Happiness studies suggest that we humans are bad at knowing what makes us happy and that having kids does not; in fact, it decreases marital satisfaction, and according to one study, women rated housework as preferable to taking care of their kids. In response to these studies, some argue that there are different kinds of happiness: pleasure in the moment and pleasure reflecting on our past. Sure, they say, kids decrease daily pleasure and increase daily stress, but parents experience joy in reminiscing and the satisfaction of raising a decent and productive human being (if all goes well). But what is often overlooked in these discussions is pleasure born out of deprivation.
After living in New York City for a decade, I started to find it hard to get excited about anything. We saw live music all over Brooklyn, ate amazing meals, watched movies in the park under the Brooklyn Bridge, danced at PS1 or the Williamsburg Pool Parties, enjoyed boozie brunches, and hula hooped in Prospect Park. This list makes me drool now, but it was my norm, and my pleasure senses dulled. One night at a bar, a Huey Lewis line popped in my head, “I want a new drug.” I had gotten bored with my fun and my freedom, and ironically what I actually needed was to make my life more boring and more taxing so that the fun things would feel fun again.
I’ve always enjoyed working hard or even depriving myself to rediscover the pleasure in something: beers after a frigid New England day on the slopes, the first piece of chocolate after giving up junk food for Lent, the first cup of coffee after quitting caffeine, and sleeping in a bed after a few nights in a tent. In an episode of Radio Lab, a man hiking alone in the South Pole digs up a bag of Cheez Doodles that he buried for himself 86 days before. The video of this exhausted, starving adventurer digging this treat out of the snow is moving: he hollers, he dances, he experiences full-on bliss. Every day of having a kid is like hiking the South Pole and something as simple as dinner and a movie or sleeping in is that hard-earned bag of Cheez Doodles.
Of course, you don’t have to have kids to achieve this contrast. People find all sorts of ways, both big and small, to make their lives harder so that their free time is more satisfying. We train for triathlons and marathons, spend weeks of our vacations building houses for Habitat for Humanity, and hike the South Pole. (It is worth noting that most of the world doesn’t have the privilege of reaching a fun saturation point and does not need to manufacture difficulty.)
My mom once said, “don’t wait too long to have kids or you’ll be too selfish.” If I waited too long, she thought, I would become too accustomed to the freedom of living single in a city, a freedom she never experienced, but what neither of us knew was that bathing in freedom can feel a little like drowning and that the limits parenthood puts on your life can actually liberate you to find fun and even excitement in the smallest, most blasé freedoms.
When I lived in New York, a birthday meant drinks and dancing with all of our friends. This past year on my birthday, my husband, a nurse, was scheduled to work 3 p.m. to 3 a.m., which meant that I would have to leave work on a dark and freezing February night and drive an hour to pick up my son at my in-laws and then another thirty minutes to get home and get my son fed and ready for bed. At the last minute, my husband called to tell me he got the night off and that he’d ordered pizza. I was ebullient.
Want the latest posts from MotherShould? in your email? Sign up in the sidebar, or visit our FaceBook page.