Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What puts the Happy in YOUR Ever After? (The Case for Kids)

General Spoiler Warning: talking about endings again. I'll try to stick to books everyone has probably already read.

Not every ending has to be happy. There are lots of different ways to end a story. Dean Koontz wrote a heartbreaking story I still recommend to people, even though I sobbed for days afterward, in which the hero accomplished his goal . . . and still lost the woman he loved. Nathanial Hawthorne's Scarlett Letter ends on a bittersweet note, with the "hero" overcoming his fears just before his death, and the "heroine" escaping Boston with her daughter, only to return years later to complete her life sentence of infamy. The Hunger Games trilogy ends as well as can be expected after so much horror... but hardly anyone would call it "happy."

This post is not talking about those books. Or others like them. Here, we discuss only those books where the author obviously intended the audience to be largely satisfied at the end. To be happy. To be, overall, pleased with the way things turned out.

A woman I know followed the Harry Potter books faithfully through the whole series, both for herself and for her young nieces and nephews. When book 7 came out, she read the ending first, just to be sure it ended "right." If the wrong people had died, she told me, she would have hunted down and destroyed every copy of the entire series in her family's possession, just to ensure that none of her nearest-and-dearest would be exposed to the "wrong" ending of such a tale. She demanded a happy ending and she was prepared to go to great lengths to eradicate an unhappy one. Happily, Rowling did well enough, and my friend did not have to go all Fahrenheit 451 on her books. (By the way, I totally called who died in HP. Just sayin'.)

So what makes an ending happy? Survival of the main characters? Overall state of happiness enjoyed by the main characters at the end of the book? I think it's different for each reader, frankly, which makes it somewhat hard for a writer to appeal to everyone.

For example: One of my favorite authors wrote an awesome romance, in which the overweight heroine still managed to bag the hotty hero. No one else has been able to pull it off, before or since (to my knowledge). It was a romance coup. I loved the story. It's full of the author's trademark humor and excellent writing and the characters were believable and quirky. But they didn't want kids. Though they both loved children and acknowledged that the other would make a terrific parent, they had both decided to remain childless. And that's what they did.  And it sort of put a bummer on the HEA for me, because, in my ideal HEA, you get married and then you have kids. How can you be truly happy without them?

Now, this isn't the same for everyone. I've seen two recent studies, in fact, that explain the absolutely unbelievable (to me) decision of many modern couples to intentionally remain childless. Now, of course, I can see the draw of not having kids. More freedom, less mess, more money, less stress, more me-time, less PTA-time, more tranquility, less screaming (yours and theirs), more sleep, less waiting up for teenagers to come home, more vacations, less aggravation... you get the idea. The list goes on and on. Good things get traded in when you decide to have kids. It's true.

What childless-by-choice couples may not agree with me on, however, is that every sacrifice is SO TOTALLY WORTH IT. So long as you foster appropriate coping skills. Those studies I mentioned in the last paragraph contain statistics that parents are, overall, less happy than their childless-by-choice counterparts. Less satisfied with life in general. Well, duh. Those who don't want and don't have kids get to run their lives however they want, while parents have to deal with the unreasonable demands (and school schedules) of completely irrational miniature people. Screaming, discipline, cleaning, and confrontation aren't fun for anyone and are a necessary part of any parent's life.

But if the lows are more frequent, the highs are higher. Holding your new baby is the best high in the world. Watching my kids learn new skills, play nicely with each other (it happens on occasion), and actively want to spend time with me is a thrill like no other. Because I helped with that. No adult acceptance can measure up to the completely honest acceptance of a child. They don't BS you. They won't pretend to like you or to approve of you if they just don't. My boys might point out my chub, but they also call me beautiful. When I say "I love you," they respond with "I love you mostest." What does a childless life have that can possibly compete with that?

Finally, kids provide a lifetime's worth of happily ever afters. If you're lucky, they give you grandchildren. Who will love you and accept you. Who will call you beautiful when you're old and wrinkled. Who will visit you when you're too feeble to leave your house. Who can give you support in your old age.

Children are worth any price. I'm not saying that to be self-sacrificing: I'm a huge fan of taking care of #1. Children flat out give more joy than you can get on your own. More sorrow, too, but joy is like that. Life is like that. You can't have happy without sad, and, in my own life, you can't have a perfect Happily Ever After without children.

[Steps off soapbox]

So what about you? What elements are essential to your own perfect happily-ever-afters? Have you ever reached the end of a book and doubted the stated bliss of the main character?


  1. Some of my fave happy ever afters have a little bittersweet stirred in. Jane Eyre comes to mind. She ends up with her true love, but he’s a different man than when she first fell for him. She loves him anyway. SIGH and SWOON.

    Wonderful post, Robin!

  2. I don't love HEAs. I like my endings more realistic and being a cynic, realistic to me means not everything gets wrapped up. The heroine gets the guy but he doesn't pick up his socks and sometimes they fight and she says things she later regrets. The world is saved but the hero had to sacrifice some personal morals along the way and has to live with that knowledge. I like knowing the character was/is affected by the story beyond that last page.
    - Sophia.

  3. My boys sound just like yours. They are SO precious and aggravating at the same time :)
    But worth all the trouble.

  4. Anita--I'm good with ever-afters that have a mostly happy ending. Sure, the characters have some scars, but they're dealing with them very, very well, and I can imagine them being overall content with how things turned out.

    Sophia--I get enough "harsh realism" at work, but I do get what you're saying. "Real life" can be happy (like the country song "Sounds like life to me"), and it is seldom "perfect." I'm good with that, too, so long as the ending allows for blissful happiness some of the time.

    Susan--yay! Google let you comment! :)

    Shelly--yeah, you get torn between wanting to squeeze them or strangle them, but you'd really miss them if they were gone. Unless it's just for a few weeks, to grandma's. :)

  5. I think you nailed it! This morning on the way to taking my daughter to school she literally through a fit and cried the whole way. I was at my wits end. When she came home she had written a card apologizing and letting me know how much she loved me. The good absolutely outweighs the bad.

  6. Deana--Can you imagine why anyone would give that up? :) Seriously. You can't possibly understand the draw of a simple apology until your child makes it.

  7. AMEN! About time someone said it! Kids are disaster and joy all rolled into one. When did we start to live in a world where individualism is valued over children? My HEA would be if more people thought that :)

  8. Angie--it's tough to criticize other people's priorities, since I don't know their lives, but it sure seems to me that lots of the childless-by-choice couples out there would be even happier if they cared less about vacations and nights on the town and more about a few helpless miniature humans.

  9. I love my children, and even though they are very very challenging at times, I would not trade them for the world.

    But that being said, I have met many people who have no desire to have kids for many varied reasons. And I don't have a problem with that because I have also known people who have had kids for the wrong reasons. Most of the time, those parents either let others raise their kids or never really try to become good parents. And either way, it is the kids that suffer.

    So, IMHO, when someone tells me they would rather not have kids because it would get in the way of their desired lifestyle, I am at least glad they will not be trying to have kids and not take the time to help their kids grow up correctly.

  10. Eric--another very good point. So I guess I advocate not only having kids, but then raising them correctly. Loving them. Taking the time to figure out why they're so cool.

    I'm so demanding.

  11. The Koontz book, I know exactly which one you mean. My heart is still smushed over that, and I haven't been able to read the sequels.

  12. Tamara--you have to read the rest. It gets better. Truly. Healing happens.