Thursday, July 22, 2010

Happiness and Parenting

When I read the New York Magazine article All Joy and No Fun – Why Parents Hate Parenting, I really meant to write something about it. The article sites research that concludes that, although most people assume that having children will make them happier, in fact parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so.

I noted with little irony that, on the day I read the article, later that evening John and I got into a long draining argument on… parenting, and how to address an issue that has arisen with SchmoopyBoy’s behavior. This was the exact kind of episode that was cited as one factor contributing to parental unhappiness (see page 4 of the online article).

Anyway, as usual, I never found time to write anything coherent about the article. (Too busy with work and parenting, not having enough time to myself - more cited factors contributing to parental unhappiness. No irony there.)

Fortunately, Annie at PhD in Parenting has once again hit the nail on the head with her article Grin and bear it? Parenting, happiness, and the pressure cooker. So, I can just refer you to her article, which I definitely recommend you read in full. She writes:
Before I had children, I was happy. I was in a great relationship. I had great friends. I was involved in enjoyable activities. I went on great vacations. I had a rewarding (but sometimes stressful) job. When we decided to have children, it was because we wanted to and it felt like the time was right. We did it because we had a desire to be parents, not because we were unhappy or trying to fill a void in our lives. I think that people who have children as a “solution” to their own unhappiness are likely to be sorely disappointed.

Ah, yes, children as void fillers. Parenthood as a solution to unhappiness. Who doesn’t know someone who has expressed the idea that “If I only could get X, then I would be happy”, “If I only achieved Y then I would be happy”. If I lost 20 pounds... if I had a boyfriend… if I had a new car… if I won the lottery… if I had a child… then I would be happy.

I myself am guilty. Not with parenting per se, but certainly with other things. I insisted we get a dog because I was unsatisfied with my social community and thought it would be an outlet that would contribute to my happiness – I may not have had the human companionship I craved, but canine companionship I thought would fill the void. Of course I was wrong.

Like Annie, before I had children I was reasonably happy. I was in a great relationship. I had a rewarding job. I had financial security. I had dear friends that I love, even if they did live in another state. When we decided to have children, we also did so because we wanted to and felt the time was right. I will fully admit that I went into parenthood with an unbelievable amount of naivety, and with totally unrealistic expectations of what new motherhood would be like, and for that I suffered. Nonetheless, I don’t believe I ever went into motherhood thinking that I would necessarily be more happy. I knew I would be making sacrifices on my personal freedom, but I was ready to make those sacrifices. I was ready to be less self-centered and live for someone other than myself. I knew there would be a loss of day-to-day pleasure, and I was ok with that.

Annie continues:
I am a complex person. There isn’t one person or a group of people that are responsible for my happiness (or my unhappiness). I think that is a lot of responsibility and also pressure to place on the shoulders of someone else. I am responsible for my happiness and I am responsible for telling others that impact my happiness what I need. I don’t think that having children makes you happy and I don’t think that not having children makes you happy. Children, certainly, can contribute to or take away from the things that make you happy. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that most children will do both, regularly…

to which I say AMEN and HALLELUJAH. Yes, I am responsible for my own happiness. I tend to believe that happiness is a quality that we generate within ourselves, rather than something created by "things" external to ourselves. I tend to think it comes first and foremost from (1) self acceptance and liking who we are despite our imperfections, and (2) meeting our basic needs.

I think that a lot of people confuse pleasure with happiness. However, I can think of plenty of things that I have found pleasurable but did not contribute to my happiness, rather quite the contrary (sex and drugs and rock and roll, anyone?). I can also think of a number of things that I do not necessarily find pleasurable that do contribute to my overall sense of happiness (I would not always describe my job as pleasurable per se, but I enjoy it because it is challenging and rewarding and being good at something I care about contributes to my sense of self esteem and self worth).

In my experience, parenting has been both pleasurable and not so pleasurable. I have only been a parent for 2 years, but my limited experience so far has been rewarding and I do not regret becoming a parent in any way whatsoever. I will say that I am glad I waited until my mid-thirties to become a mother, because I don’t know that my previous statement would hold if I had jumped into motherhood before I was mentally and emotionally ready. I will also say that being a WOHM (work outside of the house mom) has been critical for my happiness. I believe I am a better mother because I work outside of the home, but getting into why that is the case is an extensive topic for another post.

So in conclusion, I think it is important that we take responsibility for our own happiness. If there is a lack of happiness, we should look inward to figure out why – what is the NEED that is lacking? Is it social community and support? Is it physical and financial security? Is it dealing with a long past hurt that has never been properly addressed, perhaps due to an injustice, betrayal, or act of violence? If we can realize what our needs are that are being unmet, and take steps to meet them, I think we can improve our happiness and overall quality of life, whether with or without children.

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