Does Being a Mother of 7 Actually Make Me Less Happy, According to Science?
Updated: Aug 22, 2019
Am I doomed to be unhappy because I have seven kids?
Last week I read an article which said “having children actually robs you of happiness”.
The research showed that being a parent makes you less happy compared to non-parents. According to the study, parents have more stress, depression, and emotional distress. (Duh.)
From a survey of those researched, taking care of children was at the bottom of a list of pleasures — below shopping, sleeping and talking on the phone.
Professor Daniel Gilbert, in his book “Stumbling on Happiness” looked at several studies and found that children give adults many things, but an “increase in daily happiness is probably not among them.”
Even worse are the words of Robin Simon in a study of U.S. parents, “I thought at least purpose and meaning in life would be higher for parents, and we find it’s just flat.”
Since reading it I’ve become more aware of my own levels of happiness. Is it true that being a mom of seven makes me less happy (and exponentially so)?
Children definitely produce challenges, interruptions, stressful situations, and ‘emotional distress’ I wouldn’t face if I were childless. Even as I type my 4-year-old tugs on my arm.
And just before writing I finished crying after hours of fighting with my teenage daughter.
Last night I woke up at least three times with my 2-year-old, who was sleeping in my bed because she’s been sick.
Yesterday my 4-year-old drank a whole bottle of $13 liquid Vitamin C spray I JUST bought to help me get over my cold.
My 14-year-old is moody. My 13-year-old won’t do his studies (did I mention I homeschool). My 11-year-old won’t stop criticizing my 8-year-old who keeps using his whining voice, the one that DRIVES ME CRAZY!
These ‘dark moments’ are a normal part of my life. Am I happier because of them? Of course not.
So don’t they verify the ‘science’ that having children does decrease your level of daily happiness?
Clearly, I would be happier if I didn’t have to deal with them at all (the children and the issues), right? Wouldn’t I be more fulfilled and less stressed if I could do what I want to do when I want to do it, without the headaches and heartaches of caring for little people (and big people who are emotionally little — aka teenagers)?
Despite the evidence staring me in the face, I think studies like this, and the paradigm initiating them, are flawed because:
Using ‘moments’ to determine happiness levels in two groups of people (parents vs non-parents) is an essentially flawed philosophy. Instead, we need to look at the overall mosaic of happiness levels over a lifetime. Happiness, for both parents and non-parents, fluctuates over time. I’ll explain more on this below.
Pleasure is NOT the same as happiness. The study references that ‘caring for children is at the bottom of a list of pleasures’. Pleasures do not produce happiness. So what is the study really measuring?
Other people can’t make us happy, even our children. It is our job to create our own happiness, regardless of our circumstances (or number of children).
The study doesn’t separate competent parents from incompetent parents. Our levels of ‘happiness’ as a parent will increase as our skills and ability to parent well improve. And if we don’t learn to parent well and raise capable, caring adults, not only will our ‘daily happiness levels’ decrease, but they will decrease exponentially over time. In this way, the study is right. More on this below.
Purpose and meaning are derived from within, not without. We can’t expect parents to have “higher levels of purpose and meaning” just because they have children. But we can — parents and non-parents alike — find purpose in the most mundane tasks (changing diapers, doing dishes, grocery shopping) if WE provide the meaning from within.
Higher levels of purpose and meaning come from living at higher levels of awareness.‘Being happy’ is NOT the point of parenting. Just as ‘taking it easy’ and ‘enjoying pleasures’ (shopping, talking on the phone) are not the point of life. Both (parenting and life) are meant to be challenging because challenge is what helps us (and our children and humanity) grow. Growth is the point of parenting and life.
Mosaics, Not Moments, Determine Happiness
The daily moments of chaos and drama in my parenting life are the dark points, the apex of familial chaos that make me say, “See! Studies are right. My life is crazy. And annoying. Parenting is not pleasurable. And I’m miserable because of it!”
Yes, these dark moments have made me wonder why I became a parent, wish my life were different, or wonder how in the world I got to this point (a mother of seven).
The problem with using them to determine my ‘levels of happiness’ is that those dark moments are just that — moments.
