A new study made waves online this week, describing how having a first child makes parents more unhappy than divorce, unemployment, or even the death of a spouse.
My first thought upon reading about the study was, “Huh. Interesting.”
My second thought was, “Wait. So what?”
The first year after having your first child is a doozy, no doubt. Having a baby puts a strain on life, sleep, marriage, work, and just about everything else. It’s wonderful and awesome and awe-inspiring, but it’s also really hard. And if your expectation is that having a baby is going to make you happier . . . well, you haven’t been paying much attention to reality.
I see people arguing about this study’s implications, insisting that being a parent DOES bring happiness . . . as if that’s the point of parenthood.
The truth is, I didn’t have children to make myself happy. I had children because I felt called to motherhood. I had children because I wanted to experience the fullness of family life—the good, bad, and ugly. I had children because I felt a biological and spiritual imperative to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. Though I figured there would be joy involved in the endeavor, my own personal happiness was not a reason for bearing children.
Thankfully, parenthood has brought me happiness, in countless ways. But I think that whether we feel having children increases or decreases our happiness depends a lot on how we define “happy.” My definition of happiness has changed a lot over the years—in fact, it can change on any given day. Some days I’m brimming over with the joy of sharing life with my three precious little people. Other days I’m overwhelmed with the frustration of sharing life with three needy little people who are still learning hard lessons. On a good day, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. On a bad day . . . please don’t ask.
Of course happiness drops in the first year of having your first child. Your entire life has been turned upside down. You might be dealing with colic or recurrent ear infections. You probably aren’t sleeping. You’re blown away by how demanding the job of taking care of a tiny human actually is. Contrast that with the Pinterest-perfect expectation of cooing, gurgling sweetness all the time, and you have the makings of an unhappy person who would give their right pinky for a few minutes of their pre-baby freedom and a full night’s sleep.
But again, so what? Personal happiness is not the primary purpose of parenting. Joy is a part of the package, but the joy that comes with parenting is a bit more mysterious than the simple happiness that marks our pre-child days. Early on, parental joy is hidden in the magic of first smiles, infectious giggles, and the smell of a baby’s head. Later, through years of ups and downs, highs and lows, trials and triumphs, it takes on entirely new dimensions that you’d never expect. Those moments of deep, profound joy are the greatest gift of parenting. It’s impossible to know that joy until you’ve experienced it. And if you’re using an old, pre-baby barometer of happiness, you may not recognize it at all.
If I were just looking for simple “happiness,” I’d buy a kitten. Anyone who’s been a parent long enough knows that the word “happy” becomes a lot more complex post-children. But that doesn’t mean kids cause unhappiness. It just means that your perception of happiness gets a complete overhaul. That’s not a bad thing—it just takes a while to figure out.