Children Christopher Wolfe

Children and Happiness

By Dr. Christopher Wolfe

Many sociologists have argued that having children results in a fairly steep fall of the “happiness curve.”  Married couples, they contend, are typically happy until they have children, but once they reach this milestone, their happiness tumbles down dramatically.  Both husband and wife remain more-or-less unhappy until their children grow up and leave the house, when, all of a sudden, they find themselves happy again!

And yet, this hypothesis is deeply counter-intuitive.  Why would our children, whom we so dearly cherish, make us miserable?  Some people point to the fact that the duties of raising children can present serious obstacles to career progress and success.  These hindrances do not suffice to explain how having children could result in a net loss of welfare, however.  To be sure, caring for a child always involves sacrifices, but don’t the benefits outweigh the costs?

Jennifer Senior, a writer for New York Magazine, wrote a book in 2015 called All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.  She takes up precisely the paradox that we have brought into view: nowadays, parenthood seems, for all of its luster, to lead to unhappiness.  She is right to point out that if you ask parents in the middle of raising kids how they feel about their lives, they will often report feeling exhausted and harried by their numerous responsibilities.  People conclude, on the basis of these self-reports, that parents have low happiness and satisfaction.  This conclusion is complicated, however, by the nearly unanimous tendency amongst parents to also self-report that the meaning of their lives is inextricably tied to their children.

We are left, then, with a strange puzzle indeed.  Children appear to cause us considerable unhappiness, and yet, we feel as though the very significance of our lives would be vastly diminished in their absence.  How can these two facts be reconciled?

A crucial part of the answer lies in the fact that when people talk about “happiness,” they are often very confused about what they mean.  Some people identify happiness with what you might call short-term satisfaction, and especially with our feelings.  So for them parenthood, with all its challenges, physical and emotional, seems to undermine happiness rather than contributing to it.

And yet, any serious understanding of happiness must transcend short-term feelings.  Happiness has to do with the broader shape of one’s life, and also with whether one believes that this shape tends to meaning and value on the whole.  It depends, that is, on whether we can truthfully affirm that our lives are purposeful and worthwhile.  On this deeper level, there is no question that children contribute enormously to happiness.  As Senior argues, it is pretty clear that children contribute to our understanding of our life’s importance.

Senior’s argument is a good reminder that we need to think a bit more deeply about what happiness means in the first place.  Think about it this way.  When you are 60 or 70 years old and you are looking back, are you going to say that the most important thing you did with your life was to accomplish some professional goal or another?  We will certainly take some satisfaction in professional accomplishments, but it seems unlikely that they will give life its fundamental meaning.  That is why many successful professionals, not just looking back in retirement, but in “mid-life”, have serious questions about the meaning of what they have accomplished.  Most of us, I think, will find the primary meaning of our life somewhere else.

Having a child is bringing into existence a new human being that has his or her own eternal destiny.  Once a child is conceived, he or she continues to live forever thereafter: first, here on earth, and second, in the life that is to come.  Nothing that we do professionally can possibly compare to this accomplishment.  It is indeed hard to imagine anything we could possibly do, professionally or otherwise, that could compare to dedicating ourselves fully to the care of a child with an eternal destiny.

So, every now and again, we parents should step back and “remind ourselves” that we are happy.  It is a strange idea that we have to remind ourselves of something that, we might think, our feelings should already make clear to us.  It is precisely the point, though, that happiness is not only about what our feelings disclose to us on a moment-by-moment basis.  Rather than let ourselves be dominated by short-term feelings, we must always remember the ultimate truths of our lives.  In our more meditative moments—when we step back and look at “the big picture”— we see far beyond the physical tiredness and the emotional challenges of parenthood.  We see so many joys and the sacrifices that were so worthwhile, that our lives are full of meaning, because they have been in the service of those wonderful beings, who owe their very existence to our spousal love, cooperating with God.

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