Parenting and Its Discontents

In an engaging, if also sobering essay “All Joy and No Fun,” which appeared in New York Magazine, Jennifer Senior lays out the statistically grim outlook for parents:

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 …. As a rule, most studies show that mothers are less happy than fathers, that single parents are less happy still, that babies and toddlers are the hardest, and that each successive child produces diminishing returns. But some of the studies are grimmer than others. Robin Simon, a sociologist at Wake Forest University, says parents are more depressed than nonparents no matter what their circumstances—whether they’re single or married, whether they have one child or four.

These are hard words to read for someone who hopes one day to have children and partake of the joys and travails that accompany them.  And yet, she goes on to write, these findings “violate a parent’s deepest intuition.”  So she wonders, “Why is this finding duplicated over and over again despite the fact that most parents believe it to be wrong?”  Senior explores a number of possible factors beginning with the changing socio-economic value of children:

Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity. As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed. (The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child’s value in five ruthless words: “Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”) Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses.

Moreover, she notes the tendency of “middle- and upper-income families” to “see their children as projects to be perfected.”

Annette Lareau, the sociologist who coined the term “concerted cultivation” to describe the aggressive nurturing of economically advantaged children, puts it this way: “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.” Yet it’s work few parents feel that they can in good conscience neglect, says Lareau, “lest they put their children at risk by not giving them every advantage.”

Even more troubling in an age in which couples delay having children until later in life, some psychologists believe putting off childbearing may be one of the factors contributing to the problem:

“They become parents later in life. There’s a loss of freedom, a loss of autonomy. It’s totally different from going from your parents’ house to immediately having a baby. Now you know what you’re giving up.” (Or, as a fellow psychologist told Gilbert when he finally got around to having a child: “They’re a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit.”)

What’s more,

When people wait to have children, they’re also bringing different sensibilities to the enterprise. They’ve spent their adult lives as professionals, believing there’s a right way and a wrong way of doing things; now they’re applying the same logic to the family-expansion business, and they’re surrounded by a marketplace that only affirms and reinforces this idea. “And what’s confusing about that,” says Alex Barzvi, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU medical school, “is that there are a lot of things that parents can do to nurture social and cognitive development. There are right and wrong ways to discipline a child. But you can’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others and constantly concluding you’re doing the wrong thing.”

And there is more, but I suspect you get the idea.  To her credit, Senior concludes her essay by searching out the more subtle and elusive rewards of parenting that may not show up in social-scientific surveys while also suggesting that the problem may lie in our prior, possibly faulty, notions of happiness.

Here is one assumption, however, that wasn’t questioned:  the self-sufficiency of the nuclear family.  Senior drew attention to correlations between decreasing happiness and broken families, particularly for non-custodial single fathers; but she never questioned whether even an intact nuclear family was sufficient to the task at hand.  At one point, she quotes a couples counselor who, alluding to a documentary called Babies, explains,

“I don’t mean to idealize the lives of the Namibian women,” she says. “But it was hard not to notice how calm they were. They were beading their children’s ankles and decorating them with sienna, clearly enjoying just sitting and playing with them, and we’re here often thinking of all of this stuff as labor.”

Maybe it wasn’t a particular view of what constitutes play or work that accounts for the “calm.”  Perhaps, it was an intact social structure that included a large extended family, blood or otherwise.  Having not seen the film, that is merely speculation; but it seems plausible.

Along these lines consider this passage from Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics:

We wanted our children to grow up in a kind of extended family, or at least with an abundance of “significant others.” A house full of people; a crowded table ranging across the generations; four-hand music at the piano; nonstop conversation and cooking; baseball games and swimming in the afternoon; long walks after dinner; a poker game or Diplomacy or charades in the evening, all these activities mixing adults and children–that was our idea of a well-ordered household and more specifically of a well-ordered education. We had no great confidence in the schools; we knew that if our children were to acquire any of the things we set store by–joy in learning, eagerness for experience, the capacity for love and friendship–they would have to learn the better part of it at home. For that very reason, however, home was not to be thought of simply as the “nuclear family.” Its hospitality would have to extend far and wide, stretching its emotional resources to the limit.

Perhaps parenting has become such a chore because we have isolated the nuclear family from the resources it needs to succeed and even when we have sought help from the outside we have bought it from professionals and experts rather than receiving it from families and friends or even, neighbors.

Just a thought.

2 thoughts on “Parenting and Its Discontents

  1. I think you are on to something that I don’t have time to explore or even think about. We have lived far from our extended family, but we have always, always, had lots of other people in our home with our kids. Such hospitality is messy and sometimes headache inducing and requires sacrifice on the part of my wife, but it has fed my children, and made our life richer. Further, I realize that the church, broadly defined, has helped rear my children. The church is my extended family, and so my heart for college kids – can we be that for the children of other parents? Rambling, as always.

  2. It’s a bit awkward, perhaps presumptuous, to write anything at all on a topic like this without first hand experience, but for what its worth I tend to think you’re rambling in the right direction.

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