Everything about having a baby is touted as happy: the rounding belly, the cute maternity clothes, the baby showers, the adorable tiny clothes.
Yes, pregnancy can be difficult for some women (for me it was very hard), but the overarching sentiment is that having a baby is an amazing, wonderful thing. And it truly is. The miracle of life, the gift of a child, the hope of a growing family—these are all amazing, wonderful things. Beautiful things. Happy things, even. But for me, the first year of my daughter’s life wasn’t very happy.
Actually, it was the unhappiest year of my life.
I knew that having a child would change things; many of my friends had already become parents, and I had watched them go from women with time for coffee dates and professional lives to moms who were worn out and frazzled. I didn’t expect the transition to parenthood to be easy. I didn’t expect that I would sleep much or that I would have a lot of extra time.
Still, I did expect to be happy. I thought that having a baby—a baby that we’d hoped and prayed for—would bring happiness in the midst of sleep deprivation and the transition into life as parents.
But I wasn’t happy; at least not for a good while. Don’t get me wrong—I was thankful. Ella and I were both healthy, I loved her immensely, and seeing my husband as a father was incredible. But the combination of exhaustion, the lack of time for myself, the shift in my identity to becoming a mother, the change in our marriage relationship, and the depth of responsibility I felt for my daughter, all combined with those powerful postpartum hormones, left me feeling very, very unhappy.
I missed my old life. It’s not that I didn’t want to be Ella’s mom; I loved her more than I thought was possible. But I missed the freedom and rest that I realized I would never get back. I missed being able to put myself first, something that felt increasingly impossible. I missed who I was, and I had the realization that I was never going to be that woman again.
A Shared Experience
Women don’t always talk about it, but many are unhappy—to some degree—during that first year of motherhood. The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany recently reported that the “drop in happiness experienced by parents after the birth of a first child was larger than the experience of unemployment, divorce, or the death of a partner.” Similarly, an earlier study published in Great Britain noted that “parents often report statistically significantly lower levels of happiness, life satisfaction, marital satisfaction, and mental well-being compared with non-parents.”
Here’s what some other moms told me about their first year of motherhood:
“I wanted adult conversation. Because I was doing the same routine every day, I felt my intelligence and self-esteem diminishing.”
“Having no time to myself and being utterly sleep deprived brought out bitter anger that I’d never dealt with before and was without tools to deal with.”
“I was terribly caught off guard by how my relationship with my husband changed. I suddenly had experiences and a life he couldn’t relate to.”
“I lost any desire for sex because of the fatigue and the physical and hormonal changes.”
Additionally, for many new moms, the shift in their spiritual life—on top of and because of all of the other changes—can cause a great deal of unhappiness. One mom remembers that she “found it completely impossible to pray because [her] mind simply would not stop buzzing with so many things.” Time for a devotional life can dwindle down to nothing, and emotional and hormonal changes can send us into a dark spiral of depression.
So the drop in happiness, the loss of identity and adult interaction, the lack of sleep and energy, the change in our marriages and even our relationship with God—these are high costs that most mothers pay time and time again in the early years of child-rearing. So why have children? Are mothers giving themselves over to a life of exhaustion and self-loss?
The Cost of Motherhood
In some ways, the answer is yes. Yes, every mother (and father, albeit in different ways) gives herself over to a life of exhaustion and self-loss. The cost is very real and, at times, very painful. And still, we have a model who taught us about the surprising gift we can receive through exhaustion and self-loss: Jesus.
Jesus was, undoubtedly, exhausted at times by his ministry on earth (Mark 4:37–39), and all of his life was aimed at the supreme act of self-loss for the sake of those he loved through his death on the cross. But does that mean that as mothers, we are called to give up everything too?
No, not in the same way Jesus did. We are not the Savior of our children—Christ is. We are not supposed to find our identity or value in our children—that is found only in Christ. We are not asked to find our value in our role as moms—our value is in who Jesus says we are, not in what we do. But the way of Christ is the call to pick up our cross and lay down our life (Matthew 16:24–26), and for many of us, mothering will reveal the depths of that call like nothing else. We will be asked to lay aside our immediate desires for the sake of our children’s well-being and growth. We will be asked to consider one little life—or many little lives—as more important than our own (Philippians 2:3–4). And we will feel the loss of self in new, often painful ways—sometimes in ways that make us very unhappy.
The Gift in the Struggle
Yet, there is a deeper joy that goes beyond the cost of our unhappiness: the gift of sufficiency in Christ. For Christ himself tells us that “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25, ESV). In our weakness, pain, and sorrow, we are offered the gift of Christ’s strength: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9, ESV). In the places where, as mothers, it often feels most like we are losing our own lives—losing our freedom, our time, our sleep, our energy—we have the opportunity to find our lives through the sufficiency of Christ as we rely on him for everything. One mom put it this way: “Being a mom drove me to my knees in helplessness before God, which in the long run did a great deal of good in me.”
So while having a child may make us “unhappier,” perhaps that is not a bad thing. Perhaps the gift of getting to experience Christ’s strength in our weakness—letting the struggle of motherhood reveal our reliance upon him—perhaps these are the very things that will lead us into joy that runs deeper than fleeting happiness. I know it has for me. I don’t always feel thrilled about the responsibilities that I carry as a mother, and I don’t usually feel happy about being exhausted. Still, I’ve never felt more joyful than when I’m holding my daughter in my arms, aware that my loving heavenly Father—who sees me, cares for me, and knows my needs—is holding me too.