Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Are we having fun yet?

My emotionally priceless child, clearly enjoying some of our parenting.
So, I'm a little late to the party in discussing this article on my blog since it has already been much discussed all over the interwebs, but better late than never. NY Mag ran this feature on July 4th about why "parents hate parenting." Apparently, we parents (especially moms) are less happy than our childless peers, having children is bad for our marriage, and each child we add makes us increasingly more unhappy. At least that's what this article and a bunch of studies would have us believe. What's especially interesting is that parents generally don't believe the data. They don't believe that they are unhappy despite apparently reporting that they are.

I think what the article boils down to though, is that most of these studies are measuring day-to-day, moment-to-moment happiness. Where parents might not report being as happy day-to-day (thanks to the endless grind of diapers, arguments, homework, lessons, etc), studies widely show that parents are more likely to report having a greater sense of fulfillment and purpose than the childless.

One group of mothers ranked child care as the 16th most pleasurable of activities, out of 19. They ranked talking on the phone, watching TV, shopping, napping, exercising, cooking, and housework (among other things, I guess... eating? sex?) as more pleasurable than caring for their children. The article does not say what they considered to be less pleasurable than parenting.

One of the experts speculates that this phenomenon might be because parenting itself has changed. One expert discussing this article said that children have become "economically worthless but emotionally priceless." Where kids used to have to pull their weight at the homestead/farm/family business, today's kids are sheltered and cultivated like little pearls. The trendiness of competitive-sport parenting puts a lot of pressure on parents to raise perfect, high-acheiving child specimens, and while many people seem to be playing the game it sounds like many are also finding they don't particularly enjoy it.

I think it's also interesting that the longer people wait to have children, the more unhappy they're likely to report being and that each successive generation reports being more unhappy with parenting than the previous generation. I think it's safe to say that having babies is sort of trendy right now and that plenty of young people are doing it, certainly many of my peers have started or finished having kids by the time they turn 30. But even still, I would bet that the current child-bearing generation is waiting longer, on average, than any other generation in history. Our lifespans have increased significantly, the fertility industry is more sophisticated than ever, and women have more choices regarding child-bearing than ever before. 

One of the experts in this article notes that humans are notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy. I think that while we are liberated in many ways by the choices and options available to us today, they have also helped to create the belief that only the perfect job/partner/house/outfit/car/experience/weight will do and that we can't possibly be happy with anything less until we find it. I think this has something to do with people delaying parenthood and with their reported disappointment with it. For better or worse, I don't think this is something our grandparents struggled with and by all accounts, they may have actually been happier overall.

Someone also posited that it can be tedious to make every moment a teachable moment. I think this might be one of the keystones of competitive-sport parenting, one of those things that parents feel pressured to do without really enjoying. Talk to me in 5 or 10 years, but this is one of the things I am most looking forward to as a parent.

Don't misunderstand, I don't want to be an over-acheiving parent of an over-extended, over-acheiving child; I don't want concoct contrived learning opportunities just for the sake of it. I do want to expose my kids to things they are interested in and things they don't yet know if they're interested in. Furthermore, I think that children need to be explicitly taught far more than is currently in fashion.

Kids need time to play and discover on their own, for sure, and they do a great job of picking things up just from observing their environment. But way too often, I see parents out and about scolding their kids, saying things like, "If you don't behave yourself, then ___ (insert punishment here)." And from the kid's behavior and bewildered attitude, it seems to me that no one has ever quite explained to that kid what it means to "behave yourself," or at least what their parent's expectations are for that particular situation. Sure, kids (generally) figure it out eventually; when in public and polite company, they aren't supposed to yell, run around, interrupt, hit people, so on and so forth. Unfortunately, I think too many parents take for granted that kids have a firm grasp on this stuff from their sometimes obscure instructions.

Kids are so curious about everything and such little sponges for information. I can't wait to answer all their questions, teach them how to find the answers I don't already know, teach them how to learn about themselves and the world around them. I might find that the sheer amount of time I devote to teaching my little ones becomes tedious, but I hope I enjoy it as thoroughly as I'm expecting to. I don't feel pressured to do this by society's trendy expectation of parenting, I feel like this should be a natural and required part of parenting. If you aren't already expecting and looking forward to this, well, then I guess you'll just be surprised when you check off the unhappy box every day.

I guess the point is that parenting isn't always fun and you'd have to be delusional to be surprised about it. Putting off having kids until you have enough money (you never will), or the time is right (it never will be) will certainly add to your displeasure when you finally get there and realize that having kids is not the dream reward you'd been engineering. Plus, just the waiting alone can make you unhappy, as will inevitably having to give up certain pleasures you may have enjoyed B.C. (before children).

As much as I'd prefer to sleep in the middle of the night when Alice would prefer to eat, I love seeing her little face light up when I get to her crib and I love any chance to hold her close and satisfy her every need. Changing upwards of 12 diapers a day may not be anyone's idea of fun, but I love the way Alice looks at the giraffe spots I painted on the wall just for her, and the way she does her best chatting with a bare bottom. Her babyhood won't last forever and not to be morbid, but I don't want a day to go by that I don't treasure every moment with her just in case I don't get another.

And lest you need a reminder on why you should cherish even the unpleasant parts of parenting, please read this heart-breakingly honest blog ( one woman's reaction to this article and her reality as a parent.

Also, if you're interested, read this article ( some interesting facts about the dual-earner, multiple-child, middle-class American household from a UCLA study; "the richest, most detailed, most complete database of middle-class family living in the world (Thomas S. Weisner, UCLA professor of anthropology).

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