Parenthood Is About So Much More Than Being Happy

By Heidi Stevens
Chicago Tribune.

You’ve probably read the latest science proving parenthood is pure misery.

In case you missed it, researchers followed 2,016 German parents for the first two years after the birth of their first child and asked them, on a scale of 0 to 10, “How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?”

A third of the respondents said their happiness levels stayed the same or increased after they became parents, but the rest reported a sharp decrease, a 1.4 unit drop, on average, which is larger than the happiness drops recorded after divorce, the death of a partner, unemployment and weekend-long juice cleanses.

(I’m not positive juice cleanses made the list, actually. But they should have.)

Predictably, the Internet quickly responded with photos of screaming children and stressed-out parents and headlines like “Science Proves It: Parenthood Is the Absolute Worst.”

I wonder if we could please, finally, stop studying whether parenthood makes you happy.

I wonder if we could stop asking parents to take their life’s work, work that confounds them, terrifies them and drains their emotional and financial reserves but still fills them with a love that is astounding in its depth and resilience, and stack it against an emotion as fleeting and subjective as happiness.

I wonder if we could ask them, instead, whether parenthood makes them better people.

Not because parents are better people than nonparents. Far from it.

Parents, particularly those who harm children (their own or another person’s), can be truly awful people.

Nonparents, meanwhile, have contributed to the profound goodness of the world in ways that defy measure. Mother Teresa comes to mind. So does Dr. Seuss.

But asking people whether parenting makes them better versions of themselves, rather than happier versions, would paint a truer picture of what it means to parent. Because parenting is, above all, a lifelong attachment to another human. That can go a lot of ways.

It can bring you joy that you didn’t know existed, and it can bring you sorrow that you wish didn’t. It can be rewarding, and it can be thankless. It can be fun, and it can be mind-numbingly tedious.

It can’t be predictable or simple or even, really, in your control, because it involves loving and needing and relating to another human or two, or more.

Measuring whether an experience that complicated brings people happiness, whether it makes them “satisfied,” and finding, repeatedly, that it does not, implies a failure, of sorts.

You’re going to all that trouble for something that doesn’t even make you happy?

But happy is often not the point.

In countless worthy endeavors, serving your country, earning a medical degree, tutoring underserved children, picking up litter, reading Sylvia Plath, happiness is, at best, a lucky byproduct.

So it can be with parenting.

I would love to see researchers attempt to validate the richness and complexity of parenthood by asking people about more than just their happiness levels after having children.

Are you more empathetic?

Are you more curious?

Do you pay more attention to your impact on the environment?

Are you tuned into the plight of others in ways you weren’t before?

Are you more forgiving?

Are you more faithful?

Are you gentler?

Are you less cynical?

Are you hungrier for progress?

Do you view your own parents with more grace?

The results would be fascinating. They wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, serve as a verdict on whether parenthood is a worthwhile endeavor or whether it makes people, as a whole, more humane.

The answers would be too varied for that.

But they would provide a more interesting and revealing look at a pursuit that we humans have embarked on since the beginning of our time and will, barring some artificial life scenarios, embark on until the end of it.

Whether we’re happy about it or not.

Can we, please, stop studying whether parenthood makes you happy?
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