The Sexist

Sexist Beatdown: Sad Parent Edition

In Jennifer Senior's New York Magazine piece on recent research into the joylessness of parenting, Senior recalls a time when her beloved 2-year-old son dismantled a wooden garage then proceeded to chuck the wooden planks at her head, leading Senior to turn to booze. But does it make her happy?

Signs point to no! According to Senior, "a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so." Duh, right? While joyless parenting may constitute a newfangled field of research, that whole joyless motherhood thing has been racking up its share of anecdotal evidence for quite some time. In the Atlantic, Sady Doyle recounts 60 years of its horrors: Simone de Beauvoir's observation that "the child is merely harassing and bothersome"; Adrienne Rich's assertion that children cause "the most exquisite suffering"; Mary McCarthy's fictional mother feeling that, "to her shame, [the baby] was a piece of hospital property that had been dumped on her and abandoned—they would never come to take him away."

Feeling soulless yet? What this edition of Sexist Beatdown needs is a couple of fancy-free non-parents who have not yet been trampled by the misery of child-rearing! So join Sady of Tiger Beatdown and I as we discuss the Stockholm syndrome of baby-making, the luxuries of upper-class depression, and the quiet despair we are told we will forever regret not having!

SADY: Hello, fellow non-parent! Enjoying your non-parental non-miserable lifestyle yet? Because I sure am!

AMANDA: God, I am too. I plan on enjoying it until I have children too late in life, at which point memories of my blissful childless years will only contribute to my ultimate unhappiness.

SADY: If only we were all having children immediately after leaving our parents' homes! Surely this would alleviate our misery. Also, it would help if we were not so rich and successful. This makes it harder for us, unlike the lower classes and immigrants, who simply take these bodily matters of procreation in stride. POOR PEOPLE: Not at all subject to undue stress in the matter of having kids!

AMANDA: Indeed. It is so very taxing to have the time to dote over our own happiness.

SADY: The thing is, I don't think that the news that raising children can be stressful IS NEWS. Like 74% of second-wave feminists were talking about how grueling it is to raise children, and/or to have that as your primary responsibility.

AMANDA: Haha. And now that it's shared, people are suddenly all like, "Should we even be doing this?"

SADY: Right? Like, "wow. It turns out this is HARD. Who knew?

AMANDA: "Who" indeed! I do find these studies of happiness interesting, but I find it strange that people are looking for some sort of definitive answer from them: Like, Everyone procreate! Or, Condoms!

SADY: Right. I mean: "Happiness Studies," in and of itself, which I hear is actually a growing field, is strange. We can measure what makes people happy or unhappy, but ultimately I guess I'm with Senior on this point: Are we questioning what role "happiness" plays in our life choices? I mean, I have recently come to feel that I might not want kids, but this has to do with the fact that I am (a) poor, and (b) high-strung. I can't get a dog without Googling care instructions obsessively and researching what sort of terrible ailments might wind up killing it. But was "happiness" what people had children for, ever, anyway? Maybe the issue isn't that "parenting has changed"—because it seems to have changed most fundamentally in terms of who has to do it—but that we EXPECT "happiness" from popping one out in a way we didn't use to.

AMANDA: Right. I think the happiness part is some new-agey conception of raising children. It's important to remember that joy aside, the fact is that now a lot of people get to choose whether they have children or not, and if so, when. And so it becomes much more of a quality-of-life question than a biological-necessity one. And so I think it's fair to expect that you do the thing that you think will make you the happiest. But there's also a lot of fear-mongering about that, because of that whole ovary-loss thing. So people are like, "If you don't have kids now, you will never be happy and you'll regret it for the rest of your life!" And people on the other end are like, "Once you pop it out, there's no turning back! Life-ruiner!" When, actually, I bet that a lot of people could find meaningful, happy lives doing either of those things.

SADY: Yeah. I mean, women are so, so frequently scared out of, like, LIVING, or doing anything other than having children ASAP, because they're told that their fertility is evaporating and they'll be unhappy forever if they don't have babies. And I think it's worth noting that a ton of the parents interviewed, who were speaking most directly about being unhappy and frustrated, were women. Men in that article were mostly "experts," even if they were also fathers.

AMANDA: Right, I think there is some stat in there that women are on the whole less happy. Which, you know, probably has something to do with that whole "shared parenting" thing not being completely shared, and the general added expectations placed on mothers. One of my favorite parts of the story was the suggestion that you "always regret the things you didn't do, not the things you did do." Like, why does the "thing I do" have to be having babies? There are plenty of things I won't be doing if I end up having kids.

SADY: Haha, yeah. "I will never regret not having children, when I die because my child threw boards at me and one of them had a nail in it and it punctured my skull and killed me." But I'm also wondering if being told that children are the KEY TO HAPPINESS (if you are a woman) has to do with the disappointment (among women) that children don't auto-fulfill you? I mean, Simone de Beauvoir talked about this. Her whole deal was that women are told having children will fulfill them, and then it doesn't, and then they hate their children. Her solution: Make something else in your life more important than getting pregnant?

