ControverSunday: That New York Magazine Article

by Ginger on July 18, 2010

in Mom Thoughts

It’s the return of ControverSunday! Woohoo and there was much rejoicing! If you’d like to join in (just jump in and join us! It’s what I did), just write something up, grab the badge from Accidents‘ place and then head over to Perpetua’s place to get linked up. And obviously, we don’t really care if it’s Sunday, or Monday, or heck, even  Saturday–if you’ve got something to say, just join us!

The glorious return tackles, well in case you couldn’t tell from my title, THAT New York Magazine article–you know, the one that has been written about by a million mommy bloggers (and other media as well) in the last few weeks? Titled “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting“, I’ve seen this article pop up all over the place lately, and for this ControverSunday, we’re tackling our thoughts on it.  So, before we get started, go read it. I’ll be here when you get back (yes, it’s a few pages, but it goes quick, I promise).

Ok, so now that you’ve read it, let’s get down to business. (warning, this is a long post. I have a lot to say about this, since it’s been percolating in my head since I first read the article almost 2 weeks ago. I may veer all over the place. You’ve been warned).

Honestly, I could debate ideas sparked by this article for days. Things such as:

  • How does someone’s personal situation (married vs. single, an engaged and helpful partner vs. not, working vs. SAH, age of child, etc., etc.) affect the studies? Do the studies involved answer for those factors?
  • Is this a class/economic take? How do money, affluence, and options change or not change this question? Are any other socio-economic groups even contemplating this?
  • What is the goal of articles (and to a larger extent, the studies that inform these articles) such as this? How do they affect those of us who read them? Why ask these questions at all?
  • What does this article say about how our society views parenting? Or how it thinks we SHOULD view parenting?

Because I think this article, and the studies that it draws from, create some really interesting questions. I think it creates an interesting opportunity to examine what we as a society think about parenting. I think it creates a unique way of looking at other experiences, as well as our own.

But honestly, at my core, I completely disagree with this article, because I LOVE parenting, and think it ADDS to my happiness rather than detracts.

I don’t mean that to sound sanctimonious. I don’t pretend that it’s all gumdrops and rainbows, as my husband likes to say. It’s chaotic, and frustrating, and tiring and time consuming. It’s anxiety inducing (seriously, I never really knew fear before having Jackson), and makes me question myself, and makes me wonder if I’m doing a good job. And I struggle with many aspects of it. But at the core of me, I am happier than I ever imagined I could be, even in many of the little annoyances. And according to the NY Mag article, I’m either lying or in a very distinct minority.

Of course, the fact that I feel that way makes me feel like I’ve got to add caveats. You know, like I had an easy baby. It’s not that I’ve forgotten those early days, or that I have rose-colored glasses, but I had an easy baby. One who ate easy, slept easy, was happy and chill and as pleasurable as someone who coats you in bodily fluids can be. Nursing was easy up until recently (and that’s only been because of the biting). We didn’t deal with reflux or colic. We haven’t dealt with sickness. Even now, we have a high energy, but pretty happy kid–one who is exhausting in his rambunctiousness, but who is for the most part sweet and smiley and full of belly laughs. And obviously, we haven’t entered toddlerhood, or school age, or any of the other ages where it’s less about keeping the kid alive and more about, you know, parenting him. So, you know, I know that my experience is different than many other peoples. Not that it means I don’t get to answer for my own happiness, but to say, I acknowledge that if things were different, my feelings might be different.

All that being said, I often wonder what role expectations play in how a parent feels about parenting.  I’ve heard expecting parents say everything from “raising a baby will be my ultimate accomplishment” to “having a baby will help strengthen our marriage” to “having a baby is all I ever wanted.” I have to wonder how those parents feel in the day to day of parenting–when they face struggles, does the fact that they built it up SO big make everyday parenting problems amplify?

I never expected parenting to fulfill me. I never looked to my baby to complete me. I don’t think that’s fair to him, or to me, to place those expectations on someone else. As many a person has said, the only person responsible for your happiness is you. No matter how much I wanted kids, I always always always knew I wanted kids as a PART of me and my life, not my whole world. I knew kids were not always easy, or sweet or little cherubs. I knew they were challenging and a force to be reckoned with. And yet…

Even in the frustrating moments of parenting, I am happier than I’ve ever been. Even in the moments when Jackson is biting me, again, and I’m trying to figure out if we’re going to have a sociopath kid who enjoys causing others pain, I’m–at my core–happier in that moment that I would be without it. I would say for me, the core happiness of having Jackson in my life easily covers the 25% of the time when the individual acts of parenting are a pain in the ass. But I’m not lying when I say that even those pain in the ass moments don’t make me UNhappy. And I would choose those moments 9 times out of 1o over other things.

