The Kids Aren’t Alright

Recently I talked to my grandmother about one of the biggest choices in her life.

“Grandma,” I asked, “how would your life be different if you didn’t have any kids?”

(Grandma had 8 kids.)

“Oh….oh I can’t even imagine that,” Grandma said. “I had the time of my life raising my kids. And now they take of me.”

I’m not sure what I was searching for in asking that question. I think a part of me wanted to know about disappointments, the disappointments adults have after raising their children and maybe they’re expectations aren’t met in regards to how their grown-up children treat them. You spend 18+ years putting so much time and energy and money into your kids, and then they grow up and barely remember to send you a card on Mother’s Day? Why set yourself up for that?

Then the other day I read an article about happiness. It asks the question: Does having kids make you happier?

The answer: Basically, no. With caveats.

The article says that in raising kids, you experience moments of irreplaceable pure happiness (like when your 3-year-old throws his arms around you and hugs you with all his strength after you get home from work) amidst a sea of stress. If you think of any act of parenting, this seems to be the case. Kids are, by and large, a hassle, but they give us a mission and bless us with glimpses of sheer love.

The argument against these thoughts is that it’s not all about you–you don’t have kids to make yourself happier. You have kids to perpetuate your breed, your family line, to add a living legacy to the world. Although, in a way, aren’t those reasons just as selfish as the pursuit of happiness?

All of these thoughts contribute to my continuing doubts that I should have kids, of course. But the article does end on a somewhat encouraging high note. It says basically what my grandmother said, that when you’re old and you can look back on the childrearing experience, the good times stand out among the stresses and the aches and pains. Selective memory, essentially.

So are 18 years of stress and only occasional happiness worth the many blissful years that follow?

23 thoughts on “The Kids Aren’t Alright”

  1. It sounds like having and then leaving a relationship. You selectively remember the good times, unless it was a very abusive relationship. I think the couples who try to have children and can’t are the ones who appreciate a child more, whether through adoption or fertility help (for the most part). I’m personally waiting as long as I can. I know I would like ONE, whether biologically or adoption. With my luck though, I’ll be “blessed” with multiples. Nothing against couples who have a small brood and raise a responsible brood of adults at all. They just seem to be the exception rather than the rule in today’s society.

    • That’s a good comparison to a relationship. Although sometimes I don’t understand parents that try SO hard to have a child. I mean, a, you can adopt. B, you spent so much time and money and stress to have a kid…who is going to make you expend more time and money and stress. Hmm.

      • Those parents who try SO hard to have a kid WANT that future of a child good and bad over anything else. My mother spent some 5-6 years trying to have me. I remember her telling me she wanted 20 kids, but I was enough. (back-handed compliment implied) I don’t think it’s something you or I could understand unless we were in the same situation, and then it would be completely different from the male vs. female perspective. I can see it being almost an obsession about having a biological child because it’s the antiquated bloodline deal, and probably just being pregnant. How many times do you hear about women having kids because they love being pregnant? That in itself is a mental disorder. However, now they have lives they have to support. Adoption isn’t easy either. You have better luck getting a credit card with Poor credit.

        • Well, I don’t know about that. I think that motivation might be true for some people, but others have kids to fill a void in their life or follow the assumption that they’ve had since they were 5 that they’d have a big family someday. I would guess that people’s motivations for having children are rarely pure and selfless.

  2. your last line using the word “Occasional happiness” indicates that the ratio of good and bad is like a 20/80 relationship? and that would beg a negative to the follow up question of Is it worth it? but if the ratio were more 50/50 or 80/20 then the follow question would be answered differently.

    If a parent could predict if a child would grow up to a caring contributing adult then the answer to the question would likely be positive. But if a child grew up to be a serial killer then the answer would be negative. Is this like the stock market? Do I take the risk for the pay off or do I not take the risk?

    In fact this was a question many older adults thought about before conceiving a child during the cold war. Is it worth the risk to bring a child into a world that may blow up with a given finger?

    Or is loving a child teach us about the unconditional love of God and helps us in our selfishness and faults teach us that God in deed loves us unconditionally? There is so much involved in raising children and I for one am happy that I took the risk even when I don’t get a Mother’s Day card.

