Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Maybe parental happiness is overrated

Tony Woodlief is a wise man. Excerpt:

People are inherently self-centered, and especially in a peaceful, prosperous society, this easily leads to self-indulgence that in turn can make us weak and ignoble. There’s something to be said for ordeals — like parenting, or marriage, or tending the weak and broken — which push us into an other-orientation. When we have to care for someone, we get better at, well, caring for people. It actually takes practice, after all. I’m still trying to get it right.
… Instead of asking parents and non-parents whether they are happy right now, we might ask whether they are becoming more like the people they want to be. And then we might see children not as factors that may or may not be contributing to our happiness, but as opportunities to practice what most of us — perhaps me most of all — need to do more often, which is to put someone else before ourselves.


A month or so before Matthew, our first child, was born, my sister, who already had two kids by then, told me that our lives were about to change in ways we couldn’t possibly understand. You will lose the freedom to go out on Friday and Saturday night, without a care in the world. You will lose freedom, period. You damn sure will lose sleep. But once that child is here, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without him. You will know contentment at a level beyond your imagination.
She was right. Reading Tony Woodlief’s remarks brought to mind something that happened in 2004, when Matthew was five. I came home from work with the worst stomach virus I’ve ever had. I was puking constantly, and barely strong enough to drag myself to the toilet. Within a few hours, the virus had passed to Matthew. Because Lucas was a newborn, Julie had to keep herself and the baby locked away, which left me pretty much to take care of Matthew. I remember being sick as a mange-ridden, three-legged dog, but having to hold my even-sicker five year old over the toilet so he didn’t fall in headfirst as he was hurling repeatedly.
Then I bedded him down on the couch in my home office, for some reason, and laid down on the floor just below him, so I could be close enough to help him get back to the toilet if he had to vomit again. A few minutes after we settled down, he rolled over, lolled his head off the couch, and upchucked all over me.
I don’t know if I’ve ever loved that kid more than I did in that moment. You’d have to be a mother or a father to know what I mean by that.
The film to watch, by the way, is “The Secret Lives of Dentists.”

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posted June 27, 2010 at 10:06 pm

It makes evolutionary sense that we would be bred (as always, on average) to find pleasure in helping our progeny.

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posted June 27, 2010 at 11:03 pm

The hardest, most trying, most frustrating, most exasperating thing I’ve ever done in my life is be a husband and father. And yet, when I was holding my two-week old at a BBQ the other day for my employees, and he puked down my back, I turned and showed them like it was a badge of honor. This is the best time of my life because of that “contentment.” I’ve always been a dark person, but I have never been happier in the trials of married life (with children.)

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posted June 27, 2010 at 11:44 pm

Excellent post–rings very mush true, and I’ve had parenting experiences similar to the ones Rod and chris mention.
I think the issue isn’t that happiness is overrated, just that it’s mis-defined. We modern Westerners almost uniformly take “happiness” to mean “contentment”, “enjoyment”, or “getting/doing what I want”. The classical concept in Western philosophy, though, was of eudaimonia, literally, “having a good spirit”. Happiness as eudaimonia in short means the well-lived life. Yes, a certain amount of material goods, pleasure, and contentment is necessary to such a life; but the main issue is living a moral, just, and meaningful life. Even Epicurus, who is almost universally (and very wrongly) thought of as being a hedonist (that is, one who lives for pleasure), espoused a rather ascetic ideal that shunned material things in favor of friendship, and even went so far as to say that one could be happy while being tortured on the rack!
The vast majority of pre-modern thinkers in almost all cultures took this view of happiness. There were a very small number of true hedonists in antiquity, but they were always looked at as fringe until modern times. The horrible misconception of happiness we have is at the root of an awful lot of our problems, but that’s another can of worms!
CAPTCHA: tasman rakes Hmmm…Errol Flynn was from Tasmania (named after Tasman), and he was a bit of a rake…probably because he was a hedonist…see, it supports the thesis if you work at it!

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posted June 28, 2010 at 12:22 am

Instead of asking [people] whether they are happy right now, we might ask whether they are becoming more like the people they want to be.
What a great quote. In a single sentence, we have a summary as to why there will never be agreement between those who accept only the material world, and those who are religious and thus find the soul more important. In fact, the vast majority of disagreements on the marriage threads a while ago hinge on this exact point: what does it mean to be “happy”? Are we talking “Brad Pitt” happy, or “Mother Theresa happy”? The traditionalist says one can be “happy” in difficult times – a tough marriage, hard poverty, whatever – and thus accept there are moral absolutes that one must follow to remain “happy” (such as no divorce, fornication, abortion, etc.). And not only do moral codes not prevent one from being “happy”, they are actually the only thing that allow one to grow into a person of character, where they can truly be happy. One of the few modern, popular movies to explore this idea of what happiness really is would be “Jerry Maguire”.
meh, It makes evolutionary sense that we would be bred (as always, on average) to find pleasure in helping our progeny
Not necessarily. Humans may well (d)evolve? by investing less and less (and thus finding less and less pleasure) in their offspring. The data we see today certainly plays this out: most of high-breeding Africa invests little in their children, yet is far more successful from an evolutionary sense than the higher-level investment cultures of Europe or Asia (who are actually decreasing in population and in some cases – Europe – being displaced). Granted, I don’t believe this pattern will hold for very long, but just wanted to point out that evolution goes in all directions and is tough to know.
chris, The hardest, most trying, most frustrating, most exasperating thing I’ve ever done in my life is be a husband and father.
I hear this a lot and know it’s true for a lot of people; for some reason I never found this to be true for myself. I think it probably because I grew up a rough life materially as a kid and don’t really find parenting any harder than any other life stage. Guess I had little to give up.

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Fr. J

posted June 28, 2010 at 12:46 am

All I’ll say is, this makes total sense to me, your story included.

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Erin Manning

posted June 28, 2010 at 1:07 am

Great post, Rod. I think a lot of the misunderstanding re: happiness comes from those who think of happiness primarily as a feeling, and further as a feeling produced by continually being (or remaining) in a state of pleasurable contentment.
Happiness, however, is a choice, and it is a choice to pursue, even through pain, such things as harmony, balance, and a true sense of one’s own worth and place in the universe. There is nothing quite like parenting to make all of those things stand out in sharp relief against the backdrop of life.

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posted June 28, 2010 at 3:41 am

The arguments srike me as confused.
Once you have children, you have a duty to do your best by them, bearing in mind that you may well get it wrong.
However, you have no duty to have children. Many people are being more moral living self-centred childless lives than they would be if they decided to have children.
By analogy, I looked after my grandmother at the end of my life, which was an unwanted duty placed upon me by circumstances. I have no equivalent duty to go out looking for old people to take care of.

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posted February 24, 2016 at 4:38 am

That quote was spot on in regards to the self-centeredness of man. Made me cringe just reading it…

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