Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Parental Conundrum

I think we've all been duped about parenthood.

This revelation came to me while reading an article in New York magazine. Enveloped in a comfy bathrobe, I was waiting in the "relaxation room" at a local spa, minutes away from a 60 minute deep tissue massage. I hadn't had a professional massage in several years, and with Michael and Madeline gone and my teetering ever-so-precariously on the depression precipice, I thought it would be good for me. And because it seems I can't do anything enjoyable without some sort of Amish-like desire to make it slightly painful to stave off the guilt of doing something enjoyable, I went for the much-dreaded deep tissue.

Turns out, I have a high tolerance for pain, and the deep tissue massage was really great.

Anyway, as I sat and waited for my turn on the table, I read an article by Jennifer Senior entitled "All Joy and No Fun: Why parents hate parenting". Of course that headline caught my eye. Kudos, New York. But about one-third of my way through the piece, I realized how completely erroneous and misleading the title was. This article wasn't about why parents hate parenting; it was an article about how people with children are comparably less happy than their childless counterparts. Sort of.

What it's really about is the fact that it's extremely difficult for parents to even think about, much less utter the words out loud, that more often than not, when the daily stream of bodily functions and ridiculous demands and the just plain inability to keep up with the boundless energy of a small child, makes them feel...well, less than happy being a parent.

Okay. Go head. Get your "duhs" out now. All set? Good.

What you may not understand is that there is an enormous amount of pressure put on parents, especially mothers, to walk around with the glow of child-rearing shining about them. "Oh, it's hard," they'll say, "but it's so rewarding." No it's not, not always. That's a lie, and a well-worn, perpetually peddled and successful one in order to make parents feel that if they don't spend their days emanating the cheery light of parental responsibility, there is something terribly wrong with them.

And if you're a single mother who works, you might think you're exempt, but you aren't. You better feel it, too, even if you're working the graveyard shift.

We are doing too much to feel happy and fulfilled all the time. As much as some people use the step-ladder of, "Well, if you're doing so much, why don't you stop doing so much?" as a means of getting up on their high-horses, believe it or not, some of us weren't given the shiny feminist option of "working outside the home." Some of us were presented with the choice of "work outside the home, or starve and live in a refrigerator box." We're not bucking the system; we're just trying to survive. And yet, in spite of the exhaustion and frustration involved with both working full time and parenting full time, we still must do our part to prop up the notion that we are never allowed to be miserable doing it, and that the simple act of baring a child has made it All Better. And if we mutter anything to the contrary, we're bad moms and there's something wrong with us.

There was a bit of a media frenzy after this article was published, although I'm not exactly sure why. The only reason I can think of as to why it caused such a dust-up is that it revealed some ugly truths about parenting that nobody likes to think about it.

"Everyone's just so selfish now," read one comment on a blog that discussed this article.
"Get over it and shut up," said another.

I take some umbrage to those comments. The parents featured in this article were not standing on the mountain top with a microphone, proclaiming in a booming voice, "I HATE BEING A PARENT!!!!" In fact, it was quite the opposite. These parents were asked by the author of the article for their views on parenting, and most of the quotes sounded like this, taken directly from the article: " 'I have two really great kids'—ages 9 and 11—'and I enjoy doing a lot of things with them,' she told me. 'It’s the drudgery that’s so hard: Crap, you don’t have any pants that fit? There are just So. Many. Chores.' " It should be noted that this woman is a single parent.
I don't read quotes like this and think, "Wow. What a selfish, horrible banshee. I really wish she'd just shut up about how hard it is for her." I read quotes like that, and I feel empathy for her. My heart breaks a little bit for this woman. Because it's not the big stuff, like whether your children are going to grow up to be good and honest people, or whether or not they will be truly happy in their lives. In fact, that kind of stuff is so big, it's kind of hard to wrap your head around it on a daily basis (even though it's always there). It's the little stuff, like having to buy yet another pair of sneakers, or feeling nickeled and dimed to death by your kid's school, or never having any leave time built up at the office, not because you're taking vacations all the time, but because your child has had three ear infections already this year and you've had to take multiple days off.

And if you couple this with the searing loneliness of having to share time with your children with the other parent because you're divorced, you can throw that wonderfully fun element into the mix, as well.

Don't think I'm letting stay-at-home parents off the hook. They've got it rough, too, given that their entire day is spent in the company of someone who is a lot dumber and more reckless than them (no, I'm not saying your kid is dumb. I'm just saying that sometimes, it's tough to discuss art and literature with a 6 year old). I've seen my boyfriend crumble after having to deal with Madeline for days on end while I've been at work. "It's the whiny voice," he's told me again and again, "that really gets to me." And believe me, Michael loves Madeline fiercely. But it's true. There's nothing like a whiny, nasally voice all day to make you think that you might just say yes to drugs, after all.

I think it's time we stopped making parenthood out to be the the thing that will make everyone Forever Happy. It's unrealistic, and it's unfair to scores of young couples who are in for a rude awakening about what parenting is really like. We can no longer look people square in the eye and say, "Have a kid. You'll be happier if you do." Parenthood is amazing. Parenthood is, at times, fulfilling, and, at times, horrifying. Sometimes it's fun, and sometimes it's painful in ways you never thought possible. And if you're like me, you will lose sleep many nights, wondering if something terrible is going to happen to your child if you drift off for even a second (I lived with that crippling anxiety for about three years after Madeline was born. There's something they don't tell you in "What to Expect When You're Expecting").

But one thing parenting will not always bring you is happiness. Sometimes it will, in immeasurable ways, but often, it won't. And pinning all of your hopes on a baby to make your world one big amusement park ride is a fool's game. It's unfair to you, and it's unfair to your child.

Don't go thinking I'm hatin' on having Madeline. I would never go back in time and change that, even if I could. For me, parenting gave me focus and forced me to think of someone other than myself. And I love that little girl more than I could ever dreamed possible, but it's tough, this kind of love. It isn't for the faint of heart. Thank goodness for calluses.

It's also worth noting that parents who live in economically prosperous countries with reliable, available health care, longer paid maternity leave and access to quality education are much happier than parents who don't. America is pretty far down on the list of industrialized countries. Not editorializing. Just looking at the numbers.


  1. Well said, sista! And ITA about the whiny voice thing. Like nails on a chalkboard at times. I've never done any drugs but if something were to make me start, it would be an entire day of hearing that certain needy and demanding pitch. Today MAY have been such a day. Just sayin'...

  2. Well done! Yet again, very well done!

    I have a friend -- Kaira -- who said to me once, in complete beat-down mode, "There is nothing that compares to the depth of rage your own child's whiny voice conjures up in you."