Granted, some of them might last an hour or a week or longer (like fighting with my daughter). But they pass. And then they’re gone. For now.
But I also have moments that are joy-filled, laughter-filled, fun-filled.
Like when my teenage daughter apologizes for her behavior and verbalizes how she ‘hadn’t processed her emotions well and took them out on me’.
Or when my 4-year-old tugs on my arm while I write because she wants to tell me “you’re-my-best-mom-in-the-whole-world.”
When we try to define our life by the dark moments we’re actually doing ourselves a disservice. Life is NOT the dark moments. The dark moments are just a part of life.
Laura Vanderkam, author of I Know How She Does It, puts it this way:
“The key… is realizing that life isn’t lived in epiphanies and that looking for lessons and the necessity of big life changes [or happiness levels] in dark moments profoundly limits our lives.”
What’s often not focused on (by researchers or parents) are the rest of the ‘less-dramatic’ moments which create a mosaic of weeks, months, years, and decades.
What’s often forgotten are those moments of bliss and insight and ‘aha’s’ which can make the days, weeks, and months of suffering worth it — yes, just one little moment.
What’s often forgotten is the ‘end game’.
The end game for parenting happens when you’re a grandparent. Then — IF you’ve done it right — you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor — children who respect you, grandchildren who adore you, and a legacy of love and learning you’re passing on to the next generation.
This is the problem with studies that measure happiness. They are asking the wrong questions.
They’re trying to ask the gardener if he’s happier because he planted an apple seed while he’s in the midst of watering, weeding, and toiling under the hot sun.
They’re trying to figure out if parents are more stressed and enjoy fewer daily pleasures than non-parents.
Duh. Of course they are. Any parent could tell you that.
What the studies aren’t doing is asking whether all that stress and sacrifice are worth it in the end.
Imagine you asked exercisers how happy they are while they’re bench pressing or pushing through that last mile?
Would their answer make them seem ‘happier’ than the non-exercisers having their morning coffee and donut? Which group is having more momentary pleasure?
Obviously the non-exercising, donut-eating coffee drinkers. Most of us would rather not endure the pain of exercise but enjoy the ‘pleasure’ of a coffee and donut.
But we shouldn’t be concerned with the pleasure or pain of the moment. We should be concerned with the long-term results.
Parenting is no different. The study is focusing on moments, not results. You can’t ask someone if they are ‘happier’ or ‘unhappier’ because of having children. You have to wait until the work is over. And the problem is, it’s never over.
Pleasure is NOT the Same as Happiness
According to the research, it seems that happiness and pleasure are considered equivalent. They shouldn’t be.
It also seems that pleasure (aka happiness according to the study) is the point of life (whether parent or non-parent). Also not true (which I’ll address below).
Pleasure is defined as “a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment” often derived from doing things that ‘feel good or satisfying’. Pleasure is important. We should have pleasures in our life. But they are very different from long-term, lasting happiness. And they are NOT the point of life (something else I’ll address below).
True happiness often comes from doing things that don’t feel good or satisfying (in the moment)— the hard things which require work but produce the results we want. Exercise, eating healthy, studying, working. Some of these may be less pleasurable than their counterparts. But the consequences of their counterparts will ultimately produce unhappiness — obesity, disease, ignorance, poverty.
Yet some of the statements in this study ‘proving’ that parents are less happy than non-parents are ridiculous:
“From a survey of those researched, taking care of children was at the bottom of a list of pleasures — below shopping, sleeping and talking on the phone.”
Seriously? What results will shopping, sleeping, and talking on the phone bring you in the long run? It’s akin to saying that ‘going to work’ or ‘working out’ or ‘eating healthy’ are at the bottom of a list of pleasures. Of course they are! But pleasures do not produce long-term happiness!
What does produce happiness is doing the hard, ‘unpleasant’ things you don’t really want to do but know you should. It’s the difference between choosing to eat chocolate cake or carrots on a daily basis. Chocolate cake is fine once in a while.
But not every day.
Other People Can’t Make Us Happy, Even Our Children
Assuming that parents would be automatically happier than non-parents is flawed thinking based on the belief that other people or circumstances make us happy or unhappy.