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Marriage, Family, and the Pursuit of Happiness

By September 29, 201110 Comments

Want to hear something interesting?

Over the past few weeks I have been reading about the history of education (that’s not the interesting part), and I began to notice a strange trend. For a significant bulk of Western history, philosophers have agreed that an essential goal of education is the formation of ethical people. Until somewhat recently, everyone from Plato to Rousseau emphasized morality and character as a central purpose in education.

I think this is fascinating because it is so different from today. Not only has ethics been jettisoned from school curriculum, but much of education today is about job preparation, not moral transformation. Whereas the old model changed the self, the new model is more oriented toward serving the self.

Of course, old models of education should not be overly romanticized, nor should all schools or educators be characterized with such broad strokes. Nevertheless, I do think a shift has occurred, and I also believe it says a lot about the larger historical moment. Hard work, disappointment, and failure are not exactly part of the American dream. As our Declaration of Independence reminds us, the American prerogative is the “pursuit of happiness,” not moral fortitude. The kind of character transformation described by earlier thinkers can only be had by labor, discipline, and sometimes a little pain. I’m not sure our culture’s emphasis on happiness and self-esteem coheres well with those older notions of the good.

Now my intent here is not to deliver a treatise on the modern ills of our culture or the failings of our educational system. If anything, I offer the above description of American culture as a reflection on my own heart, as a product of this culture. As I have thought about my future, I have noticed an idolatrous attachment to happiness, one that always prefers comfort over growth. And in no area of my life has this become more apparent than in my thinking about having children.

This year I have come across numerous studies and articles that pit family against happiness. According to one professor of sociology, “marital satisfaction decreases after the birth of the first child and continually decreases over time.” Meanwhile, a study in the Journal of the British Psychological Association found that parents report significantly lower levels of happiness. In fact, one scientist wondered if couples make the decision to have children by deluding themselves and focusing on the positive, ignoring all the evidence to the contrary.

Studies of this nature are certainly dubious. Aside from the fact that I have many friends who love (LOVE!) being parents, happiness itself  is a relative term. It is relative to both the person and the moment. Even the most adoring parent has had an unhappy day. Even so, studies like these are discouraging to non-parents like me.  They don’t exactly motivate me to jump on board the baby train.

Add to these studies the mountains of Mommy Blogs that seem devoted to commiserating over the woes of motherhood. The more I hear about how tiring and how difficult the job is, the more my inner happiness-worshiper wants to run away from it all.

In all honesty, the prospect of having children is scary to me. And on those freak-out days, the above statistics certainly don’t help. However, as I have thought about the future and searched my own heart, I’ve had to remind myself that happiness is not really the end game. In the same way that educators have long recognized character formation as a superior good, God Himself is not content to leave us the way we are. There is richness and depth and beauty to be had by growing into His likeness. As the saying goes, God loves us too much to leave us they way we are.

Happiness is a funny thing. An undue emphasis on it thwarts our attainment of it. So while I have no doubt I will  fall utterly in love with my kids, their purpose is not to serve my happiness. God created the family, not simply because it is good and wonderful, but because it makes us better. It makes us more like Him.

And in case you’re wondering, I am NOT pregnant. These are just the honest reflections of someone committed to God and committed to human life, but still imperfect and in need of God’s grace. Just another reason why on-going transformation is such an essential part of the Christian life!

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

– Romans 12:1-2


  • Tim says:

    I was struck by the same thing recently when reading a new biography of Noah Webster (his speller and dictionary had a huge impact on early american education): education has traditionally been as much for improvement of the person’s morals as for the person’s mind, if not moreso. Have you ever read C.S. Lewis’s “The Abolition of Man”? He covers the same ground there when he counters some arguments by a couple of modernist educators.

    The exalted pursuit of happiness really has led to a change over time. Originally, the concept related to personal and public virtue (Dr. Carol Hamilton has a great little article on it at George Mason University’s History News Network website.) It wasn’t long before the concept started taking a turn toward what we’ve come to see nowadays. In 1884 the U.S. Supreme Court defined it as “The right to pursue any lawful business or vocation, in any manner not inconsistent with the equal rights of others, which may increase their prosperity or develop their faculties, so as to give them their highest enjoyment.” Yep, that about sounds like what we have now, a “right” to do whatever makes you happy as long as it doesn’t bother anyone else, regardless of its relation to virtue or morality.

    I am so glad you brought the focus back on to God, explaining that the worth of pursuing happiness is as it brings us closer to God. Essentially, it seems to me, anything that does not lead us to God is just a transitory happiness at best.

    Great piece, Sharon. You can see that it got me thinking quite a bit. I have to go lie down now and rest my brain.


  • Becca says:

    I can attest to the grace and transformation that comes from parenting. I got pregnant not long after I got married. It was not in the The Plan, our plan that is. I was pretty bitter for a while. We had plans to go places, do things (grad school), BE something. This baby, who screamed a lot and woke me up every hour of the night for the first 10 months, was not in the plan.

