Twenty-one years ago I wrote the following in my daughter’s baby journal: “It’s a lovely morning—sunny, yet hazy in the hills with wisps of fog. The baby and I have had a pleasant morning playing downstairs. She squealed and rocked on her hands and knees as I played her Raffi tape. Then I fed her a little cereal and read her her Spot books. Now, as I sit with her on my lap, feeding her with her little spoon and listening to her smack her lips and say, ‘Hmmm,’ her Baby Beluga tape playing in the background, with just the two of us sharing this happy day, I wonder, did I ever know pure happiness until this moment?”
This past weekend I read an article in the Deseret News entitled, “Why Children?” in which the author, Michael de Groote, discussed happiness and parenting. According to the studies cited in the article, the two don’t go together. “Scientific studies have found that having children does not increase happiness. In fact, experts say it has the opposite effect,” says De Groote, and he claims that these findings “are confirmed across decades of research.” He refers to a 1989 study that concluded that “parents with children at home worry more, feel less efficacious and are less happy with their marriages than nonparents,” then goes on to quote a Harvard psychology professor who asserts that most couples’ happiness begins to decline when children come along; this decline is especially acute when children are small and when they become adolescents, with couples returning to their pre-parenting happiness levels only after their children leave the nest. In another study cited in the article, researchers assert that “the best evidence now available indicates that the present young adults should not decide to have children on the basis of expectations that parenthood will lead to psychological rewards in the later stages of life. The prospects for such rewards seem rather dim, at best.”
As Latter-day Saints, we believe we have a sacred duty to have children. In fact, the plan for our progression, which we often call the plan of happiness, includes having children of our own and creating families. We believe that we fulfill the measure of our creation by having posterity, and that we will have joy in doing so. Not only do we endorse having children and believe that parenting is one of life’s central purposes, we teach that our reward for righteous living will be a state of joy in which, among other things, we’ll have the privilege of…. being a parent forever.
Yet, if the research De Groote cites in his article has any validity, one could argue that eternal parenting sounds more like eternal misery than eternal happiness. Hmmm. I will say that now that I’ve had some experience as a mother, I’ve learned that, though I love my children beyond words, parenting is HARD. Blood, sweat, and tears hard. It definitely can make you vulnerable and susceptible to pain in ways you’ve never experienced before and it has the tendency to thrust all of your weaknesses to the forefront. And yes, sometimes you can go through periods in your marriage when, despite your best intentions, the demands of parenting leave you and your spouse stressed out and stretched thin, with little left for each other.
But therein lies the paradox. I believe it’s precisely because parenting is so hard that it also has the potential for lasting, significant joy. And I mean joy, not the world’s definition of happiness, which can be fleeting and superficial—and hard to quantify in a scientific study. Joy entails work and commitment. Joy is a richer, deeper emotion, closely tied to its counterpart, sorrow, and children provide us with plenty of both. Eve must have understood this keenly as she nursed her newborns, then later wept over Cain and Abel.
It’s been many years since those sunny days I spent with my firstborn, wrapped in a cocoon of new-mother love, full of plans and hopes and dreams. Though parenting has been harder than I ever imagined, that love has swelled and deepened, sanctified and shaped me. Nothing has challenged me and humbled me to the dust more than parenting, but nothing has been as soul expanding, refining, and fulfilling. And that, to me, is happiness, pure and simple.
Does mothering make you “happy”? Have you been surprised by how challenging parenting can be? Have you also been surprised by how fulfilling it can be? Do you agree with the studies cited by De Groote that marital happiness takes a dip when a couple becomes parents, then improves after children leave home? How can we teach our youth to value and look forward to parenting while giving them realistic expectations of parenting?