    PS Jamey has always sent me a Mother’s Day card — but maybe not all of my children have.

    • Mom–GREAT comment. Thanks for your thoughts. You have a number of great points and questions.

      I see what you’re saying about 80/20–maybe the ratio is different for different people. But read the article and see what I mean. There are some great examples in it.

      I see your serial killer example, but I don’t think it needs to be that extreme for a parent to be disappointed. I mean, a parent does SO much for a child that the odds that those efforts are truly reciprocated seem pretty slim.

      I’ve thought the same question about the cold war (but in regards to global warming). Maybe the future will be fine. Or maybe it’ll be crazy bad.

      As for unconditional love, raising a child may be the best way to learn about that. But surely there are other ways to learn about unconditional love–with pets, friends, husbands/wives, people in need. Don’t you think?

      Love you!

      • Sorry I’m a few days late here, but I think your mom makes some really interesting points. I’m not sure I’ve really considered child-rearing as an exercise in learning to understand God and God’s love, but I think that really rings true.

        As to the Cold War/Global Warming/Am-I-bringing-this-child-into-a-horrible-world scenario, that doesn’t really come into my thinking. If we are blessed to have a child (and I will consider it a blessing) it will be an opportunity for us to do our part to increase God’s glory and raise another loving, worshiping child of God and add value to God’s kingdom. No matter how “crazy bad” life on earth becomes our child will be intended for a better place anyway, so a political or ecological disaster on earth doesn’t really factor into my thinking.

        (Of course, this is by no means the only way to increase the value of God’s glory or his kingdom, you can most definitely do that without ever having a kid.)

        I find the notion of having a kid as a means to “live forever” sort of the ultimate selfishness. The point of having a kid is so that the kid can glorify God and enjoy him forever. Any residual happiness that we gain from it is just a bonus, right? I guess my thought is that you have a kid for the benefit of the kid and for the larger purposes of God’s plan, not to increase your own happiness.

        When I think about if/when to have a kid, I generally want to wait longer and all the reasons I come up with to wait feel very selfish to me. At this point in my life not having a kid feels much more selfish than having one.

        Now I’ll go read that article 🙂

        • You make a lot of interesting points here, Bryce. The one that really stood out to me, as you may guess, is that if you’re trying to make the world a better place, you don’t necessarily need to have kids to do so. But sure, I can see having kids as one of those ways too.

          Your conclusion for yourself is also really interesting. Do you think that having a kid is a selfless act in itself? From your comment, it seems that you’re getting to the point where the opposite of that (not having a kid) is a selfish decision.

  3. I read both the article subsequent commentary, and I agree very much with this opinion:

    I think this gets to happiness v contentment. Parenting is an emotional rollercoaster with very tough challenges. Life without kids is simply easier. An easier life probably leads to more immediate happiness but over the longer term, I think life with kids (and ultimately grandkids) provides for greater contentment when looking back on life.

    In the meantime, you just have to resist the urge to strangle misbehaving children 🙂

    Certainly, my life is not EASIER with a child. But every single thing I did this weekend–beach, bonfire, biking, cooking dinner, etc. was infinitely more enjoyable because of the 5-year-old by my side. Plus, I honestly think I’d be more selfish without my son. He makes me want to give of myself over and over again–without expecting anything in return.

    In addition, many of the above-mentioned activities were spent with my mother. I can’t speak for all adult children, but she is one of my very best friends 🙂 I like to think I make my mom a lot happier!

    • That’s a great way to differentiate the joys that come with child-rearing: Happiness versus contentment. It sounds like you’re a better person because of your son, and your mother is a better person because of you.

      I certainly have my doubts regarding your statement about this weekend, but I trust your answer. I mean, if you didn’t have your son, you could still do all those activities, and you wouldn’t necessarily do them alone–you could share that time with your boyfriend or mother or friends and have a very different experience. Do you think it’s your parental bias that leads you to think that you experienced the happiest iteration of those activities because you have a son? I certainly don’t blame you…I mean, I’m the one who would genuinely like Biddy to attend church with me.

      • The image of Biddy at church makes me laugh!

