Several months ago, the novelist Zadie Smith wrote an essay for the New York Review of Books on joy, a complicated emotion that lies at the heart of parenting she argued. In the essay, Smith captured the paradox of parenting: Children, so-called “bundles of joy,” can make parents profoundly unhappy.
“Occasionally, the child, too, is a pleasure,” she wrote, “though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize a joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.” Smith went on to write, “Sometimes joy multiplies itself dangerously. Children are the infamous example. Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation?”
No wonder parents are, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, less happy interacting with their children than they are doing more mundane tasks, like exercising, eating, and watching television. In a talk on happiness that he delivered at Harvard in February, Gilbert point blank said that children are “not a source of happiness” for parents. In fact, parental happiness suffers once kids enter the picture. With kids around, parents have to sacrifice their priorities and desires for the sake of the child. But once kids are out of the picture, parents become happier and their marital satisfaction improves. “The only symptom of empty nest syndrome,” Gilbert said at Harvard, “is non-stop smiling.”
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