To Be, or not to be…happy

Here we go again. Did you see the piece in New York Magazine? The one about how parenthood makes people less happy?

Here are a some real gems:

“…all parents spend more time today with their children than they did in 1975, including mothers, in spite of the great rush of women into the American workforce. Today’s married mothers also have less leisure time (5.4 fewer hours per week); 71 percent say they crave more time for themselves (as do 57 percent of married fathers). Yet 85 percent of all parents still—still!—think they don’t spend enough time with their children.”

“(Children are) a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to s***.”

“And couples probably pay the dearest price of all. Healthy relationships definitely make people happier. But children adversely affect relationships. As Thomas Bradbury, a father of two and professor of psychology at UCLA, likes to say: ‘Being in a good relationship is a risk factor for becoming a parent.’

Studies and articles like this always irritate me. How do you measure “happy,” anyway? “Happy” is a mood. “Happy” depends on the day of the week, the hour, sometimes the minute. It depends on whether you’re fighting with your sister, or coming off a fun day at the beach. Reducing the lifelong experience of parenthood to this tiny sliver is worse than ridiculous.

Plus, these sorts of stories are based on people’s perceptions, which are then turned into reality. This is another thing I hate about political “news.” During an election cycle, we don’t hear facts about issues or stances; that would be too complicated, too prone to bias. No, we hear the results of polls, because obviously what people THINK is the truth actually IS the truth. (Puh-leeze.)

So I was somewhat mollified to see that (buried halfway down the article), they shared this:

“Seven years ago, the sociologists Kei Nomaguchi and Melissa A. Milkie did a study in which they followed couples for five to seven years, some of whom had children and some of whom did not. And what they found was that, yes, those couples who became parents did more housework and felt less in control and quarreled more (actually, only the women thought they quarreled more, but anyway). On the other hand, the married women were less depressed after they’d had kids than their childless peers. And perhaps this is because the study sought to understand not just the moment-to-moment moods of its participants, but more existential matters, like how connected they felt, and how motivated, and how much despair they were in (as opposed to how much stress they were under): Do you not feel like eating? Do you feel like you can’t shake the blues? Do you feel lonely? Like you can’t get going? Parents, who live in a clamorous, perpetual-forward-motion machine almost all of the time, seemed to have different answers than their childless cohorts.

Somewhat, because you still have to draw the obvious conclusion for yourself: that fleeting “happiness” is not the whole story. Parenthood is stressful, for sure, and sometimes it seems like the rewards are ephemeral. But if you can step back and look at the big picture, it makes all the difference. Sure, this morning as I type I have a 16-month-old whining and whimpering, trying to sit on my lap and take over the keyboard.  And a 5-year-old sulking because I told him he couldn’t wear his Superman pajamas all day (he’s been wearing them for 76 hours already). Is that annoying? Uh, yes. Do I like stubbing my toe on chairs and stools, tripping over stainless bowls while I’m trying to cook? Not in the slightest. In fact, I throw temper tantrums about it all the time.

But in twenty-five years, when my kids are grown, I’m not going to be stuck on this day’s annoyances–this day’s, or any day’s, for that matter. I’m going to be thinking how rich my life is because of them.

This is why I get so irritated when the girl at Kidz Court looks at my chaotic family of three little ones and says, “You’re crazy.” When did we lose the ability to think and plan long term? When did the passing pleasure of the moment become the only standard by which we judge life?

“I think this boils down to a philosophical question, rather than a psychological one,” says (Tom) Gilovich (of Cornell U). “Should you value moment-to-moment happiness more than retrospective evaluations of your life?”

Most importantly, I have a choice in how we choose to approach the individual moments. With or without children, there will always be irritations in life, but there will also be moments of heart-stopping beauty and incredible grace. And often, they are the same moments. The baby who’s trying to type my blog post in Baby-de-gook is also holding his hands up and padding toward me with a grin that makes my insides go gooey. The kid sulking about Superman jammies is also taking time outs to giggle at being tickled. In these moments that swing so wildly, I get to choose which part defines my mood.

I won’t always choose well. But I will always have the choice.