Kids, Happiness, Lego and Creative Expression

A couple weeks ago, sitting in a café in London, I wrote a piece for Babble about kids and happiness, in response to the New York Magazine cover story, “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting.” The article, written by Jennifer Senior (who, in the small world department, has a daughter in Grey’s pre-school class next year) discussed the various happiness studies that show a correlation between having kids and a decline in happiness – the opposite of the conventional wisdom.

Jennifer concludes on a faintly optimistic note, saying that other studies have shown that people are more likely to regret things they haven’t done rather than those they have. She says in the final two sentences,

It’s a lovely magic trick of the memory, this gilding of hard times. Perhaps it’s just the necessary alchemy we need to keep the species going. But for parents, this sleight of the mind and spell on the heart is the very definition of enchantment.

The take away is that parents are alternately deeply frustrated and happily deluded. Though the article was beautifully written and executed – I love Jennifer’s work — the last few paragraphs struck me as inadequate. Both the studies and the analysis are missing a piece of the essence of what it means to be a parent.

My view is that there are a finite number of intense human experiences that we have access to, and having children is at the top of this list. Comfort is abundant and has low scarcity value for those of us lucky enough to live in the first world; powerful, novel human experiences, on the other hand, are increasingly scarce as we get older, and disproportionately valuable:

The truth is that we get too good at life, and we need to be humbled again. We may lose a big chunk of our adult lives to the repetitive maintenance of children; we may lose time to think novel thoughts and enjoy those of others; we may drink less wine and smell more poop, and we surely spend less time in a serene state of equipoise, but there is a payoff in raw human experience that is not measured in the studies. A life with incrementally rising average happiness can get stale, predictable. Novelty, not of scenery but of experience, is harder to come by than average happiness, and consequently has more scarcity value. In the trials of parenthood, we are resubmitted to the work-a-day, stomach-clenching highs and lows of childhood, to the shriek-worthy revelation that is a paper airplane’s first launch or the betrayal of a parent’s departure. We are damned lucky to have all this, even if, in moments, it almost kills us.

There is little doubt that raising kids is no cake walk. For me the single most challenging piece of this is the absence of time. Time to experience loneliness, which for me is an important part of the spectrum of experience, the phase that makes it possible to fully digest and process life; time to watch and take in the experiences of others, time to create things (which in my case involves aspirations to write more, although I hope some day to have time to play music, paint and experiment with photography, and so on).

One commenter, “Mom of two,” disagreed:

I mostly agree with this article, except for the idea that we lose out on creative expression when we have kids. Without my daughters, I doubt very much that I would sing, dress up, finger paint, mold clay, or pretend I’m a shark in a backyard pool as I do with them. It’s a different kind of creative expression than the measured practicing of a piano or ‘chainsaw sculpting’ you might think of, but I actually think it opens me up to other kinds of creativity when they’ve gone to bed.

the joy of Lego

I love this, she makes a great point. Getting on your hands and knees and getting in the head space of kids, which I enjoy enormously for relatively short periods of time, opens you up creatively, not unlike all the wacky “bark like a dog” exercises they make you do in improv class.

In my case, and I have to think for many parents, the problem is simply access to time – between work and family time, reading a novel is a luxury, and pulling out the canvas and oil paints that I have had in storage for eight years and never touched is totally out of the question. Having read David Shenk’s Genius in All of Us and Gladwell’s Outliers recently, I do think there is something to this 10,000 hour idea — that it takes a certain amount of time to gain mastery of anything, and once you do you enjoy a virtuous cycle of affirmation and more practice, all of which makes possible a level of creative expression that is not possible without the base level skills.

I discussed this with David (Shenk) over a drink some months ago, and he seemed to think that part of why a disproportionate number of extraordinary acts of creation and discovery (the writing of important novels, scientific breakthroughs, and so on) happen before people have kids is not that we get stupider, but that it becomes harder to sustain the level of focus, and the time commitment, necessary to gain new levels of mastery.

I like to think there is a way to engage passionately in various pursuits and while being a non-negligent parent, maybe even a reasonably good one. Lord knows many of the greatest artists, businesspeople, thinkers and scientists have been lousy parents, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s a zero sum game. I like to think giving your kids an example of a parent who deeply enjoy what they do is a gift of sorts. And I like Mom of Two’s point that these two identities can inform one another.

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