Parenthood? You spend all day wanting to see them, all evening wanting to get away
Why is it heresy to say you love your children fiercely but they don’t always make you happy?
Project Parenthood means pouring every particle of ourselves into transforming these small humans into functioning bigger ones. Photograph: E+/iStock/Getty
I have just passed my favourite sight in the whole of Ireland when my son calls to ask me to pick up ketchup. My favourite sight on the island – better than the cliffs at Kilkee; better than the startling green of the sea at high tide in Dunmore East; better than any five star hotel suite – is the 14km sign on the motorway.
The 14km sign means “not long now”. It means “just around the next bend, and then a little bit more”. It means, if I’m running really late, “call home and tell him to keep them up”.
I can’t possibly stop for ketchup. Stopping for ketchup means losing 10 minutes, and I don’t have 10 minutes to lose. My kids want ketchup, but I want them. No contest.
In the delicious few seconds between parking the car and putting my key in the front door, I imagine how it will go. I’ll open the door and one will come barrelling at my legs; another will appear for a fibre-optic-speed download of his day; the third will materialise more slowly from the depths of the house and lock her arms around me in a hug for which, any day now, she’ll have to bend down.
For 30 seconds or more, that is exactly how it is. It is bliss. Then one child thrusts a permission slip at me, and another slips in with a request for a hair appointment or a playdate or a board game or more screen time. There are complaints over a sore knee or hurt feelings or a lost bunny. There is homework to be checked, projects to be admired, teeth to be brushed, hair to be untangled, laundry emergencies to be sorted. The desperate, sometimes terrifying need they had for me when they were little has abated, only to be replaced by a terrifying list of needs.
This is parenthood. You spend all day wanting to see them, and then you spend all evening wanting to get away from them. “Why don’t I pop out and get ketchup,” I almost say, but I don’t because I know this is what Robin Williams called the good stuff.
Every time dismay breaks out in the media – as it has done again recently – over the latest batch of findings that reveal that parenthood doesn’t make parents happy, I want to invite all the bewildered academics and perplexed columnists around to my house for the witching hours of 6pm to 8pm. Happiness during those hours would be retreating to the sunny spot at the bottom of the garden with a gin and designer tonic. Happiness is not getting on your hands and knees under the couch searching for a bunny that is suddenly, irretrievably lost for the fourth time this week.
But happiness has nothing to do with it. Some people might have their first child in the expectation that it will make them happy, but no one has their second child in a quest for happiness, and definitely not their third. By then, you know what the academic studies are always “discovering” to the surprise of no-one who is actually a parent.
There is buckets of research on this topic, and much of it points to the same thing: parents are not happier than their childfree peers. They’re often less happy. A 2004 study by the Nobel Prize-winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman of nearly 1,000 women in the US found childcare ranked 16th out of 19 activities for pleasurability – behind even housework. I know.
So why do we still find it so hard to believe that people – and women in particular – without children can actually be happy? It’s safe to presume a significant proportion of women who don’t have children don’t actually want children. Even for those who once did, by the time they reach their mid-40s, the desperate longing has usually begun to abate, and is replaced by a quiet, and often quietly joyful, resignation.
Equally, why is it heresy as a parent to say that you love your children fiercely, but that they don’t always make you happy? Who said it was their job to make you happy?
Part of the problem, I think, is that our cultural expectations of parenthood are now so high. Project Parenthood means pouring every particle of ourselves into transforming these small humans into functioning bigger ones. In return, we seem to feel they owe us something – and in the absence of a pay cheque or a pension plan or even the occasional toilet break, that something must be happiness.
I am more content since I had children. But I’m also more afraid of the world. There are higher highs and lower lows. There are more moments of joy in my life, but also more dark terrors. Am I happier than I was? Am I happier than my friends who don’t have children and have spectacular careers and drink gin in the garden on sunny week nights or take off on a whim to Bali? No, probably not. But happiness is no longer the goal – at least, my happiness is no longer the goal.
All summer, The Irish Times will offer tips, advice and information for parents on how to help their children thrive during the holiday months. See irishtimes.com/summeroffamily