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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Comments

  1. So happy to hear someone else say this! I desperately wanted my daughter and tried very hard to have her, but damn it’s hard! It doesn’t matter how much I love her or wanted her, it’s still hard. I would say that overall the good, the happy, the joyfull outweigh the bad, the hard, the frustrating and of course, I wouldn’t trade it all for the world. But sometimes it just sucks!

    • Julie Anita says:

      I think you bring up a really important point that many of us in the ALI world don’t want to talk about– those feelings of guilt over admitting that being a parent doesn’t always feel good. It’s something our friends and families with kids say to us, jokingly, before we get pregnant– “Are you sure you want kids? It’s haaaaaaard!” (sidebar: DON’T say that to your infertile friends; we don’t think it’s funny)– and it’s something we might forget sometimes in our passionate and desperate attempts to become parents in the first place. I feel VERY guilty when I feel frustrated or tired or just want a few baby-free minutes to myself at the end of the day because, well, like my brother said– this is what I wanted, and I worked very very hard to get it; how ungrateful am I? It’s so hard to shake the feeling that I should just be defiantly grateful and THAT MUCH BETTER at handling parenthood that a normally fertile person.

  2. This is the problem with studies like this – most data is collected through rating scales (whether externally validated or not) and self-reporting. The reliably of the data and the degree to which it can be generalized to the global population is slim at best, depending on the acceptability of the rating scale in the larger scientific community. But it makes for a nice blurb. “A study from a major university…” sure sounds like the gospel. I could go on and on about the lack of scientific literacy in our culture, but I digress!

    From the questions above, the one that is troubling me the most right now has to do with the issue of “complaining” about parenting. I feel more comfortable discussing my parenting struggles with other ladies I have met through blogging that I do with people in real life who know my struggles. From “must be nice” to “at least you have a baby” to “just think of how quiet your life would be with out him” it is hard to talk about the not awesome parts without sounding ungrateful. And that’s pretty shitty. Moving heaven and earth for something doesn’t mean that the journey does not continue to be difficult. BJB likens it to when he climbed one of the world’s highest peaks: you train for months/years, you mentally prepare, you spend a ton of cash, you literally claw your way to the top, you savour the moment at the summit that you EARNED…and then you have to climb back down. The early month/years of parenting are the climb back down to the foothills. The valley is where you find your groove.

    • Julie Anita says:

      So much this– I actually just said as much in my previous comment! It feels like we should be glad for any scraps that are thrown our way because how could you complain about parenthood after “complaining” for so long about your infertility?

      Something you said the other day that I find perfectly applicable here: paraphrased, it was “Parenting isn’t always sunshine and unicorn farts. Sometimes it’s smog and actual farts.” I could make a TEE SHIRT of that, it is so true! But it’s hard to embrace that reality– not because I don’t believe it’s true, but because I don’t want anyone else to think that I’m weak and I didn’t want this joyous burden as badly as I did and still do.

  3. I was surprised to see this because every once in awhile a news article pops up that says a study says that parents are LESS happy than people who are not parents. *sigh* I consider my life immeasurably enriched by my daughter, but sometimes the overwhelmingness of caring for her and worrying about her and the general tedium take over. How could you possibly measure happiness, let alone compare it?

  4. I think that the expectation of parenting bliss, whether self-imposed or imposed by others, is a large part of why so many in the IF community end up dealing with post-partum depression. We knew going in that parenting wouldn’t be easy, but after bringing our journeys through IF to some level of resolution, it can be surprising at how challenging being a parent can be.

    Also, I tend to find ‘studies’ like this suspect, no matter what the subject matter. It’s always so relative and confined to the cultural and geographical dynamics of the study participants. For example, there was a recent study published (by a major university) that claimed that the idea of monogamy in romantic relationships is ‘scientifically’ proven to go against human nature, particularly male human nature. Of course, the basis for the study (in the fine print) was a questionaire answered by 120 men aged 18-22. It’s another example of backward scientific thinking… going at a hypothesis with the conclusion already in mind and finding subjects that fit your expected results

  5. I was just thinking about this last night. Last night, as I was washing bottles and preparing bottles for the next day, after Alex went to sleep, and all I wanted to do was go to bed, I was thinking about how different my life was than before she was here. I’m so much more tired. And so much more happy. Being a parent makes me happier than anything else I’ve ever done, and it is the hardest thing I’ve ever done as well. But I don’t think I would be as happy of a parent if achieving parenthood would have been easier. I don’t know if infertility has made me a better parent – probably not. I still don’t know what the hell I’m doing most of the time, and whether my body works has nothing to do with this! But I think infertility has made me more appreciative of being a parent. I consciously remind myself about how precious she is, and how hard it was to get her. This makes it so much easier to deal with the crying, or the late nights, or even the bottle washing. And I guess that makes me a better parent in the end – more patience.

    BUT – I think I feel more guilt than I would have if parenthood would have come easier. I have the typical work outside the home guilt – I wish I could spend more time with Alex. And I think it’s even worse because I know I struggled so hard to get her. I can’t reconcile in my head trying so hard to get her, and then dropping her off at daycare. Most of the time I just try to push it out of my head, but there are some days when I struggle with it…

  6. I think that I am an over-the-top happy parent. I was on anti-depressants for years before having my son, and long before we were TTC. I’ve been off of them since pregnancy and have absolutely no need for them. There are days that I cannot even believe that I am the same person I was before. I totally expected to have PPD but didn’t. I thought I’d be impatient with an unconsolable baby, but I wasn’t. I don’t understand how I turned out to be the parent that I am, but I’m so happy about it. I very rarely “lose my shit,” and that shocks the hell out of me because I am one high.strung.gal.

    With that said, there have been some pretty rough days. And when I have them, hell yes I talk about them. I don’t think it’s tabboo at all to talk about the imperfections of parenthood. Just like I don’t think it’s tabboo to talk about the challenges in a marriage. I am a talker – I must discuss and share EVERYTHING. Even if it’s a tabboo subject, I’m talking about it! That’s how I survive – and it’s probably why I feel so happy – because I get EVERYTHING off my chest!

  7. “The study also dovetails with emerging evolutionary perspectives that suggest parenting is a fundamental human need.” — Wow. I mean, yes, I love being a parent, but I’d like to think that if we had decided to live child free for any reason that we would have been just fine. I am SO happy to be Stella’s Mommy, but for goodness sakes, I would have found something else to be passionate about in life if we hadn’t been able to be parents. That being said, I think because of our TTC struggles I consciously remind myself more often of how lucky I am TO be a parent.

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