Better Than A Sharp Poke in the Eye?

Lately, I’ve been reading some stuff. This stuff has lodged in my cerebral cortex and, as I have been going about my business, cleaning my bathrooms and teaching spelling and watching Robert Downey Jr. play Tony Stark in Ironman2 (more on that later), this stuff niggles. It pesters. It demands further review.

Here’s the deal: there have apparently been several different studies published over the past decade that have all come to one resounding conclusion:

Having children decreases your overall happiness in life.

Well. Tie me to an anthill and fill my ears with jam.

You can read more about the studies here, in the April 2009 issue of The Psychologist in an article written by social scientist Nattavudh Powdthavee. It’s a very thought-provoking article, or at least, it provoked many thoughts by yours truly. Don’t worry, I will share them with you. I know you were worried.

Obviously, the idea that children will increase your happiness is inherently flawed. Happiness, as everyone should know (at least intellectually), comes from within, and if you are an unhappy, negative person as a non-parent, you will certainly not become a happy, positive person when you introduce a demanding little suckling into your life.

However, the suggestion, or–seeing as how it has been settled by the intractability of empirical data–the fact that child-free couples are happier than those with children is a bit of a startling concept to those of us, well…to those of us who have ’em, frankly.

Four different studies have apparently shown that, once children arrive on the scene, happiness levels decrease, and marital satisfaction, life satisfaction, and mental well-being all take a serious hit.

Oh my stars and garters, what have we done? I checked my kids; there’s no return address label!

But let’s back up a little bit before we start researching time machines. I’m not arguing with the results of the studies at all. I truly do believe that they are correct, for what it’s worth. It’s just that they beg a few important questions.

First of all, how do we define happiness?

If we are ranking how happy we are, shouldn’t we seek to ascertain if we are all on the same page first?

I would hazard a guess that if your criteria for happiness includes things like a clean house, a peaceful, quiet existence, a toned and fit body, plenty of spendable income, minimal stress, and maximum free time, then having children is almost certain to make you less happy than if you remain childless.

I’m not in any way saying those things are bad, or selfish to want. But thinking you can have them ALL and children too is unrealistic, which I believe hits close to home in the “happy” arena. Many people go into parenthood with a grossly unrealistic view of what it will entail.

The studies were concentrated in Europe and the USA, which is also telling. What other cultures are as steeped in the have-it-all mentality than we are? We are told daily and repeatedly that a certain body and a certain lifestyle will make us happy. Happiness is defined continually for us by the billboards and advertisements that bombard us every moment of our lives. Children are diametrically opposed to that definition.

Let’s look at the facts.

Children will affect your pocketbook. While I do not hold to the popular “how much will it cost to have a child” statistics, it is undeniable that adding children to your life will require certain expenses to increase. Period. You might have to give up weekly pedi-manis. You might have to sell your boat. You might have to give up your home office to make way for the little tyke. You might have to choose between glasses for jr. and the latest home entertainment center.

Children will increase your stress levels. Sure, they bring immeasurable joy to our lives that we would never experience otherwise, but let’s face it: sometimes they can bring levels of grief we never thought possible, too. If you protest that your children have never, ever qualified for that equation, then get out of here. No, seriously. Go away. I don’t want to know you.

The more children you have, the greater your chances for that grief, in the form of sickness, emotional upheaval, or, God forbid, death. You have more to worry about, for pete’s sake. If you don’t worry, you’re some kind of android and, once again, I wish you well, but leave now. Most of us run into issues with our kids, and suddenly it becomes apparent that our superpowers are not going to be sufficient to protect them from everything. And what parent in the world would claim to be “happy” if one of their kids is hurting? And the more you have, the more your chances that one of them is not going to be blissfully content every moment of every day.

Along those lines, can I just say? Having children is cripplingly humbling.  Think about your opinion of yourself before you had kids. You were patient. You were cool. You were intelligent. You were loving. You were kind. Frankly, you were ten shades of awesome. Then kids came along and proved that all previously established levels of the aforementioned descriptives were grossly unchallenged and thus inherently erroneous. In other words: ya never knew just how great you were until you were incessently forced to prove it.

