“Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.” – Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World”
Forget how you arrived here. No one struggled to deliver you to these peaceful shores. Maybe your mom, but labor pains don’t count. Your arrival was stable and fortunate. You sprang forth from the ether. From a spell cast by exquisite liars. As such, it’s perfectly logical for you to take the position that offspring are to be avoided if you are to self-actualize, succeed, be happy, achieve things. That’s why you were scooped up and formed from dirt – for happiness, never for struggle. Soma, blessed contentedness, is vastly superior to the good fight against misfortune and the struggle against temptation, passion, and doubt.
Back in the halcyon days, failure was depicted as a blissful, childless, hedonistic future. C.F. Brave New World, Logan’s Run, Children of Men. Now dystopia is not a barren, hedonistic landscape, but a fruitful one. See, kids are really needy. They require food. They require care. They require shelter. And they subtract liquid assets that could otherwise be used for shoes, travel, and the general pursuit of being contented, of finding ourselves.
In other words, fatherhood causes the sads.
Well, maybe not.
Nope, it’s conclusive. Fatherhood is definitely for suckers.
Symptoms of depression increased on average by 68% over the first five years of fatherhood for men who were around 25 years old when they became fathers and lived with their children, according to the study published online today in the journal Pediatrics. . . Throughout the course of the survey, all participants reported on depression symptoms (sadness, difficulty focusing, inability to enjoy life) via responses to a 10-question depression scale.
Well, damn. Settled science is both settled and science, by definition, so the truth is that kids are parasites gnawing at the edifice of our supreme self-importance. Don’t stop believin’ and definitely don’t read the abstract that produced the above damnation of fatherhood.
Overall, 7% of fathers had depression. In bivariate analyses, depressed fathers were more likely than nondepressed fathers to report spanking their 1-year-old children in the previous month (41% compared with 13%; P < .01). In multivariate analyses, depressed fathers were less likely to report reading to their children ≥3 days in a typical week (adjusted odds ratio: 0.38 [95% confidence interval: 0.15–0.98]) and much more likely to report spanking (adjusted odds ratio: 3.92 [95% confidence interval: 1.23–12.5]). Seventy-seven percent of depressed fathers reported talking to their children’s doctor in the previous year. Paternal depression is associated with parenting behaviors relevant to well-child visits. Pediatric providers should consider screening fathers for depression, discussing specific parenting behaviors (eg, reading to children and appropriate discipline), and referring for treatment if appropriate.
You’re not good with numbers. Neither am I. But we’re good enough to discern that the shoddy methodology for interpreting the above numbers was covered in the first few weeks of that Intro to Stats class we took. We can dig shallow and still get to the truth. It goes something like this. 7% of fathers age 25-34 with 1-year olds experience depression. This correlates very strongly with sub-optimal parenting strategies. The headlines do not follow. “Depressed Fathers, Who Constitute a Solid Minority, Aren’t Great at the Relationship Part of Fatherhood” is simply not interesting copy. Fortunately, we took a marketing class during the same semester as that stats class and we have a remedy – click-bait.
Click-bait is click-bait for a reason and sensational headlines are definitely designed to be click-bait. Click-bait that they are, the question is still worth exploring. Does procreation make us happy?
Yeah, sometimes. Other times, no. Is that the point? Ask someone else, preferably not an expert. There is a cottage industry that revolves around “Is Having Kids the Worst Thing Ever?” That cottage industry is ridiculous. It would make just as much sense to ask, “Is Navel Gazing the Pinnacle of Humanity?” (#slatepitches)
As a teller of ugly truths and destroyer of pretty lies, at least when it conveniences me, let it be known that fatherhood is work. Or as Red Foreman would say: “If it wasn’t work they wouldn’t call it work. They’d call it super wonderful crazy fun time.” Fatherhood is assuredly not super wonderful crazy fun time. Newborn human spawn are less capable than, say, baby crocodiles and they require much more hands-on interaction. Is it depressing? No. Is it joy inducing? No. Do I contradict myself? Yes. I am large, I contain multitudes. Try to pay attention.
For the first six months or so, babies just are. As a father, you cuddle your precious offspring tight so that people won’t notice your indifference and think you’re weird. But, truth be told, newborns aren’t very interesting — Facebook updates notwithstanding — until they start toddling and developing personalities and the ability to destroy big things. (In that regard, they’re not wholly dissimilar to baby crocodiles except for the fact that baby crocodiles can at least catch their own food.)
For the first little bit of their existence, human babies are akin to jack-o’-lanterns that spent a week too long on your front walk. They’re there, they don’t have a ton of expressions, and they carry an inherent risk of coating you with a semi-viscous layer of disgustingness. They are not large. They do not contain multitudes. Unless you count semi-viscous layers of disgustingness.
