I had plenty of moments when I hated my life as a parent of young children. But I never blogged about it – no such thing then – never wrote a trendy book about the merits of martini play dates and didn’t need studies to tell me that parenting is a hard slog that makes you more depressed than non-parents.
What a missed opportunity. Parental unhappiness is all the fashion now. Everyone is talking publicly about it. (I would mutter to myself about how I hated my life while in the bath – when I had time to take one, that is.)
The child may have become the centre of parenting life for boomers, but now the focus has shifted to the unhappy mommy who needs to air her discontent as if she’s doing feminism a service with her cautionary tale. The myth of serene mommyhood is as pernicious as the myth of wedded bliss! Let’s talk about the problem that has a name – little Aiden!
The baby backlash has been fanned by ubiquitous social scientists, some of whom proclaim that “the effect of children on the life satisfaction of married individuals is small, often negative, and never statistically significant.” Culturally, we see parenthood as the highest calling, and it has been sacrilegious until now to lift the baby blanket, so to speak, and tell it like it really is. Some mommy bloggers do so with a sort of gleeful defiance, often using subversive humour, such as Stefanie Wilder-Taylor in her book, Sippy Cups Are Not For Chardonnay, as a way to deflect the accusation that they’re bad moms. That would be like being an axe murderer. Worse, it could negatively affect book sales.
But if parenthood has been whitewashed in the culture, it would be a mistake to overrate it.
Anyone who has been through the crucible of parenthood – and it is a life-altering one – knows that it’s not going to make you blissful all the time. What it provides are lessons in vulnerability, patience, humility and love in its most generous form. It doesn’t plant a beatific smile on your face as much as give you a kick in the butt to say that life is not all about you and your next manicure appointment. When you adjust to the change, there’s rich, great beauty in the acceptance.
Let me paint a scene. It’s about 18 years ago. My eldest boy, 7 at the time, is having a Lego melt-down. One of his two younger brothers, 6 and 4, has messed with his intricately designed spaceship. Someone has lost the little transparent bit he needs for a wing. Or has hidden it. Or chewed on it. Maybe the dog swallowed it. I don’t know. It’s all a blur.
I send Boy No. 1 to his room to calm down. I also reprimand Boy No. 2 for his contribution to the fuss. I am wished dead. Boy No. 3 clings to me, and puts his chubby little hands on either side of my face, turning it so my gaze is fixed only at him. “I will never be mean to you,” he says.
He pretty much keeps his promise – until the teenage years.
Unhappy moment? Uh, yeah. But there were many more lovely ones. (I should add that at one nerve-frayed point, I asked our pediatrician about my concern over the hurly-burlyof our household, and he told me not to worry as long as the good moments outweighed the bad, which they did – upon some reflection in aforementioned bath.)
Maybe the problem with the current parental satisfaction discussion is how we view happiness. We expect it to flood every part of our lives all the time, at a high level. We feel entitled to it.
We have also become mothers who are accustomed to having control of our lives – when to marry, when to have babies. I had that choice too. But the greatest lesson of having a child is that you don’t have control.
I had my boys in my late twenties, three of them in four and a half years. With the third, I gave up a career in advertising to stay at home, where I remained for 18 years. Looking back, I think pregnancy had something to do with wanting to cement my marriage. (It lasted 18 years before we divorced.) But it was also because I wanted to, and so we did.
But despite the meaning and purpose motherhood gave me, I was never a muffin-baking mom. I soon began freelance writing to balance out the boredom. I was also of the generation when “concerted cultivation,” as sociologist Annette Lareau has described today’s aggressive nurturing of children, was just beginning. I once stood at the side of a soccer pitch, feeling completely demoralized by a mother, also of three boys, who had hers organized within an inch of their lives. Motherhood was the competitive sport, not what was going on with the ball on the field.
What saved me from burning out in the perfect-children race was realizing that I had to be able to calmly fit those activities into our life in a way that was fun. Nothing, no matter how fashionable, was worth it if I was constantly miserable and stressed about organizing it. A contented mother has the most positive impact on her children, I think.
I realized that while it was hard not to compare my efforts to those of other mothers, I should see my approach to parenthood as an investment in penny stocks no could predict the outcome of. I just needed to develop them into valuable people. And that way, when the children were grown, I could know that I had done my best. It was an investment in my own future happiness too. I was a good enough mother on my own terms.
I also came to love the way children force you to be present, which is now a tenet of many happiness strategies. A distressed toddler needs you now. Not in five minutes. And I found the required concentration on them to often be a great reprieve from the messy business of figuring out who I was. The teenage years? Well, that’s a book.
But now, with the benefit of perspective – they are now 25, 24 and 21– I can see how short the time was that they were home. The blur years of parenthood pass, and it’s possible to clearly see that what has determined who they are was not the karate lessons or the expensive school but those little daily constants – love, comfort, understanding, discipline, levity.
As encouragement to live life to the fullest, my father used to say to his five children that “You only regret the things you do not do.” Happiness studies show that he’s right. In retrospect, many people are glad to have made many of the choices they did, no matter the temporary hardship that may have come in their wake. We live to learn. And you can only learn by doing.
Such sanguinity doesn’t mean that I am invulnerable. If anything bad happened to my children, I would be undone. There will be disappointments, and there will be triumphs. But I love them in a way that I would never have understood the power of if I hadn’t had them. I marvel at the possibility of them. And in this way, I think, they remind me about the plurality of life. And the need to be grateful for it.