Several people have asked me about Jennifer Senior’s provocative article in New York magazine this week called “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting.”
The title is, of course, intended to get people’s attention, because there is no deeper-held belief in our culture than that children are a great source of happiness. Thousands of cross-stitched pillows and other sentimental items carry just that message. We repeat it to each other, and sometimes act shocked (shocked!) when people question it. Some parents even venture toward the fundamentalist version, stating that there must be something wrong with a mother (fathers are usually exempted for economic reasons) who might choose to miss a moment of that magical time when the kids are little. Many a narrative of making a life change starts with a parent worrying about missing a child’s first steps.
I have never understood this narrative myself. Sure, there are magical moments in life with young children. Many of them, as you watch a little person’s mind stretch to understand the universe. But in our family, at least, every “first” has been a long drawn-out process. Was that a first step, or did my (older) son just make a strange move before falling down? It was roughly a 3-week journey between what could have been the first step and what was definitely walking. It’s the same with talking. Possibly my son’s first word was “dada,” but there was a lot of babbling before that, and times when “dada” may have meant Daddy, but possibly didn’t too.
More importantly, though, this idea that children are supposed to deliver moment-by-moment bliss betrays an almost humorously unrealistic romanticism, somewhat akin to the parents who get excited about $200 cashmere infant outfits. Have you seen the kinds of messes infants make? It is the same with expecting that we can ever do parenting perfectly, and throwing a lot of emotional energy into that. We tell ourselves that if we try hard enough at parenting, our children will sleep like angels. Our children will cheerfully do their homework and will never watch anything but 30 minutes per day of educational television. Our children will eat kale chips for breakfast. And then when we fail miserably at that, which we all will, disappointment and unhappiness follows.
But there is another way to look at this, which is that we should not expect children to, by their sheer existence, bring us happiness because we are responsible for our own happiness. We are responsible for filling the balance of our hours with things that make life enjoyable. Children are a lot of work, and so, as with any big project, it’s best to spread the work around. There is no need to cut ourselves off from other things we enjoy so we won’t miss a single minute, because parents are going to miss minutes anyway. You can cut everything out of your life so you don’t miss those first steps, and then still miss them because you’re in the hospital with a sick relative. This is the way the real world works.
When you acknowledge the work of childcare for the work it is — and what other way is there to describe the unpleasantness of cleaning up a diaper explosion as your dinner gets cold and your 3-year-old whines for chicken nuggets? — then you can look at parenting with open eyes. You can savor the transcendent moments of seeing two little boys hug each other. You can create a life that maintains your own energy and sanity. And you can have fun with your kids, watching the Simpsons and eating popcorn if you want, knowing that while you have some influence, ultimately they are their own people. Hopefully people whose company you will often enjoy. But not people whose existence is supposed to bring you some cross-stitched version of happiness. We all have to do that for ourselves.