Wednesday, July 14, 2010

On parenting, the ultimate killjoy, and why I chose it

I recently read this blog post that was inspired, in part, from this fascinating article (and fascinating comments) in New York Magazine. There is so much to say that I am afraid I will only touch on it superficially, but it is too interesting to pass up.

In a nutshell, the article discusses whether or not having kids makes people happier. Personally, I think they got the question wrong. Well, actually, I don’t know what the question is, but I don’t think it is about happiness. But, I’ll get back to that in a minute.

There are a lot of truthful gems in the article:

a) Mothers, on the whole, are less happy than fathers (shocker!) and single parents are even less happy.

b) of 19 possible activities, one study found that women rated child care 16th in terms of pleasurability: coming in as less pleasurable than napping, shopping, exercising, and even ranked lower than food prep and housework.

c) My favorite quote: “They’re a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit”

We got together with two childless (child-free?) couples this last weekend. Both couples have pets, which they dote on more than we dote on our kids… just an interesting aside. Of course, any similarities with life with pets vs. kids ended as one couple described going out to lunch to watch the World Cup final, drinking 3 margaritas and taking a 3-hour nap. I thought to myself: “Wow, I can’t even remember what that kind of freedom feels like.” 3 daytime margaritas and a 3-hour nap is unheard of in the pack that I run with.

Now, obviously, I am not anti-kid: I have two of the little buggers running around half-naked somewhere. I mentioned the article to my husband this evening as we watched them playing in ecstasy together with a little piece of rope, laughing until they had hiccoughs, running, falling, giggling, hugging. He said: “This is pure joy.” I countered: “and in 5 minutes it will all be ruined as we fight them to get PJs on and teeth brushed and into bed.” Life is like that with kids: there are moments of intense joy and moments of intense frustration.

What the article brings to light, although it is nothing new for parents, is that parenting is not all joy. There is a lot of struggle, a lot of hard decisions, and lot of responsibility, there is competition and comparisons, there is school work and good manners, hygiene and hidden talents to find, and most of all, a lot of tedium and good old-fashioned hard work. The more kids you have, the more work there is, the bigger the strain on your relationship with your spouse, the harder it is to balance career, me-time, socializing, personal growth, etc.

The article discusses the impact of kids on relationships… as being potentially detrimental because kids are such big stressors. For me personally, having kids has both improved and detracted from my relationship with my husband. The only thing we have ever really argued about is distribution of household labor. Having kids has had a way of magnifying all the little inequalities of the relationship. Because I am the one who picks up after the kids, if my husband leaves something out carelessly, he gets a “gentle reminder.” When household chores and child-related duties are not even close to fairly distributed and we are both exhausted, tensions really escalate.

Yet, having kids has also helped our relationship grow. There is nothing sweeter than watching your husband help the kids repot their little tomato plants or giving the kids a bath. There is something divine in getting to see your husband in your kids’ little faces and getting to see your husband through your kids’ eyes.

This is one of the curious juxtapositions of life: when you have the energy, and the house is clean and the kids are in bed and you don’t want to boot him to the curb or scratch his eyes out, your relationship with your spouse is richer, deeper, and more fulfilling.

To me it is odd that there is an article claiming that parenthood won’t necessarily make you happy. I guess my response is “Duh!” I don’t think kids are the answer to happiness, much like fame, fortune, good looks, and a fabulous job don’t seem to be very good answers. Humans are funny when it comes to predicting our own happiness. Mostly, I don’t think we know what will make us happy. Of course, when you imagine yourself as a parent before becoming one, you always imagine one of those moments of utter joy and baby bliss, never one of the moments of tedium, so I can see where the misunderstanding comes from.

I am not trying to convince anyone of anything, really, just entering into dialogue with you and with myself. I know we have a lot of choices today as far as how we form families and I know that some people don’t have as many choices as others, either circumstances or biology or psychology…

Yet, the question of whether or not to have children is so interesting. Apart from the biological imperative, I am not sure why people want kids, like specific reasons. I always wanted kids, it was never really a question of if, but when (of course, I insanely thought four would be the perfect number and have since repented). At one point, when I thought I wouldn’t get the chance to have kids, I was devastated (and I try to remember that at certain melt-downish moments). But I am not sure I could verbalize why I wanted kids. I am not judgmental about choices, but I am honestly not sure why some couples decide not to have kids. Are some people just not meant to be parents? Is it selfish to remain child-free? Is it selfish and vain to insist on having kids in a world such as ours?

