I recently had a delightful conversation with my father’s first cousin who lives in the western part of the state. A retired doctor with an interest in genealogy, George wanted to talk about a family cemetery in Sampson County, now barely accessible even though he knows the way and has a key to the gate.
    We agreed to visit later this summer once I can round up my three children to go with us.                                                A few days later George sent me a copy of an old newspaper article about an elderly fellow in Wade who had been named for my grandfather, whom I never knew. The man recounted what his parents had told him about his arrival on this Earth. My grandfather, a doctor in then small-town Fayetteville, had delivered the baby. His parents, it seems, had simply run out of resources to pay the hospital bill and asked my grandfather if he had any ideas. The family’s legend has it that he said, “Well, I can’t put him back, so name him for me.” {mosimage}
    So they did.
    All families have their stories, and I am looking forward to our time with George, one of the remaining members of the same generation as my father, who would have been 90 this month. I also relish time with my own children sharing our stories of their pasts and building new ones.
That may be why a recent article in Newsweek caught me by surprise, flying in the face of what I have always thought of as conventional wisdom that having children is one of life’s greatest rewards.
Writer Lorraine Ali, however, reports both data and anecdotal evidence that childless couples are “happier” than those of us who are parents.
    Well!
    Like you, I hear young parents moan about sleepless nights and no time to themselves, and I confess to having said the same things myself during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Being a parent is stressful at all stages, from wailing infancy to high stakes school testing to surly teen years to the struggles of young adults making their way in the real world. It is also expensive. Newsweek quotes these figures just for starters: $414.42 a year for school supplies and lunches in public school, $16,440 for private day school, $35,087 for private boarding school, $13,589 for public college and $32,307 for a private college.
Those eye-popping numbers do not include ordinary living expenses like clothes and transportation during the years at home or away at school.
    So, what is the evidence regarding happiness or a lack thereof?
    Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert whose book Stumbling Toward Happiness made him a bestselling author cites several studies which indicate that marital satisfaction goes down significantly with the birth of the first child and creeps up again when the last babe leaves the nest and that parents prefer chores like going to the grocery store to being with their children. Robin Simon, a sociologist at Florida State University, is even more blunt. She has analyzed data from 13,000 Americans and has this to say: “In fact, no group of parents — married, single, step or even empty nest — reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who have never had children. It’s such a counterintuitive finding because we have these cultural beliefs that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life and they’re not.”
    Have parents always felt this way?
    Who knows, but I suspect not. In prior generations, having children was less of a choice than it is today, and children were needed and expected to contribute to the family by working in whatever ways they could. Today, becoming a parent is often an emotional choice, and who among us is going to ‘fess up that such choice may have compromised our own lives in some way?
    Perhaps we expect too much from becoming a parent as well.
    I know of no human relationship that is without strain. Even the most beautiful and perfect bundle of joy can shriek and drive you to distraction. Even the smartest and most accomplished and promising student can mouth off to his parents, or, more painful still, do something that is deliberately disappointing. Even the seemingly happiest family life can pale compared to the perceived glamour of a successful career with a handsome paycheck. While we may romanticize and fantasize cherubic babies and smart, beautiful children, the daily reality of parenting is daunting, gritty and life-long.
    {mosimage}As the mother of three young adults, I have no idea what my life would have been like without them nor have I ever thought about it since, as my grandfather reportedly said, I cannot put them back. I do know, though, that the three of them have provided my life’s most exhilarating, most terrifying, most frustrating, most boring, most challenging, most surprising, most elated and saddest moments. I know of no emotion I have not experienced through them and for them.
    And, yes, for me, the primary emotion has been happiness.
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