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Parenting: A Skill Set of Misery?

As if  New York’s freakishly hot weather isn’t bad enough, New York Magazine is adding to our woes.  Under a golden-hued cover photograph of a mother holding her winsome baby, there is this depressing koan: “I love my kids. I hate my life.”

So what the hell are we supposed to do with that little tidbit?

I thought the article was going to be another of those ad mominem attacks, in which mothers are once again held up as targets for trying too hard/not trying hard enough; being too organic/too processed; working too much/opting out of the job market.

No, moms more or less come out unscathed in this one—or rather, it seems like all parents are screwed, not just mommies.  The article summarizes all the various studies that show, one after another, that parents experience lesser degrees of happiness than people with no kids.

No shit. You mean that assuming ownership of these black suck-holes of financial need won’t make our lives easier, tons and tons more fun? Well duh. Unless you have more money than God or David Tepper, once you become a parent, you’ll be staring at the pretty Laboutins through the window, sweetheart; and you can kiss good-bye the season tickets to sports/culture/Gstaad.

The experts who study these things have found that mothers seem less happy than fathers (I know, you’re shocked shocked); and then in descending order, parents with one kid are sort of happy, parents with more than two kids not so happy, single or divorced moms even less happy, and alas, single fathers are pretty much scraping the bottom of the happiness barrel.

The author of the article points out that some of this shift in parental de-happification has to do with changes in attitudes about parenting, which makes total sense. First of all, let’s just consider the very concept of “attitudes about parenting.” Parenting didn’t used to be a skill set; it was just the noun that described those who had spawned and not eaten their offspring.  Now, however, in a certain demographic swath, parents are made to feel guilty—or at least inadequate—if they aren’t sweating every detail; and children have become these infinitely calibrated projects that magazines and books and television experts tell us can be perfected, honed, refined.

And that, of course, as anyone who has kids knows, is complete crap (and I suspect the experts know it too). No matter how much Mozart you pump into that kid’s toddler brain, he will pass through a phase where the only thing that satisfies his pre-adolescent soul is METALLICA or WHITE SNAKE (please god, anything but White Snake) or some equally loud, equally thumpy, equally hairy band. And for all the talk about “choices,” and “consequences,” and “let’s find some other behavior now, shall we,” that sweet-faced 7th grader is going to tell you to suck it, on probably more than one occasion before all is said and done.

My mom, who had three kids before she hit thirty (amazingly, she’s still 30. The woman is a miracle), says she was pretty happy doing the mom thing. Maybe it is easier to have kids younger, because who the hell knows anything in their twenties, much less whether or not they’re happy? I think she had fun with us, most of the time, and when she got fed up, we all had to go upstairs (ah, the psychic space of upstairs. I think the next happiness study should be among parents with an upstairs space and parents in apartments with no upstairs space. Parents with an upstairs would win hands down).  Was Mom happy zooming around in her huge wood-paneled station wagon, smoking, with her three unseat-belted children rattling around in the backseat pinching each other?  Yeah, I think she mostly was, and I think we mostly were too. Mostly. Except when someone DIDN’T STAY ON HIS SIDE OF THE SEAT.

But now? It all seems a lot harder, as if the stakes are higher, because everyone else is trying to be perfect.  Just like now we all have to carry snacks and water around with us, because god knows in the hours between after-school and dinner, our kids might die of malnourishment. I swear that somewhere in Witness Protection is the parent who started carrying snacks-and-water at all times, thus making it a lot harder for the rest of us. Now we all individually fret about Being Good Parents, instead of advocating as a group for changes in society that would make it easier for all of us, as Judith Warner points out in her book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, a really important point that the NY Mag article sort of buries in mid-read.

After Liam was born and when he finally got home from the hospital, I was filled with anxiety—and who wouldn’t be, bringing home a new baby not much bigger than your average cantalope? But at the same time, I remember being surprised, almost weekly, by the fun I had playing with him. I used to call my mom with that revelation (and like the truly good mother she is, she listened patiently every time): “I didn’t expect to laugh so much.”  But even with two kids, which the article says is the kiss of happiness death, there is laughter and goofing around, and giggles at the dinner table. 

Giggles or no giggles, though, who among us doesn’t love that moment in the evening, before we go to sleep, when we tiptoe into our kids’ rooms (upstairs, if we’re lucky), and shrug the covers back over their sleeping bodies, untangle the knots of sheets and pillows, smooth the hair back from dreaming foreheads?

That’s the thing, isn’t it? My kids are black suck-holes of financial need; they do leave legos around everywhere; the apartment is beveled with a thin layer of fingerprints, pretzel crumbs, and Very Important Sticks; their crap is stacked in every available corner; and the stench of their Keen sandals could raise the dead.

But without them? Well, to paraphrase Kelli Clarkson, my life would suck without them.

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7 Responses to Parenting: A Skill Set of Misery?

  1. Karen July 9, 2010 at 8:00 am #

    I, too, thought the New York Mag article was a waste of paper (although I read the whole thing). I liked your post much better. I laughed out loud at your definition of parents. I only take issue with your aversion to White Snake. Come on. “Here I Go” is a classic. I’ll take that over Justin Beiber any day.

  2. Cathy E July 9, 2010 at 11:48 am #

    I didn’t read the New York Mag article – but loved your post. You crack me up every time. I love your take on things. I do believe happiness is a choice – and at the end of the day I prefer too look back on my day with my three girls and focus on what I did right, instead of what I did wrong. I have my first leaving for college in three weeks and it saddens me to see her go but the past 18 years with her have gotten her ready for this moment, mistakes and all – I hope she knows how happy and proud she has made me (perpetually dirty room and all) She will become my legacy. And thanks for the link for Perfect Madness – I am going to have to read that one.

  3. a guy July 10, 2010 at 2:10 am #

    I agree that the notion of “attitudes” towards parenting is deeply implicated. Attitudes towards *everything* are more scrutinized and therefore, Heisenbergily, changed, in this digital world where every thing that can be measured is, and therefore evaluated. I’m also confident that our sense of happiness is different and not just more precise. If we asked whether people felt more isolated or connected with our without kids, I’m pretty confident the parents would feel more imbricated–which is a good thing.

  4. deborah quinn July 10, 2010 at 8:27 am #

    @a guy: I LOVE the word Heisenbergily and am putting it into usage immediately, but isn’t it Schroedinger who noted that observing something alters the thing observed? or something like that? Me and physics have at best an uneasy relationship.

  5. Nancy Horwich July 12, 2010 at 3:02 pm #

    Happy people are going to be happy whether they have kids or not. What the NYMagazine article only touched on was those moments of transcendence: the gift your child gives you is to see the world through his (her) eyes. That’s what makes it all worthwhile. Once I began to appreciate that I was able to stop sweating the small stuff and be my normal, happy self. The best advice I ever got about child rearing was this: Don’t worry, you can’t do it right.

  6. Susanbw July 13, 2010 at 9:31 am #

    As the aforementioned (and touchingly complimented) Mother, I can confirm a) my huge happiness in mothering three great kids and b) the ignorance of the age (the 60s + my own tender years) that permitted me to smoke and drink while pregnant (ouch), assume that ultimately the various kid pecadilloes would sort out for the best, and attend to my own needs, such as sending kids UPSTAIRS early so I could get some reading done. Moms now are MUCH smarter; I wish they could also be MUCH happier!

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