Does Having Children Make People Unhappy?

So, I recently read an article from my favorite news outlet…okay…fine…I don’t watch the news or read the newspaper.

I recently read an article that somebody posted on Facebook about a study that was done following couples through their journey of pregnancy and then into their first few years of parenthood. The article was entitled, “Study Shows Parenthood Makes People Unhappy!” or something along those lines. The poster of the article tagged her husband with the link along with some quippy comment like “see, honey, we’re right!!!”

At first I just scrolled past the post deciding that I wasn’t even going to dignify such a post by reading it. But then as I thought about it, I began to get more and more angry. How could somebody post something like this? This “scientific study” can’t be real. This has to be some inflammatory journalist citing a Cosmo quiz as a “scientific study” in an attempt to increase his or her readership. I looked down at my sleeping baby who I’d just rocked to sleep and couldn’t imagine how somebody could say that parenthood made them unhappy. How could anybody even say that they are unhappy when they are cradling this tiny, sweet piece of their heart in their arms.

Then I looked down past my sleeping baby and saw that I was wearing the same t shirt and underwear that I’d had on for the past 2 days. I was coming off of an 80 plus hour work week and instead of Bethany and I celebrating this week’s conclusion with drinks and dinner out on the town, she was already in bed asleep, and I was desperately begging God that Catherine would fall asleep and stay that way so I could go to sleep too. The clock on my phone read 8:30 PM, and I realized that my friend who had posted the article had probably just finished dinner at a restaurant with her husband and they were likely on their way to see a movie or meet friends for drinks.

Now, I guess I have to be honest that I look idealistically on this life without kids where a couple spends all their time that they’re not working having fun and going wild on the town. I don’t think that Bethany and I have ever really gone wild on the town. Even before she got pregnant, a lot of Saturday nights were spent on the couch watching an episode of Scandal with both of us trying to keep the other one awake. I remember one night when we went out to sing karaoke at a seedy bar in town with some of my friends from work, and we were both shocked with the fact that the karaoke didn’t start until 9PM–on a Thursday nonetheless!
“That’s what time we’re usually getting ready for bed,” Bethany hollered when I told her about the karaoke night.

With expert time management, we were able to have a couple beers, sing “Friends in Low Places”, and still make it home in time to have 7 solid hours of sleep before work the next morning.

While many of our friends who are waiting to have kids or choosing not to have them deal in currencies of extra time, money, and fun, the primary difference between our life a year ago and now is the amount of sleep we were getting. Bethany always depended on at least a solid 8-9 hours during the week, and if she happened to accidentally sleep 13 hours straight on a weekend, it was an extra bonus for a solid week of work. I was always happy with a nice 6-7 hours of sleep, and I relished quiet mornings starting at 5 or 6 AM when I could go for a run and then watch the sunrise with a cup of coffee and some breakfast.

The day that we brought Catherine home from the hospital, all of this changed. Well, it actually changed for Bethany 4 or 5 months before that when she started to have to get up in the middle of the night to pee because she had a baby dancing on her bladder.

Sleep is no longer doled out in heaping portions like an Italian grandmother filling her family’s plates with steaming hot gnocchi and ravioli. It’s stolen in quick snatches and tiny portions or begged for like little Oliver Twist pleading, “Please sir, may I have some more.”

I’m a bit luckier than Bethany because the baby isn’t dependent on my lactating breasts for survival. If enough milk hasn’t been pumped for me to give the baby a 2AM bottle, then Bethany is stuck getting up to feed. We have both quickly understood how effective sleep deprivation could be on prisoners as we sometimes feel that we have become prisoners in our own little home, and the warden is a screaming, puking, chubby midget dressed in pink ballerina footy pajamas dictating orders over us. She often deprives Bethany of food and water due to her constant demands, and sometimes Bethany could go for a couple days without actually setting foot outside.

Now, I’m sure that some would read this and find our lives a compelling argument for why having children makes people unhappy. They would copy and paste snippets from this post and mail them to the primary investigator over the research study with an attached note saying, “Recruit this couple for your next project!! They’ll be perfect!!”