So there you go. The three reasons kids make us less happy:

  1. We can’t have all the crap we want.
  2. We worry more.
  3. We aren’t nearly as bodacious as we thought.

But hold on one minute.

When I see this list, two words come to mind.

Personal Growth.

Now, no psychologist in the world would argue that personal growth is not something to aspire towards in our lifetimes. Sure, our yearbooks all have “don’t ever change!” written in them by our classmates, but who truly wants to remain static, stagnating in immaturity and boredom?

And yet, can I just suggest that personal growth isn’t always a “happy” experience to go through? Frankly, growth is painful, often to the point that it makes you want to lay down and die rather than go on with it. No one going through a trial will say they are “happy”, although once they are through it they will probably assure you that it was for their greater good to have been there. Trials and testings produce character we never could have found in a peaceful little cloister of our own making.

I’m not saying that the child-free have no opportunities for personal growth, just that those with children are prone to daily re-evaluations and personal assessments that might never occur otherwise (should the parents choose to accept such challenges, which is a whole ‘nuther issue).

So, do the results of these studies simply boil down to one real question?

Is happiness, after all, the be-all, end-all goal to life?

It’s a good question. One that we probably don’t really consider on most days. We spend an inordinate time seeking to preserve our well-being, establish a status-quo that ranks considerably above “just okay”, whether we have children or not. But, especially if we claim to be Christians, we are called for quite the opposite: to give our lives away for a greater cause. Happiness was never meant to be an earthly pursuit; our Lord has plenty of it for us where we’re going. Delayed gratification is a concept our culture will never embrace as a whole, but if we individually do not, we will most certainly be desperately unhappy, no matter what lifestyle we choose.

33 thoughts on “Better Than A Sharp Poke in the Eye?”

  1. Amen! And, um, oh yes, Amen again.

    As a Christian, I can tell you that the realization that I need to be focused more on my holiness than my own happiness was the minute I started to grow up. (I say started because it’s an on-going process.)

  2. Oh, I am SO with you.. As I started to read I was thinking, okay, people who dont’ have kids are “happier”, they are also way more selfish.. And if they don’t have kids, how can they know what they’re missing out on?? And dont’ get me started on the difference between joyful and happy! I don’t really NEED to be happy as long as I can claim some degree of joyfulness…
    I love this post and could probably go on and on but I’m at work so I”m going to get back to that now!

    I want to be careful about using the “s” word…every member of the human race has a natural bent towards it, myself most definitely included. People are selfish with or without children; again, it’s a matter of how often are we challenged to rise above that selfishness and put someone else first? I would hazard a guess that those will children clinging to them have more opportunity…but do not automatically become selfless…

  3. Standing up and applauding!!!!

    I would like to add that “happiness” shouldn’t be the goal in life. “Contentment” is the goal. Being content in all circumstances brings a peace that happiness can’t touch. 🙂

    LOVE this post, Jenni!

  4. I was listening to a commentary on public radio (I seldom listen to pr…it makes me gag) where an “expert” unabashedly commented that contraception and abortion availability are keys to a stable and happy family…I was aghast! This world is increasingly unfriendly to children. I love your post…so very true!

  5. Possibly the best thing I’ve read in years. No…seriously. Okay, except for maybe that you hadn’t lost the baby.

    I struggle with selfishness and selflessness all the time, and defining the line between contentment and “settling”, happiness and true joy. These are things that probably should be obvious to a person with six kids, but it’s not. Nor do I think it ever will be. Every stage of life brings it’s own questions and conundrums. I can say that I’m as happy now as I ever remember being when I was single. Granted, it was easier to keep my place clean, but just having a staring contest with my precocious two-year-old brings a smile and a joy that I never had when I was single or childless. It’s hard to not judge from both sides (I’m happier, no I’m happier), but I find the older I get the more willing I am to see other people’s side of the story and give it credence. It’s annoying to be labeled as “unhappy” because I have kids though. I’m tired, I struggle with lots of things, but I wouldn’t change places with anyone for anything. Besides, you can’t tell me all those tabloid stories you are forced to read about in the check out line at the grocery store are about “happy people.” They look about as miserable as anyone I’ve ever seen. I’m thanking God for the lot I’ve been given; it’s mine and I love it.

