Children and Happiness

Children are confounding creatures
Children are confounding creatures

A few weeks back there was an article in the online Independent titled “Most first-time parents experience a decline in happiness after initial excitement, research says,” and something of an internet dust-up about it followed. It seems that people are happy immediately before and immediately after they have a new baby, but soon after the baby is born, couples experience a decrease in happiness.

Ummm…yes. Or no. It depends, I think, on how you measure happiness. Or maybe even define it.

My online dictionary says happiness is both “contentment and satisfaction” AND “exhilaration, elation, ecstasy, jubilation, rapture, bliss, blissfulness, euphoria, transports of delight; Hollywood ending.”

Well, there’s your trouble right there. “Contentment” is not a “transport of delight.” And yet, now that I think about it, I may have had more moments of “transport of delight” in the last nearly 30 years since I became a parent than actual contentment. Contentment, to me, is ease. Children are many things, but they are not easy.

The photo above, for example: Our two kids, paddling their own canoe in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), c. 1997 or 1998. They were maybe 12, and 10. We’d made one other trip as a family into the BWCAW, when they were both small enough to have all four of us fit in the 18′ kevlar canoe pictured here. But by the second trip, we needed two canoes. Sometimes we split up one parent/one kid; this time, they were on their own.

I can tell you one thing, right now: I am transported by this image. To delight. To fear. To humility. To the power of nature. To the truly earth-shattering pleasure of sun, and water, and woods, and arms exhausted by hours of paddling. To the bliss–yes, bliss–of sharing this beauty with little people who wouldn’t know of it otherwise.

This may have been the trip where we lost the water filter in the middle of a lake. Or where we came across a moose, swimming, not ten feet from us. Or where our son got so cold after we all got rained on I worried we’d have to evacuate him by helicopter lest he succumb to hypothermia. Or the one where we saw the twin moose babies. Or the one where my husband fed our cold, exhausted kids through an opening in the tent zipper, because they were freezing but you can’t have food in the tent.

Not every day with children is so dramatic. Some days are so boring you think it will kill you. Every day, for me, in the BWCAW and the ‘burbs, was tinged with fear and worry. For our childrens’ safety. For their well-being. For their happiness.

Contentment it was not. Periodic rapture, it was. Always, always, even to this day when they are far, far away, it is one thing: love. Love bigger and both more exhilarating and more humbling than I ever imagined.

Maybe you have to be crazy to do it–have kids, that is. But somehow, I know that a study that tries to measure parental happiness in a survey is pretty much worthless. There is no measuring. There is only the immeasurability of boundless, and often confounding, love.


  1. Perfection. Nailed it! Oh Donna, you should give this talk to a room filled with anxious mothers as it sums up the experience of mothering so well. Peace be with you my friend, awesome mother and inspiring writer!

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