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.

Parker and Pearson discuss "I Don't Know How She Does It."
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.


  1. I recently became a grandparent for the first time, so I can say with certainty that there is something totally magical about seeing the world for the first time through an infant's eyes. My grandson looks at me as if I were the only person on earth and he trusts me implicitly and utterly. His laugh is completely free of irony, completely joyful and free. He delights in colors and light, in reaching for a toy, in stretching his body. There is nothing like it, nothing like it on earth. And each age has its joys and triumphs; yes, even teenage-hood!!

  2. Katy- I *loved* your article in the new issue of Brain, Child. I recently had a very frank conversation with a younger writer who was struggling with choosing between her boyfriend who wanted children and the alternative, which was parting ways with him. I let her know not only the joys of parenthood, but the sacrifices that mothers in particular are unavoidably faced with. I feel that it's a conversation that needs to be discussed openly with women considering motherhood. Speaking from personal experience shouldn't label one as a complainer if it's the truth. Great post as well!

  3. Thank you, Meganne! And excellent point. How many of us go into motherhood knowing much more about the experience than what we might have seen on TV or witnessed in our own families? Even if we hear there are sacrifices, we often shrug and figure that goes with the territory -- before we find out what those really mean. Or the joys, either, for that matter.

  4. Until I had a child, I could not have understood what others were talking about when they said that parenthood was awesome or awful. It was never something I could grasp. That said, I think the dialogue taking place in the US is a greater reflection of our devaluation of the experience of raising children. It's tough to have a kid in the US -- no mandatory maternity leave and the difficulty of affording to raise children on one income. It's why when I finally decided to have a kid, I grabbed my passport out of the sock drawer and ran off to Europe, where, with only an occasional exception, nobody scorns or sneers at us baby-havers and the social system means the risk of dissatisfaction is a lot lower. No one I know was upset when the government paid us to stay home with the babies the first year of their lives.

  5. The couple who run the website Babble had a really good TED talk where they addressed these issues and came up with what I think is a pretty good answer: parenting would probably not be as hard if we were more informed about what to expect. Also, more support systems, of course. But they made some very good points about the gap between the reality and the expectation.

    They also addressed the happiness conundrum (parents think they're overall happier, but it doesn't show in surveys) by showing how the _moment-to-moment_ happiness yo-yos wildly after you become a parent.

    It's a very funny, smart talk :)

    Aside from that, we seem to be stuck in a kind of post-first-wave feminism limbo. Intelligent, educated women who get a lot of flack for taking their parenting seriously (as my sister says, "Anyone who thinks parenting isn't intellectually challenging hasn't tried it") would get government grants and social acceptance for getting a Ph.D. in Early Childhood Development.

    And I'm with courtneytenz above, or wish I were. We lived in Austria for a long time, and I wish we'd stayed for our kids' early years. The social and political support would have made life a lot easier.

  6. Parenting has brought me my greatest joys and my greatest pain. It has helped me grow into a better person (tho I am not always putting that best self forward!) and a better teacher. Currently I have 3 teenagers and am sometimes very frustrated and wonder why I didn't join a convent and raise dogs instead.
    But watching my children struggle on the path to becoming adult people is quite amazing and awe inspiring...I can't truly imagine living my life another way (tho I might daydream about it).

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