    My daughter is almost 8. I look at my job, the dream job I wanted in college more than 10 years ago, and I realize I wouldn’t be doing as well in the job if not for my sweet, strong-willed Kyla. I write children’s Sunday School curriculum, and I keep her in mind when I sit to down to write. Her presence in my life is more than I could have dreamed when I said ‘I do’ almost 9 years ago. God knew. I didn’t. And He has used her (plus my other little girl) to transform my heart and my relationship with Him. I am forever grateful for His Plan, not the one I thought was best.

  • Sharon says:

    Tim, it’s been about 10 years since I’ve read the Abolition of Man. Sounds like I need to pick it up again!

  • I think you’re right on when you say that parenting develops character–and not always in nice, happy, easy ways! I have four kids, the oldest of whom has special needs, and the first few years of his life were the most intense and devastating period of my life. I loved (and love!) him fiercely, but felt like I was being ground into dust. There were the external difficulties, of course–the sleepless nights, the trying behaviors–but what really came out of it was a realization of my powerlessness, how much I lacked as a mother (I always imagined myself being a GREAT mother with perfect, happy, beautiful children), and the fact that I. Couldn’t. Do it.

    But if I hadn’t gone through that dying to my self-image (or maybe it was a divine murder?), I am pretty certain that I would still be resting happily in my own goodness, my own skills, my own power. Of course, I would say I trusted God for everything, but deep down inside, I would have had a hard time believing it was really necessary.

  • Laura says:

    Love your thoughts here. Although I didn’t decide when I would embark on the journey of parenting, it has eaten at my happiness but my happiness doesn’t end here. I think that God transforms you to finding happiness in other things, things that don’t serve yourself. I think ultimately going through the unhappiness and suffering produces joy and happiness beyond what we could ever imagined. It is in the unhappiness that we hopefully find true happiness.

  • Allia says:

    I struggle with the thought that to be offering ourselves to God, or to be becoming Christlike, we will be parents. It feels as though baby culture and marketing tell us that we need a child to be complete as an adult, but I believe that God’s word says that we can be fully devoted to him regardless of our status (no male nor female, Jew nor Greek).

  • Chris Pappa says:

    Just this morning I just read an essay by Martin Luther extolling the virtues of education, and he identified two motivating factors:

    1. Education helps us to understand the Bible.
    2. Education makes us wise and just.

    I wouldn’t have connected education with justice, but there it is. From what you’re saying, Sharon, I guess we’re the ones that are out of step!

  • Six years into a fun, exciting marriage, we too are struggling with the idea of “giving all that up” to have kids. Even with all we know about children being a blessing and how much we will grow once we are parents, it’s still so hard to make that leap into the next realm of life. If and when that time comes for us, it will only be out of faith that we can proceed. Sometimes as a Christian I feel selfish for wanting to wait to have kids just because life is relatively fun (and easy) right now. But I also recognize all I am able to do in ministry (as a youth director) that I would not have time for as a parent. I believe God will properly mold our hearts and adjust our circumstances when the time is right. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, which are encouraging for the future.

  • Tim says:

    Peyton, as a veteran of Youth Ministry (15 years or so) and as a parent (2 now in college) I think I can get what you are saying. You are so wise to trust God to “mold our hearts and adjust our circumstances when the time is right.”

    The only additionaly insight I might be able to offer (and feel free to reject this completely out of hand if you like!) is that the time being right is not identical to the time being perfect. I can’t remember a “perfect” time at any stage of parenting, except as God in his perfecteness* has made it so. In other words, there’s never a perfect time by my standards but God’s timing is always right.**


    *Is perfectness a word? If not before, it is now.

    **I really really don’t mean to sound patronizing or platitudinous! I’m just an old guy who has been through this before.

  • AnneCBjerke says:

    I really enjoyed reading your article, Sharon. Sometimes I wonder how flawed psychological studies are, especially when they come from a flawed world view (for example, coming from a world view that human beings are inherently good, or that human beings evolved from one common ancestor, or that there is no absolute truth, etc) – I believe sometimes these studies only magnify the condition of human beings apart from God.
    Children are considered a blessing – of course, they change your life radically and in more than one ways you become way less selfish when you become a parent. But bottom line, they are a wonderful blessing from God and to see them as a burden or that they lessen your happiness is almost sinful, in my opinion.

    I am not trying to sound judgemental. I didn’t have my first child until I was almost 30 years old. But, looking back at my thoughts and feelings in my mid-20’s, the reasons why I didn’t want to have children then were purely selfish.

    Needless to say, I am not saying that Sharon is being selfish – society as a whole today promotes waiting to have children, waiting until you are more mature, are more stable financially, etc. I can understand why people want to wait more and more these days. Yet, I believe, most of the time, the reason why people wait to have children or don’t want children at all comes from a flawed view of life.

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