Monday, February 16, 2009

Babies Don't Necessarily Make You Miserable (Except When They're Actually Coming Out of You)

Today was one of those days they'd put on the brochure for motherhood, if motherhood were a college. Pebbles slept late, then the kids happily occupied themselves with markers and paper while I got some freelance work done for an hour in the morning. I loaded them into the stroller for a trip to the store, but the park looked so sunny and inviting that we never made it past the swings. Pebbles walked all the way there, stopping every 3 seconds to show off her exploding vocabulary that only her loved ones can understand: "Mommy, dee? Rubba ban. Goddies lib dere in dat how!" (Mommy, see? Rubber band. Doggies live there in that house!) On the way back, we spotted the first daffodil nubs poking up in someone's front yard (they'll be buried in snow later this week).
Pebbles asked to try her potty chair a few times, with no results but plenty of enthusiasm. After Pebbles went down for her nap, Nutmeg and I cuddled in my bed and read a whole Junie B. book together, and then she stayed up there and read to herself for another hour while I made sweet potato bread and cleaned up some messes.
OK, the messes wouldn't be in the brochure, especially not the gross puddle discovered under the wire potato drawer in the cupboard after I threw out some rotten potatoes.
But still, the day was as perfect as February days get. I was actually happy when the neighbor girl couldn't babysit; I took the girls with me to CVS and scored some major deals, served a delicious dinner, and then we all finished watching "Sleeping Beauty." Well, I watched Nutmeg watch "Sleeping Beauty," because her rapt face was much more compelling than the old-timey animations on the screen.
So I had to leagh to read today that a study came out confirming that having children doesn't necessarily HAVE to ruin your life and your marriage.
That challenges what has become conventional wisdom lately. I think it's safe to say -- and blogs probably deserve some credit -- that the myth of blissful motherhood has been busted.
It turns out that parenthood isn't the antibliss for everyone either, though. It's still true that on average couples experience a decline in happiness after the birth of their first child (a slide that lasts FIFTEEN LONG YEARS).
But when you get to know the couples who say they're unhappy, there are good reasons for it.
The unhappy couples almost all fell into one or both of two categories: a) one or both spouses didn't actually want a baby, and b) the wife ends up doing all the work and feeling pissed off about it.
Ah, back to that issue. According to this study, there's no big mystery at all why women are so angry at their husbands. Like I've said here before, it's all about the second shift. Families who had the chance to get together and kvetch about the difficulty of balancing parenting duties in today's non-family-supportive economy and society got along better.
Most interestingly, the couples in which one spouse did NOT want to have a child, but they did anyway? Every single one of them ended up divorced by the time the kid started kindergarten. Every. Single. One. (Just keep that in mind, single people, if you ever date someone who disagrees with you about wanting children or not wanting them. Don't think you will convince them down the line. Move on.)
So are we in the happier group or the unhappier group? Definitely the former. I know our marriage is happier than it was before the kids came along, and I chalk that up not just to becoming parents together but to maturing, and getting to know each other better over the years. The marital stress that comes up IS usually prompted by issues surrounding traditional gender roles and the second shift, and I have been much happier in recent months because the hubs has been stepping up to the plate more in that area.
Are we happier individuals now than before the kids? That's harder to say. I'd say there are more highs and lows. I have definitely experienced transports of joy unknown to me before becoming a mother. I experience them every single day. (Today: Watching Nutmeg rise to her feet during the climax of the movie "Sleeping Beauty," and cheering on the prince and his horse without a shred of self-consciousness. Then the girls reenacting the fairy godmothers' wand fight with their toothbrushes, with Nutmeg yelling "Pink!" and Pebbles responding "Boo!" with each wave of their "wands.")
But I cannot deny also experiencing deep, selfish longing for the carefree days. Last weekend we drove through downtown Chicago on a Sunday morning, on our way to a children's birthday party. When I saw young urban single people, heading to cafes with newspapers in hand, you better believe I was jealous. (By the way, we had a great time at the party which was full of adult friends, so my unhappiness that day was short-lived.)
It's funny, happiness is pretty much the most important thing in life, so you'd think there'd be more studies trying to figure out how to get and maintain it. And yet, it's impossible to really study, isn't it?
There's the The Unbearable Lightness of Being factor. That is, you can study how happy you are after you did something, but you can't go back and find out how happy you would be if you HADN'T done it. Sure, we might have been pretty happy five years ago without kids -- we had a great life, living in the city, good careers, great friends, ski weekends. But would more of the same have worn thin 5 years later? Or would we be happier still, since our careers would have by then afforded better recreation, like a rented ski cabin for the winter, and maybe a better place to live? Or would we have taken advantage of our freedom to take on satisfying projects -- writing that novel, making and selling art prints?
I think our happiness would have declined as friends moved on, and living for ourselves only became monotonous. But then, that's because we are the kind of people who want babies. I know a few people who have never had the desire to have kids, and I tell them, you are lucky.
I think. Maybe not. I mean, if I were to wake up tomorrow morning and find that the Nutmeg and Pebbles had never happened, that they were just a very long and exhausting dream?
That would be a nightmare.
Oh, and on a completely unrelated note, two new posts by me up on Uptake's travel blog:
You Know the Nation's Getting Cranky When We're Dissing Chicago AND San Francisco
Northwest to Passengers: Nuts to You


