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Onward ‘Cheerful Warriors’: Why Parents Are Unhappy

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

We’ve all heard countless “jokes” about the sleeplessness of parenthood, whines about never seeing a movie, pleas for a glass of wine. If you’ve ever thought that being around us parents is enough to scare off the young from having children, here is the Slate essayist Ruth Graham saying just that and decrying the “pissed-parent genre”:

“My Facebook feed goes wild for this stuff… because apparently parents never get their houses clean, never have sex, never read books or have adult conversations, never shower, and never, ever have a moment to themselves,” Graham writes. “But for me, a childless woman, the cumulative effect of all of this ‘honesty’ is a growing sense of dread.”

Graham’s piece—subtitled “Why do parents make parenting sound so God-awful”—stuck with me, for its level-headed analysis of this constant drumbeat of unhappiness and the pathos of her terrified reaction. “It’s not your responsibility to promote the parenting brand,” she concludes, speaking to parents directly. “But if you can manage it, consider occasionally sparing a thought for the nonparents among you who are eavesdropping on your online conversations.”

Graham was motived to write her piece in part by the publication of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, by the journalist Jennifer Senior. Building on research that shows parents are no happier, and may be less happy, than non-parents, she suggests that the realities of modern parenting conspire to make this the case. We’re having children later in life (and are therefore more aware of what we’re giving up) and working more (and therefore struggling to carve out time for our children).

And, Senior argues, the very institution of parenthood has transformed: In the past, children served an economic purpose, helping in the fields or learning a trade as early as they can. Today’s parents are more focused on their children’s psychological and emotional developments, goals that are murkier and harder to define. “Children stopped working, and parents worked twice as hard,” Senior writes. “Children went from being our employees to our bosses.”

We parents are in a bind when it comes to discussing the realities of parenthood. Focus on the negative too much, and you’re scaring the young folks, like Graham, not to mention becoming what we tell our children to avoid being–constant whiners. Focus on the positive too much and you’re accused of being unrealistic, sugarcoating the difficulties, and making other parents feel they are alone in their challenges.

Years ago, when my wife and I started to tell people she was pregnant with our first child, we were struck by how many friends responded with that now-trite, “Get all the sleep you can now!” or some variation thereof. Hearing these exhortations one time too many, I committed to having a different reaction when friends broke their pregnancy news to me. Instead of launching into the obvious warnings and complaints, I tell them honestly that, despite what they’ve heard, parenthood is incredible, and assure them they will make fantastic parents. Still, there’s no escaping the negativity.

The issue seems to have struck a chord with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who likewise connects Senior’s book and Graham’s essay. He issues something of a mea culpa—admitting that parenthood has made him a “whiner”–and pledges to do better. He calls on parents to be “cheerful warriors, to emphasize the joy rather than the misery, while also extending tolerance and understanding–rather than judgment infused with envy–to friends and neighbors who choose a different path.”

Douthat picks up on a fascinating part of Senior’s argument about why so many parents are unhappy, contrasting the parent-child relationship to virtually every other connection we have in our lives today. Being a parent is in some ways counter-cultural. In a society where so many of our connections are fleeting—where we switch partners and careers more easily than ever, where we expect instant gratification and endless personalization—the unbreakable nature of the parent-child relationship is unique.

“It isn’t necessarily that family life has changed that dramatically in the last few generations,” Douthat comments. “Rather, it’s stayed the same in crucial ways–because babies still need what babies need–while outside the domestic sphere there’s been an expansion of opportunities, a proliferation of choices and entertainments and immediately available gratifications, that make child rearing seem much more burdensome by comparison.”

That can be scary for many people, and the sacrifices it entails can be daunting, leading to greater unhappiness among parents and even lower birthrates.

Ultimately, comparing the happiness level of parents and non-parents seems to me to be an apples-oranges question and one for which much depends on what definition you have in mind for “happiness.” Defined by our culture’s insatiable desire for instant gratification, we parents probably are not very happy. But that’s not all there is to life.

Though the comparison is imperfect, there are parallels between parenthood and the life of an Olympic athlete. Are Olympic hopefuls happy? Are they having fun? After all, they’ve sacrificed greatly, choosing a difficult, risky path often from a very early age and forgoing much of the normal rhythms and activities of childhood and their teenage years. Those countless hours on the ice or the slopes must be at times monotonous, frustrating, disappointing, grueling, even crushing—and at times joyful, hopeful, inspiring, fun, and deeply fulfilling. Kind of like parenthood.

It’s their choice, sure, and unlike us parents Olympians can walk away. But why don’t they? It’s something deep inside them, like it is with us parents. That’s not to say we parents should be miserable today in order to be happy later on—anyone who is truly “all joy and no fun” is doing something wrong, for sure—but it does mean that parenting is a mixed bag, and its reward is deeper and different than anything else we experience. It’s indescribable. Like love. Like life.

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Image: Kids fighting and crying with desperate mother in the background via Shutterstock

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