By this article from New York Magazine, the cover of which boasts the title "I Love My Kid. I Hate My Life." Filled with statistics from this study or that about how miserably unhappy parents are, and littered with images of despondent, vacant-eyed zombieparents pictured with their tiny, life-sucking, dictatoresque spawns, Jennifer Senior's article paints the bleakest of pictures of parenting. Not only will you be unhappier than your child-free peers if you have a child, you will be increasingly dissatisfied with your life if you have, heaven forbid, more than one child (as the article states, "...each successive child produces diminishing returns" Because, please let's talk about a child as though it is a monetary investment that you should expect a high pay-out from. That seems totally appropriate). If you are a stay at home mother, you will become dumb & uninteresting & your conversations will revolve around little other than coupons or soccer. You are, as one person in the article puts it, stuck with a "19 year grind."
Don't get me wrong. I know there are parts of parenting that are the farthest thing from enjoyable (says the mother who spent the first six months of her child's life treading the whirling waters of postpartum depression). It is hard, hard work. And, "child care" (which is how the article describes the act of parenting), is not always fun. I do not enjoy the battles of will that come with the territory of sharing a life with a 4 year old. I do not enjoy being woken from my sleep when he has a nightmare & needs me. I do not enjoy sitting in the doctor's office, listening to other kids coughing when I'm healthy. I do not always enjoy being his own personal jungle gym at 6:30 pm, after a long day of tantrums and 90 degree temperatures.
But I don't know that we should draw the conclusion that "fun" equates "happiness"(have we become that shallow and entitled as a generation?!) & I don't know that the article makes much sense at all when the concept of "happiness" is such a tenuous thing to begin with. What is happiness in a sense that it can be studied and equated across a large group of people? Happiness means different things to different people. I know some people who derive tremendous happiness from cleaning their house. I do not. Put the two of us together in a study and your results about "how happy does cleaning make people?" and your results are going to suck (I realize that studies try to work towards an average, but still--I don't think there's an easy "average" for happy.)
Part of what bothers me the most about the article is that it seems to assign responsibility to the child for the happiness (or lack thereof) of their parents. These pesky little things have the audacity to come along with their neeeeeeds and their demands and their dependence on their parents for things like food, shelter & clothing. For, sigh, 19 whole years. What a buzz kill, when I could be out there, all autonomous and having fun and shit.
I get that having a kid (or, if you're super unlucky, apparently, kids) (thank goodness for 2ndary infertility, I guess; I really dodged that bullet), changes everything. And believe me--been there, done that--it totally rocks your world when they do. And I get that today we tend to have kids later in our lives, after establishing ourselves in a career & an active social life (which almost all but stops early on in your child's life) & a plethora of hobbies to take up our free time. So that transition from "childfree" to "parent" is colossally overwhelming & humbling in terms of our belief, which was encouraged in us in our younger days, that we could "have it all."
I had my child "later" in life, in my mid-30's; I was pretty set in my child-free ways, as were many of my counterparts. I think it's easy to fall into the "life was so much happier when..." trap for older (*shudder*) moms because we have known so much freedom & autonomy. And I admit that I was totally whiplashed by the changes that having a baby made in my life. I guess the difference is that I didn't expect my child to be responsible for my happiness, as this article seems to be implying he should be. People either are happy or they aren't. It's not one or the other forever, but overall, in my experience, a person is or isn't happy. For a lot of years, I was unhappy. Clinically unhappy, as in until-recently-wouldn't-be-able-to-get-private-health-insurance unhappy. I worked hard to find happiness (with a lot of help from a lot of sources) & guess where it came from?
Inside me. Not from my child, or Husband, or any job I've ever had. Don't get me wrong; all of those things have brought me joy (as well as frustration & aggravation, let's be honest). But happiness? At least what I consider happiness? Comes from your own reserves.
I don't contest the statistics (although I kind of believe you can find a study to back up any idea you may have when it comes to psychology or the human condition) or even some of the allegations of women turning into zombies who can't function intellectually beyond clipping coupons and running car pool. I've made my fair share of jokes about "mommy brain" (formerly known as "pregnancy brain") and I'm sure those women, reduced to rote schedules & Wiggles lyrics, exist.
But I don't know those women, and I take issue with this article presenting them as the "norm". The women I know are women who, after preschool drop off, engage in discussions of politics and world events, or train for marathons; or who manage to be enthusiastic college professors, hilarious writers and engaged mothers, all in the same day. They are women who see the opportunity to start new businesses using the internet, or create book clubs to ensure they have have a social and intellectual outlet. And most of them seem, for the most part, to be happy. I'm not sure where all of these zombified Sylvia Plath-types are at.
There are two points the article makes that I can get on board with, and perhaps if these had been the focus of Senior's writing, as opposed to the more sensational "zOMG, you guys, I hate being a parent!!!" I would have found the whole article less irritating.
The first point she makes that takes the heat off of the actual children a bit, is the idea that families living in countries with stronger family-friendly national policies, are happier. Less time stressing about childcare, healthcare, maternity leave, etc, = happier parents. No question, then, that in America, where working moms receive the scantest of paid maternity leaves and where healthcare costs a fortune and where all daycare costs come out of pocket, and where women have to fight for the right to breastfeed in public without being disparaged, parents are going to be unhappier than some of their European counterparts. Fortunately for me, the idea that our government should play a more significant role in creating family-friendly policies for its citizens is part of my political belief system, so that was one thing I could say, "Hell, yeah!" to about this article.
The other point she makes is that part of the reason we are miserable parents is because we compete at EVERYTHING. We are driven to try to raise perfect children & we soak up like sponges every recommendation made by every "expert" and measure our success or failure as a parent against the assumed perfection of every other parent's child.
People, eff that! Our kids? They're going to be fine. They're going to be fine whether we sleep train them or not, whether we breastfeed exclusively forever or not, whether every bit of food that goes into their mouths is organic or not, whether we cloth or disposable diaper them, whether they don't see a minute of television until they go to college or are introduced to it (let's all clutch our pearls in horror, please) before they are 2, whether they are in a gifted & talented program in preschool or not.
Don't get me wrong; I don't blame any parent for having their own priorities. For some people, one of the things listed up there might be absolutely essential to their sense of who they are as a parent. And that's great. And anyone who judges them for it is a jerk. But the constant worrying about ALL of it. And are we doing the "right" thing by choosing one or the other and what will others think of us and how is this, that, or the other, messing my kid up for life? Sweet fancy Moses, people, NO wonder we're miserable.
It's got nothing to do with our kids. It's got everything to do with us.
And before we know it, we're going to wake up and our kids are going to be in elementary school, high school and then off to college. And we're going to wonder why we spent so much freaking time lamenting about how unhappy we were instead of just being in the moment and enjoying our time (or at least the time when they aren't making us crazy) with our kids. Being happy.
edited to add: Please note that I know I fall prey to the whole kvetching about what is the "right" thing to do for Ethan, too. I can rationalize that that's why I am sometimes, according to Senior's article, "unhappy," but that doesn't mean I can always keep myself from engaging in the process of competing, even if it's only with myself & my own expectations. I am a big fat part of the "we" I address in the previous paragraph. I need to work on that. But chance are, I will be kvetching again within the week. :-)