I get it: having kids changes your life for a long time. I get it: parenting is not all about reaping emotional rewards. But what in life IS all about joy and happiness? What aspects of life don’t suck up your time and aren’t dull and tedious sometimes? What major life changes aren’t hard on a relationship?

For me, there are definitely valuable lessons to be learned from parenting (and perhaps they can be learned through other experiences as well, I don’t know): selflessness, sacrifice, priorities, simplicity, sweetness, patience, compromise, importance, trivialities. They are lessons I learn and relearn every day. Some days I am tested and I fail, others I pass with flying colors. To me, being a parent is about loving someone more than myself, it is about learning to share my time and put others first, it is the ultimate journey of self-discovery and finding the ways in which I am like my mother and the ways in which I am not, it is that unmistakable sweetness in belonging to something bigger than me.

The end of article is fascinating. One point the author makes, that I have always said, is that most regrets are about things you didn’t do: very few people regret having kids, but quite a few regret that they didn’t (some don’t regret not having kids, I know). Then she briefly mentions a paradoxical study that found that women with children were less depressed than their childless counterparts, in part because the study was more about existential matters and less about momentary happiness, per se, which is fleeting, at best, and possibly non-existent. The author questions, as I did, whether the notion of happiness as it was used in many of the studies (as moment-to-moment happiness) is adequate to represent the gamut of emotion involved in parenting.

Then she mentions words like transcendence and purpose and retrospective gratification and you say, ah yes!


Steph said...

Great post... such a broad topic really.

I have so so so many opinions on every aspect of these kinds of discussions, but I am not going to use up your comment space as I could just go on and on.

The overwhelming thing I would say is that no real life changing event will make you happy if you don't make yourself happy, and, more importantly, there is no formula for this (whether to have kids, when to have kids, how to raise them, how to keep the marriage intact), but instinct is the best tool for any adult.

The other thing I want to scream when I see questions like "does having children make you happy?", is that "DON'T YOU KNOW IT IS YOUR JOB TO MAKE YOUR KIDS HAPPY, NOT THE OTHER WAY ROUND?". Just sayin'

Phoenix said...

I just finished the article, having heard a lot about it but never having had the chance to read it before. Lots of interesting pros and cons... it's tough to say why people have kids and it's tough to say whether people should or shouldn't. I'm still in that time of my life where I'm debating whether or not to have kids... this article definitely made me waver a bit more. But again...I see the way people look at their children and I do see total unselfishness there. It's just whether or not I'm capable of it, I suppose?

Denise | Chez Danisse said...

I can only speak for myself. No kids, no pets, one husband. Very happy.

Emily said...

I love your "Duh!" because it seems pretty obvious to me too. I read Penelope Trunk's blog, and she talks a lot about happiness and whether people really want to be happy or interesting. I think it's great to strive for happiness, but in the end, I don't know that everyone's ultimate goal is to be just plain happy - so much of what makes life great comes from the challenge, which may eventually lead to a feeling of happiness but isn't in its hardest moment a particularly "puppies and rainbows" kind of feeling.

That said, even though I read some blogs of people who are parents and tell it like it is, I will admit that I still sort of believe that I'm going to have perfect angel children who bring as much joy to my life as my dog-child currently does. I suppose that's evolution talking :)

Kyle said...

" I am honestly not sure why some couples decide not to have kids."

We're opposite. I mostly wonder why people decide to have kids, when it clearly makes so many people SO miserable. I realize there are obviously a lot of people who are wonderful parents and love being a parent (one of my good friends is one of them: she is realistic about parenthood, but gets great amounts of joy from it), but in many of my experiences that's not the case.

As for me personally, I don't really know why I don't particularly want kids. I have no specific reason for wanting or not wanting them, which is why I feel like it's probably best not to have them. Unless I end up someday really wanting them, which I'm totally not ruling out. It could happen.

And also, what Emily said. DUH.

Annje said...

@Steph: wait a minute, I have to make my kids happy? If I have to find happiness within myself then so do they ;-)

@ Phoenix: don't let the article sway you, it ends positive, I think.

@Denise: only one husband? that's madness ;-)

@Emily: your kids will be absolutely perfect, (mine are!) even though that might annoy other people ;-)

@Kyle: I did say first that I am not sure why people decide to have kids either, not just why they don't have kids. All the reasons are mysterious for me. I don't know if having kids makes people miserable--some people are misreable no matter what--there are hard moments to be sure, but way more good than bad.

