I love my kid.
I hate my life.
That was the headline of a recent New York magazine cover story that has created a media frenzy. No one I know in California gets New York, but I just tested a friend by saying, “Okay, complete this sentence. I love my kid, but…”
“I hate my life,” she said without a moment’s hesitation. Holy cow. Is this a part of our cultural mantra?
Plenty of research shows that American parents are, on average, less happy than their childless counterparts. But this “I hate my life” thing is a bit more problematic than the slight dip in parental life satisfaction that research shows can occur when children are young.
Clearly our generation isn’t successfully developing the skills we need to parent happily. This does not bode well for our children’s happiness. Is it any wonder that we are seeing increasing levels of depression and anxiety in children and adolescents? If we love our children but hate our lives, will our kids learn to hate their lives?
As a rule, children don’t make us happy. That isn’t their job. It is silly to assume that adding something as complex and challenging (and time consuming!) as child-rearing to our lives will make us happier. Of course it won’t.
Except that it isn’t at all silly to assume that having children will fill our lives with happiness, because kids add so much love to our lives. And love is about the purest form of happiness there is.
So where is the error in our thinking and doing? I tend to agree with Lisa Belkin of The New York Times, who argues that we’re taking on too much as parents, becoming over-involved with our children in a way that makes us feel helpless and our children feel resentful and uncooperative. We can’t, after all, live their lives for them. The benign neglect I imagine parents practiced in the 1950s—go play outside, I’ll call you when dinner’s ready—was infinitely more enjoyable for parents. And children, too, I’d bet.
Our collective parenting misery is a political problem as well as an individual one. American children rank towards the bottom of developed nations in emotional well-being; it should come as no surprise that their parents also don’t fare that well when compared to parents raising children in countries with stronger social welfare systems. Paid maternity leave (for a year!), affordable child-care, high-quality public education and health care—a safe neighborhood, for crying out loud—when these things are provided by the state, parents can stop worrying so much about how to secure them for their children. No longer do parents feel compelled to somehow produce perfect, high-achieving, successful people—that won’t get left behind—all while under-resourced and under-supported.
In her feature for New York, Jennifer Senior concludes that children provide meaning and purpose in our lives, but not moment-to-moment happiness. “As a matter of mood,” she writes, “there does seem to be little question that kids make our lives more stressful.” Is this true? To parrot Byron Katie, can we absolutely know that this is true?
Because it seems to me that my own kids have introduced an awful lot of not-stressful down-time and socializing into my life that wouldn’t be there without them. And that is a great source of moment-to-moment happiness. Before I had kids, I was an anxious overachiever toiling away in a Chicago high rise. Now I spend a lot of time enjoying family meals I’d otherwise be eating in front of a computer, talking about things like how exactly to make a bow-and-arrow out of string and a stick.
Of course kids might bring fun to the table with their knock-knock jokes and fart-inspired giggles, while ALSO bringing more stress into our lives. But this is not a forgone conclusion. When we stop multi-tasking and are truly present with our children, when we let kids make their own mistakes rather than trying to control their every outcome, when we simply give ourselves the alone-time we need—that we had before kids—parenting can be a source of BOTH meaning AND moment-to-moment happiness.
And that moment-to-moment happiness is not overrated; it is not something we should forgo in order to look back on our life and think it was meaningful because we raised beautiful, successful children. Because those children may not learn to lead lives they love if we’re not modeling for them lives we love.
I want Raising Happiness to serve as a manifesto for more joyful parenting. Life is short, and thankfully the new science of happiness is showing us ways to both love our kids AND love our lives.
What have you learned that makes your parenting more joyful? What situations are the greatest source of stress and unhappiness in your family life? In coming weeks, I will be taking a closer look at the research on parental misery.
Looking for resources to parent more happily? You might want to sign up to receive the Raising Happiness Newsletter (this text is from that Newsletter), or sign up to take my online Raising Happiness Class this fall. Click here to receive more information about the Raising Happiness Class.
© 2010 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
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