All Joy and No Fun? I Don't Think So

I was surfing that site again, and came across a link to this article in New York magazine. In the response article on babble, many readers commented how the NYM article made them depressed. Apparently, scientific studies show that having kids makes people less happy than not having kids.

That hasn't been my experience, so I read the article out of curiosity. None if it really surprises me, but I think the authors have misplaced the problem a bit. It seems to me that the problem lies with the parents, not with the kids. If parents go into parenthood with unrealistic expectations and life doesn't play out like it did in their imagined fantasy of life with children, then they become unhappy. But to me, this is not because they had children, but because they harbored unrealistic expectations about having children.

And I don't think this phenomenon is exclusive to having children, either. I think a lot of people are unhappy within their marriage for the same reason-- because they have unrealistic expectations about what marriage "should" be like, and when their experience doesn't align with their imagined fantasy, then they become unhappy.

Zen/Buddhist theory goes a long way to alleviating both of these problems. A lot of misery is caused by unfulfilled desires; you want your spouse or child to do this or that, and they don't, and you become unhappy because your desires are not fulfilled. Most people try to wheedle and control others to force them by guilt or other means to fulfill their desires, which in turn reduces the happiness of those forced into making someone else happy. I think it's a lot more constructive to spend some time adjusting your desires so that their fulfillment is under your own control.

For example, say you want your spouse to clear the cobwebs from the porch; that is your desire. But if your spouse balks, or doesn't get around to it, or does a bad job of it, then your desire will be unfulfilled, and you will be unhappy. But think about that for a minute. How important is it that your spouse clear the cobwebs? Isn't the most important thing that the cobwebs themselves are gone? This can be separated into two desires-- one, that the cobwebs get cleared, two, that your spouse do it. Even if one of your desires is unmet (your spouse isn't interested in this chore), you still can have the basic desire met by clearing them yourself. Icky, yes, but better to be sit happily content on a clean porch, then be irritated every time you go out there and cursing your spouse for not clearing the webs.

Over the summer I read a book called, "The Continuum Concept: In Search Of Happiness Lost". The author spent time in some jungle culture where no one forced their will on anyone else, children included. And they were generally happy. So before I complain about anything, I take a minute to stop and think if I can fix the problem myself. If I can, then I decide if it's worth the effort. If it's not, then it's probably not worth the effort for anyone else to fix, either, is it? So I don't open my mouth to complain. If it is worth fixing, then I do it.

As people can unfairly burden their spouses with their one-sided expectations, so can they burden their children. And if their children don't live up to the expectations, presto, the parents are unhappy "because of their children". Or so they think. I think they are unhappy because of their expectations, and ought to just get rid of them. But that is a counter-cultural idea, and so people generally don't do that. I read so many articles about how minding your young children all day is "mind-numbing" and how much parents hate doing it. I wonder what exactly did those parents expect? I rather enjoy most of my time with W. I don't do much, and I don't spend much time thinking, but there is a fair amount of just "hanging out". When I was in college, I recall enjoying time spent just "hanging out" quite a lot. True, the conversation isn't there now, but a toddler is still company, at any rate. Maybe parents who don't like spending time with their own children never liked just "hanging out"? Were they the type of person who always went from one scheduled activity to another, never taking the time to flop on the sofa reading a magazine all afternoon? I suspect their problem is that they expect their babies and toddlers to tolerate structured activities beyond their natural capacity for such things.

There's another thing I noticed on the comments; the people who enjoyed their kids most were the ones who had grown bored with their pre-child lives. T and I fell into this camp. It was most acute when we were living in NYC. I mean, after a few years, how many Broadway shows can you go see? How many transcendent dinners can you eat? How many fancy martinis can you down in the latest hip bar? After a while, there is an unrelenting sameness to everything. Sure, you're in a new restaurant or different theater, but the experience is nothing particularly new. And yes, it's all very pleasant and enjoyable. But after a while (several years, this doesn't happen overnight), there is no more novelty.

We noticed that people with kids were never sitting around their apartment in the evening, wondering what on earth they were going to do to amuse themselves for a few hours before bedtime. Or heaven forbid, you have an entire weekend to fill up with amusements. Whether you did anything or not, most of the time there was nothing new, just more of something familiar and pleasant. Now, perhaps those people with kids weren't sitting around in the evening looking for amusements because they were too tired. Or had too many additional chores to do during that time (who'd have known kids add so much more LAUNDRY to life?). But they weren't struggling with ways to fill their time.

Of course, that happens during the daytime, with the babes now. I still have to wake up every morning and figure out how I'm going to kill a day. But it's WAY different with a baby versus with other adults. So I get a lot of novelty right there-- I am not yet numbed by years spent in parks, or at baby yoga class, or browsing toy stores. Although I'm sure the novelty will wear off in time-- my neighbor who had four kids over a 16 year span seemed pretty tired of all the kid stuff by the end there. But I've got a few years before the kids stuff becomes dull. But what keeps changing even when the activities become routine is the child himself! While I have a generally good idea about how conversations with T will go, W's reactions to things constantly change. And will continue to change for the entire time he's living with us. So that keeps things from getting boring. Way different from interactions with adults. Who, once you've known them for a few years, generally cease to surprise. Now, maybe I WILL get bored with W, and he'll become predictable at some point later in his childhood. But I doubt it.

So while time spent with children can lack the pure pleasure of adult events, it is made up for by the addition of change and novelty. I can see that if one had children before they had time to become bored with the typical adult amusements of life, one would not appreciate what it is exactly that children offer. And perhaps that is the case for the majority of respondents in those scientific surveys-- perhaps our society is full of people who had kids before they had exhausted their time spent on their outside interests. Or if you had the energy to pursue vastly different and novel things your entire life pre-child (trapeze lessons, learning Portuguese, mastering glass blowing, etc.) so that you never became bored with the options, then I could see that children could totally lower your lifestyle. But if you're like a lot of people who just do the typical things in their free time (dinner, movies, theater, sporting events, concerts, etc.), then kids are a marvelous antidote to the boredom that can set in.

Do I miss my old lifestyle? You bet. But the thing is, I know it's not gone forever, just until W becomes independent. A bit over decade of my life spent focused on children doesn't seem like that big a sacrifice to me. It's something interesting to do for a dozen years. After that I'll certainly be involved with W, but I don't expect he'll need the kind of parental attention that a toddler requires. Once we can leave without a babysitter, T and I can get our adult lives back, and do whatever we want. I suppose there is a big difference with looking ahead a dozen years to a 20-something vs someone a little older than that. The 10-year plan seems like it's forever in the future when you're very young, but now I know 10 years is not interminable. I still don't think it goes by in a blink or anything, but it's pretty easy for me to think forward that far. When I graduated from college, I was way off-base when I imagined how things would be ten years out. I think I've got a better grip on reality now (although I bet if I look back at now when I'm 80, I'll be bemused by this presumption). And I've become content to let things unfold as they will without trying to plan and control very much, and I've subsequently got a lot more happiness. Especially with a child.