Recently I noticed a young man at my church struggling with a very unhappy newborn. He wore a fashionable white sweater now stained with spit-up. Many in our culture might look upon this scene with pity, wondering why this young man would give up an otherwise carefree existence for the burdens of parenthood. Perhaps this young man was asking himself the same thing. 

A 2021 Pew Research study showed that 44% of non-parents ages 18 to 49 said they are not likely to ever have children — a sharp rise from years past. The most common explanation given by the respondents was that they simply did not want children. This viewpoint was illustrated in a recent viral video in which comedian Chelsea Handler flaunts a life of pleasure and achievement available to a childless woman of 47, the takeaway being that motherhood thwarts personal happiness.

Are parents really less happy than the childless? That likely depends on how you measure happiness.

The many definitions of happiness

It was Epicurus, the first hedonist, who proposed that “happiness is pleasure; all things are to be done for the sake of the pleasant feelings associated with them.” As long as it’s not elevated above other pursuits, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying that type of happiness. 

But a life dominated by pleasure invariably becomes self-consumed and shallow. That’s why others — both Stoics and Christians — have argued for thousands of years that happiness is more likely to be found in a duty-bound, orderly life of ethical living and self-discipline. For that young man in his stained white sweater, his underlying philosophy will partly determine whether parenting is a chore or a privilege.

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When I was a 27-year-old mother with two little kids, I would often complain to my husband: “I clean the house and the kids just mess it up. I am a prisoner at home. I can’t do anything between naps and nursing!” 

I sincerely believed that I was “supposed to be happy,” and something was wrong if I wasn’t. For most people throughout history, of course, it was far more obvious that life involved great difficulty. Scarcity, disease and violence were commonplace, and the idea of putting “happiness first” makes little sense when one is just trying to survive. 

I’ve since realized that evaluating our life based on current happiness alone is simply not a fair judgment even in our day, since this accounting only takes into account one metric. It doesn’t ask if what we are doing is right, or necessary. It doesn’t ask if our actions strengthen our character or benefit others.  If I used happiness as my only metric, I would never do laundry again.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn eloquently said, “If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be the unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. … It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.” 

Having a child and accepting the responsibilities of parenthood can result in an existential crisis as we transition from childlike hedonism to a life of responsibility. It did for me. And yet, few things bring more meaning and love into life than having a child. Those who refuse to take that leap into parenting are denying themselves more than they gain.

The measure of meaning

Researchers have found that the things that make life meaningful do not necessarily make us happy immediately. When my husband and I decided to have children, we imagined a future full of loving relationships, adventure and lots of potential grandchildren. We didn’t really think about how much work or stress having kids would be. I am glad we didn’t. If I had focused on the hardship of raising a family, I might not have done it.

Thankfully, as parents we can expect happiness as we raise our children, a happiness far deeper and more enduring than the “world giveth” — the joy of seeing our duties bear fruit in the lives of our children. This is the happiness Dostoyevsky spoke of when he wrote, “Men are made for happiness, and he who is completely happy has the right to say to himself, ‘I am doing God’s will on earth.’” 

Yet Dostoyevsky also cautioned, “To love is to suffer, and there can be no love otherwise.” Experiencing both joy and pain is inevitable in parenting. Rather than tragic, this is the essence of living life, and living it more abundantly. 

When that handsome young man in the soiled sweater was comforting his child, he was at the beginning of a long journey with her, full of a wide range of diverse emotions and experiences.  It’s a grand adventure. He may have to throw out his white sweater. He won’t be as handsome at the end of this journey. Parenthood might even temporarily lessen his happiness. However, if he focuses on the love and meaning laying in his arms, he won’t regret the choice he made.  

Allyson Flake Matsoso has a degree in environmental/African studies and has published research in social work. She runs the “Philosophy of Motherhood” blog.