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Do kids make us unhappy?

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

A child who eats everything, plays independently, sleeps on time and never has a tantrum is a mythical creature and also the protagonist of the stories that I tell my two girls every night.

Sometimes parenting can feel like a never ending checklist of tasks that much like a Hollywood movie simply reset at the beginning of everyday for us to start all over again. This was really evident for me recently when the vomiting bug swept through our house with Erin then Eila and then James all being struck down with it and then I got it too. The week long cycle of changing bedsheets and mopping up vomit (gross, I know but I had to do it, you're just reading about it) got me down and I was asking myself is this what parenting is? I quickly forgot about the smiles and giggles and discovery of new things in life like

Its a scientific fact that we are often in auto-pilot mode, which is known as implicit memory. In other words, we’re productive but not awake or intentionally engaged in enjoying parenting.

So when I read an article recently about the fact that having kids does to not make you happier and can in fact lead to feelings of unhappiness I felt sad but I was not completely surprised. Most parents feel that their children are incredibly important sources of life satisfaction but that’s not the same thing as happiness. The ‘happiness bump’ that a newborn brings into the lives of parents actually starts to disappear after a year.

I have friends who have chosen not to be parents, and to be honest there were times when I wondered if that would lead to a sense of unfulfilment for them later in life however a new study has found that parents and non-parents have similar levels of life satisfaction, but parents experienced both more daily joy and more daily stress than non-parents. So was Ronan Keating referring to parenting when he sang Life is aRollercoaster? Maybe, but who cares! Life without children is simply much more stable.

While there’s certainly a lot of joy involved in parenthood, it is not unusual to also feel overwhelmed with negative feelings: anxiety, confusion, frustration, depression. Parents all feel the weight of parenthood at some time or another.

As most parents know, taking care of a child and his or her many, many needs can be physically exhausting. Young babies need almost-constant care: They need to be fed every couple of hours; they wake up several times a night (making a good night’s sleep a thing of the past for you); and they may require specific (and bizarre) rituals to get them to eat, stop crying, or fall asleep.

This will obviously leave parents feeling run down and if you are knackered then hosting that Teddy bears picnic can be more stressful than hosting Christmas dinner with the in-laws so often parents just zone out.

After having a child, a lot of people notice that they are not communicating as well with their partners as they did in their non-child days. The fatigue can lead to arguments and I admit that there are times when I have had arguments with my partner about who is doing the majority of the extra work that a baby brings. But despite all of the evidence that parenthood can be hard, parents also experience times of fulfillment that are hard to beat. Sometimes it’s the little moments of parenting—like the way Eila says “bsghetti” or how Erin hums when she is colouring that make the difference, and paying attention to these moments can have a big impact.

Personal time, either by yourself or with your partner, is an important part of maintaining your sanity. The “helicopter” phenomenon—parents who monitor their kids’ every move and pack their kids’ schedules full of extracurricular activities is becoming more common. But sometimes we do too much. And doing less can also make parenting more enjoyable. So try to step back and just let life run its course.

Kids need play to help them learn their way in the world. Free play, the kind kids do totally on their own (as opposed to structured or supervised activity) is so important in how kids develop basic cognitive abilities, such as decision making, problem solving, and self-control. The trial-and-error nature of unstructured play is an essential practice for the trial-and-error nature of life. In other words don’t wrap your kids in cotton wool and don’t feel guilty for not having them on some sort of regimen that would put an Olympic athlete to shame!

Childhood goes by so fast. The early days of nappies and breastfeeding (if you choose that option) give way to barbies and tea parties, to first days at school, to school exams, romances with broken hearts and, finally, to the empty nest. Approaching parenthood as a process can help keep you sane through it all. Take it seriously but not too seriously. As tough as the bad times can be, keep in mind that they will pass - but the good times go by just as quickly.

If we were to rate the importance of our relationships with our children, they would be right at the top. As Ryan Reynolds once said "'I would take a bullet for you. I could never love anything as much as I love you.' I would say that to my wife. And the second I looked in that baby's eyes, I knew in that exact moment that if we were ever under attack, I would use my wife as a human shield to protect that baby."

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