Sometimes when I hear my child-free friends go on about how stressed they are, how much they have to do, how worried they are, the first honest thought that comes into my mind is, "Ohhh, you have no idea."
And other times, when they talk about taking ten-day trips to Italy on a wine-tasting tour or spontaneously seeing a midnight Cold War Kids show on a Tuesday or how they only keep cereal and coffee in their kitchen cabinets or how they love their new $600 clutch purse, I can't help but silently react, "Ohhh, I no longer have any idea."
On this side of parenting a child, primarily on my own and definitely after a night of cleaning up 27 bouts with projectile vomit or spending an hour insisting the child finish chewing that one bite of broccoli, the definition of bliss is skydiving and happy hour that lasts until 3 a.m. and anything spontaneous and spit-up-free.
I look back on the days before my son came into this world in a dreamy manner, remembering how hard I laughed, how hungover I could get (and still go to work), how broke I could be and still have very few worries. I long for the flatter, unmarked belly. I wish for the chance to just take off -- to Greece, to Mt. McKinley...hell, just to the grocery store. It all seems so invigorating, delicious, happy.
Of course, I wasn't chronically sleep-deprived back then. I wasn't up at 1 a.m. filling lunch bags with fishy crackers. I didn't stress about life insurance or whether I could squeeze a small person's haircut in between Tae Kwon Do, a birthday party, and a play date on a Saturday. My mind, I like to think, was at ease.
That seems divine. But it in no way compares to the light that breaks through the storm of tantrums and anxiety and responsibility when my child does something phenomenal. Being a part of a person learning to read, taking first steps, performing on stage, explaining his version of heaven -- it is all a bigger, heart-thumping, fueling happiness than I never could have conjured up in my former life.
Several months ago, CNN reported on a study of nearly 12,00 Americans that indicates parents who span socioeconomic and situational spheres report more symptoms of depression and "emotional distress" than people who don't have children. They also cited studies that found that parents do not experience as much daily happiness as people who are child-free. Financial strain, suffering employment, lack of work support, increasing marital dissatisfaction, contribute to this dis-ease among parents. This all, of course, counteracts overwhelming messaging that parenting, while tough, is the ultimate way to feel fulfilled and content in your own life.
Some studies, especially those who include other people of other countries, do say something different -- that parents report increased happiness...eventually. Gutting it out through the Pull-Ups years and missed curfew nights (as well as a shift in government and workplace support structures) could, they say, make a world of difference for the well-being of those who choose to raise a family.
It's no surprise that there was a loud response from breeders and non-breeders alike. And it was emotional. While we can never end the child-bearing vs. child-free wars (ugh, why do there have to be wars such as these?) with one little post, perhaps we can move beyond the need to defend our decisions. After all, procreating or not is such a personal choice. Also, we've been there. Too many times.
As I read the round-up of comments in the "Overhead on CNN.com" section, I was struck by how much each opinionated voice was present-tense. They all screamed "I'M HAPPY NOW!" to me. To some degree, I can hear this. I could have never known how much more joy my own baby would bring me than the children I babysat and nannied all those years ago. I also can't know if I'd be happier now if I was not a mother.
What we can do is look back and shine a light on what was and what is now. And maybe, just maybe, we can be really honest about how happy we were before kids and where the bliss-meter has read since babies were brought into our lives.
Says one CNN commenter signed on as Wow57, "I was walking on the beach late at night with my seven-year-old daughter on my shoulders. She whispered to me, 'Dad, do you know how you can sometimes hear people's voices in your head after they stop talking to you?' I said yes, I guess… She said, 'Well, in school when I am really sad, I put my head down on my desk, close my eyes, and think of your voice… then I feel better.' I was childless for 43 years and had no clue what I was missing."
On the other side, beechleaf weighed in, saying, "I don't want children. Never have, never will. No, it does not make me less of a woman, and no, you are not going to change my mind by telling me how rewarding it is. And no, I don't hate kids. I have two nephews and a niece and I love them so very much! I love babysitting and helping out with them and when they're older I plan to help them financially with private high school and college. But I'm also very glad to go home to my quiet, kid-free house at the end of the day."
Both, I have to say, sound pretty great.
Was I more happy before this boy came into my life? I was certainly more relaxed, more care-free. But motherhood has brought with it a sense of purpose, an intimacy, pride and clarity that I believe makes me more myself. I see life on a macro level more these days, spanning far beyond myself to generations ahead. That's not only good for me, it's good for us. And in those crisis moments when I'd trade this dirty-toenailed kid in for fifty cents and a venti latte, one gap-toothed smile can turn, one stray piece of Lego found it all around. No drowning of sorrows in booze or getaways to the Caribbean required. One day thirty years from now, I may regret missing out on adventures child-free living would have offered. I think I can live with that.
Making my life conscientiously less about me has, dare I say, made me mostly very happy. Very tired, very crusty with boy gunk, and very happy.
Now it's your turn to get really honest: Were you happier before you had kids?
More on Shine:
- Gretchen Rubin's tips to get happier
- 5 lies women tell about their health and well-being
- Revelations from a 72-year-old study on how to be really, truly happy
- When men choose to be child-free