Denise | Chez Danisse said...

Ha! I didn't know multiple husbands were part of the discussion. Hmmm... Could be interesting, but Chris is often more than I can handle ; )

Bex said...

I hope to get my act together and blog about this sometime soon. I read the article as well, and found it fascinating. As someone whose happiness has decreased exponentially since I had a child, I couldn't help but feel validated that I am not alone.

I always wanted children. And I even want more. But the baby and toddler years are taxing to me in ways I can't even describe. Only since Jack's arrival have I realized how absolutely and unconditionally I once lived for myself. And that being taken away has taken a huge toll, and an adjustment I am still making.

Your favorite quote is also mine. Truer words have never been spoken. Right now my whole family is vacationing at the beach, me and my sister the only two with kids, and I can't help but envy my childless sisters. You know, the ones for whom a vacation is actually a vacation. Not so for me I'm afraid. Sigh.

But then I look at my parents, who are in absolute bliss with their four grown daughters around them and their grandchildren. They've been through the tough times, and now they're on the other side where only joy exists. That's why we have kids. That's why right there.

Margaret said...

Annje- I read the article too and was impressed by the thoughts it provoked, but I think you did an even better job of bringing the whole discussion down to earth and making it real.
Having kids is part of our culture, part of our heritage, part of the way we are raised to believe that it "should be." I think we are fortunate that we live in a time when we have a choice about if, when and how often to have children.
And you are absolutely right when you say it is not about "happiness" per se... or rather that "happiness" is something you can just "get" or "earn"... it's something fleeting--it comes and goes and must be worked on and you figure out you have it when you balance out all those blissful "aren't they adorable" moments against the "what the hell was I thinking" moments, and you realize that in the long run, it feels good to be connected, to be part of something that continues, that has a past, present, and future...
The article seemed to be aimed at people who had children willingly, but another side to look at is the number of people who unfortunately succumb to the pressures of society to have children when they really don't want to--or are not prepared to... It's time to really respect people's choices... it's too big a decision and has too much of an impact on the lives of the children AND the parents...
OK- Annje, I'm babbling... so I'll just close with "what you said"...

mosey said...

Margaret said it for me - "what you said".

English hubby and I are happily of the "one and done" collective, and we both were fine either way whether we had children or not. And aside from the whole question(s) of whether parenting makes us happy (or not) or fulfills us or not, what I've found is that all I need to do is remember the intense joy we experienced after our daughter was born, both from the love we had for her but also for each other, and the whole question of why or why not we became parents is moot. We wouldn't have had that intensity of emotion if we hadn't gone for it.

But there are days when I really have to struggle to pull that feeling out, which is where I guess the whole "question" comes from, right?

mrs.notouching said...

Babies are drugs. Expensive, taxing on your health, on your relationships and yet hard to resist... at least to me. Raising kids is like riding an elevator from hell to heaven... and back... ALL DAY LONG. But no, I don't believe that having or not having children makes us happy. It's more complicated than that... I don't have the answer, but no matter how hard it gets I always remind myself that this is just temporary... 10 years from now I will be the one trying to get their attention and begging them to spend more time with me.

Margaret said...

I keep coming back to this issue and thinking of how having a child a matter of being involved in something bigger than yourself. It's not about making you happy, it's about connecting with someone--and something--much larger. Being a parent and being responsible for another "personita" forces you to grow in many ways (like it or not). There are times when we are much better selves for our children's sake--I know there are times that I might have made some very wrong decisions (however delightfully tempting they may have seemed at the time), but I had someone else to think about... and she kept me centered and focused on the larger picture.
There are days my daughter made me crazy (and vice versa, of course), but in the long run... she has also kept me quite sane... Sure, there are many single moments, days, or even phases that I would have been glad to do without, but in the larger balance of things, I would not have missed this for the world... So does that mean I'm happy to be a mother? Well, I guess then that it does.

woodward said...

One of my friends is about to have their first child (in a month's time). Just last night I took the opportunity to wind him up again telling him to sleep now, laze around in bed these last weekends, to go out to as many restaurants as possible, watch as many movies as they could together now since it will be a long time before it's going to happen again. But I added the comment.... but it's worth it!
Funnily he said that he has heard that exact same expression a lot these last months, sometimes with the same or similar preceeding horror moments.

Yes, there are many moments that are incredibly frustrating (we have two boys) though personally I think there are many more magic moments that make it worth it.