The kid trap

“Does Fatherhood Make You Happy?” Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert asks in Time magazine this week in anticipation of Father’s Day on Sunday.

Gilbert eventually arrives (well, sort of) at the right answer: It’s the wrong question to ask.

But it’s the perfect question for our “all about me” culture. Isn’t everything I do in life supposed to make “me” happy — right now?

Gilbert writes that psychologists have found that people are less happy when they are interacting with their children than when they are doing a variety of other activities, like eating or shopping.

Gee, do ya think?

In fact, “an act of parenting makes most people about as happy as an act of housework.”

Look, I’m crazy about my kids. I’m happy to see them get up in the morning and happy to see them go to bed at night. Often there are times of happiness and laughter with them — along with sheer exasperation in-between. But what makes me really, really happy in the moment is a weekend night when they are asleep and I can sit up late with my jazz music, a cup of hot tea and my favorite newspaper. I mean, that’s transcendent happiness!

Whoever said it’s my kids’ job to make me “happy” right … now?

Raising kids is hard work. Recently, friends from Virginia visited my kids and me for the weekend. Though I’m pretty good about imposing “grown-up zones” and limiting interruptions, four young kids say “Mom” so much — as in “Mom, I need …,” “Mom, where is …?,” “Mom, so-and-so hit me.” — I mentioned to my friends that I was determined to figure out how to count the number of “Moms” I heard in a day, and then maybe impose a limit on each child. And if the child reaches the “limit” by, say, 10:30 in the morning — he or she is done. Anyway, a half-hour later my 4-year-old piped up with “Mom”-something, and one of my friends said, “That’s 46.” She’d been counting; 46 “Moms” in one-half hour.

Of course, I’m “happier” in the moment with the jazz music and the paper.

And yet I also recognize that one of the very best things about having children is that, in a sense, like a rightly oriented marriage, it calls us away from “self” and toward “other.” And if ever a culture needed exactly that, this one does.

The National Center for Health Statistics says, according to the Web resource Wikipedia, that the percentage of American women of childbearing age who have voluntarily (and presumably permanently) chosen not to have kids “rose sharply in the 1990s: from 2.4 percent in 1982 to 4.3 percent in 1990 to 6.6 percent in 1995.” A small number but a big increase, and probably much higher now.

Web sites and books for people who choose to never have children (versus those many folks who would desperately like to have them but can’t) have boomed and a new term was coined for the phenomenon in the 1990s: “childfree.” Again and again, these resources celebrate people, especially married couples, who say they just want to live life on their own terms, and do what they want to do when they want to do it.

Yeah. Whoopee.

In the end, that’s a pretty good way to stunt a soul — and it’s no accident it’s a growing American trend.

Back to the little ones. Gilbert eventually explains that with kids it’s not about a transient notion of happiness, but transcendent abiding joy. In admitting that our children don’t necessarily bring us a daily dose of happiness, he writes: “… Rather than deny that fact, we should celebrate it. Our ability to love beyond all measure those who try our patience and weary our bones is at once our most noble and most human quality.”

And, I would argue, only when we connect to something bigger than “it’s all about me” are we stretched to experience real joy and satisfaction _ in a way no animal can and even when our children are behaving like animals! I’m certainly not saying this has to, or can only, come through our kids. I am saying that only in very recent years would our culture even think to pose a question like, “Does Fatherhood Make You Happy?” And that does not bode well for this or future generations.

(Betsy Hart is the author of “It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting Our Kids — and What to Do About It.” She can be reached at  or