Are parents happy?

March 25 | 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…