Is Parenting Joyless?

Two recent articles about parents.  The first, from The Washington Post, I was put onto by Free Range Kids.  That article talked about how stressful it is for mothers to exhaustively involve themselves in every aspect of their kids’ lives, especially when most of them work full time.  The beginning example of a mother who watches all her kids’ TV shows with them in order to monitor them and has a separate system implemented for each kid made me exhausted just thinking of it.  Sure, I enjoy some Phineus and Ferb with my kids sometimes and if they watch something I’m curious to make sure it’s not rated R.  But come on.  Three different systems?

The second, from New York Magazine, I was put onto by Mental Multivitamin.  This article was probably one of the most depressing things I’ve read about parenting in awhile, if ever.  Studies show that being a parent decreases your happiness and that it’s a joyless task for most people.  Good grief.  First of all, let me say that I’m proud to be a statistical anomaly.  I’m pretty happy and I make room for enough personal time, at least usually.  However, this quote, which Mental Multivitamin also pulled out, really struck me:

Annette Lareau, the sociologist who coined the term “concerted cultivation” to describe the aggressive nurturing of economically advantaged children, puts it this way: “Middle-class parents spend much more time talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution. And this is very tiring work.” Yet it’s work few parents feel that they can in good conscience neglect, says Lareau, “lest they put their children at risk by not giving them every advantage.”

Excuse me?  That mom from the first article, who had the system for her kids’ TV viewing that probably ate up all her own TV viewing time sounded like she was doing “tiring work.”  When I read about parents who don’t let their kids go to sleepovers or play in the yard by themselves, that sounds like tiring work.  Organizing ways to ferry your kids to five different activities after school when you’re working full time sounds like tiring work.  Don’t get me wrong, because I love homeschooling, but that’s a good example of tiring work.  However, talking to your kids and treating them with respect?  That does not sound like tiring work.  Not every single thing a kid says is a “special contribution.”  However, the notion that having a thought-provoking conversation with your kids is what’s at the heart of American middle class mothers’ stressed parenting levels is just…  depressing.  How out of whack are our priorities when that’s what the sociologist is suggesting is our biggest problem?

I’ve posting about free-ranging and homeschooling before.  I think they can go hand in hand, in part because I think that like all these helicopter parents, schools are also micromanaging kids’ lives and taking every ounce of free time away from them.  Even recess and bus rides are getting programs and special coaches these days.  However, I have chosen to be involved in my kids’ lives on a sort of epic scale by homeschooling them.  It’s strange to agree that parents should lay off and trust that their kids will be okay when I’m essentially not doing that by removing them from a piece of society that I don’t trust at all, namely our school system.  However, I have tried to let go of any notions that my kids’ every ounce of success or failure depends upon me.  If I screw up, I let it go.  Likewise, if the summer camp teacher screws up, if the kids see something on TV that’s less than desirable, if something crazy happens in the front yard while I’m not watching them, I try to remind myself that no one thing, makes or breaks a person.  I trust the world and I trust the kids and myself.

For me, the ability to homeschool has increased my happiness because I chose to do it.  It wasn’t foisted on me and I don’t feel societal pressure to do it.  If anything, the pressure is to send your kids to school.  It makes me happy to have the ability to do what I think is right and to live my life the way I want, not the way society tells me to.  I think one of the problems I see with parents is that they don’t feel like they’re in control of their circumstances.  They feel like they have to stay on a certain track or they’ll have damaged their kids, just like that sociologist suggested.  When even talking to your kids becomes a chore to check off in their development, of course it becomes tiring and stressful.  When you think the kids’ futures depend on you checking everything off a list that includes both conversation and closely monitoring their TV watching with a system, then of course it’s all just joyless.

11 thoughts on “Is Parenting Joyless?

  1. I find articles like the ones you linked to rather annoying. Here’s the version I’d like to read. It’s an entire article built around the part of the article that says, “[Women] can overwork themselves, or they can leave the workforce…The workplace is still not particularly flexible or family-friendly, they say, and parenting has become more intensive and more demanding than ever.”

    And the rest of the article takes companies and businesses to task for not creating more flexible/family-friendly environments. Next, it focuses on other institutional barriers that keep people isolated–long commutes between work-schools that cut down on time families have to maintain relationships.

    Sure, those “affluent” moms mentioned are cutting coupons because they’re trying to make ends meet. And they’re tired because they can’t afford sitters and likely don’t have family or friends nearby who will do it for free.

