Parenting … joy or misery?

Apparently, the world needs studies to “prove” just about anything. Troll the Internet and you’ll find some great examples, both “duh” ones and ridiculous ones (“clothing keeps you warm” or “soap operas lack accuracy”). The latest I read about today regards parenting.

New studies now refute some previous studies (and isn’t THAT typical as well?) that indicated that parenting made couples unhappier than their childless peers. Now, several are saying that “parenting makes you (relatively) happier.”

I’ve thought about this for, well, about 16 years now. First, I think I can say as a parent, I can speak from both perspectives: as a wife without children and a wife with children, because I was married for almost three years before I had my first child. So I know the difference. Honestly, can people who have chosen not to have children speak from both perspectives? No.

But on to my opinions on this subject. I think that there are days I’d say, yep, parenting can be the pits. It’s sometimes miserable. I was just talking with my 16-year-old a few days ago about the stage of parenting infants and how it can just drive you to sheer desperation. Those early months in which you’re constantly being awakened at night and during the naps you MIGHT be able to try to take during the day are miserable. They’re foggy and hazy and overcast by exhaustion. I don’t do well on small amounts of sleep, and while I was eager to get up and take care of my babies for the first few weeks, my energy and enthusiasm dimmed a bit over time as my sleep meter went down into negative numbers. The sleep loss alone can turn you into a zombie, hungry for energy. Add to that the irritants of incessant crying or fussiness and the huge demand one little baby can create, and yeah, I felt desperate. I can still remember that feeling even now, it was just so strong and overpowering, so much that I simply can’t put it into words. Holding and putting down and picking up again an infant who’s overtired or gassy or just doesn’t like to be put down can make one go quickly insane. Doing that four times? Insanity, indeed.

And that’s only the first months of each new life. Then there are the “terrible twos” and the days they say “no” over and over and throw fits or scratch pictures into the surface of your new wood table with the little tab from an aluminum can (that was merely a week ago with my 5-year-old…). There are the years where you’re in and out of the car, ferrying children to and from school and activities. … I couldn’t possibly keep this post to a reasonable length if I went into even a few examples of each age and stage. Other parents know what I’m talking about here, and non-parents have heard many of the “horror” stories.

But at the same time, I have felt my most sublime joy holding or watching my children. Just this week, I stretched out in my recliner on a Sunday evening after the younger three kids were in bed and invited my oldest to climb in next to me. We cuddled and talked for an hour, which wasn’t what I had planned, but it was wonderful. I don’t consider myself a super-emotional person, but just thinking about it right now makes me a little teary-eyed, it was so perfect. And as much as I remember those days of exhaustion and desperation with that same kid a mere 15 to 15 1/2 years ago (she was a very demanding baby, and there were many times I thought I couldn’t wait for her to grow up), I would not trade away that hour in the cozy chair to save myself those many, many hours of struggle.

I think frequently of a scripture in my faith. A father is talking to his sons and explaining life, starting with the story of Adam and Eve. That first couple could have stayed in the Garden of Eden (in fact, many people think they should have), but if they had, they would have not known the transcendent joys of life. As this prophet put it: “And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.”

Yep, the studies are right: parenting can induce misery. And the studies that show parenting can lead to great happiness are right too. As that same chapter says, very wisely: “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.” You can’t experience true joy without experiencing misery. You can’t be happy to eat if you’ve never been hungry. And on and on.

Smack in the middle of parenting, if a researcher comes in and asks a few questions on any given day, in one slice of time, the odds are that researcher is going to find that parent frazzled. It’s unlikely he or she will find that mom or dad right in the middle of a sublime moment of happiness. But just because there are more moments of craziness than not doesn’t diminish the importance and amazingness of the moments of joy. And that’s true with everything in life; parenting is just one example. Anything great that requires hard work and sacrifice is worth that work and sacrifice, but don’t ask those people about how great it is while they’re in the middle of buckling down and sweating and crying and pouring their whole selves into the work.

No, I’m not going to go on and on about how amazing parenting is, and be a rah-rah cheerleader about it. I’m a realist in many ways, but I’m also an optimist. I’m not going to sugar-coat, but I will be happy to share both sides of the parenting coin, the hard work and the beauty. If others choose not to go through the experience because they don’t want the bad parts, that’s their choice. But they will surely be deprived of a kind of joy that they couldn’t possibly experience any other way. That’s their choice too. For me, I’ll take the good and the bad, the misery and the joy, just to be able to savor those moments out of time that are almost beyond normal happiness. And I’ll try to laugh about the misery, because that’s the best I can do with it.

Author: Cathy Carmode Lim

I'm a copy editor, writer, and book reviewer with three decades of experience. My book review website is I'm a mom of four and grandma of three.

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