Motherhood, Marriage and Other Wild Rides

Health, Happiness and the Pursuit of Mommyhood

Does Having Kids Make You Happy? July 1, 2008

Unless you are surrounded by surly, brooding teenagers, or are in the throes of an unfortunate bout with postpartum depression (both temporary events), it would seem that the resounding answer would be, “yes!”

NewsWeek posted this story today by Lorraine Ali about whether or not parents are happier than childless couples. Ali reports that, according to Daniel Gilbert’s 2006 book “Stumbling on Happiness,” the Harvard professor of psychology concludes that marital satisfaction decreases dramatically after the birth of the first child—and increases only when the last child has left home. How many families do you know with more than one child? If Dr. Gilbert’s study was sufficiently broad and without bias, how do his findings explain the overwhelmingly popular desire to add additional members to the family?

By contrast, in NewsWeeks’s own recent poll, 50 percent of Americans said that adding new children to the family tends to increase happiness levels. Only one in six (16 percent) said that adding new children had a negative effect on the parents’ happiness.

Later in the article, Ali quotes Florida State University’s Robin Simon, a sociology professor: “Parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers.” Again, I have to wonder exactly how this deduction was made. Certainly, unlike my carefree single years, today my concerns are more for my family’s well-being than my own. And, I do react more strongly to injustices, particularly news items involving children harmed or mistreated in any fashion. I do worry more for the future of this world, and the safety of my children. I don’t categorize this as negativity or a lower level of emotional well-being, but more of a by-product of true love. Who aches more than he or she who loves?

I’m pleased to note that Ali included a key study by University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Sara McLanahan and Julia Adams. While the study was conducted some 20 years ago, the researchers reported that parenthood was perceived as significantly more stressful in the 1970s than in the 1950s, attributing part of that change to major shifts in employment patterns. The majority of American parents now work outside the home, have less support from extended family and face a deteriorating education and health-care system.

Never was this pattern more abundantly clear to me than when I was pregnant and then delivered my first son. I hadn’t lived in my hometown for 15 years, and suddenly I wanted, nay, needed my own mommy to help me. Dear girlfriends I’d kept in touch with over the years, regardless of where our jobs or passions had moved us, suddenly seemed a universe away. It occurred to me that this was really the first time in the history of the world that, when a woman gives birth, her mother, grandmother, sisters, aunts, and female cousins may not be geographically available to help with the new baby and facilitate mommy during her recovery from birth. I considered the possibility of parishioners–ladies from the women’s Bible study at church–but at the time I was relatively new in town and had not yet formed ties. I pondered the luxury of a Biblical-times hut of female relatives busily fussing about, making food and keeping house after I’d delivered my son, Joseph the Fourth, as it happens. (Don’t cry for me; my husband’s sisters drove and flew in from far and wide and were gracious, giving, helpful and compassionate. My mother and father arrived from Canada 3 weeks after the birth–I was in good hands.)

What I did find surprising is when Ali suggests that a rosy-hued vision of our single lives might be causing parents’ blues. “Twenty-five years ago, women married around the age of 20, and men at 23. Today both sexes are marrying four to five years later. This means the experience of raising kids is now competing with highs in a parent’s past, like career wins (‘I got a raise!’) or a carefree social life (‘God, this is a great martini!’),” she reports. I’ll admit that my life before marriage and babies was, ahem, audacious, and I enjoyed my share of martinis, but never once (NEVER ONCE!) would it occur to me to prefer one over my beautiful boys, regardless of how many times I’ve had–and will have to–wipe their butts, clean up their vomit, or lose a night’s sleep.

As Ali notes, there are other rewarding aspects of parenting that are impossible to quantify. If anything, since little Joseph’s birth I’ve struggled with clinging to the here and now, knowing all too well how fast a baby grows. Each stage of babyhood has its remarkable miracles and blessings; each cuddle is heart-breakingly sweet. Before I know it, my little ones will be in school, and one day they’ll be too old to hold hands with me in the dark, tucked into bed and waiting for sleep. I actually cherish the songs we sing (Old McDonald, The Wheels on the Bus, Eensy Weensy Spider, et al.), and already regret the day when a.) they’re too cool to sing them anymore, and b.) I’m not cool enough to sing the music they do like.

I believe I am in love with parenting because I lived more life before having kids than was necessary or even appropriate. I was ready when I met my husband, when we conceived; I had traveled, I had dated, I’d even been miserably married and divorced–I had lived a Godless life only to return open-armed to Him. For me, my husband and children are my life’s great joy, and my gratitude is enormous.

Does having kids make you happy? Why or why not? I’d like to hear from you!

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