    In the end I guess maybe happiness is a perception and not a fact.

  6. Well sissy… seriously. I NEEDED to read this today. I really did. Thank you for writing it. You really really really HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD. When Story came into my life I was dreadfully unprepared for the mental and spiritual anguish that was fixing to sweep over me like a tsunami. I’m still get knocked down by stealthy tsunamis at very unexpectant times… this week has been one of those and this post really helps.

  7. First off, I am commenting before reading the article linked to your post. My thoughts are that, the studies being published by the psychologists/ psychiatrists may be rather biased. They treat unhappy people.

    People become unhappy for a wide variety of reasons- many involving stress. As parents we know that children are great stress inducers.
    Children also reduce stress, in my opinion. Just listening to a baby giggle, or a two year old coining words to explain things he doesn’t have words for. (My own kids described a turkey feather they found as a “bird leaf”, and my grandson recently called a cow patty “cow mud”.)

    Happy people don’t usually seek out psychological counseling. I’m thinking the Doctors publishing the studies are like the blind men describing the elephant… telling us what they “see”.

    Thanks for the post, it does make me think!

  8. I didn’t read the article you mentioned, but I think there is one element missing…time. The case is strong that we (as parents) may be “less happy” when we have wee ones challenging our awesomeness, but what happens when those kids aren’t kids anymore. How much more “happiness” is heaped upon us as we teach our kids to drive, go camping together, explore the world, see them graduate from college and then watch them have kids of their own. I’m not there yet, but I THINK I’m looking forward to that. Good post.

  9. Not to long ago I was reflecting on my personal growth…the work Christ started in me the moment my oldest daughter was born…the realization that I could LOVE someone in a deeper way than I ever had before…I was still spiritually dead at the time and floundered for some years before Christ beckoned me with His LOVE, an even greater love than I had ever experienced…

    and I am constantly floored, humbled and thankful for His work in my life, His self being birthed in me as He teaches me to die, over and over again…as He teaches me to love more and more like Himself..unconditionally and oftentimes to people who don’t want my love…

    during chemecar and the fun I had with that amazing group of young men and woman, two of which are my children, I was overwhelmed with their gifts, their perspectives, their selves and it made me smile…

    and the quote the Lord formed in me through that sweetness was this one “the child of my heart smiles at the mother I am becoming”

    Because ultimately as we are conformed to His image, He in me the hope of glory, I smile all the more at Him…

    Growth is good in Christ, and my children and relationships with others have been instrumental in His work, and for that I am thankful and content.

  10. Your post has hit a number of thoughts that I’ve had recently in the wake of these studies. Having children is certainly NOT comfortable – we cannot control them (at least not very well), and honestly they bring out the worst (as well as best) in us. Children are independent eternal variables that have been entrusted to their parents for safe-keeping, loving, teaching, and guiding. Not an easy task by any means! I believe that our culture is steeped in the desire for pleasure, control, and freedom from responsibility which causes unsuspecting young parents to experience a particularly strong shock upon first looking with love at Junior’s baby blue eyes. Parenting is not easy. It is unfortunate that the studies do not measure parental significance, or love, or at least take place over a long period of time (as Andrew suggested). It is a shame that these studies believe that happiness can even be measured scientifically.

  11. Absolutely SPOT ON. You are a legend (albeit a flawed and very human one but a legend nonetheless!)

  12. Jenni, I LOVED this article! It expresses beautifully my own heart about my life with children (infinitely more fulfilling than a $200,000+ job as an interpreter in New York City!. If anything, I wish I had MORE children, rather than only five! In fact, God has used my children so much to teach me, that I honestly wondered how He was going to speak to me after Timothy, our baby, went to college nearly three years ago. (Believe me, He has His ways!) Thanks for what you wrote — you blessed me, and you articulated some extremely significant issues very well.

