baby life. if you asked me now, that my son is 18 months i think i would report more happiness than i did in my pre-baby times. For me having a baby gave meaning to my life. I was always a person who knew she wanted to have children so I’m sure that had something to do with it, but I will agree with previous posters that the happiness of having a child is the happiness of doing a hard job well. It’s not all good, a lot of it is a hard slog. Still, doing something hard and doing it well has brought me so much joy, my little monkey has brought me so much joy, I feel that this study has failed to take into account something intangible about being a mother, something that keeps us going back, even though we know the hardships.

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