There’s a bit from the article that I want to share:

Perhaps the most oft-cited datum comes from a 2004 study by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize–winning behavioral economist, who surveyed 909 working Texas women and found that child care ranked sixteenth in pleasurability out of nineteen activities. (Among the endeavors they preferred: preparing food, watching TV, exercising, talking on the phone, napping, shopping, housework.)

This, to me, is one of the main reasons I don’t identify with this article. Because HONESTLY, I would rather take care of Jackson than ANY of those things listed. I have so much joy with him that, 9 times out of 10, I would turn down an invitation to do most things so that I can take care of him. And this includes with the biting, the wrestling matches diaper changes, the constant chase to keep him out of stuff, and the invariable meltdowns when we say no one more time.

When I was talking through this with N.C., he brought up this question: Is the article confusing PLEASANT with HAPPY? Because parenting is not always pleasant. It’s just not. But neither are a lot of things that make us happy overall. So then, what’s the point of measuring moment to moment happiness over overall happiness? Don’t most activities in our lives that are challenging and rewarding fail in this matter? Work, for example, or running (haha, not me–that’s for you runners out there), or anything else that is difficult but has an overall positive effect on our lives? So where does the line between pleasant and happy get drawn?

Finally, I want to acknowledge one final point. At the end of the day, I think part of what makes me an exception to what appears to be the rule is this–I’m a lazy parent. Despite my over-analyzing on this blog, I am not this neurotic in real life. In real life, we’re very…go with the flow around here. I have no inclination towards, nor expectation of, perfection. The house is usually messy, chores go undone for days, life is chaotically unplanned. If it’s the choice between doing the dishes or spending time with Jackson–well, the dishes can sit. I don’t expect to be a perfect mom. I don’t expect a perfect baby. I expect that parenting is going to be hard, so I don’t beat myself up when I yell, or when Jackson yells, or when parenting is tough. I don’t focus on those things. Or if I do, I focus on them in an academic sort of way, not an “this is the entirety of what parenting is to me” kind of way. I don’t have any plans to push him to be “perfect”, and I hope that he’s ok with not having perfect parents, because I don’t have any plans to attempt that either.

And this seems to be part of where modern parenting, in a certain socioeconomic/intellectual class in particular, hits the barrier between happy and un. Because there is this expectation of perfection. There is this comparing. There is the internet with all its information and ability to stack yourself and your child up against others. How can you be happy when you have the expectation of flawless? Of perfect? Of do-it-all, be-it-all, never fail at anything parenthood?

If we were willing to step back and say “good enough is good enough” how much happier would we be?

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Katherine July 19, 2010 at 9:26 am

I think the main purpose of the artical is to highlight that there are parents out there who are unhappy and it isn’t that unusual. There is a stigma attached to anyone who would admit they are unhappy and don’t like having to parent. Just because you don’t feel that way doesn’t mean the article isn’t valid or that there aren’t unhappy parents out there. Saying the article is wrong diminishes the feelings of those parents who are unhappy. Also, there were studies that did not indicate parents were as unhappy as other studies, depending on what was asked and whether or not it was overall or moment to moment feelings.

Not to say that Jackson should ever become a difficult child to raise, but he hasn’t reached an age where testing boundaries is part of his growing experience. Plus most of the studies relate to families with multiple children and both parents working outside of the home, which is not your situation.

So, in the end do I believe all the numbers generated by these studes? No (data manipulation is too readily accomplished), but I do believe there are a large portion parents who do not like the day to day rigors of rasing a family.

Ginger July 19, 2010 at 10:17 am

You’re absolutely right on all counts–my feelings don’t make the article invalid (nor do they invalidate the feelings of any other parents). Jackson isn’t at a stage where he’s too difficult. And it’s not unusual, or wrong, for other people to feel that way.

I guess my biggest gripe with this article, along with the studies, is there seems to be a growing trend in certain circles of talking about how unhappy parents are–how mommy only makes it through the day with the promise of a drink later, or how everyone can’t WAIT until their kids aren’t a burden on them anymore. And while I think that we should acknowledge and admit that parenting is hard, it’s not always roses, there’s something about this never-ending “I don’t like being a parent, but I suck it up because I have to” status that I personally am starting to question. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s frustrating. And yes, that’s OK. But in certain circles, it’s almost like you get vilified if you DON’T feel that way, like you’re not being honest or you’re delusional.