Anonymous said...

I was just thinking about this yesterday after speaking with a girlfriend of mine who was unable to have kids. She's in her 40s now and her and her husband are still married. He was pretty ambivalent about kids--she wanted them. It wasn't possible and they never could go through with adoption. She is not happy and very very lost. She is the most lost 45 year old person I've ever met. He spends his time trying to make her happy and failing and she spends her time jumping from one thing to the next. And I think that would have been me if I hadn't of had my baby girl.

I can say unequivocally that we are much happier after having our girl. She just brings the joy and a shared love of equal proportions that we've never had before. What a blessing they are.

Sara said...

It would be a nightmare indeed. I too think every so often of what our lives would be like without Grace. We could travel, see as many shows as we wanted to, afford a bigger home, and I'm sure my body would be in better shape. After all, Aaron and I as a couple have never known life without Grace and sometimes I wonder what that life would have been like...

And then I realize that that life doesn't look at all familiar to me, and I don't want that right now. We'll get our chance to have that life once our children are grown. I wouldn't trade this adventure for anything.

Kori said...

I don't know if having kids makes you happier or unhappier, per se, but I think that we all change over the years---our interests, our priorities, our passions, etc.---and having children punctuates a shift from one state to another. If one partner doesn't want to make that shift, it may be even harder to negotiate to common ground, since kids also put extra strain on resources like time, energy, sleep, money, etc.

I think one thing that the blogosphere has certainly done, to your point, is open up a window on the complex emotions that come with transitions. Even a transition that a couple hopes for, like the addition of a child to their family, is fraught with unexpected emotions, including grief, confusion, etc. My favorite "mom blogs" take little snapshots of moments in that transition process, from good to bad to ugly, but I can't really say if they relate in the sum total to their authors' states of "happy" or "unhappy."

This sort of thing is what I'm studying in grad school, so I guess that is the perspective I'm bringing to it.

What a sweet sounding day that you had---so lovely.

Anonymous said...

very nice your blog..

Anonymous said...

I love this--I definitely think that it's a Good Thing that the "motherhood as sheer bliss" myth has been busted, but I think that the unfortunate side is that it's somehow no longer OK to talk about the happy stuff without being seen as dishonest or sugar-coating or somehow delusional. Ever noticed that all the popular phraseology surrounding mothering has to do with survival or retention of sanity or avoiding depression? Doesn't sound all that encouraging, does it? I am a happy person with a good life and my life is absolutely better for having children in it. That doesn't mean I'm afraid to be honest or vent about the harder side of parenting, it just doesn't define the experience for me.

Bert said...

Cpu, what a beautiful blog entry. Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I cried a little bit (out of happy for you :)