The XX Factor

Redefining Happiness for Parents

This week’s New York magazine has ” I Love My Children. I Hate My Life .” as its headline story. Sunday’s Washington Post offered ” Helicopter Moms, Heading for a Crash ,” from Margaret K. Nelson, author of Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times , in which she argues that parents are more panicked about their children’s futures than ever before, and are parenting harder and faster as a result. Much of parenting today is, she writes, “not just exhaustive, but exhausting.” If parents are unhappy, this week’s coverage of parenting and happiness suggests that we have only ourselves and our overly competitive, perfection-oriented attitude toward child-rearing to blame. We’re still the generation that does everything all wrong: We try too hard (what happened to slacking?), we worry too much, we make things too complicated. Oh, and we’re spoiled-we had all that free time as young childless adults to compare our child-ridden lives to. If we’d gone straight from our farmhouses of eight kids into our own marriages, we wouldn’t know any better.

Personally, I signed on for one of the more extreme versions of parenting: four kids, three within 20 months of each other, one adopted as a pre-schooler. I get all this grim discussion of why parenting doesn’t make us “happier.” Transitioning into this life hasn’t been all roses. But these articles -and all of the media on parenting and happiness we’ve been discussing lately-have had the perverse effect of making me feel happier about my parenting life. That may be timing (according to one cheery expert, my children are entering a period of “latency” during which they won’t be as painful to deal with as they are before 6 and after 12), but I’ll take it. The one-liners offered by various parents on their experiences were one of the primary pleasures of reading the New York piece: “All Joy, No Fun;” [Children are] a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit.” In our house, it’s “redefining fun on a daily basis.” But putting the moments when I’ve loathed parenting down to helicoptering pressures or to generational inexperience with hardship suggests that there’s something fundamentally right about my joke-we can redefine fun. And we can be happy about it, or at least more willing to similarly redefine happiness.

Tom Gilovich, a psychologist at Cornell famous for a study showing that people regret things they haven’t done more than things they have, asks “Should you value moment-to-moment happiness more than retrospective evaluations of your life?” He says he doesn’t know the answer, but maybe the question is the answer. If you can keep a sense of the way you’ll feel about the comically difficult moments as you go about the truly crazy days-the nights when multiple children are sick in their beds or the moment when you look over your Fourth of July and realize that one of your children has literally eaten nothing but candy from morning until night-then those times of epic lunacy hold the seeds of their own pleasure. If parenting is hard in part because we make it hard, then we can make it easier. We can let some things go, and we can look at other things differently, and we can hold on to one bittersweet thought: Someday we’ll look back on all of this and laugh.