As such, feeling trepidation over the early stages of fatherhood isn’t your fault. And thus the cottage industry about why being a father doesn’t make us happy will never want for kindling.
I have an irrefutable theory regarding the prevailing attitude toward newborns. It is so irrefutable that we’re going to go ahead and label it a law – Wiggum’s Law to be precise. For those of you who are less cultured, it is named after Police Chief Clancy Wiggum, father of only-child Ralph, paragon of properly restrained authority, and proponent of a bizarre, if ubiquitous, approach to education: “You will be broken down to the level of infants, then rebuilt as functional members of society, then broken down again, then lunch, then, if there’s time, rebuilt once more.”
Wiggum’s Law, which has many permutations, is particularly pernicious when it comes to sex ed. It is perfectly rational given prevailing attitudes about why kids are the epitome of the fight of happiness against despair. Sex ed, Wiggum style, breaks us down to the level of infants, builds us back up, breaks us down again, and then, time not permitting thanks to standardized testing, fails to build us back up. And the result is that potential future fathers graduate from high school not with a healthy respect for normal biological drives and fecundity, but a complete and total fear of children. This fear arises from a place of love, albeit misguided. Babies do interfere with the various transactions we’d make as we transition from childhood to adulthood, such as the ability to purchase items with our own money. But rather than teaching us that there is a point at which it is not only acceptable but even desirable to have kids, we’re released back into the world still broken down to the level of infants.
And we infants are all about our own happiness, our own rigid plans, so let’s focus on those. Except for the fact that said focus is stupid. Cormac McCarthy, in a different context, wrote:
“I think by the time you’re grown you’re as happy as you’re goin to be. You’ll have good times and bad times, but in the end you’ll be about as happy as you was before. Or as unhappy. I’ve knowed people that just never did get the hang of it.”
So, regardless of whether or not we embrace our biological proclivity for breeding, we’re either going to be happy or we’re going to be unhappy. But our humanity demands more of us than a solipsistic focus on fleeting and subjective happiness. It demands hope; it demands transcendence. And hope and transcendence do not end with our return to dust. Breeding, to be blunt, is about what green remains after we make that return.
So we gotta get philosophical. We have to delve into the question of what we are, of what constitutes the self.
We’re not talking the silly Freudian ego, superego, and id, but rather a tree falling in the forest. Of one hand clapping. Do we exist independently of others or is our existence defined by relationships?
It’s true that children are not our only form of relationships. They are not our only means of contributing to and being part of something larger. They are neither the only other tree nor the only other hand. But they are our legacy.
It’s also true that something larger does not exist because we’re all happy and actualized and decked out in the latest footwear. That something large just is. Thus we circle back to infants, who just are and who are not at all concerned with that something larger and who are definitely not concerned with the latest footwear.
Infants do not experience the big picture. Hell, they don’t even really experience happiness and sadness. They experience want and satiety. That’s it. They do, fortunately, emerge out of that dichotomy, impulse machines that they are. They grow. And in doing so, they offer us the chance to sacrifice our feeble notion of the self and ourselves grow.
Focusing on what kids can do for us instead of what we can do for our kids, shrieking demon spawn that they may be, is great for headlines, but not great for deciphering our existence. Instead of asking what kids can do for us, unless we’re talking yard work in which case I’m all in, let’s ask what we can do for the kids. As a creepy dude once sang, children are the future. And if we demon spawn of the Boomers have learned anything, it’s that we can’t just expect our own demon spawn to create a grand future just because we took the time to have sex and go to the hospital when they were done cooking.
Thus we return to Huxley, though in an unpredictable manner. (Hey, we’re talking fatherhood and fatherhood is innately unpredictable.) Stability is not nearly so spectacular as instability. That’s why we have kids. Not for happiness, we’re about as happy as we’re goin to be, but for beautiful instability. For the opportunity to inflict our reptilian-selves upon the future. Forget happiness, we’re talking legacy. Or as Aesop Rock said:
Today I pulled three baby snakes out of moss and dirt; where the wild strawberry vines toss and turn. I told them, “You will grow to be something inventive and electric; you are healthy, you are special, you are present.” Then I let them go.
Fatherhood isn’t about happiness, it’s about rearing baby snakes and letting them go.
But first we have to let go of ourselves.
Fatherhood isn’t for suckers. It is for men who aren’t preoccupied with happiness and, more importantly, aren’t afraid to just guide our own demon serpents down a promising path and then get out of the way. Perhaps, if we do it just right, our little snakes will answer the heady questions we failed to answer. (Hint: They won’t. But we still have to try, we still have to dream.)
As Dr. Ian Malcolm opined in one of the most philosophical books and movies ever, “Life always finds a way.” It ain’t always happy, but it always finds a way. It is always focused on the something larger. Even as it is punctuated by a healthy amount of f-bombs. Because it isn’t grand. It’s a glorious and messy struggle against simple and boring contentedness.