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The happiness-in-parenting ideal has made many good moms and dads wonder what they’re doing wrong, Erin Stewart writes.

Would you be happier without kids?

It’s a horrible question. I know. Who wants to look that question in the eye?

And for those of us who already have kids, does the answer even matter? The kids are here, so let’s make the most of it and slap a smile on our faces, pretend like we’re deliriously happy and then silent scream in the pantry once a day like we’re supposed to do.

But … it is an interesting question. I think most people believe having children will make them happy. We think the act of becoming parents and raising children will make our lives rich and fulfilling. I mean, they call it the joy of parenting for a reason, right?

But joy and happiness aren’t always the same thing. Lately, I’ve been pondering the difference between joy and enjoyment. Let’s face it, I don’t know many people who actually enjoy the laundry and the diapers and the reality that you can’t even finish a thought or go to the bathroom without someone whining at you or tugging on you.

Am I a bad mother if I’m not enjoying motherhood? If it isn’t necessarily making me happy? One look at Facebook or Instagram confirmed my worst suspicions: All the other parents are deliriously happy and I’m a total failure.

So, I had to go beyond social media. I had to take my question to science.

Here’s what I found: First, there are a bunch of studies out there on this. Perhaps the most often-cited is one by Daniel Kahneman, a behavioral economist, and published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. He surveyed 909 working Texas women and found that child care ranked 16th in enjoyment out of 19 daily activities. The actual act of taking care of their children ranked below basically everything including cooking, watching TV, napping, shopping and housework. Most of these mothers, then, would rather be scrubbing toilets than parenting.

Then, I found a study tracking happiness in men and women around major life events published by the Institute of Labor Economics in Germany. For both groups, happiness peaked in the year before and after a first child’s birth. But by the time that little bundle of joy was 3 or 4, happiness tanked. Big time.

I began to realize I’m not alone in my musings on whether kids equal happiness. So I did what I always do, and promptly started questioning all my life choices. Why did we even have kids? Did we make a terrible mistake? What do we do now?

I freaked out pretty hardcore until I asked myself this question: Who promised me happiness as a parent?

Who promised me happiness in life, period?

Somehow, I’ve internalized the message that life owes me happiness. Motherhood owes me joy. That my choices are only good if they lead to this state of obligatory bliss. The funny thing is, I’m not even sure what this fickle concept of happiness is. Lack of stress? A sense of constant fulfillment? Physical pleasure? The absence of depression?

That’s a pretty tall order, and I know of basically nothing that can give me all of those things, all of the time.

Yet, here I am, expecting parenthood to deliver on the impossible, and basically setting myself up for disappointment. And more often than not, when I’m disappointed with parenthood, my discontent transfers to my children. I see them as standing in the way of the happiness the universe owes me.

So what’s the way out of this cycle? I have no idea. But here’s one thought that I found in a study from an Australian university, which found that parents who view their child-rearing role as a “calling” often defy the trend towards the unhappiness indicated by other parenting research. The more parenthood was an integral part of their identity, they more satisfaction and meaning they found in it, and in life.

For these parents, motherhood or fatherhood wasn’t a line item on a “How to be Happy for Dummies” checklist. Parenting didn’t owe them anything, least of all an elusive sense of happiness on an endless quest for bliss.

Parenthood wasn’t something they did, it was something they were. They felt called to have children and raise them, with zero expectation of what they’d get in return.

11 comments on this story

What would happen if I, likewise, stopped demanding happiness of parenthood? If I stopped staring at the happy-meter, declaring that I've been robbed, and instead, just accepted parenthood for all its equally terrible and transcendent moments?

Basically, what if I stop putting so much pressure on parenting? It owes me nothing. Motherhood can’t make me happy any more than winning the lottery or buying a fancy new house could. In fact, I’m convinced the more we single-mindedly seek happiness, the more it runs the other way.

Plus, I have a sneaking suspicion that as soon as I abandon my blissful parenthood expectations, I might make just enough room in my life for a little more happy.