        I guess it’s that A brings a different part of me alive, a part that wouldn’t necessarily be brought to the surface without his unique presence. For example–I’m positive I would have enjoyed the beach very, very much without him. But would I have pulled another human being on a boogie board and jumped waves for an hour? Certainly not. And that was my favorite part of the day! I could enjoy all the activities I mentioned without him (and with others), but they were better with him. This theory would not apply for, say, drinking wine and watching live music, of course 🙂

        Interesting blog post though; good food for thought!

        • Re: The Boogie Board Point–I totally see that. I’m not going to argue with your happiness, not by any means. BUT I will say that I just spent a week at the beach, and if you compared the parents with young kids to the parents without young kids, I would say that the parents without young kids had a significantly better time than the others. There were simply fewer needs for them to tend to. The parents without kids or with older kids could simply focus on being themselves and having a good time, while the others had a job. The job of parenting. It was like they were on call the whole week. Who wants to be on call when you’re at the beach?

          I will say that there’s a special joy in watching your kids do things…pretty much anything, really. My mom has always told me that she likes to watch me sprint. I saw other parents watching their kids play in the ocean and the sand. I think there’s a sense of pride in seeing your kid–this tiny creature that once came out of your womb–dancing in the waves or burying his sleeping uncle in the sand. That, I think, is irreplaceable.

          • I can understand where you’re coming from in your beach example, Jamey — how the adults without kids or with grown kids seemed to be having a better time than the couples with young children. At this point in my life, I can sort of relate to that since I am not married and do not have kids. I can imagine going to the beach with my boyfriend and having a great time, but it’s hard to picture kids there with me. But that’s only because I don’t have kids yet — and that’s not to say that when I do, that I won’t have just as great and happy of a time. I think that it will just be a different kind of happiness that I haven’t experienced before. Maybe that goes for other people as well, and the stage of life that they are in. When you move from being single, to a young couple without kids, to a married couple with little kids, to an older married couple with grown children … you’re moving through different phases of life, each of which has its own different, unique experiences, and its own kind of joys and happiness.

            Maybe all the people you saw at the beach were having a good time, but just in different ways … even the parents who were “on call” all week. I would hope that’s not the way that they viewed it, though, as “on call.” Hopefully, they viewed it as good quality family time, and enjoyed being with their kids and seeing them play at the beach, just like Penelope shared in her comment. That’s certainly how I will view it when I am a parent.

            • Colleen–that’s a great point that these things are all a matter of perspective. Maybe those parents at the beach were having a great time. I’m just happy I’m not one of those parents at this point in my life 🙂

          • As one of the unencumbered adult on the same beach vacation as Jamey, I would not conclude that the adults without young children had a better time. Once again it is about stages. When I was one of the adults at the beach with 3 bodies to lather up, it was so much fun! Selfishly the children ‘allowed’ me to enjoy the ‘sillier’ things about the beach. I was not expected to behave but rather to let loose. Whether with a boogie board or just sitting on the ocean edge digging in the sand for sand flies or coquinas that are buried in the sand, it is all good with children at the beach. Of course until they are dogged tired and they and you take naps or go to bed early.

            • So kids allowed you to act like a kid, have fun like a kid? What’s wrong with having fun as an adult (but still acting like an adult, since, after all, we’re adults, whether we like it or not)?

  4. This weekend, after hearing a few horrific babysitting stories, I asked the question, “Why do people have kids again?”. And my old roommate very poignantly said, “People have kids because they want to live forever. Sure, it’s not exactly like living forever, but it’s about as close as you’re ever going to get.”

    • I like that answer, but I don’t think it’s true. There are SO many ways you can live forever. The guy who invented Velcro will live forever. Charles Dickens will live forever. Walt Disney will live forever. And so on.

      If you want immortality, it’s a lot harder to turn a company like Apple or Google into what they are today than it is to get someone pregnant (or get pregnant).

  5. the point about stages rings so very true. As a mother and woman who have had children leave the nest, society dictates that the empty nest is so empty but in fact the new stage is as sweet as the full nest as is the stage with visitors to the nest. I am waiting to hear from a male/father on this topic.


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