Friday, February 4, 2011

Is the Joy of Parenting Really a Myth?

Wray Herbert recently wrote a disturbing piece about how parenting may not be all that joyous after all.  You can read it here. I admit I'm still processing it, but the basic gist of it is that we parents delude ourselves into thinking that being a parent is a joyful act.  Herbert writes:
But let's face the facts: Study after study has shown that parents, compared to adults without kids, experience lower emotional well-being -- fewer positive feelings and more negative ones -- and have unhappier marriages and suffer more from depression.
Reading that didn't make me too happy.  Or should I write that I had more negative feelings.  Maybe I should stick to pets, proven to have positive health effects on people.  I admit that I have my share of bad parental days.  How that compares to my life before kids is a difficult question.  I readily acknowledge that I have given up many of my favorite activities to help raise our children.  Is that okay?  It depends on the day.  After our recent snowpocalypse, I helped the twins make their own igloos (really snow caves cut out of the cement-like snow piled up from the plowed road).  That was joyous.  In fact, it was a rare moment in which I didn't spend any time stepping out of the experience to analyze it.  That is rare for me. 

But really, I have given up sleeping well.  I have fallen behind or dropped many of the life practices I think are important (exercise, paying bills, home and car maintenance).  As painful as it has been giving up some of the things I love and some important life practices, I can rationalize my cognitive dissonance as well as the next parent. 

Being a parent has helped me to simplify my life.  I spend less money and time on frivolous things.  In fact, I spend less time coveting frivolous things and activities as well.  I spend more time doing what I think is important, which is spending time with human beings and participating in creative acts (that only small children can create -- imagine Calvinball explained through nonsense-speak).  I think more about the future, not just in a global-the-world-needs-love kind of way, but in a very practical, local, what kind of life do I want to lead and to give my children.

Herbert writes about an earlier time when children were valued more for their economic contributions to the family and less for the emotional relationships they had with their parents.  Herbert also writes about the ways parents rationalize their choices.  I suspect I am doing that here, too.  In my pre-parent life I would never have been staying up late to write.  I would do that during normal business hours.  Now, I am sacrificing more sleep so I can have some semblance of a writing life and spend time during the day with my children -- something I think is vital and priceless.  I refuse to be an absentee parent.  I refuse to be an absentee parent (yes, I wrote that twice: once for you and once for me). Over the last two days I have gotten very little work done (which is painful for a workaholic like me), but I've had two snow days and I chose to spend it with my kids.  We've had a great time that can never be replaced.  I hope we talk about the snow of 2011 for years to come. 

Being a parent is also a lot more expensive than not having children.  Herbert claims that raising kids to 18 costs approximately $190k.  For me that means $270k.  I don't know where Herbert and the government gets that number, but ouch!  What would I spend that 270k on?  Electronic gadgets?  Travel?  Tools? What are those things worth?
So, am I rationalizing being happier as a parent.  Am I sticking my head in the snow to avoid reality?  No.  I think being a parent is hard.  It's certainly harder than not being a parent. But here's what I know.  Being a parent has forced me to live closer to the life I think I should be living.  I knew the life I thought I should live before I had children, but I didn't live it.  Now I have to.  I can't afford not to.  And I don't simply mean afford in the financial sense.  I can't afford to screw up being a parent.  I have to live a life that models what I value.  I have to ride the bike path I believe is right. 

So for me, ultimately it isn't about parenting being a joy or not. Sure, I could write about the joyous moments of parenting, of seeing amazing leaps my children make, seeing their faces light up and the unconditional love-hugs I get on a daily basis.  But my response to Herbert's piece isn't about my positive or negative feelings, and it isn't about financial security. It's about parenting helping me be the person I've always thought I should be.  There are days that it sucks, days that I wish I could hop a plane to Belize and fish for bonefish in the sun. But I believe I'm on the right path and I have my kids to thank for that. 


  1. Isn't the hard part of parenting part of what makes it so joyous??? It's so hard and exhausting sometimes, but that is where we get our reward. Excellent post.

  2. Ah, but you just can't replace the feeling of that moment, just after your son dances on top of the train table, kicks over your coffee and then says "TA-DA!" with jazz hands.... when the feeling when suddenly all your anger and frustration melts into intense love and laughter.

    Can't get that from a drug, a drink or an exercise high. You can only get that from your kids.

  3. Totally agree. Your children are really lucky, you are a good father, there is a lot of father just only for name. I have a good husband too, he spent time with my 2 children. In fact he has more patient than me :D

  4. Great post. Hmmmm, lots to chew on with this one. Am I happier because I'm a parent? Am I less happy? I think I'm more FULFILLED as a parent. Which, now that I think about it is what you were saying with "helping me be the person I've always thought I should be" more or less.

  5. I loved this post! Personally, I was thinking a plane to Key West would be a fun place to hide, but I'd probabaly end up bringing my boys with anyway. Now that I am a mother, I can't imagine having it any other way. Well...maybe just for one weekend! :)

  6. @Angie: I think there is something to the idea of hard work reaps the best rewards (or joy).

    @Amber: Fulfilled is an interesting word. I'll have to think about that one. I can generally agree with that, but I also have to ask if one would feel unfulfilled without kids. I suspect I would feel unfulfilled, but that's just me. I can't speak for those who choose not to have kids.

    @Nancy: I would take Key West. I think the fishing is better in Belize, though.