"I Love My Children. I Hate My Life." That's the cover line on this week's New York magazine, superimposed on a photo of a beautiful mother and infant in a sun-drenched landscape. Presumably, the mother is loving her child and hating her life. Presumably, we all are. Jennifer Senior's article "All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting" attempts to rip off the veil and expose modern parenting for what it really is: endless drudgery accompanied by moments of transcendent joy. The article cites multiple studies demonstrating that people are fundamentally less happy after they have children. (Unless they're Danish. Apparently being Scandinavian gets you a pass.) Parenting, Senior concludes, is stressful, agonizing work that can only be appreciated in retrospect.
And all I can think in response is, You're doing it wrong.
This is not to say that I possess some happy-parenting secret that has eluded all the rich white people cited in Senior's article. But I disagree with her thesis that parents are dissatisfied because "the experience of raising children has fundamentally changed." To me, the experience of raising children seems fundamentally the same as it's always been. It's our expectations of the experience that have changed.
Having children, as the New York article points out, was once an economic necessity: Parents needed the free labor that a large family provided. But thanks to industrialization and advances in contraception, children gradually stopped being a given and started being an option. With every generation, the child-free life has become more socially acceptable ... and more appealing. So those of us who opt to have children now have to justify the decision, not just to the outside world, but to ourselves. In recent years, we seem to have reconciled this problem by viewing children as a path to personal fulfillment. Somewhere along the line, having a baby has stopped being an inevitable part of the life cycle and started to be one of those things-to-do-before-you-die, like climbing Machu Picchu or running a marathon. Basic aspects of the mothering experience, like labor and breast-feeding, took on a spiritual significance. Now, as we prepare to make the many sacrifices necessary to become parents, we anticipate nothing less than enlightenment in return.
But being a parent isn't about getting a happy ending. There is no ending. As soon as your child is born, the profound truth hits you: this is forever. And yet, if New York magazine is to be believed, modern parents never stop obsessing about whether they're doing everything they can to make their children the most accomplished little people they can possibly be. It's as if they're expecting to cross a finish line any day and be showered with confetti. And in the meantime, they don't realize that they're missing out.
If you're having a baby for reasons of self-gratification, of course you're going to be miserable. Becoming a parent is less about enriching your life than it is about up-ending it entirely to make room for another human being. And that's what Senior's article is missing: the fact that children are people, and having a child is about forging a relationship. Take this quote from a sociologist Senior interviewed about why parents are so disgruntled: "Middle-class parents spend much more time talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child's thought as a special contribution. And this is very tiring work." Funny, that doesn't sound like work; that sounds like having a conversation. The true reward of parenting isn't looking back with nostalgia, as Senior concludes; it's getting to watch a baby turn into a fully realized person. It's hearing the thoughts and opinions of somebody who didn't exist until you brought them into the world. It's a humbling, daunting, awesome experience -- and it's hard enough without the added pressure of making every moment enriching and significant.
Back when I had a newborn, I asked my Brooklyn lactation consultant what breast-feeding problem was most common. To my surprise, she didn't talk about bad latches or sore nipples. "I see so many women who are so worried about doing it right," she sighed, "that they forget to enjoy their babies." Put that way, it sounds so simple.