Happy Families Are All Alike

Smiley-Face-2And “…every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”   Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina.

Did you hear the Steve Inskeep story on NPR’s Morning Edition this week, “Does Having Children Make You Happier?”

Here’s an interesting part of his interview with NPR science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam that caught my attention:

VEDANTAM:  Lyubomirsky [psychologist who studied happiness and wrote book, The Myths of Happiness] says there’s a difference between happiness measured on a moment-to-moment level and happiness measured at a larger level. Parents report significantly more meaning in their lives than non-parents, even though on a day-to-day basis parenting may be a grind.

INSKEEP: Maybe we should just avoid the word happiness because it seems to confuse people.

VEDANTAM: Yeah. No, one of the things Lyubomirsky is actually saying is that we may have been too simplistic and asking questions – are parents happy or are parents non-happier? She says we need to start asking more nuanced questions. Which parents are we talking about? Are we talking about men or are we talking about women? Are we talking about older parents or younger parents? There’s research showing that older parents tend to be happier than younger parents. Parents with jobs – not surprisingly – are happier than parents who are struggling economically. Parents who have biological or adopted children turn out to be happier in general than parents who have stepchildren. And Lyubomirsky said perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind is that parents’ happiness is not one static thing that basically stays a constant throughout the life of a child. It varies, especially with the age of the child.

LYUBOMIRSKY: When you have children under five and when your children are teenagers, that’s when you have the most kind of negative emotions and negative experiences with them. When they’re in between those years and when they’re older, there may be many, many positive, you know, interactions. So when we think about parenting we shouldn’t just think about, you know, having a baby or having a 14-year-old.

At the end of the story, Inskee quoted Tolstoy with his own clever twist: “Happy families are all alike; unhappy families have kids under five or teenagers.”

With my current job, I work on a team in which most of us have children under five, and most of us listen to NPR on the commute to work in the morning.  We also have a few younger guys on the team, one single and one married without kids. The morning this story on having children and happiness ran and we chatted about it at our desks, we teased the guys about our superior level of happiness as parents.

“We are happier because we focus on the big picture fulfillment of having children instead of the day-to-day grind. Ready to drop your night life and join us?”

While the sarcasm was thick, we have all also agreed on separate occasions that our lives are significantly more meaningful than they were before we had children and we often come to work bragging about something sweet or adorable or silly that our kids said or did.

I will tell anyone that the year I had two under the age of five AND a teenager was one of the most difficult years of my life.

And four years later, our marriage thankfully still in tact and life relatively easier on multiple fronts — there are any number of moments in time now that I fall into the temporarily unhappy category and say out loud to my children and/or my husband things like:

“I’m just not up for this today.”

“Whining has to stop.”

“Really tired. No patience.”


And as you can imagine, my announcing my state of being and need for perfect angel compliance always results in an immediate cease and desist on any type of annoying behavior.  (Not.)  

Today I had a moment of unhappiness that had nothing to do with my children who were behaving perfectly fine. Unfortunately, they were witness to my impulsive act of irritation. I was driving the girls to a dentist appointment anticipating a ridiculous amount of time in the car between getting to the dentist’s office on south end of town, getting them to school up north, and then driving another twenty minutes west to get to my office. Traffic was heinous and we were bound to be late. I was coming onto the highway from the on-ramp and some jack-ass woman on her cell phone driving a red sporty car couldn’t be bothered to slow down or change lanes to let me in.

I edged in anyway so as not to be forced on to the next exit. Coming in at a slower pace in my oh-so-sexy Prius, I was predictably too close in front of her.

She laid on the horn.

I threw up my arm and flipped her off.

Honestly, not something I do. Not sure what inspired the need to give someone the bird on the highway. I was instantly reminded of my innocent audience.

“Mommy, why did you just put your arm up like that?”

“Oh just stretching.”


Ultimately, I’ve done enough work on myself over the last several years to know the Big Truth that every response and every emotion is a choice.

We all know in the heat of the moment, it’s not easy to take pause to completely own the situation and your place in it and ask yourself,  “Is this worth being unhappy about?” But when you do take that extra few seconds to breathe and ask yourself the question, you can redirect your thoughts, your feelings and your actions in the moment for the benefit of everyone around you and your own well-being.

Thankfully, every day — every next moment in time really — we are graced with a do-ever.





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2 Responses to “Happy Families Are All Alike”

  1. mom says:

    You constantly amaze me with your insight and ability to express your thoughts and feelings in writing. Love you. Hugs and kisses to the girls.

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