Late on a summer afternoon I had the luxury of sitting on a quiet beach alone with a book. Nearby on the sand were a mother and a toddler girl. They had just come out of the gentle waves where they had clearly had a wonderful time. The sun-bonneted child, circling the large rectangle of contiguous beach towels, stopped here and there to dig with a shovel.
All was fine until the mom interrupted the play to ask her daughter if she would like lunch. The girl shook her head “no.” Then, the mom specifically asked if she wanted chicken nuggets, presumably a favorite. The girl refused again. The mom waited a few seconds—maybe thirty—and then asked again, rather loudly.
The toddler began to enjoy this negotiation and responded by either ignoring her mother or loudly refusing. The mother, getting more and more frustrated, tried over and over to coax the child into abandoning her shovel and sitting to eat chicken nuggets and drink a juice box.
How easy from the outside to judge this mother; how easy to hiss, “Can’t you see that she doesn’t want the chicken nuggets?” What started out as a fun-filled day was now marred by the grind of everyday life.
In the book All Joy and No Fun, Jennifer Senior examines the paradox in the feelings of today’s parents who consider raising children the most rewarding experience of their lives even as they rate caring for their youngsters as less pleasant than doing housework.
Why is it exasperating?
Senior notes that mothers in particular sustain a constant hum of anxiety in their heads about the details of their children’s lives. Perhaps this mother at the beach felt she was failing because the schedule she had devised was not working? Or maybe she feared a meltdown at 4 pm and a ruined evening schedule? Or maybe she wanted to convince other beachgoers within hearing distance that she was a conscientious, caring mother?
Like this mom, you may spend a lot of time thinking about your children’s needs and how your actions impact your children’s development, often overlooking the effect that raising children has on so many aspects of your life. And, as Senior says, some of the effects are no fun!
Once children arrive, you lack independence and your marriage can become stressed under the burden of constant child care and negotiating divisions of labor. Even benign arguments now take on long-term meaning about what kind of role model you are and how your children will turn out. For example, once you have children, the fact that your spouse does not enjoy vegetables can suddenly become an issue over your child’s future eating habits and health.
Before too long, you may become exhausted… worn out… drained. In the everyday, tedious, and maddening moments and hours of raising kids, it is hard to keep in the forefront of your mind the feelings of joy that you think you are supposed to experience and that, on occasional moments, you actually do experience.
Even once the early years of child-rearing pass, you can still carry a lot of free-floating anxiety about preparing children for life and what this life you are preparing them for will look like. In previous generations, parents taught children to sew clothes, grow crops, read and write, and make household items. Now these tasks are outsourced to others, and children may grow up to have jobs that do not even exist today, leaving you to wonder what skills your children will need to be successful.
To assuage this anxiety, you may go to great lengths to introduce children to a wide range of sports and activities and then promote expertise in one or several. This “concerted cultivation,” as Senior calls it, requires much time and money on your part. And there is an undercurrent of competition among families to do more for their children than others are doing.
In general, you may find that you are spending many more hours driving and interacting with your children than your own parents did with you; plus you may be keeping up this level of involvement in addition to working outside the home. Senior notes that until 1970, parenting did not exist as a verb (something one does) but rather as a noun (something one is). Parenting is now its own career.
Where does the exhilaration come from?
For the most part, parents try to do their utmost for their children, and that is unrelenting and difficult work. This fact is not a condemnation of parenting. Rather, it normalizes the effects children have on your personal development and identity, marriage, work, and life in general. How affirming to realize that feelings of pressure and uncertainty are part of the parenting territory, and not an indication that you are doing something wrong.
Asking whether you are “happy” while parenting may be the wrong question. As sages past have noted, happiness is the by-product of a job or task well done. Thinking of parenting as a duty allows you to let go of expectations of automatic fulfillment and suggests that you simply do the best you can because that is the right thing to do. Rather than expecting your slogging through the days to be rewarding, you can find pleasure and satisfaction in having met your parental responsibilities. It may not be “fun,” but it can be gratifying.
Furthermore, psychologist Daniel Kahneman says that humans recall moments of delight rather than streams of drudgery. Those times of joy are strung together to formulate the stories you tell yourself and thus become what you think of as your life. So, while it is essential that you go through the daily tedium, your ultimate story of parenting may well be those brief highlights that you recall. And that is a hopeful, inspiring thought!
Consider again the mother on the beach. In the struggle to get her daughter to eat, she experienced the frustration that so many parents of toddlers do; yet after she gains some distance from the episode, she may recall only the joy of sharing with her daughter a carefree afternoon, splashing in the waves.
Parenting—like many things in life—is both exasperating and exhilarating. Accepting this dichotomy can inspire you as you continue down your parenting road.By Jill Bown, Parenting Educator
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