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They Got It Wrong: The First Year of Parenting Wasn't Awful

Photograph by Twenty20

A few months back, a German study published a report that being in the first year of new parenthood was reported to have a larger negative impact on a respondent's happiness than divorce, unemployment and the death of a partner.

It's not really a surprise. The stresses of new parenthood are well known. There's sleeplessness, migraine headaches induced by listening to helpless wailing for hours on end, the intense financial costs associated with child care and the symbolic and often painful death of vibrant young adulthood—of the kids the parents used to be but cannot be anymore because of the responsibilities of parenthood.

But, for my wife and I, the first year of parenting was definitely not miserable.

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According to conventional wisdom in the United States, where parenthood—particularly motherhood—is deified and romanticized (albeit not to the extent of actually making life easier for parents through generous family leave laws), being a parent is the best, most important and meaningful experience any adult can experience. It is also supposed to be the single toughest job most people will have. And I'd say that both are true.

In the past year, I have both lost a job and had my first baby, two of the biggest indicators in decreased happiness according to the study, and I am much happier than I was a year before. It should be noted, however, that around the time of my baby's birth I experienced a fairly intense bout of depression. My job lay in the balance, my wife and baby lay in the hospital, and I felt overwhelmed and ill-equipped for fatherhood.

The idea of being a dad was scary, in part because I come from a broken family, but the reality of being a father was, and remains, an intense, enduring form of happiness and satisfaction.

It was the physical experience of being around my son that got me over this early fear and unhappiness. There was nothing more satisfying or good for the soul than simply being present for Declan, being with him, and delighting in his emerging personality. The idea of being a dad was scary, in part because I come from a broken family, but the reality of being a father was, and remains, an intense, enduring form of happiness and satisfaction.

I also benefit from my son having a wonderful mother. Not long after I met my wife she told me that it might seem weird, but she felt as though she was put on earth to be a mother. It did seem a little odd, but it turned out to be true. My wife is an extraordinarily gifted mother, and her mastery of the mothering arts have made being a dad both easier and more satisfying than it would be otherwise.

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And while the birth of our son was so expensive and exhausting that we weren't able to stay in our home after I lost my job, our son has given infinitely more than he he has taken. Throughout the late nights, the crying jags and the panicked discussions of whether or not we'll ever be able to afford to move out of my wife's in-laws' basement, we never lose sight of how our son has dramatically and permanently enriched our lives, and made us happy despite a year of change and turmoil and drama.

The report refers to the "the continuous and intense nature of childrearing" and, while that can certainly be exhausting and misery-inducing, it can also be a source of enduring joy. In that respect, my wife and I feel blessed—as well as stressed—for reasons that go beyond being fortunate enough to have eluded the suffering that is apparently part of the early childhood years. It also helps, my wife hastens to point out, that neither of us is particularly bothered by spit-up and smushed food liberally decorating our clothes.

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