Friday, July 16, 2010

The Meaning of Life

That's what I'm pondering after reading the New York Magazine article "All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting."

This article (or at least the first two-thirds of it) seems completely focused on whether or not parenting made people happy.

Most people assume that having children will make them happier. Yet a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so. This finding is surprisingly consistent, showing up across a range of disciplines.

The article does get more balanced by the end, but the beginning of it is so bleak--what with the play-by-play of a suburban mother at the end of her rope and the descriptions of plummeting levels of reported happiness with each successive child--that I seriously wonder how many parents or potential parents kept reading.

I brought this article up on a message board at, and though this is obviously a slanted audience full of women who are expecting or already mothers, I was impressed by the nuanced interpretations that they brought forward. Many of them brought up the point that the purpose of parenting wasn't happiness, and that people are just afraid of hard work, regardless of how rewarding it may be in the end.

Even this wasn't quite good enough for me though. As I stand on the precipice of motherhood, I admit to many emotions: fear, uncertainty, apprehension, but also joy, fulfillment, and anticipation. Happiness, I am certain, fits into these, and I am confident that it will fit into my life as a mother as well.

That's why I was so happy to see that one of the ladies at The Bump posted a link to a response by Rufus Griscom: "Yes, Kids Make Us Happier."

I appreciated Griscom's balanced analysis. He admits, for example, that:

If creative expression — writing, singing, filming, yodeling, chainsaw sculpting — is one of life's great joys, along with enjoying the creative expression of those around us, then let’s be honest and acknowledge that people with young kids experience less of this.

But he also concludes that:

Much of the problem with these studies, and this broader discussion, is obviously semantic. We should really have more words for happiness; fulfillment, pleasure, gratification — none of them really fit the bill. There are dozens of varietals of happiness, and the most sublime among them require a certain amount of sacrifice.

With this quote, he touches upon my initial reaction to the New York Magazine article. Yes, if you define "happiness" as something closely associated with "fun" (as the title obviously does), then maybe the day-to-day moments of parenting don't appear to make people too happy. This is especially true if you are surveying parents about their current daily activities. Well, no, I don't expect changing dozens of diapers to be a particularly rewarding experience. And yes, I suspect that having to curl into the corner of a tiny room somewhere to pump breast milk won't represent the height of my enjoyment.

But to me (and this is where I disagreed with some of the ladies responding on The Bump), happiness is the meaning of life. I yearn fully to be happy, but happy doesn't mean always having fun. I want to feel fulfilled, satisfied, and emotionally complete. I also want to have moments of joy, laughter, and wonder. I do not have to have every moment filled with these things to consider a decision one that leads to happiness.

I fully expect moments of motherhood to be unpleasant, exhausting, and frustrating, but does that mean that they will make me unhappy? Not in the long run, I suspect.


  1. Hey there, I just found your blog after your blue milk post. As a working mother hoping it's not too long until I resume my studies (which will be of the feminist/sociology bent) I look forward to following along with your journey. Good luck :D

  2. Hey, I also found you through Blue Milk,
    I am a very happy woman, mother of 2, doctor and medical educator, working slightly more than I'd like but isn't everyone?
    I agree with much of your thoughts on this article and just wanted to add that it reflects an instant gratification type world.
    I have lots of fun and happy times with my babies but also many repetitive tough times. However they exponentially add to my fulfillment and lifetime happiness.
    I think this study fails to think through the lifespan.
    Childless people do a lot of "fun" activities in their child bearing years but in my line of work you see the true beauty of family at each end of life. Older people with offspring are generally very happy, content and well supported. (this is of course a generalisation and there are exceptions). Older people who did not have family for whatever reason, can be lonely and have limited choices in their old age.

    Gone are the days of raging infectious disease where people had lots of kids because a few were sure to die and they needed help in the fields, but there is still something to be said for the cycle of life.
    Look forward to following your journey
    A couple of links that might interest you

  3. Thank you both for reading! Bekkles, I completely agree that part of the problem this article touches upon is the "instant gratification type world." I think this is something we see in multiple aspects of the way society is changing--from the way we eat our food to the way we watch television. It's very sad that it's also showing up in the way we view raising our own children.