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.
7 thoughts on “Do Parents Hate Parenting?”
In a word: TRUE.
Well to be honest I am not surprised by the article that evoked this post. I know women who had children just because it was the next step or “what we are supposed to do” these women tend to be the children are an accessory to our perfect marriage.
Well said Laura.
Learning is like electricity it should either shock you or charge you.
On the one hand, I do believe that expectations can lead us to unhappiness and that we are responsible for our own happiness.
On the other hand, it can take years of time and work to reset expectations and accept the things we can’t change and to be able to change the things we can. So, I think it’s unfair to make assumptions about what parents who aren’t entirely happy.
Sometimes life and family situations make finding the right path difficult, and it feels a bit glib to me (especially after I tracked my 168 hours and looked at just how many I spend each week in care, feeding and therapy — even after outsourcing more than we can afford of a whole host of tasks — for my autistic son) to say that struggling parents are wishing for a crossstitched cashmere life. I imagine many are doing the best they can with limited financial, emotional or other resources.
My kids are the love of my life, I have learned and been motivated by them in ways I never could have been otherwise, I spend a good number of my 168 hours actively working on myself, and I am blessed with a wonderful life, but the learning has been much more painful than pleasant and I *still* do not have a balance that maintains my energy and sanity, even after years of work — so I completely sympathize with others who are struggling and suffering.
I feel more fulfilled — and more exhausted – as a working parent than I have at any other time of my life, and I am lucky to say that most of the time I am with my daughter (I only have one so far) I am so happy to be there and so in love with her, and really having a good time. Part of this is personality like I am a person who seeks the fun in things and I was raised to seek out experiences, but it is true that if you spend too much time with them (your kids) and not enough time on things that self-actualize you, you don’t enjoy the kids as much and are not as happy. I have done my 12-hour shifts alone with her when she was 10 months old and it is lonely and for me 12 hours one on one with a young, young child was just too much. I have friends who will jump in when I say this and poo poo it, but I remind them that hanging with your hubby or other family members — or other childcare workers — while you are watching a young child is not the same as doing it alone all day, and working parents in order to get their work done are spending a lot of time splitting shifts and we have to watch how much time we as parents spend on our marriages once we are parents.
Amen. I think that when families were larger, or more extended, children naturally tended to spend more time with each other, in those little clumps of all ages mixed together that we just don’t see so much these days. And the corollary was that parents sort of observed from afar lots of the time, while spending time with other adults, or on their own tasks.
You still can see this at things like vacation cabins, and family reunions, and I think that’s part of why adults like these events so much.
Especially when children are very young, it can be exhausting and mind-numbing to be 1:1 ALL DAY LONG. Speaking only for myself, I became a better parent when I went back to work. I think this is true because I enjoyed the time I had with my children more: Spending time with them once again seemed novel and challenging in a fun way.
I was laid off while pregnant with twins and haven’t returned, due to a lack of jobs and the cost of childcare. (Children are 3, 1 and 1.) This post was wonderful and realistic. When people tell me how lucky I am not to have missed their first steps, I respond, “Actually, I did. They were quiet, so I was probably using the quiet to sweep the floor or fold the laundry.”