Parenting Happiness: A “Magic Trick of the Memory”

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I’ve been reading the article “All Joy and No Fun” from the New York Times Magazine with interest.

I’m in a position to speak about the “joys” (or otherwise) of parenthood now that I’ve been in the thick of it for 16 months.

Anyone who knows me can attest that I haven’t always been a happy girl. I inherited mild chronic depression from my dad’s side of the family. I’m also somewhat of a complainer, like him.

The flip side of that is I acquired my artful mind from him, and the ability to look back with rose-colored glasses. The deep, sweet places that my mind travels are intricately woven with the threads of loneliness and occasional discontent that cling to me like a stray dog.

I worried about these qualities in the lead up to our choice to foster kids. Would I spiral down, and take them with me?

From the article: “When you pause to think what children mean to you, of course they make you feel good,” says Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. “The problem is, 95 percent of the time, you’re not thinking about what they mean to you. You’re thinking that you have to take them to piano lessons. So you have to think about which kind of happiness you’ll be consuming most often. Do you want to maximize the one you experience almost all the time”—moment-to-moment happiness—“or the one you experience rarely?”

So the distinct ability to look at the kids for what they represent — beauty, truth, innocence, family — allows us as parents to have the “joy” of parenting and achieve happiness. But a large portion of the time we are living in the function of parenting: the logistics of making life-with-kids happen, from laundry to school to birds and bees.

The curious notions put forth in this long article (please read it because it is very interesting) is that American parents are less happy because we want MORE for our kids. The more details of our kids’ lives we have to worry about, the less our kids make us happy.

What I Mean
Yesterday, I was sitting in a lawn chair watching the kids jump around in the kiddie pool. I had a book on my lap that I wasn’t really reading. The kids weren’t paying any attention to me. I was just sitting there, hanging out.

For a moment, I heard myself worrying: “I should have invited some other kids over. I should have organized a playdate. They are always playing by themselves at home. They aren’t socializing.”

Then I caught myself. My train of thought was interrupted by two things: the ever-pragmatic voice of my mom in my head repeating over and over: KIDS ARE HAPPIEST AT HOME. That, and the tumbling peals of their laughter in the pool.

They were happy. But where are Mom and Dad happiest?

One of my favorite authors, Bill Bryson, wrote the book The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a funny memoir of his childhood in Iowa in the 50s. Actually it is funny, but it’s also quite bitter. Bryson clings desperately to his memories, and bemoans the loss of the simpler life that children had “back then.” Reading it, I felt an uncontrollable regret. I grew up with a similar childhood in the 70s, riding my bike to the library, walking to school, unencumbered by playdates. But every parent today seems to cling to the notion that we are NOT safe anymore. That children must be sheltered, protected, coddled. The parents lose their own time (they have LESS free time now than they did back in the 70s) and the children learn to cling, to be afraid.

What Memories May Come
My mom, who raised 6 kids before she went back to work teaching, doesn’t commemorate my childhood the same way. She was GLAD when Dad got home so she could thrust a baby in his arms. They argued the same way Colin and I do about who carried the biggest burden of “work.”

Yet, in the same way, my mom oozes with joy over her family. She tells me she would “never trade it, not a day of it.” Her sister, Mary Ann, recently deceased, had 13 children. Mom always said Mary Ann would have had more if she could.

For me, the year past has been the happiest of my life: but also the most complex and wearying. Every morning, we go through boring/grueling routines of reminders, repetition, and a great deal of talking about pee. But I see living examples of what we achieve as we have stuck to our beliefs, values and goals.

They smile at us, say thank you, and give us the very best hugs.

Elizabeth Howard

Elizabeth writes literary non-fiction, haiku, cultural rants, and Demand Poetry in order to forward the cause of beautiful writing. She teaches and speaks about the rhetorical impact of beautiful writing. A recent transplant to Connecticut, she calls London, Kansas City, and Iowa home. 

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  12 comments for “Parenting Happiness: A “Magic Trick of the Memory”

  1. Jeannie
    July 8, 2010 at 10:02 am

    I’ve had this article on my brain ever since Deron sent it to me yesterday. You express the points it makes very well. I understand your struggles–although I certainly can’t say I understand them in an I-know-where-you’re-coming-from way because I’m not you, nor is anyone else. I’m a weird blend of romantic/pragmatic myself, so the choice to have kids (and it is weird, as the article notes, that it’s a choice) weighs heavily on me.
    All we can do is our best.