    Then maybe my ideal article has ONE clause of a sentence that says something like, “With all of these supports for families, some women still maintain unreasonable expectations, which might make some degree of sense since…”

    I imagine some objection such as folks who say, “But you decided to have kids–why should my workplace-life have to overburden me, since I’ve decided not to have kids.” I am sympathetic to folks who don’t have kids. I wish more people felt they had that option and took it. But when it comes to “and then the folks with kids can twist in the wind on their own–I don’t have any.” I want to ask, “Who will staff your nursing home/retirement facility when you need care?”

    Until then, I don’t want to see one more article that I’d paraphrase as, “Moms are so crazy! And–could there be a connection?–socially isolated.”

    Phew! I didn’t know I had an a bit of an AM rant in me.

    1. I guess I see there as being two elements to all this parental (which, let’s face it, was mostly maternal) stress. Both these articles, you’re right, unfairly focus on the mothering end of things. There’s also this institutional end of things, where the law and the workplace (not to mention the marketing machines and the parenting magazines and the experts on CNN…) are unfairly stacked against parents, especially mothers. I don’t know which one is more important and I think that the institutional barriers to being a happy parent, like being able to take longer parental leave and not worry about health care or decent schooling or future college debt or current childcare debt, are all really important. Probably even more important for most people.

      But I also think it’s fair to take middle class parents to task on how much stress we’re creating for ourselves. Parents don’t have to buy into the idea that they have to watch their kids every second of every day. They don’t have to buy into the idea that they need all the gear that BabysRUs wants to sell them. They don’t have to buy into the idea that it isn’t safe to let their kids make their own friends and playdates and have sleepovers. They don’t have to buy into the idea that every little decision they make to “cultivate” their kids is going to keep their kid out of Harvard. Actually, they don’t have to buy into the idea that it’s the best thing for their kids to even go to Harvard. I just think any aspect of life, be it education or work or parenting or anything will become joyless if you set yourself on a conveyor belt and let everyone else tell you what the “right” way to live is.

      Oh, my rant is now a PM rant… 😉

  2. This is fabulous – thank you. I read both articles, and I think the intangible element that they’re leaving out is the difficulty-to-reward ratio of parenting. Being a parent IS very hard and involves a long slog through many not-so-joyous moments – but it’s all worth it when you see your angelic sleeping child, or he makes the swim team after working harder toward it than any of the other kids, or she can finally flush the toilet in a public bathroom without being paralyzed by her sensory problems (a recent battle my daughter won at age 9).

    Sure, it may be easier in the short run to be married without kids, or single, and sit around reading the Sunday paper instead of arbitrating sibling disputes or scraping Cheerios off the ceiling. But after 18 years of lounging and reading the paper, what’s the payoff? Nothing that’s easy is as rewarding as something that’s incredibly hard.

    The other element that studies like this leave out is that not everyone should become a parent in the first place! Some of us choose parenthood out of a genuine calling, and some of us fall into it accidentally, or choose it without really thinking through whether we’ll be good and happy at it. You can’t compare those groups of people as if they’re all alike. It’s like doing a huge job-satisfaction survey that doesn’t differentiate between people who are working at McDonald’s out of desperation and survival, people who have a cushy job doing something they passionately love, and the rest of us who are somewhere in between.

    Thanks for breaking down these ridiculously depressing articles. This makes a statistic of at least two of us who aren’t dying of misery from being parents.

    1. I wonder how many of these parents who have these mental checklists for cultivating their kids (that end with the kid going to some great college, I’m sure) had kids because it was also something just on their own, “this is what you do” life checklist.

      That’s so true about the difficulty to rewards ratio too. I think that can be true with any work. When I was teaching in school, it was hard work. But it was also joyful work that had lots of payoffs.

      1. That’s it exactly – I wish more people would recognize that they don’t *have* to have kids if they don’t have a great passion to do so.

        Also, parenting is hard….being a married couple is hard….being single is hard! There are struggles and difficulties about ANY road you take, so I’d rather choose one way of life purposefully and take the good with the bad.

  3. I’m not completely free-range, and might even be a bit over protective. But I don’t watch everything my daughter does. Sometimes in the mornings she’ll even be watching tv while I sleep. I’ve used the parental locks to block out a few shows that come on the channels she watches. She hasn’t learned to change the channel yet, so I don’t have to worry about that right now. I will watch an episode or two of a show if it’s new and I’m not sure if it’s appropriate, and sometimes I’ll let some things slide. But I don’t spend every moment she’s got the tv on carefully screening everything. Between ratings, reviews and parental locks I have the tools necessary to make sure she only watches what I deem appropriate without having to be planted in front of the tv constantly.
    Also I find parenting and interacting with my child to be a rather joyful and rewarding experience. Answering her questions and having a conversations with her is one of the best things about her getting older.

