Why Parenting Makes Us Unhappy
I’m reading a book right now called Why Have Kids? You might wonder why I, someone who already has one child and very much hopes to have another, would read such a thing, and honestly I’m not sure what prompted me to get it. I think I’m generally interested in parenting and different ways at looking at parenting. I also don’t think my experience with parenting has mirrored the experience I’m assured I’m “supposed” to be having. And as someone who went through life absolutely sure she wanted to be a mother, but unsure if it would be possible, I’m curious to learn more about where those urges came from and what they might mean for my own life and happiness, especially now that I have been lucky enough to achieve my dream of having a daughter.
Here’s the thing: I wanted to have a baby, more than ANYTHING. Literally, it was the only thing that mattered for a long time. I spent over a decade of my life worrying I wouldn’t be able to achieve that dream, and there was a large part of me that was sure I’d never be happy without achieving that dream. So to say that I didn’t expect parenting to make me happy would be an understatement. If you CAN’T be happy without something, surely having it will MAKE you happy.
Except that parenting has been shown, study after study, to decrease the happiness of those who undertake it. And I’m careful to say parenting, because it’s not the actual children that make parents unhappy, but the grind inherent to parenting that wears people down.
The thing is, I KNEW parenting was likely to make me less happy. At least, I had read articles assuring me that would likely be the case. It’s not that this “parenting will make you miserable” view point was presented a lot, but in the years I was waiting to build my family I would actually search out articles, and even some books, with that main thesis. It was almost as if my brain were trying to persuade my heart not to want that which it couldn’t yet have. Despite these warnings, innate longing lost out to rationality time and time again and I convinced myself that I’d be one of the few that were completely fulfilled by the role of mother.
Then I became one and I found out I had been mistaken. Despite being lucky enough to enjoy the birth I had hoped for and a fairly successful (if not fulfilling) breastfeeding experience–all while miraculously avoiding postpartum depression–I found my life as a mother to be grueling. Sure, I was relieved and grateful that a huge part of my identity had been realized (that part felt amazing), but my daily happiness level was definitely lower than it had been before I became a mother. I must admit, I was surprised by how HARD it was; I was incredulous at how thoroughly parenthood was kicking my ass.
I’m only a few chapters into Why Have Kids? but I’ve already been struck by several points. One is the simple fact that putting such intense expectations on parenthood to make us happy is a relatively new phenomena. Not even 100 years ago people were still having kids to increase financial security, to help them work on the farm or at the family store. Instead of requiring a huge percentage of their parents’ paycheck, children used to supplement it. Back when kids were helpful, functioning members of a family, parents weren’t so sentimental about the experience of parenthood. Being a parent wasn’t expected to bring happiness, like it is today.
So back in the day, when parents actually could expect help–and possible monetary support–from their offspring, they didn’t expect parenting to make them happy. Now, when we can–and do–expect children will require (constantly, immediate) help, when they are in fact unrelentingly needy, now when it’s clear children will significantly diminish our financial security, we expect parenthood to bring us ultimate fulfillment. Does anyone else see the disconnect there? How can a generation of highly educated people expect the unforgiving task of raising another human being to increase their daily joy?
The other point I found to be really eye opening seemed equally obvious once it was presented. Not only are many of the daily tasks required of parents tedious and unpleasant, but their sheer volume crowds out the activities we used to enjoy. It’s not just the extra dishes and extra laundry and extra cleaning required of us that make us unhappy, it’s the fact that all those extra negatives keep us from our old positives. I used to spend time reading, exercising, writing, meeting with friends, watching movies, actually engaging with my partner in meaningful ways. All these things made me happy, some of them actually affected my brain chemistry in positive ways, making me more resilient to every day stresses. Now, as a parent, I rarely have a chance to do any of those things. So not only do I spend most of my time at home trying to defuse tantrum meltdowns before they go nuclear (a decidedly unpleasant task), I also miss out on delving into a good book, embracing my inner strength at yoga or even just vegging out in front of bad TV. Can we really expect parenting our children to take the place of EVERYTHING that used to make us happy?
When I see it written that way, in black and white, it seems so obvious to me. Parenting (much of the time) sucks. It’s hard, tedious, relentless work and (at least in the beginning) there are only fleeting, untangible rewards. Sure, the actual kids are pretty awesome, but raising them? That is decidedly not awesome. Perhaps if we recognize that, perhaps if we say it out loud, parents won’t feel so crappy about well, feeling crappy. Maybe we will cut ourselves some slack, allow ourselves to make mistakes, re-prioritize our lives every once in a while, putting ourselves at the forefront if only for a couple of hours. Perhaps we will spend less time judging, ourselves and others. Perhaps we will actually be happier than we were when we were trying to convince ourselves that parenting was going to be the best thing ever.
Or perhaps we just won’t be so confused that this parenting thing seems way harder than we ever expected it would be.