Friday, July 16, 2010

Parents hating parenting

I had the great pleasure to take a day trip to Poughkeepsie to visit my friend Amelia and her newborn baby, which meant an hour and a half ride each way on the Metro North train, with no kids. After my laptop's battery died, I was free to do some reading and checked out this article which has been stirring up a lot of debate, in the current issue of NY magazine, called All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior.

Here's an excerpt from the beginning to give you a sense of her project:
From the perspective of the species, it’s perfectly unmysterious why people have children. From the perspective of the individual, however, it’s more of a mystery than one might think. Most people assume that having children will make them happier. Yet a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so. This finding is surprisingly consistent, showing up across a range of disciplines. Perhaps the most oft-cited datum comes from a 2004 study by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize–winning behavioral economist, who surveyed 909 working Texas women and found that child care ranked sixteenth in pleasurability out of nineteen activities. (Among the endeavors they preferred: preparing food, watching TV, exercising, talking on the phone, napping, shopping, housework.) This result also shows up regularly in relationship research, with children invariably reducing marital satisfaction.

Then Senior goes on to investigates why parents seem to love their kids but hate parenting – is it the pressure on parents to spend “quality time” with kids and groom them with enriching, scheduled activities, even when we are so overworked ourselves? Or the fact that parents are waiting longer to have kids, and actively choosing to become parents, so our expectations for how much we will enjoy it are higher. Pretty thought-provoking stuff.

What I came away thinking is, “who the hell said parenting was going to be enjoyable?” It seems, to me, to miss the point all together. If you’re in the market for a pleasant experience, let me recommend you hire a live-in masseuse. Definitely do not have children. Children are in no way pleasant or even that enjoyable. I guess it all boils down to what happiness means to you. And this is the point that Senior ends on:

But for many of us, purpose is happiness—particularly those of us who find moment-to-moment happiness a bit elusive to begin with. Martin Seligman, the positive-psychology pioneer who is, famously, not a natural optimist, has always taken the view that happiness is best defined in the ancient Greek sense: leading a productive, purposeful life. And the way we take stock of that life, in the end, isn’t by how much fun we had, but what we did with it. (Seligman has seven children.)

I always think of those characters in Chekhov, the ones who end the play crying, "Work! We must work!" I think of Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. These children weigh you down – they weigh you down more than you could ever imagine, and not just the work they involve, but the worry you have for their emotional and physical well being – but it would an excruciating life without them. It would be unbearable, for me, at least. Because as unpleasant as they can be, they do offer transcendence. It may not always be fun, but it is often joyous to be with them. It is often sublime. It makes the muscle of my heart strong in a way I would never have though possible. To me, that’s happiness.