Why are parents miserable?

Judith Warner says that calling parents whiners trivializes their very real concerns.

Published July 17, 2006 11:47AM (EDT)

In a New York Times Op-Ed Sunday, Judith Warner takes issue with a new study by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University that suggests that parenthood is the source of the widespread depression, anxiety and marital discord experienced by many mothers and fathers. According to Warner, one of the study's premises, that today's older parents have spent decades "soused on cosmopolitans and scattering their disposable income on Caribbean vacations" and therefore have a harder time adjusting to the demands and responsibilities of parenthood, rings completely false.

"I have to say that I cannot recognize myself -- or anyone I know -- in this picture," she writes. "That isn't to say that other parents and I don't suffer from stress, anxiety or sometime marital tensions. Of course we do. But does that mean that parenthood is for us the 'source,' as Whitehead puts it, of dissatisfaction and distress? Absolutely not. On the contrary: children are the bright spot -- the joy -- that makes every other aspect of life worthwhile."

This line stopped me in my tracks. Not because I don't agree with it -- I do. And not because it was surprising coming from Warner, who, as she admits, is often pegged as one of the "leading purveyors of mommy misery." But because with hand-wringing about modern motherhood practically a national pastime, it was almost shocking to hear someone unabashedly declare parenting to be a joy. I can't remember the last time I read an article to that effect, not to mention the last playground conversation I had that didn't involve mostly kvetching.

But I digress. The real reason parents are stress cases, Warner argues -- and this is essentially a rehash of one of the main conclusions of her bestselling book "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety" -- is because of a lack of government and social support. "Not having access to decent child care or affordable health care or good quality public education is not a question of attitude." she writes. "Talking about these problems isn't a condemnation of parenthood; it's a condemnation of the way parenthood is being lived, in our culture, at this particular time."

I'm with Warner on this one. Most of the parents I know, myself included, find the issues surrounding parenting -- concerns about quality education, healthcare and childcare especially -- to be the real source of their angst. Not the fact that they can't shop for stilettos with impunity, or jet off to Ibiza on a moment's notice.

Warner often puts her foot in her mouth, and her perspective as an upper-middle-class mother is obviously narrow. This wasn't even one of her best columns -- read her on those damning breastfeeding ads to see what she can really do. And yet it was incredibly gratifying, for this parent at least, to open my Sunday paper to find a serious discussion of domestic issues smack in the middle of the Times Op-Ed page.

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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