Joy, purpose, and the hard work of parenting

Rod Dreher, writing at his new digs at Big Questions Online, has this to say about parenting and happiness:

“The loss of parental freedom is severe, and if young marrieds had any idea how difficult raising children can be, they might never conceive. Today, my wife and I are smack in the middle of raising three small children, each of whom presents a particular challenge. So many nights we are just flat-out exhausted. We have little time for ourselves anymore, and don’t have the money or liberty to do the fun things we once did. By conventional standards of measuring happiness, we ought not be happy.

And, I would say, we aren’t exactly happy. Rather, we’re joyful. I don’t for a minute regret having chosen parenthood, despite all the pain, frustration and heartbreak. I think there’s a difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is a superficial and fragile thing; joy is happiness that has been deepened and refined by tragedy. Joy is happiness with dimension. Joy is what you have that tells you that the burden is light, the yoke is freedom. It looks like a lie, maybe, from the outside, which is why, I think, my sister told me that we weren’t going to be able to understand what we will have lost and what we will have gained from parenthood until we’ve lived it.”

I’ve always considered the loss-of-happiness arguments against parenting to be fairly weak. Happiness is hard to define. I’m happy when I eat a piece of chocolate cake. I’m happy when I eat two pieces of chocolate cake. But if I keep eating pieces of chocolate cake I’ll be unhealthy and get really fat and pretty soon I won’t be so happy, even when I’m eating pieces of chocolate cake. I’m happy just sitting around in the evening on the couch – perfectly happy to not go on a run.

But I’m more happy after I go on the run, even though it took time and work and even though it hurts more than sitting on the couch does. Similarly, many of us would be enormously happy to never have to go to work or earn our living, but many of us also realize that after a few weeks sitting around the house doing nothing, we’re unlikely to feel terribly good.
Work gives us purpose and occupies our time, which makes the time spent not working all that much more meaningful.

Children are like that in a way, but they’re also more than that. Having children gives us an extended purpose. Yes, they’re tons of work, but when all is said and done at the end of the day and they’re asleep peacefully and it’s just the two of you sitting there exhausted on the couch with toys and clothes strewn everywhere and dishes piled up and the pillow beckoning – well there’s a peacefulness to that. And when you come home from work and your daughter’s eyes light up and a smile leaps to her face and she commences in telling you excitedly all the huge and wonderful things she’s done today – well nothing quite compares. I don’t miss my days of childless freedom. When our daughter spends the night with her grandparents, the house feels quiet and empty, like a huge piece of what makes us whole is suddenly absent.

Kids are lots of work, but the work is part of what makes the joy real.

Rod goes on to ask:

“A thought: When the people in a civilization see child-bearing as a choice, one to be made after cost-benefit analysis, instead of something you just do, is it possible to sustain that civilization?”

I know plenty of people who are unhappy as parents. They chose to become parents and begrudge their lack of freedom now. I’m not sure how this is possible – I’m not sure what’s missing from their family equation that makes them so miserable in what ought to be a joyful experience. We all have our moments of frustration and impatience with our kids, but to begrudge even having them? It’s just a notion I can’t wrap myself around. Perhaps they’re missing a sense of purpose in all of this, and so the work seems meaningless, and therefore the joy is missing.

Perhaps they feel they made the wrong choice.

I think a civilization that sees child-bearing as a choice can survive just fine. It’s that civilization’s understanding of purpose that matters. Once society has given up on work, on producing things, on striving for meaning outside of the cocoon of self-pleasure and consumption, then we’re in trouble.
Having kids requires us to leave that cocoon entirely. It requires us to move beyond ourselves, to give ourselves up. To sacrifice our happiness for a much deeper joy.


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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8 Responses

  1. Rufus F. says:

    Here’s where I don’t understand cultural conservatism- I see certain things as being about as close to “written on the heart” as you can get. I think we all, on some level, know that it’s bad to steal from someone, or lie, or cheat on your spouse, or, conversely, that friendship and love are good, and that childrearing is an unparalleled personal joy. You can see that as human nature, or the knowledge God puts in every heart, or evolutionarily favored traits, or whatever you want, but certain ethical beliefs seem to be very basic to the species. But, for some reason, cultural conservatives seem to think that there has to be compulsion for those truths to be known. Never mind the whole of human history. If people figure out they have a choice, they’ll stop behaving as they always have. I’m all for people seeking guidance from religious texts and institutions, if they help. But it’s not as if most people were always having children because they didn’t realize it was a choice between positives and negatives.

    • North says:

      @Rufus F., Well Rufus, not to dump cynicism all over your lovely point but for most of human history people had children not because they had a choice but because children inevitably showed up after sex and no one was willing to give up sex.

      • Rufus F. says:

        @North, Yeah, I don’t see that ending either though, even with birth control. It could be because I live in a city that is known as the teen pregnancy capital of Canada! But also if you have children, they can help take care of you when you get old. That’s still a big incentive and I don’t see that changing much either.

        • North says:

          @Rufus F., In most modern states it’s pretty firmly severed. With either abortion or adoption acting as a safety net for birth control if you don’t want a kid you don’t have one.
          Certainly in the earlier ages children were the only assured means of caring for yourself but in the modern world you simply save up enough money and a stranger will take care of you (though certainly that’s not the preferred end of life state).

          • Rufus says:

            @North, Okay, well, this is all true, but people are still squirting out kids at a decent pace and I’m not convinced it’s because their priests are encouraging them too. Right? I mean, I know plenty of women my age who are really driven to reproduce and I’ve got to assume there’s some innate drive to do so, even if it’s only to pass on some of your genetic material.

            • Rufus says:

              @Rufus, In other words, if starting tomorrow nobody believed in a God who wants them to be fruitful and multiply, I’d be surprised if they didn’t keep doing so.

            • North says:

              @Rufus, I won’t quibble that it isn’t the priests making multiplication happen but you may want to consider the assertion that “people are squirting out kids at a decent pace” with an eye to demographic trends. In the well heeled and even upper middle class ends of society people are not “squirting them out” at a decent pace if population growth is one’s goal. Remember that it takes two children to simple replace their parents. Many in the west are opting for one or none. If you exclude the highly fertile immigrant factor from America’s numbers my understanding is that Americans are in step with their European brethren in choosing not to reproduce above replacement levels.

              This is a problem if population growth is your goal. Since I don’t share that goal I consider this a positive factor. Decreasing population growth eases strain on the environment and makes room for more people to move into first world countries from third world ones. Having mixed populations makes it less likely that wars will occur and it’s entirely possible that the money sent home by immigrants has a positive effect on the well-being of other poor third worlders.