August 20, 2010
Parenting means always having to say you’re sorry
Do you enjoy parenting? If you answered “yes,” please reread the question. The question is not: “Do you enjoy being a parent?” The question is: “Do you enjoy parenting?”
An article published in a recent New York magazine with the catchy title “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting,” penned by mother and writer Jennifer Senior, suggests that we don’t.
Senior’s piece includes a diaper bag’s worth of evidence indicating that, at best, parenting drives Mommy and Daddy to drink (“a friend once said about the Children’s Museum of Manhattan – ‘a nice place, but what it really needs is a bar’ ”) and, at worst, causes outright depression.
Senior cites a huge body of research to support her conclusion that parents hate parenting: “[A] wide variety of academic research shows parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so. 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 16th in pleasurability out of 19 activities. (Among the endeavors they preferred: preparing food, watching TV, exercising, talking on the phone, napping, shopping, housework.) This result also shows up regularly in relationship research, with children invariably reducing marital satisfaction. The economist Andrew Oswald, who’s compared tens of thousands of Britons with children to those without, [concluded]: ‘The broad message is not that children make you less happy; it’s just that children don’t make you more happy.’ That is, he tells me, unless you have more than one. ‘Then the studies show a more negative impact.’
“Robin Simon, a sociologist at Wake Forest University, says parents are more depressed than nonparents no matter what their circumstances — whether they’re single or married, whether they have one child or four.”
The interesting part of all this is that when we turn out not to like the “parenting” part of being a parent, we tend to be surprised. This is, no doubt, due to the spectacular gift of human nature to overlook the negative.
This uniquely human ability to view the world through rose-colored glasses is a good thing. It seduces us into saying “I do” despite divorce- rate statistics that suggest we should be saying “I don’t,” and to adopt puppies despite their deserved reputation for destroying sleep and furniture. And, fortunately for the survival of our species, our gift for discounting the negative and focusing on the positive means that we continue to have babies despite the knowledge that mothers in Texas claim they would rather spend an hour scrubbing their toilets than an hour at Chuck E. Cheese.
But there is something else at play here. When we take the leap into parenthood, we do so under the collective delusion that “we” will be different from other parents, and “our” children will be different from other children. We presume that the grind of changing diapers, preparing kids’ meals, schlepping them to countless soccer practices, yelling at them to get off Facebook, nagging them to do their homework and reminding them to clean their rooms will be so outweighed by the “moments of transcendence” that we won’t notice them. Of course we are surprised when, at times, the grind is all we notice.
One of Senior’s friends succinctly summed up this parenting paradox when she said: “I have two really great kids ... and I enjoy doing a lot of things with them. It’s the drudgery that’s so hard: Crap, you don’t have any pants that fit? There are just So. Many. Chores.”
But as tedious as modern parenting is today, I’m not convinced that Senior’s conclusion that the drudgery of parenting is causing mass parental depression is correct. After all, nearly every aspect of your life involves endless chores. If you have a dog, you feed it, clean up after it, walk it and take it to the vet. If you have a job, you perform dozens of unpleasant but necessary tasks daily. And if you own a home, the list of chores involved in maintaining that home is endless. Yet, for the most part, dog owners, workers and homeowners are not longing for Prozac and alcohol. So what is the real reason that parents, in particular, are dissatisfied?
I think the real problem with parenting is that it causes otherwise competent individuals to feel inept. When you are a parent, every day is Yom Kippur. If love means never having to say you are sorry, parenting means always feeling like you should be saying I’m sorry: “Sorry for putting too much pressure on you; sorry for not putting enough pressure on you. Sorry I am so strict; sorry I’m not strict enough. Sorry I’m not spending enough time with you; sorry I’m spending so much time with you that you no longer know how to entertain yourself. Sorry I didn’t force you to stick with an instrument, to learn Spanish, to read the classics. Sorry I bought you ‘Call of Duty’ for Xbox, sorry I let you have a television in your room; sorry I let you join Facebook. Sorry you inherited my illegible handwriting; sorry you inherited my tendency to procrastinate; sorry you inherited my lack of coordination.”
And unlike other areas in our lives where we subconsciously offset our failures with our successes, parents readily accept the blame for each and every one of our children’s failures but give full credit for all of their successes to them alone. When Max drops the game-winning ball, it is our fault for not practicing with him more. But when he catches it? Max caught the ball! Max is amazing!
Why do we accept all of the blame but give our children all of the glory? There is only one explanation: We may hate parenting, but we love the kids we parent.