"Kids won't make me happy." I've heard that statement, or statements to that effect, thousands of times. Enough that I should, by now, have a response prepared. But when a guy said it to me a few days ago, I fumbled the answer. I failed him.
"I don't know, man. Don't get me wrong: I think it's cool that you've got kids and everything. But, personally, I just don't think kids would make me happy."
That was his comment to me as we stood out in the cold, him smoking his cigarette, me secondhand smoking his cigarette. Maybe I just wanted to go back inside. Maybe I didn't feel like having this conversation. Maybe I judged him for his selfishness. Well, I did judge him for his selfishness. I shouldn't have -- it was pretentious and arrogant of me -- but I did. Whatever the reason, I offered a nonsense response. I spewed the same contrite, useless garbage at him that parents spewed at me before we had our twins.
"Oh, they WILL make you happy, dude. You don't get it now, but when you're a parent you'll understand. Kids will definitely make you happy. Sure, it might be tough sometimes, but they'll make you happy. Trust me."
All of the pain, sacrifice and suffering of parenthood dismissed with a shrug and a sigh -- "it might be tough sometimes" -- and covered up in a layer of rainbows, puppies, sunshine and gum drops. And lies. Because that's what it is when you tell someone that having kids will make them happy: a lie. Kids won't MAKE you happy. Nothing will MAKE you happy.
My own kids do not, in fact, make me happy. I love them to death. I am a proud father. I am honored that God gave them to me. I am overjoyed. I am in awe. I am in love. I am happy. But my kids do not MAKE me happy.
Make: to cause, to form, to create, to formulate, to build. Synonyms: force, compel.
My kids don't make my happiness. That isn't their job. My happiness isn't a responsibility that falls on their tiny little shoulders. Kids come into this world helpless, naked and needing, yet so many of us immediately shove them into the Happiness Factory and bark commands. "Get on the assembly line and build me some happiness! Quick! Do your duty, sir!" This is precisely why many mommies and daddies are NOT very happy people. Many are lost, confused and disappointed. They are anything but happy because they were fooled into thinking that they didn't conceive a human -- they conceived a little happiness generator. They were fooled, in many instances, by parents who know better. Parents like myself (although I'm no expert in the subject).
Happiness is a choice. It's a decision. It's something you achieve. It's something you do. It's an option you select. It requires your active participation every single second of the day. Happiness is not made. It is not constructed. It is not assembled like Ikea furniture. It is not contracted like a disease. It is not imposed, nor infused, nor purchased. It is not given to you. It is not birthed. You don't stumble into it like a puddle of fun feelings. It is never permanent and absolute, except in Heaven.
You can be given a temporary hallucination of happiness. You can spend a few dollars on the street corner and buy a bag of something that will cheaply imitate a few of the physical manifestations of happiness, but that will ultimately leave you even less happy than you were before. Speaking of which, a lot of people peddle a bizarre form of kiddie-crack. "Oh yeah, just one hit of parenthood, man, and you'll be flyin'."
Funny, if kids are supposed to give me a happiness high, why are they sometimes such a buzzkill? Times, specifically, like when we're on long car trips and they take turns screaming at a pitch so high it would make a dog's eardrums explode. Or the times when they decide they'd like to get up and start the day early -- at 2 a.m. Or the times when I'd like to take my wife out for a date but we can't find anyone to watch the kids. Or the times when they have their diarrhea set on a timer, ready to explode right as I'm taking off their diapers. If they are supposed to "make me happy," what are they doing crying and crapping so much? Attention son and daughter: loud screams and messy diapers do not make Dad happy. Didn't they get that memo? What's wrong with them? They've clearly failed in their Divine Mandate to be the harbingers of my own personal happiness.
Or maybe no such mandate exists. Maybe no human being was put on this Earth to "make me happy," least of all my children. The joy and happiness of parenting is like the joy and happiness that can be found in many good things: it comes from sacrifice, self denial and self giving. It comes with work and effort. I have to be the sort of person who finds happiness in giving, and I will not automatically be that sort of person just because I had sex and made a couple of babies. In other words, my kids don't make me happy to be a parent; I have to make me happy to be a parent. And I am. I am beyond words. But that happiness will decrease if I become more selfish, and it will increase if I become less selfish. If you want your kids to make you happy, you are asking your kids to make you less selfish. That is a demand that is, all at once, incredibly stupid, laughably absurd and profoundly abusive.
And then maybe we should stop worrying so much about this happiness thing, anyway. I think the happiest people are the ones who spend the least amount of time whining about their desire to be made happy. They do a thing because it's right, or because they have a duty to do it, or because it is interesting, or beautiful, or enlightening. They choose to find happiness amidst it all, but that was never the point. They aim beyond mere enjoyment, pleasure and satisfaction. If your own happiness is the Alpha and Omega of your life, you'll never do anything important or become anything significant in this world. Ironically, you'll also never be happy.
The problem (one of the many problems, I should say) with parents who expect parenthood to "make them happy" is that they are always disillusioned when reality hits, and then they resent their children for failing to fulfill their impossible expectations. These people generally resent the universe for the same reason. They think all of creation was forged for the express purpose of rewarding them with happiness, and they will decline to do anything that might intrude or impose upon their Happiness Entitlement. They refuse to accept this harsh but liberating truth: it isn't anybody's job to make you happy. You don't have any right to put your unhappiness at anyone's feet but your own. Your happiness is your concern and yours alone.
There is an ocean of deep, lasting, transcendent happiness that is suddenly available to those of us who plunge into the stormy waters of parenting. But we have to choose to drink of it, and our cups of parental happiness will not be very full if we do not first empty them of our selfishness.
This is what I should have said, but I'm slow-witted and clumsy, so I stammered some meaningless parent-slogans. If I could have that moment back, I'd offer something along these lines instead. Or maybe, more simply, I'd leave it at this:
Happy? Your kids won't make you happy. The only thing your kids will make you, turn you into, and force you to be (at least biologically speaking) is a parent. Happy is your responsibility.
Matt Walsh writes regularly at themattwalshblog.com