My mom made a shocking discovery after becoming a mother. She had always seen herself as calm, cheerful and kind, a person who delighted in being with others. Then she married and became a mother, with children in rapid succession. And all of a sudden she was not the person she thought she was. She felt impatient, she yelled — even swore sometimes — and she couldn't help but wonder why being a mother seemed to bring out the worst in her. Whenever she described this to other women, the room would erupt in knowing laughter, as if everyone had experienced the same shocking reality.
Researchers have long believed parental "happiness" sags between the arrival of the first child and the launch of the last child. Scholar Roy Baumeister described two peak periods of happiness: "The first comes between the wedding and the birth of the first child. The second comes between the departure of the last child from the home and the death of one spouse."
But my mom and dad continued having children. They knew we meant something more than could be measured by "happiness" surveys. And they were not alone in their belief. In spite of the data, most parents believe children "have made them happy and strengthened their marriages."
As Jennifer Senior wrote in "All Joy and No Fun," most mothers and fathers rate parenting as their greatest joy ..." She further explained that parents appear to be "both happier and more miserable than nonparents" because parenting evokes a profound range in emotions, "stressing its participants to their limits, no matter how much they love their children."
And that is actually part of the secret. Amid the stretching and stress, parenting fills life with meaning, which ends up being a better measure of "happiness" than happiness itself. For Baumeister, this is the key to the "parenthood paradox." "Parenthood may be a poor strategy for finding happiness but an excellent one for achieving a meaningful life." And meaning and purpose are actually what humans crave.
One writer noted from Baumeister's research, "Meaning seems to have more to do with giving, effort and sacrifice." In fact, a meaningful life may not predict day-to-day happiness. Instead, chasing "happiness" will likely leave us empty-handed, while giving our lives to those we love leads to enduring purpose and satisfaction.
Tragically, as this author concluded, "our American obsession with happiness may be intimately related to a feeling of emptiness, or a life that lacks meaning." Freedom in our culture often implies freedom from obligations or responsibility to anyone. But as Senior wisely asked, "What on earth does that freedom even mean if we don't have something to give it up for?"
Parenthood allows us to give up "freedom" for something so valuable we hardly know how to measure it. Senior continued, "We bind ourselves to those who need us most, and through caring for them, grow to love them, grow to delight in them, grow to marvel at who they are."
Sadly, that truth can be forgotten in the quotidian work of family life. In those moments, the perspective of those facing death is a powerful teacher. It can shake us into a focus on that which matters most. Most often, that means family and children.
Mary Eberstadt described this when quoting talented journalist Marjorie Williams, who was "diagnosed with lethal cancer at a relatively young age." In a now-famous column written right before her death, Williams described watching her daughter dress for Halloween. That last column was "of course, about her children." As Eberstadt insightfully noted, "To mothers and fathers who learn the hardest way of all that time really is short as a birthday candle, family and especially children aren't everything; for most, they're the only thing."
When we don't have that hard-earned perspective, it helps (as a wise friend told me) to look for "the flecks of gold" in the seemingly ordinary moments of family life and the refinement they enable in us. As Wally Goddard revealed in his book "God's Trophies," appreciating these moments gives us a window into the divine, and the divine in those we love. And that is where the secret to happiness lies.