|Parker and Pearson discuss "I Don't Know How She Does It."|
Sunday, September 18, 2011
Trying to explain the paradox of parental happiness
Irin Carmon of Jezebel has written an account of the same screening of the new movie I Don't Know How She Does It—and its Q&A session afterward with star Sarah Jessica Parker and novelist Allison Pearson—that was reported in a Slate post that I wrote about a couple of days ago. Like Slate's Jessica Grose, Carmon compares the event to a group-therapy session, though thankfully she avoids sneering at the other women in attendance.
Also like Grose, Carmon worries that movies like IDKHSDI—and comments by mothers at the screening—make motherhood seem, well, awful (frankly, the movie itself sounds pretty awful, but that's a matter for another post). Carmon writes, as Grose also implied, that hearing about all these problems is a turnoff for young women like themselves, who don’t have kids yet.
Childless young women don't necessarily welcome a bunch of negativity, I’ve come to realize in writing about this issue here on the blog and in an upcoming piece for Brain, Child (link to come, once it runs). They’d rather anticipate motherhood as joyful. Make it sound like a bummer, Caron and Grose suggest, and they’ll want to skip the whole thing.
"So I'm curious how do you balance being really honest about the fact that it's really challenging, with scaring younger women?" Carmon asked the celebrities, during her turn at the mic.
Parker, Pearson and some woman in the audience tried to explain that, however much it sometimes sucks, parenting overall is nonetheless wonderful.
Honestly, it’s no wonder Carmon and Grose were dismayed.
The hassle/happiness balance of parenting is unquestionably a paradox, one that’s tough to discuss even with another parent who totally gets it, let alone someone who hasn’t experienced it. Just last night, in a conversation in Real Life®, a friend and I were exchanging motherly rants about how our children drive us nuts. We noted that our childless friends lead more serene existences—they get to choose what to do after work, don't have to clean up after anybody but themselves, never are nagged to buy stuff they can't afford, never (or at least rarely) have to helplessly endure the wrath of planeloads of strangers. Yet we also agreed that, despite everything, we’re still glad we have kids. Not only because we love our specific kids, but also because it’s an experience we wouldn’t want to have missed.
But why? Here we grasped for the right words. Because it’s, um, a challenge? Because kids make life unpredictable and variable? Because what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? Yes, sure, all of those things.
Except that those don't sound all that fun, either.
What parents feel, I think, is not reducible to simple concepts like “happy” or “fun.” Those words are vague enough themselves, let alone when you try to stretch them to cover an experience that, let’s face it, involves its share of heartbreak, worry and swearing. Hence the bewilderment, not only of Carmon and Grose, but of journalists trying to explain all those studies finding that parents are less happy than non-parents.
Maybe satisfaction in parenting is a primitive animal reflex, hardwired in our brains by evolution, enhanced with washes of hormones. Maybe it's some other mysterious emotion entirely, one that exists independently of those modern comforts we usually associate with enjoyable lifestyles—concepts like “plenty of free time” or “adequate sleep." Or maybe, speculates the Atlantic’s Megan McArdle, “we are simply sentimentalizing the whole ordeal to keep ourselves from rooting out our unused passports from the sock drawer and dashing off to Europe, never to be heard from again.”
In any case, try to describe any of this to people who haven’t experienced it and you may sound inane. You may even find your efforts described on someone’s blog as “bizarre baby proselytizing.”
One more thing puzzles me about this episode. Why should anyone care whether Carmon and Grose want kids—or whether they’re driven instead, as Grose suggests, to “consider sterilization”? That is, aside from whatever larger, demographic concerns we might have about building a sufficient work force to subsidize our future Social Security and health-care requirements.
Personally, I’m not desperate enough to sugarcoat things with an eye toward securing my monthly checks. And there’s no point in snaring women into parenthood with false promises of paradise, like 19th century land speculators luring unwitting Easterners west to what turned out to be harsh prairie homesteads.
I say we lay out the realities for not-yet mothers as honestly as possible, then leave it up to them. Having children is an act of faith, its consequences unpredictable. If they have kids, most likely, they’ll be glad they did it, despite the challenges. If they don't, most likely, they'll be content also.
If young women like Carmon and Grose think the risk of dissatisfaction is too great, as far as I'm concerned they should feel free to skip the whole thing.