What is happiness for a parent? Since becoming a father a little over a year ago, I’ve been at the receiving end of much unsolicited advice, or reminiscence, or reminiscence packaged as advice, from parents of children older than my own. Often, the narratives seem to conflict with one another, depending on who is dishing out the wisdom. “You’ve survived the first year,” a colleague tells me. “That’s the hardest part.” Meanwhile, I am warned by a friend: “You think it’s tough now, just wait. They develop a will. They throw their shoes. This is your life now. Welcome to the jungle.”
In a similar vein, recently I have become aware of a preponderance of studies that seek to answer the question, on a mass-scale, of “Who is happier: people with kids, or people without them?” For example, something like “Toddler Keeping You Awake? You’re Still Happier Than Non-Parents, Study Finds” might drift across my Facebook feed. And then I’ll hear the news that “Fatherhood Has a Huge Impact on Your Happiness, Studies Say.” And I am dispirited to learn that “Parents Are Happier Than Non-Parents—But Not in the U.S.”
The somewhat sensationalistic nature of these headlines aside, studies that seek to lump billions of very different people into two groups and then make categorical declarations about their comparative subjective experiences bear numerous limitations. And the unsolicited advice from other parents — even if well-intentioned and sometimes on the mark — often seems to reveal more about their own experiences than it forecasts about mine.
Still, as a new father who is only beginning to understand what it means to have invited the existential bomb of a baby into my life, I have not been immune to lending credence to these third-person accounts. When I read that I am part of a group that is, on average, less happy than another group (even if, the next moment, I read exactly the opposite), I might start neurotically monitoring my emotional temperature in order to see where, in each moment, I am falling on the Happiness Meter — a habit that tends to make me, well, pretty unhappy.
To combat this, I’ve decided to do what I typically do when I find myself listening to others tell me what my own life is like: I just ask myself how I feel. At first glance, it’s a fair question: Am I happier now that I’m a father? I thought I’d explore the subject a bit.
To begin, being a parent has presented me with the fearsome challenge of existing in the world while loving someone so much that it physically hurts, and knowing that I do not have total control over the well-being of this person. The writer Elizabeth Stone describes this vulnerability well, noting that to have a child is to “decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
What is the relationship between finding purpose in struggle and experiencing personal happiness? I’m sure there’s a connection, even if it’s not a simple, easily quantifiable one.
Has this made me happier? When I can accept that I can’t rescue my son from every injury the earth has to offer, I focus on showering him with love, and I feel quite focused, almost serene. Unfortunately, I keep forgetting to do this, and I spend too much of my time in a dull and anxious bind of overprotectiveness in which simply preventing my son from dying from one moment to the next is the only measure of success. I would not call this state of affairs “happy,” but at least it gives me the opportunity to slowly and awkwardly learn how to let go of what I can’t control, which is an invaluable skill to have, not just in parenting, but in general.
Relatedly, being a parent, and transporting such precious cargo through life, has intensified my perception of the dangers of this world. Climate change, for example, was scary enough before having a child, but visions of gasping for breath in parched hell realms of red sky, ash, and warlord rule with a kid in tow make it all the more overwhelming. But this fear has also kindled in me a redoubled effort to try to bring about a safer, more ecologically healthy, more peaceful world, a world in which, to borrow a phrase from Paulo Freire, it becomes more possible to love, and I find purpose in this. What is the relationship between finding purpose in struggle and experiencing personal happiness? I’m sure there’s a connection, even if it’s not a simple, easily quantifiable one.
Being a parent, and bearing witness to the miracle of my partner’s pregnancy and her giving birth, has made me more aware of my own biology, my own mammal-ness, the magnificence of our species and its ancient rites of mutual aid, the majesty of this planet’s ever-unfolding creative powers. It has given me a new appreciation for blood and math and sky, and how it all clicks together somehow. I am awestruck with reverence for the fact that life exists, and when I die, I know I’ll go on with this dance in one form or another. My son’s birth assured me there is no death.
Being a parent has stirred up issues from my own childhood, and, since they’re here on the surface, I have the opportunity to heal from them on a deeper level. Doing so is painful, but there is insight and relief on the other side. At which point along this journey would one take my happiness stats? What if I did not have the awareness and good fortune to catch these issues as they arose, to work through them in my journal, and in my conversations with others who are able to support me? Would that affect my happiness score? How does it affect the score of others?
The happiest person I know is my son. H has never held back an emotion; he has never “searched for” or “found” happiness, as if it were a lost object we could possess, rather than waves within and around us.
On a similar note, being a parent has made me realize even more acutely that models of masculinity need to evolve, and that men need to dispense once and for all with the masks of stoicism. We need to get in touch with and communicate our fears, and form genuine bonds of friendship and support, not just for our own sakes, but also for our partners, our children, and broader society. Men are becoming more and more involved in taking care of children on a day-to-day level. Despite the fact that a Google search for “books for new dads” will reveal a dozen titles comparing fatherhood to war and sports, there is no place for aggression or violence in the entirely non-competitive undertaking of being a parent. Right now, fathers can, and do, play a vital role in rewriting the scripts of outmoded and oppressive gender roles. I’m not sure whether this is always “happy” work, but it’s important work, and it’s full of exciting possibilities.
Finally, that which we call joy is a real thing, and it comes in moments, sometimes long, sometimes fleeting, like catching a wave in the ocean, or dancing to a song you love with people you love, or walking past lilacs in bloom and smelling them down to your toes. My son provides me with these moments every day. Every little new thing he does, every smile or laugh or half-word or ecstatic splashing of bathtub water with the palm of his small hand, makes my heart swell with joy, so much so that the sensation must spill beyond my body and into the air around me. I know I am not the only one that feels this, and so I know the universe is filled with exponential sums of such joy. In moments like these, I feel as if the whole of my life and all the pain and unhappiness I have felt was worth it, just to see such a perfect, remarkable, joyful, simple, miraculous occurrence.
It is perhaps as difficult to isolate our swirling emotions — joy, terror, awe, etc. — and the alchemical exchanges between them as it is difficult to remove the heads side from the tails side of a coin. Beyond that, it is worth asking (since it is often simply assumed to be the case) whether “happiness” should be the most coveted emotional state and fundamental objective of human life. To be sure, I like being happy, and want others to be happy. But I also strive to live a purposeful life in which I am always growing and learning, and this endeavor does not always align—immediately and continuously—with the peculiarly American pursuit of happiness. In fact, constantly worrying about whether or not we are happy—and living in thrall to the “Happiness Industrial Complex” and the 4.2 trillion-dollar wellness market—may very well be counterproductive.
Incidentally, the happiest person I know is not a parent. The happiest person I know is my son, who would see no purpose for his happiness report card other than to try to eat it. He has never held back an emotion; he has never “searched for” or “found” happiness, as if it were a lost object we could possess, rather than waves within and around us.
In this, as in other things, my son is my greatest teacher. The more I take a cue from him and let go of worrying about how I feel, the more I can connect with him, and delight in his happiness. Through this, I am learning that the greatest happiness I have is not my own, but rather something surrendered over, something reflected back, something shared on a current of love strong enough to birth the cosmos, and to sustain it.
Ryan Croken is a writer, educator, and father. He teaches at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and is currently working on a book of poems written in the voice of his cat, Zams.