Most of us take for granted that we want children. Many of us spend a fortune trying to make sure we get them. Yet few of us devote any time to answering the most fundamental question of all: Why?

A recent New York magazine piece suggested that many parents find the job to be a lot more effort and a lot less rewarding than expected. Or, as the title more dramatically states, “All Joy and No Fun Why parents hate parenting” (07/04/10)

There is definitely joy, as the parents interviewed acknowledge, but on a daily basis life becomes more difficult (most of the parents profiled still have very young children so they don’t even know how difficult it really becomes!)

While the article doesn’t explicitly state this, I believe that one of the reasons for this dichotomy is inappropriate expectations. Just as some men (you know who you are) get married thinking only of the hot meals, clean house and beautiful intimate companion (“You mean she has emotional needs? I married her because I thought she was low maintenance!”), many go into this business of parenting without a clue as to what lies ahead. Yes, they’ve heard they’ll be tired – but they couldn’t imagine how tired. Their marriages aren’t prepared for the challenge (“You mean I still have to give my husband some attention also?”), they have been playing out a childhood dress-up fantasy. They imagine a life-sized doll dressed in the latest fashion, nestled contentedly in a state-of-the-art stroller as they promenade through the park, go shopping and meet friends for lunch.

Instead the baby is wet, dirty, hungry, screaming; sometimes even colicky. She has an ear infection, her new clothes are stained and a sustained conversation with a girlfriend proves impossible. And so they say, “Where’s the pleasure? The ease? The comfort? The nanny?!!”

Getting pleasure from your kids shouldn’t be your primary motive.

But I think it goes even deeper. I think it goes to the heart of our reasons for having children. I recently heard a story about a family with a number of handicapped children. There is no doubt that these children are a tremendous source of joy (as are all children). There is also no doubt that they are a tremendous source of pain and frustration and hard work (as are all children). When the father spoke at one son’s Bar Mitzvah, he addressed this issue of motivation. “We make the mistake,” he suggested, “of thinking that we have children in order to schep nachas (get pleasure). We have them in order to give.”

This is a profound point. This father doesn’t mean that he doesn’t get pleasure from his family; he means that shouldn’t be your expectation or motive. And that the pleasure is not a temporary superficial one but the deeper one of developing your capacity to give.

Children teach us about selfless giving. We may not get back. The nachas may be elusive or fleeting. But we are not doing it for ourselves. We are doing it for them. We are doing our best to create emotionally healthy adults with a strong moral compass and a connection to the Almighty. That is our job. That is our goal. That, if any, is our reward.

They may not take care of us in our old age (although we have had, thank God, some offers!), they may not go to Harvard to start a successful business or present us with perfectly groomed and well-behaved grandchildren. It doesn’t matter. We have learned what it means to truly give – when the exhaustion is overwhelming, when you need to rush to the emergency room in the middle of the night of hold your child in the hospital day by day, when you have to steer them through the treacherous emotional waters of friendships, leaving home, marriage…when you have to dig deep to understand a child who is so unlike you, to have compassion for the struggles you never experienced.

We learn the most about ourselves and our relationships with others through our children; often the child who is the least familiar teaches us the most important lessons. We learn about our capacity to love. We expand our ability to give. This is the true reason for children, the true gift and the true pleasure.

If we focus on that I don’t know how anyone could possibly say that our children have not enriched our lives and made us happier. A friend told me recently that she really wished she’d had more children (she has two beautiful daughters). No one has ever told me they wished they had less.