Katherine July 19, 2010 at 12:02 pm

We live in the age of overshare and whining. Take a look at your Facebook news feed and half of it is someone whining about their life, so it doesn’t surprise me that people whine about parenting. The internet allows people to be more self indulgent in that regard than face to face conversations. Also, there is a backlash against the perfect parent, my child can do no wrong (it’s your fault he stabbed you), my way of rasing children is far superior than yours attitude that’s been prevelant for the past few years and perhaps complaining that you are not perfect is the new attitude. The extremes (of just any issue/topic) is what gets showcased in the media and discussions.

Parenting like everything else has trends.

Katherine July 19, 2010 at 12:05 pm

“of just about any issue/topic”

Let’s not even discuss my failure to conjugate verbs properly

Brooke July 19, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Honestly my feelings about parenting change depending on what stage Kellen is in. Toddlerhood is HARD. Let me repeat. H-A-R-D. And parenting, good parenting- the kind where you seek to teach and set boundaries and create a lifelong love of learning- man, that shit it HARD too. I think the studies point out that life satisfaction (i.e. happiness) is not inherently improved by having children… and that maybe that satisfaction is lesser than those who don’t have children. It didn’t say people are UNHAPPY… just that they are NO happier than those without kids.

Ginger July 19, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Oh, I don’t doubt that toddlerhood is hard. I fully anticipate that it’s going to kick my ass, if the…shall we say exuberance…of Jackson at 10 months is any indication. So, you know, we’ll see if I’m eating my words in a year’s time.

clara July 19, 2010 at 1:50 pm

I love your four questions at the beginning because when I started reading the article all I could think was: how much sleep have those parents had. Did they control for sleep? If I’ve had 6 hours of sleep, my answer to “how happy are you with the parenting experience” is verrrry different than it is if I’ve only had 4. Or if I’ve had 9.

And that’s the thing – it’s so individual, your happiness as a parent is based on you, your child, your situation, your upbringing, your expectations, I could go on.

As a fellow lazy parent, I salute you.

Ginger July 19, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Part of why my post is a bajillion words long (and meanders all over the damn place) is because every time I would read the article I would think of a new question: wait, are they controlling for WAH v. SAH? What about if the people are miserable in their jobs, but they’re projecting into their families? Do they talk about what the parents expectations were before they became parents? How helpful are their partners (if they have them)? GAH too many variables!!

Kathleen July 19, 2010 at 7:14 pm

Clara- I totally hear you on the sleep thing.
Sleep= reasonably happy Momma who may be occasionally frustrated by her toddler who wants to climb everything and throw food on the floor or the pile of laundry that never gets done.
Less Sleep= reasonably so so Momma who gets frustrated a little more easily and believes the house will never be clean again and orders take out.
No Sleep= very grumpy unhappy Momma that just wants to run away.

Sleep. Its where it is at.

Anyway, back to the point. I think the article was reasonably clear about questioning the difference between happiness and satisfaction with ones life. The studies were looking at moment to moment happiness, which I think is different then asking if someone is happy overall. I think you can feel that your life is more satisfying and rewarding with kids, but still feel day-to-day (particularly in the first 6 months, toddler-preschool and teenager time frames) not so stellar. And of course, this is going to differ dramatically based on individual circumstances.

Ginger July 20, 2010 at 9:41 am

I guess then my question is this: why are we expecting parenting to be different than anything else? Very few things provide constant moment to moment happiness, even if they provide overall satisfaction and fulfillment, so why are we do we apparently hold parenting to a different standard–that it should be rewarding AND make us happy moment to moment? I’m not asking that sarcastically, btw, I am actually wondering why?

Accidents July 20, 2010 at 7:02 am

I’m tempted to just repost a version of Clara’s comment here as my whole post when I eventually get around to one. Because my son didn’t sleep for his first year, I wouldn’t have wished parenthood on my worst enemy. Henry’s existence made me happy, his needs as they clashed with my needs (for sleep) made me…struggle. Now that I see that children can sleep (Henry is back to not sleeping, but we had a few good months in there where I was rested), I can give a less gloomy response to friends who wonder out loud if they should start a family.

Ginger July 20, 2010 at 9:42 am

Sleep is such a key, which again is why I know I have to put the caveat that I had an EASY baby. There’s a reason that sleep deprivation is a torture method!

Perpetua July 26, 2010 at 2:01 pm

I’m really glad you brought this angle up because you’re saying what is hard to say: that life (yours, mine) is better with the kid than without him. And I actually HATE saying that, because not all people want kids/can have kids/etc. But for most of us, it’s just true. Unpleasantness aside, and worries aside, there’s more of everything now: more fun, more fulfilling work, more eye-opening moments, more talking to strangers in the supermarket, more human connection…and I like it.

Even though vomit was dripping down my shirt yesterday. 🙂

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