Monday, August 11, 2008

Children Make You Cry

Happy Alone - Kings of Leon (mp3)
Hand Me Down - The Wallflowers (mp3)

One of the tragedies of higher education is how little we specifically and accurately remember decades later. While I hold tremendous value to the education I received, from Kindergarten up through my teensy undergraduate degree, its value is mostly in things that are now almost ingrained into my system as breathing.

Yet there are moments, experiences in classrooms, etched like several dozen teleplays into my cranium. Winning the contest of who could keep the balloon up in the air longest when I was in kindergarten. Telling a huge sixth-grade bully to kiss my ass on the playground when I was in fourth grade and somehow running and dodging long enough that he gave up beating the shit out of me. Writing down my seventh-grade English teacher's "Rules of Thumb" because I feared him killing me if I didn't. Having my 10th grade teacher tell me that I really was a good writer and should consider submitting my poems to the school literary magazine.

I remember fewer moments from college. You can insert your standard "too drunk" jokes here if you like, but the truth is, by the time we get to college, the sheen of uncharted educational territory had worn off quite significantly. It was difficult to enter a room, encounter an aha moment that didn't get blurred or marginalized with earlier ones.

But I remember with amazing clarity the day as a college senior in the fall when I walked into one of my psychology classes and had one of the lectures of my lifetime. It wasn't a Randy Pausch lesson, mind you, but maybe in its own way it was just as mind-awakening.

Caryl Rusbult, charismatic instructress of a class on "Interpersonal Relationships," walked into my class and asked us if we planned on getting married at some point. The 30 or so with me, mostly female, nodded or agreed silently to ourselves that we did indeed. Then she asked how many of us hoped to maximize our happiness. She asked it like the answer was obvious. Of course we all want to live the happiest lives we're capable of living, right?

And that's when she dropped the bomb. If we meant it, she said, then the happiest we can ever hope to be is married and without children.

Her studies back in 1993 showed it. Studies continue to show it. Having children makes people less happy.

Dr. Rusbult was not only a brilliant research psychologist, she was also a captivating speaker and educator, something that happened plenty at UNC but wasn't ever to be taken for granted. "Interpersonal Relationships" was easily one of my favorite two or three classes. This lesson was the cornerstone of that semester.

Don't worry. Nothing about psychology is ever all that simple, and the reality of children is that, like everything, it's a matter of trade-offs. No children = happier marriages and, according to some studies, happier individuals. With children, however, parents are less happy but report higher levels of a sense of purpose and meaning.

This isn't intuitive. At least not to me. Having a greater sense of purpose doesn't make you happier. Having a greater sense of purpose (kids or other) means more stress, a greater sense of responsibility, a higher concern for failure. Purpose and meaning are heavy notions. They weigh down our souls. But when we can carry those burdens through and look back, with our tri-focals from our nurse-assisted living facility, purpose and meaning allow us the chance to be proud.

What I loved about Dr. Rusbult's lesson was not that she discouraged me from having children. Such was never her goal to begin with. She was aiming for something much more substantive, something that is at the heart of most great learning opportunities. She merely wanted us to understand that, if we buy into the myths of certain experiences -- the wonderful super perfect awesome world of parenting, fer instance -- we hurt our chances of surviving the difficulties.

Most of us would be happier drivers if we had that new TomTom, the one that keeps you up-to-the-minute on local traffic situations. We might still choose to drive straight into the traffic jam, but once we've made the conscious choice to dive into it, that jam loses much of its power to piss us off. We knew what we were getting into.

I will forever be in Dr. Rusbult's debt for providing me that advanced warning at a time when I could hear it and willingly absorb it. If only our country had some magic way to prepare all parents and wannabe parents for the happiness they were sacrificing so they could raise children.

1 comment:

jbradburn said...

Did your teacher have children?

As someone who benefitted from being a "DINK" for a long time, I can see where the study comes from.

Perhaps the biggest problem w/ Parenthood is best described in the movie of the same name by James Robards:
"You never cross the goal-line, you never spike the ball, you never win, it's like your Aunt Edna's ass - it's never-ending and just as frightening."

And this, more than anything is I think the rule that no one ever tells you:
The parenting gig is as close as you get a true 24 hour a day job. The baby doesn't stop being your baby when you turn off the lights.

Neither my wife or I had super-romanticized notions of parenting, but we also lived pretty high on the hog for 8 years. So we know exactly what we're missing.

2 couples whom my wife and I are very close to are new parents/going to be them. I let them in on the great truth:

People have pulled the wool over your eyes for years. You have no idea what you're getting yourself into. It's the most intense, beautiful, awe-inspiring, unforgiving, tiring, joyful, frustrating, happiest thing you'll experience in your life.

Not having kids would be kind of like going to college and taking everything pass/fail.