news item: are parents happier people?

According to a recent study conducted by three major universities, “parents experience greater levels of happiness and meaning in life than people without children” [source]. The article, posted in Science Daily, claims that not only are parents happier people overall than people who do not have children, but parents prefer the active care of their children to other daily tasks.

The article continues,

“We are not saying that parenting makes people happy, but that parenthood is associated with happiness and meaning,” explained Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at UC Riverside and a leading scholar in positive psychology. “Contrary to repeated scholarly and media pronouncements, people may find solace that parenthood and child care may actually be linked to feelings of happiness and meaning in life.”

I did not get pregnant easily. It took over two years, a few tries at different treatments, and a whole lot of effort, heartache and love. By the time my girls had their first Christmas at six weeks old, three full years had passed since my husband and I decided to start trying to build a family. Certainly, we would not have gone through all the effort if we did not feel that having children would immeasurably enhance our life together. That is what this study appears to be addressing– happiness in one’s overall life experience– except it also states that parents prefer the daily care of their children to the countless other minutiae of their days. (Now, me, I love my girls, but I would rather change over the laundry than change a diaper. Just saying.)

Today one of my girls threw me a huge, goofy sideways grin while she was playing on the floor, and I immediately dropped what I was doing to bend over and scoop her up for some kisses. I know that feeling the study is describing– it’s part of every day of my life now, and I would not trade it for anything. But to be honest, there are definitely days when I think longingly about how easy it used to be to just pick up and go out to dinner. Getting out the door took five minutes, we could leave at any time we wanted, we could drive forty-five minutes to a favorite restaurant… when I see my (very happy) childless or intentionally child-free friends go on vacations, go to the movies, go to concerts, go anywhere unencumbered, I wonder how my happiness can really be compared to theirs in any sort of relevant scientific means. Who can really say that I am happier than someone else who is also happy? All I can say for myself is that I am a much more happy and fulfilled person with children than without– but then again, I am comparing an older me to a new me and viewing both through the lens of infertility, which hardly seems an accurate place from which to draw a bold conclusion. After all, I am just trading one sort of happiness for another, and I long ago made my own judgment about which type of happiness I value more.

So, what I find most problematic here is how measures of happiness were determined. The article claims “Fathers in particular expressed greater levels of happiness, positive emotion and meaning in life than their childless peers” [source]. I wonder what “expressed greater levels of happiness” means. Did a dad say “Life is swell!” where a bachelor said “Life is pretty good”? I think this highlights some of the flaws of social science research that SRB highlighted in her comment in last week’s news item. But I also think– especially in the ALI world– there is a lot of pressure to present a very cheerful face when talking about parenting. As my brother not-so-kindly teased when I was tearing my hair out a few days ago during Hour Two of a failed nap time attempt, “Hey, you’re the one who wanted kids, you knew what you were getting into!” (Sidenote: thanks, bro.) We worked really hard to have kids, and even people who did not have any difficulty building families work as hard as we do to raise those kids. Parenting is tough, but there is also a lot of pressure to never show what could look like moral weakness or anything less than complete, constant, suffocating love for and fulfillment in one’s children and parenting experience.

So, tell us what you think about how becoming a parent relates to scientific measures of happiness.

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How has your journey to parenthood colored your views on parenting?

 Do you think it’s fair to compare different types of happiness and fulfillment?

Do you feel that it’s taboo to admit that parenting is less than perfect, especially in the context of ALI?

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