I Didn’t Have Children to Make Myself Happy

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.

 

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Annie writes about motherhood and other hilariously beautiful things. On good days, she enjoys juggling life with her husband and three children. On bad days, she binges on chocolate chips and dreams of traveling the world alone.

Comments 17

  1. Judy Gregory

    The thing about this mystical motherhood is that it doesn’t stop. It is a little like the mobius ring thing, there is no ending ask your Mom or GrandMom or GreatGrandMom.

  2. Pinky Thakker

    Our children are an extension of our own selves n the love that we share with our spouses.
    They are the realisation of all our dreams of sharing life together…….. so the happiness having them, with them and around them. I’m always happy having my kids around me

  3. Angela Mac Gillivray Anderson

    I am an only child as is my husband . I always believed that I would have children but I cannot lie , I believe the fact that ending the family tree with us was weighing in as well ! I dearly love my boys and agree that the happiness comes in moments you must experience to understand ! However I know that i did not have my children to make my self ” happy”..
    I love your posts and although I rarely comment .. Was drawn to this one ! Thank you

  4. Shänna Stein

    Annie Gregory Reneau, this does prompt the question of “why do we intentionally have children”? Outside of religious beliefs and accidental pregnancy….is it to work the farm? Carry on the family business? Just because we can? I mean it as a serious question. Why do we continue to have children?

    1. Motherhood and More

      I know—It is an interesting question. I hadn’t ever really sat down and thought about it that thoroughly before. For me there’s a very non-tangible, almost mystical element to it. Some might see it as a biological/evolutionary calling. Some might see it as a spiritual calling. For me, I think it’s a bit of both.

    2. Caren Yerkes

      I remember a physical ache to have a child when I was a very young newly married woman. It seems we are meant to grow virtues, and one of those is creativity. What is more creative than having a child? And then we get ample opportunity to grow love, patience, gentleness, wisdom, sacrifice….

  5. Sarah Manning

    I don’t think the purpose of life is making yourself “happy” all of the time. Children look for instant gratification and always want to get what they want when they want it. (Every guy I dated in college still acted that way.) But as an adult, what I hope for has become a lot more about “What do I find fulfilling?” Happy doesn’t really cut it anymore.
    P.s. I was really depressed when I was childless and only had myself to please.

    1. Motherhood and More

      I think there’s also something to the idea of learning how to find happiness within your given circumstances. It’s a bit like seeking beauty—sometimes it’s in obvious, grandiose scenery and breathtaking vistas, and sometimes its in the perfection of a tiny flower or the hue of a particular lighting over someone’s face in a place that’s not particular beautiful overall. I try to find happiness in small things, and make it part of the lens through which I view my life. Seems to be working pretty well. 🙂

  6. Ashley Bell

    The best definition of happiness I have ever heard is “wanting what you have”. Meaning I want what I have in my life and I’m not constantly looking outwardly for something better.
    I must be carful to not make decisions or a belief system change based on a day that I haven’t slept, a teething two year old or when my husband and I are not connecting.
    When my basic needs are met sleep, food, good run on self care and human connection… I actually do want what I have.
    In believing the lie that it’s always going to stay bad or hard is when my levels of sustainability through the challenges start to really go down. I’m starting therapy soon because my levels have become depleted enough that I need some extra help sorting through the “hard” to embrace the good. I feel relieve already knowing that help is on the way. 🙂 loved this article.

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