  2. July 8, 2010 at 10:15 am

    @Jeannie, No matter how you have kids, its a choice (right down to “Yeah, let’s NOT use a condom!”) From there on, I see every parent as equal. The competitions that we create are just items of interest to keep our self-esteem machines busy. I wanted to write about this because I found it curious how happy I have been.

    One thing that this article is right about is the impact on the marriage. Colin and I have to actively work on being together on things within child-rearing… and that doesn’t even factor in the aspect of our marriage that involves just he and I!

  3. Stacy Kearney
    July 8, 2010 at 10:32 am

    A friend and I were talking just last week about the guilt we sometimes feel because we aren’t always going or doing. But we also were able to come to the conclusions: 1) you don’t always have to do something, go somewhere, be a happy fun-time playmate. It’s okay to have your kid(s) learn to play alone. 2) you don’t always have to feel like you should be wanting to do something and that’s fine. downtime is good and necessary 3) you can only do the best you can in the moment you’re doing it and that’s good enough.

    As soon as I recover from this surgery, we’re getting the backyard cleared out, putting up a large umbrella or a camping pavilion, setting up the kiddie pool and sprinkler, taking out a pitcher of lemonade and a book or two and just chilling on our own. I can’t wait for this.

    Have you checked out the “Free Range Kids” site?

  4. tricia
    July 8, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    Love this post (and the article). I can think of a few people who would appreciate, so I’m going to pass it along.

  5. July 8, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    @Stacy, curiously in my book group right now we are reading a book on mindfulness and meditation called “Wherever You Go, There you Are” which is not only useful in parenting but in life!

    @Tricia, I am glad you liked it…and I miss you!!

  6. July 9, 2010 at 8:26 am

    Really really good post.

    I am amazed at how well you & Colin seem to have adapted to parenting so quickly.

    My wife, Heather, seems to feel more of the guilt you describe (as in, “I should arrange a playdate for the kids”) than I do. Maybe that’s a moms vs. dads thing – or maybe my sense of responsibility is just cauterized.

  7. Colin
    July 9, 2010 at 11:32 am

    This part defines my emotional life exactly:

    “My emotional life looks a lot like this these days. I suspect it does for many parents—a high-amplitude, high-frequency sine curve along which we get the privilege of doing hourly surfs.”

    I can’t remember ever feeling a joy as deeply as when one of our kids does something unexpected and lovely. I also can’t remember being so emotionally exhausted, or so angry as my children can make me. I’m a pretty level person, so the highs and lows take some getting used to.

  8. July 9, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    @Colin, I love that you got that quote. I have only ghostly memories of sine curves.

  9. July 10, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    You two ROCK, and are doing “parent-stuff-things” just right. Elizabeth, you have two pretty cool parents who taught you well, and you and your wonderful husband will help lead these kids where they need to go: To learn to be just as amazing as you both are.

  10. H
    August 30, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    ahhh, that is one of my biggest concerns in the child debate – the countless practical moments. More people are talking about the downside of having children but everyone says that they wouldn’t change a thing. So, that’s my quandry, would it be worth it TO ME? I’ve convinced myself, for now anyway, that I like my life the way it is and wouldn’t welcome the “intrusion,” obligation, responsibility etc. In truth, though, I feel discontent a lot of the time anyway. I feel that something is missing or that my life lacks meaning and wonder if having a child is the cure. However, that seems like a selfish and misguided reason for having a child and could backfire for everyone involved. I would like to stick with no, for now. Damn the biological clock!

  11. August 31, 2010 at 8:32 am

    @H, I was a mean old gus when I was single and all my friends were having kids. I didn’t want any of them to inconvenience me with their children. I had all the answers, and I knew everything. I was the perfect image of the torn woman– I loved my life, but I knew I would not be content if I didn’t have the family I imagined.

    SOOOO, when life handed us metaphorical/biological “lemonade,” there were a THOUSANDS moments when we could have stopped trying to make lemons. And even now sometimes (like ALL parents, as EVERY parents tells me, any chance they get), I daydream about our days floating up to the bar in the Dominican Republic. I desire that life so much.

    But, what would I do without MY brothers and sisters? My parents and grandparents? I remember my Mom and Dad arguing and my mom yelling. Yet she still seems so happy with her life and her family.

    That’s what I aspire to. Maybe you have to draw a picture in your mind of what YOU aspire to and forget about all the little steps it will take to get there.

    We all have our personal Tasmanian Devils inside, causing us to doubt. It’s the vision of the future you have to illuminate and choose.

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