    Btw, I wrote something about birth pangs/growth pains recently at the above website which could be construed as having a similar application as your post! Maybe the Holy Spirit is talking to many of us about our need for growth…. 🙂

    Much love to you,

  13. Wellll…. I don’t know about your conclusion. I believe that God made us and meant us to be happy, and made some things pleasurable for us so that we would seek them. (That’s when the question of moderation, proper timing, preparation etc. comes into play of course, but that’s a different can of worms). And so like you, I question the researcher’s definition of “happiness”; it not necessarily contentment, comfort, or self-pandering; but I do believe that happiness is made of JOY. Joy, which can co-exist with grief and difficulty, but joy in our Lord and in His willingness to allow us to participate with Him in both the reward and the struggle of bringing life to the world.

  14. I love you!

    And, really, when it comes right down to it, I’m happier being miserable with children than being happy without them. If that makes any sense…

    And believe me, this year has taken the cake as far as child-induced stress goes.

  15. “You’re only as happy as your saddest child.” I can’t say with certainty that this is true, but it does reveal the intertwinings of relationships and how our hearts are locked to our children and their well-being. The more you have, the greater the odds are that at any given moment, you could have a sad child. And that is hard to ignore.

    Oh, and that was an excellent read-your post. Now off to check out the article.

  16. A lot of good stuff there, Jenni. I’m always torn between showing the “Waltons” side to large families and the stressed-on-the-floor side. (Most people want to see and know the former.) I think that DYING UNTO SELF should be among the first concepts people really get when considering a large family. And forget the “romantic notions” that so many are hung up on (again, the “Waltons” or, more likely, the “Duggars” nowadays.) I think it really throws people for a loop when they realize it’s not all fun and games AND it is HARD WORK. Saying all that, there are so many good and amazing things. It’s hard to put it all together in words! (I am SO not mentor material, LOL.) Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. 🙂

  17. oooh this is GOOD stuff. good Lord, you just spoke words I needed to hear. *slap slap* getting my head back on straight! *whew* that was a close one. Bless you, Jenni. You speak God’s truth.

  18. Great post! Yep, if your happiness is based on doing what *you* want to do all the time and getting all the things that money can buy and having tons of free time then, no, parenthood will not make you happy.

    Boy, I was sure in for a shock when I became a mother. I finally started to grow up a little and suddenly realized that no way was it going to be all about me any more. Parenthood has been great for lots of reasons (personal growth, one) and I wouldn’t trade my babies and the happiness of motherhood for the world.

    It definitely depends on how you define happiness. Happiness to me, now, is seeing a beautiful smile on my daughter’s face. Feeling my unborn son kick and move around and hearing his little heartbeat. Receiving hugs from my little girl, making sure she’s clean, fed and well cared for and making sure that her childhood is a happy one.

  19. This is great. You’ve articulated a whole lot of my half-formed thoughts, way more eloquently than I would be able to. Do you mind if I repost this to my blog with a link?

  20. Love it!
    We need this online-Moms-community to remind us of this as often as possible because our culture is constantly telling us that we must be miserable since we don’t have lots of stuff (nice, new stuff!) Our family quit watching TV years ago, because I believe it creates stress and unhappiness with its endless advertising of things we must have in order to be truly happy.
    Fact is, we don’t have those things.
    But we do our best to cultivate “happiness”…or maybe just fulfillment.

    Love your post!
    Clicked over from Owlhaven,

  21. Popped over from Owl Haven, and have a million thank you’s for your words! I’m a young mommy, with four kids ages 5 and under, and Lord willing, many more to come. In the trenches, completely exhausted and stressed out, and yet finding a simplicity and happiness in every single day. I get by on the words of mothers like you, who can say confidently that life does move beyond potty training, teething babies, and homeschool curriculums. 😉

  22. I’ve been mulling htis over, and praying some. I overreacted earlier and should have been more careful with the word selfish.. I think it’s partially because i”m so tender about Seth . I know our worldly culture (which often devalues infants and infant loss) would marvel at how I can be “happy” and I wouldnt’ necesssariy use the word Happy. but as God works in our lies and I see all the positives coming from being Seth’s mom, even though we had him for so short a while, I can certainly feel CONTENT. I know God has used our experience and he is growing me and THAT IS enough.

    I absolutely know what you mean, Kathryn. It hurts especially to be told kids won’t make us happy when for damn sure LOSING them breaks our hearts!

  23. I am reading a great book called Sacred Parenting: How Raising Children Shapes Our Souls. I think you’d like it. It’s by Gary Thomas.

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