I believe, however, that all of this talk of happiness and unhappiness is completely related to a person’s expectation on life. Even though people warn ahead of time about the amount of work a baby is, there is no way to actually comprehend this until you become the sole caregiver of a child for 24 hours straight, days on end. People might call me a horrible parent, but I think I could understand how a new father could say he was unhappy. You’re not getting enough sleep. You’re tired. Your wife is tired. You’re doing everything in your power to please this little tiny human but she just looks at you and screams. You want sex, but you’re not allowed to have it for 6 weeks, and once those 6 weeks are past, you’re so tired that you would choose sleep over sex. You want to make everything okay and make your wife happy and your baby happy, but you look around and realize that you have no idea how to do that. Even if your life before the baby was hard and stressful, you look back on it idealistically thinking about how happy you both were together and how even if you chose not to, you could go out on the town or take an unplanned weekend trip or maybe just sit on the couch and binge watch five episodes of House of Cards and only press pause because you have to pee or get a fresh pint of Ben and Jerry’s.
As all these thoughts are rushing through your head, somebody hands you a survey that reads, “Are you happy? Check yes or no.”

I think the question that should be asked to new parents is not, “Are you happy?” because the moment the answer “well, hell no, I’m not happy” comes to his or her mind, the person is ridden with guilt feeling like they just betrayed their baby or their spouse.

I’ll say it, some days, I’m not happy. Having a baby is really freaking hard!!

But just when I think that I’m not happy and I wish things were different, my baby looks up at me, catches my eye, and gives me this smile that could drive all the clouds out of the sky or bring world peace or something. As I rock her, she nestles her little head in the crook of my neck as if her day has been a long journey, and after searching high and low, she’s finally found a little crevice of safety to nestle into for sleep. She giggles as I tickle her little fat belly, and I’m overwhelmed with emotion. Happiness, however, isn’t the emotion.

It’s joy.

Pure unadultered joy.

The difference between joy and happiness is that happiness is fleeting. Happiness is encumbered by life’s misfortunes and bad days and screaming babies. Joy is much deeper than this. Joy is present in spite of the hard times that life throws at us. For me as a Christian, I have my joy in Christ who is present and consistent regardless of life’s circumstances. I can even find joy in my screaming baby.

As much as I hate to say it, it doesn’t surprise me that a lot of people decide that they are less happy once they have a baby. I think that today’s society has become much more materialistic and selfish in their lives. It’s probably the same reason that the divorce rate continues to increase. If one’s primary goal is personal happiness, and happiness isn’t being fulfilled by one’s spouse, then it’s probably time for a divorce. If my happiness is found in my sleep and free time and money, then I probably shouldn’t purposefully create a baby that becomes a bottomless pit that devours all of these entities.

Honestly, I’m not going to debate people on whether or not they decide to reproduce or what their reasons are for making their decisions. During the time that Bethany and I were talking about getting pregnant, I desperately wanted a baby, but a line from the song Changes Come by Over the Rhine kept running through my head. The song talks about how the songwriter wants to have a baby, but she questions if the world is too screwed up to bring a baby into it.

Now that we have Catherine, I can’t imagine my world without her. Actually, that’s a lie. I can imagine my world without her, but it’s not a world of which I want any part. There might be nights when I don’t get much sleep and there might be times that she goes all bipolar and screams for no reason, but I would never trade my current life.

The times when I’m starting to get tired, I close my eyes and think about the evenings that the three of us, my little family, snuggle together in bed and watch the sunset over the mountains. We listen as the draft horses gallop across the field, and as we stare in silent awe as the raging shades of pink and purple and orange nestle into their bed behind Muddy Creek Mountain, my darling daughter breaks the moment of wonder with a giant fart.

This isn’t happiness.

This is joy.

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2 thoughts on “Does Having Children Make People Unhappy?

    • Susan–thank you! This is a huge compliment. Life has been wild, but I’m desperately trying to get back into writing–I really miss it. Hopefully I’ll have some new posts up soon.

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