Judith Timson on parenting

You expected kids to make you happy? Get real

Special to The Globe and Mail

I always wanted kids. I got pregnant in my first year of marriage but then had an early miscarriage, after which I worried that, already in my 30s, I would not be able to successfully conceive. "Never mind," my husband said to me over a glass of wine at a neighbourhood café, "even if we can't have kids, we will be all right."

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All right? According to most studies, we would have been, like, really happy! Happier in fact than if we'd had kids. Instead, in two short years, we went on to have a son and a daughter, and amidst that hurly burly, we never sat in that particular cafe again for at least a decade.

Having kids does not make you happy. That's the newsflash from All Joy And No Fun , an article in New York magazine that is creating a buzz. Author Jennifer Senior, interweaving anecdotes from harried and disappointed parents with multiple studies that conclude that raising a family, if anything, will make you less happy than your childless peers, has written a damning but thoughtful portrait of modern middle-class parenting.

In short, it's a "19-year grind" of unrealistic expectations, brutal schedules, unrewarding chores, overly empowered kids and relentless societal pressure to produce perfect Harvard-bound specimens. Oh, and children will also wreck your marriage. As one psychologist succinctly put it in Senior's article, children "are a huge source of joy but they turn every other source of joy to shit."

Well here's my newsflash. Your point? Parents today need to get over expecting to be intrinsically happy or rewarded doing what people have dutifully done for millennia under sometimes astonishingly adverse conditions: create and raise the next generation. The search for perfect happiness through parenting is not only counterproductive, it's a luxury that only the affluent can indulge.

Furthermore, if you count on your kids to make you happy, you will muck up not only your own life but theirs, too.

My kids, now grown, have fulfilled their middle-class mandate to graduate from good universities - lord knows what they're going to do next. They're good people. And except for that on-again off-again empty-nest thing, my job is essentially done.

Looking back, I don't for a minute forget how desperately hard some of it was, how anxious and even unhappy parenting occasionally made me. (It helps if you wrote a book as I did, chronicling the hysteria.)

But the pictures of our family tell a different story. Every time I come upon a photo from their childhood, I sigh with happiness. Remember our summers in Haliburton, look there's our blonde sprite of a daughter, eccentrically wearing socks on her hands as she stands blissfully on an early morning dock. And there's father and son in the park, a look of rapture of both faces. There's me - tired perhaps but wearing a clown costume and laughing my fool head off with my son at the school fun fair.

Of course we didn't whip out the camera for the preteen-throw-the-math-textbook-across-the-dining-room homework battles; we didn't capture on video that she's-broken-curfew-again moment; we didn't preserve for prosperity that brutal Sisyphean struggle when they were toddlers, to keep a house going, children cared for and fed, and working lives and marriage even modestly on track.

I'm glad we've had two generations of writers - women and men - documenting in exhaustive and honest detail the modern "parenting"(a word I've now grudgingly accepted) experience. I thought my generation of harried working mothers had it hard, but this current cohort of young parents takes its responsibilities - perfect children, perfect planet - so seriously it's easy to see why they aren't having much fun.

But the pendulum is beginning to swing back, as it always does, not only to hopefully more laissez-faire attitudes (skip the across-town cello lesson) but also to a gimlet-eyed view of kids as tiny tyrants who need to be put in their place. (Parents, altogether now, say it loud to your kids: "You're NOT the boss of me!")

Despite its occasional whiff of baffled entitlement (wondering why, say, that parenting isn't as much fun as going out to dinner with friends), that New York piece eventually comes to the same conclusion that most of us have: raising kids is always hard work and yet at times it's tremendously rewarding.

But don't look to it to make you happy. There are only, Ms. Senior writes, "moments of transcendence, not an overall improvement in well-being."

So soldier on. And keep the camera ready. Years later, you won't believe how "happy" you were back then, in those brief luminous moments.

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