    1. Someone else pointed this out to me today – that older kids are much more fun to talk to. I wonder if a lot of parents miss out on the best parts because they spend a year or two home with a screaming baby or a difficult toddler and then send them off to school just when they get interesting. But the idea that parenting (especially full time) is joyless gets set in their minds and becomes hard to break out of. I’m willing to admit that the first two years with twins was not so joyful. I never regretted having kids, but it was pretty hard.

  4. Well I don’t prescribe to the theory that life is all about being happy. I think happiness is a choice we make and that it does not have to be totally dependent on our circumstances. Often true, deep, and abiding joy comes from wrestling with and doing very hard things and not dying in the process. Parenting is one of those very hard things. Sure there is joy in watching my children flourish under my purview, feeding them well satisfies me deeply, seeing them have a rich banquet of mental food to feast upon makes my heart soar, watching them make friends and do the right thing makes every fiber of my being swell up with pride, but whether it be nurturing physically, mentally and even spiritually there is also a joy, a rich happiness, that comes from the changes that have happened to ME in the course of my parenting.

    I’ve been a parent for 20 years and I have learned and been changed by a great many things that I am fairly certain would not have been available to me otherwise, and I am certain these things contribute to a richer more fulfilled life for me. I am talking about things like…….
    -putting someone else’s needs before my own until it becomes a habit,
    -thinking deeply about meaning of life and how to communicate those values to my children
    -thinking creatively about how to teach and train my children about what it right and what is wrong,
    -learning to control my temper and seeing my character flaws reflected back at me which leads me to either accept it or figure out ways to change it
    -learning to respond to things differently than what might be my first extinct (or what was done to me by my parents)
    – learning how to manage my time, other people’s time and also how to become more flexible
    -speaking up when it matters, shutting up when it matters, and really learning to weigh my thoughts and words, especially considering how it would be taken
    -as a married person it has strengthened my marriage ten fold…parenting has shown us things that we needed to work on, things we have needed to change, and it has also strengthened our commitment to each other because we have been very aware that we have 4 pairs of eyes watching us

    I could go on and on like this, but really what I am saying is that I have become a better person because of my children, and that doesn’t happen with my face in a glass of alcohol or leaving them with sitters everyday and just having fun doing whatever I want to do. And I am sure all of this has been amplified by the fact we home school and we are together so much of the time.

    I hope I haven’t hopped down a rabbit trail, but articles like the NY Mag one just seem so shallow to me. I like your thoughts and I am glad to have stumbled upon your blog.

    1. That’s a good point, that the point of life isn’t all about being happy. I do think it’s a component of a good life though. That it’s good to do the things that bring you, not just fleeting happiness, but true and sustained happiness. I feel like parenting is one of those things for me.

  5. Not having kids of my own or friends with children close to me I’ve felt in a bit of a vacuum when trying to imagine what path I might like to go down in terms of parenting. Luckily life makes a lot of choices for you. And suddenly being in a relationship with the right someone turns the game around. It stops being an out of body experience to think about what to do – have children, get married, or stay single – and it becomes a very clear calling.

    But I’ve also had a real patchwork of schooling and parenting experiences growing up and I can’t say that I want to be stuck in the same position as a lot of women, pulled in too many directions and stressed to the point of not being able to enjoy the simple things in life. American life seems to excel at creating a world full of sad stories like this. You wonder at our own stupidity when you travel abroad and see so many other people raising families more simply (no suburbs, no cars, no cell phones or whatever) and much more happy for it. Putting monetary success (or Harvard) as the pinnacle of our pyramid is the same problem as putting happiness at the top, you never seem to get enough to reach it. I just wonder can you raise children sanely in America without looking like your the kook?

    Obviously there are a lot of people out there trying their own thing but where is the beauty in being alone, and then what group do you join Waldorf, the Quakers, etc…? I like that people are figuring out their own thing, my parents did by schooling my brother and I abroad, but I think the harder question is how do you then integrate, because schools are really about socialization and work in the long term.

    I’m just happy that I have a partner that grew up in rural Vermont and had a stay at home mom. It reminds me that raising kids doesn’t have to be that complicated. I just hope if I’m lucky enough to stay at home with the kids that I can still pursue my career to keep my edge sharp enough to be able to cut into whatever I want when the kids leave the nest.

    So much written about family is dismaying (it amazes me that Courtney’s “ideal” article hasn’t been written, the real problems seem so clear) it’s hard not to think sometimes that I might get swept up in a lot of craziness I want nothing to do with. I really appreciated the words of experience from wayside wanderer. Since obviously I’m on the edge of the pond wanting to hear that the water is fine from a number of women before I dive in. Thanks for sharing!

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