The other day when I picked my 2-year-old up from daycare, I experienced one of the happiest moments of my life. He spied me from across the room and came barreling toward me as if we’d been separated for weeks, howling with joy as he hurled himself into my arms and covered my face with tiny kisses. I nearly wept, so pure was my love for him in that moment.
I then spent the next 10 minutes trying to get him into his car seat while his howls took on more of a horror movie-quality, and I did everything within my power not to lose my temper. I failed, and we both cried.
That, it turns out, sums up parenting.
When we think about having children, we tend to envision the rewards, like watching a child take their first steps or walk across the stage at high school graduation. What we don’t realize is that 99 percent of parenting is made up not of those magical moments but of a set of banal activities that must be repeated day-in and day-out, like reviewing homework or enforcing teeth brushing.
Still, we love our kids and can’t imagine life without them. We tell ourselves the exhaustion and frustration of parenting are worth it, and that ultimately our children are our greatest source of happiness.
Except we’re wrong.
In truth, there is almost zero correlation between having children and being happy. Parents generally report lower levels of happiness and marital satisfaction than non-parents. A survey of mothers by Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman found they ranked childcare as 16 out of 19 activities — even below housework.
Could it be that our bundles of joy are bringing us down?
First, the good news: our kids may not be the problem. In a study of 22 developed countries, researchers found that the “happiness gap” among U.S. parents (the largest in the world), was 100 percent attributable to a lack of family-friendly policies like paid leave, subsidized childcare, and affordable education.
So, yay! We know what’s making us unhappy and our kids are not to blame.
Now the bad news: this is probably not changing any time soon. Barring a complete overhaul of our national policies and systems, we’re going to need other strategies to help us find the joy in parenting.
Here’s what the research tells us about what works.
As a parent, it’s easy to switch into efficiency mode and stay focused on the task-based nature of raising children. Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist who studies happiness, puts it like this: “when you pause to think what children mean to you, of course, they make you feel good. 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.”
In other words, taking a minute to let go of your to-do list and focusing on the sense of purpose and the feelings of love that come from being a parent can do a lot to increase your happiness level.
Touch releases the neurochemical oxytocin, which makes both parents and children feel good. This is the reason doctors recommend skin-to-skin contact and baby-wearing for newborns. As kids get older, we’re still capable of generating oxytocin for them and for us. This can happen through things like having a child on your lap to read a book or hugging good night. Making a snuggle session part of your daily routine is a great way to help both you and your child feel happier and more connected.
We all know play is good for children. It’s a powerful way for them to learn how to regulate emotions, develop new parts of their brains, and improve social skills. It turns out it’s equally important for adults as a way to relieve stress and contribute to overall well-being. Taking a few minutes each day to make up silly dance moves or play hide and seek with your kids can help boost everyone’s mood.
Parents today spend nearly twice as much time with their children as previous generations did. We’re also working more hours, all at the expense of other activities, like sleep and leisure time. Taking time for yourself is important, as is making sure your partner also gets to. It’s hard to feel happy when you’re just plain burned out.
Build a Tribe
In our ultra-connected world, loneliness is on the rise. There’s a loss of community, and community makes us happy. This is especially true when it comes to parenting, which is a load best lightened by sharing. Also, family fun is sometimes more easily had when you’re with others. Whether it’s sitting on the front steps with your neighbors while your kids play together, or planning a vacation with another family, parenting in a group can help spark joy in a way that’s hard to pull off solo.
Let’s face it, despite our best efforts, we’re all going to have those days when we start counting the minutes until bedtime right after breakfast. Just because parenting is hard doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. Like climbing Mount Everest or training for a marathon, the path may be difficult, but the rewards are great. And take heart, there is joy to be found along the way if we only know where to look.