Yesterday I heard Betsy Stevenson, of the Wharton School of Business, talking about happiness and being a Mom. She said, on Marketplace, “There is an unhappy fact to ponder this Mother’s Day: Women with children are less happy than similar women without. The same is true for men. When people hear this fact they immediately suspect that happiness gains from children must exist somewhere. Aren’t people who are religious happier when they have kids? No. Aren’t people with kids much happier later in life? No. Is this only true for those in a specific education or income group? Nope and nope. So why do people have children if the data suggest they makes us less happy? There are two possible answers: People are making mistakes, or there is more to life than happiness.”
Stevenson doesn’t come to any satisfactory conclusions or explanations as far as I’m concerned. But her words made me think. Am I happier as a mother than I was as a married woman without children? Is my mom happier than she was decades ago, before her four kids came into her life?
The thing is, being a mother involves the kind of love that Jesus called agape, self-sacrificial love, love that gets to work no matter what the circumstances. My life before children didn’t involve this type of love on an every day basis, but I knew something about it from my own mother. My mother, who spent hours caring for me when I was hospitalized in high school for a joint eating disorder and stomach illness. My mother, never an equestrian, who was kicked in the thigh by a horse because my younger sister wanted to learn to ride. Mom’s leg sustained a permanent dent. It was bruised for over a year. My mother, who held our daughter Penny after she was diagnosed with Down syndrome and said, “We can handle this.” My mother, who drives to our house for an overnight visit every week so that my husband and I can have dinner alone, so that our children can get to know their Nana. My mother, who made clothes for us by hand when we were little, who chose a “theme of the week” in the summer so that we’d learn how to learn on our own, who organized her life around our needs and made sure she was always available to listen when we happened to be willing to talk to her. Has this been a happy life?
It has been a life of suffering and loss. It has been a life of love, which meant she cried when we cried and rejoiced when we rejoiced and hurt when we hurt. I’m not sure that it was a happy life. But I know that it has been a life with much laughter. I know that it has been a life with much joy.
And that would be my response to Betsy Stevenson, to the researchers who say we’d all be happier without children. They may be right. But I would take joy—the uncomfortable and inconvenient dying-to-self and opening-to-others, the suffering-with and rejoicing-with—I would take joy over happiness every day. And I would thank my mother every day for showing me what joy can look like.
Amy Julia Becker is a writer, a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, wife to Peter, and mother to Penny and William. She has written one book, Penelope Ayers: A Memoir, and blogs at Thin Places.