AMANDA: But there's nothing more important than hating your kids! If you never do that, you will regret it for the rest of your life!

SADY: It's true. You'll never regret hating your kids as much as you'll regret not hating them. It is fun to think about fathers in all this, though. I mean, I like to imagine they're at least MARGINALLY more involved in dealing with the poop and the breaking things and the eighteen years of college prep these kids are all being put through now.

AMANDA: Right. The story did mention that the most unhappy parents of all were those who were the non-custodial parent (mostly fathers). So having a kid and not raising it? Depressed for life. Having a kid and raising it too much? Also depressed—single parents and moms in general were less happy. Solution: Move to Norway?

SADY: Right. I, predictably, DID enjoy the part where they were all like, "maybe if we had state-sponsored child care?" "Also, longer maternity leave helps?" Like: All of these things that feminists are advocating FOR WOMEN would actually make parents' lives easier, in the long run. OR, you could just live a life of heedless wanton non-impregnated self-satisfaction. Until you die, and there is no-one who will visit you at the nursing home. Except for that one robot seal thing.

AMANDA: Right. I mean, is that the whole point of it? That someone will be there to care when I die? That seems to be the last-ditch explanation when I press people on why this is necessary. I'm guessing it's more like a Stockholm syndrome thing.

SADY: Yeah. Probably. We love our tiny oppressors!

AMANDA: The baby captors stole our happiness! Join us!

Photo via Smithsonian Institution

  • Rachel_in_WY

    In my experience parenting really is intensely fulfilling IF it's one of many fulfilling life projects you're engaged in. But having other projects you're engaged in and having any kind of life outside of your role as a parent makes you a Bad Parent (at least for women) in our culture and no doubt causes lots of women to feel all kinds of guilt. Then there are the expectations that you'll stop being a sexual person upon the birth of your child, that you'll stop reading any books that aren't about parenting or having any discussions that aren't child-focused, etc. And that does seem nothing short of nightmarish, but I know women who earnestly try it. So to me it's funny that people don't conclude from studies like this: the cultural expectations we have are really fucked when it comes to parenting, and especially mothering. Instead, in this narrative it's the kids themselves that make you unhappy.

  • MD6

    I was an elderly primigravida, and my husband was even more elderly. And our personal conclusion about elderly parents and happiness is actually the opposite of the article's. If we had had children while we were young, we would have missed the freedom and autonomy we hadn't had a chance to have. But, instead, we'd already had plenty of freedom and autonomy. And, really, we'll have it again eventually. It might seem, while the children are small, that they are going to be small f-o-r-e-v-e-r; but they aren't. Meanwhile, they're lots of fun. Not uninterrupted, constant fun every minute of the day -- but then, what is?

    Also, in my experience, in general, the more parenting books you read, the unhappier you are as a parent. You can address this problem by not reading parenting books.

  • PD

    From the NYM article: "But the abundance of choices—whether to have kids, when, how many—may be one of the reasons parents are less happy."

    There's this aspect now, which was touched on in the dialogue, of do I do this, do I do that, will either one of them make my life more fulfilling or ruin it entirely? Once upon a time you got married, you had kids, and that was that. If you didn't do this, you were considered unfulfilled. I remember both of my grandmothers mentioning that, if they'd had more of a choice, they probably wouldn't have gotten married and had families, even though they loved all their children and grandchildren and were happy to have them in their lives.

    One grandmother also mentioned something that I was reminded of when reading the article-- she'd grown up very poor, but didn't realize it and wasn't bothered by it, because everyone else she knew was just as poor.

    I think maybe the abundance of choices we have stresses us out more than anything else. Like any time you're confronted with too many options, it can be overwhelming. Because, overall, it's more acceptable to do as you please rather than fulfill social imperatives, we worry that we will make or have made the WRONG choice rather than just going with the flow. More of us are suffering from the question of whether the grass is really greener. Of course, I find that people who opt not to have children seem to deal with less of this angst and internal conflict, but are generally frustrated by OTHER people who insist they'll regret their choice some day when it's "too late."

    In my case, it took me a while to come to the conclusion that I wanted children. I spent a long time agonizing over all the possible issues that could come up when raising children, and debating with myself over whether I was willing and able to handle them. It took my husband maybe a week to come to the same conclusion, and he's been very serene about it because, I believe, he just hasn't thought about it very much.

  • PD

    @MD6 I once saw an acquaintance spend several hours frantically updating Facebook because her newborn son was crying. She was following the Ferber Method, which apparently instructs parents not to pick up and comfort crying children because it will make them spoiled and unable to be independent. She was agonizing over what to do for at least two and a half hours while everyone told her to just pick the damn kid up. Finally she did, and he fell asleep within 30 seconds.

    That was when I decided my parenting method was going to be trusting my instincts, and when I was really stumped, to call my mom.

  • Em

    I think a lot of people are unhappy because when they have kids (and this happens more to women I know, I feel) they become PARENTS and nothing else. If they try to have any life outside of their child, that's selfish! and awful! Welcome to the world of helicopter moms!

    I had a mother like this and it made her an absolutely horrible mom. She was so obsessed with parenting me that she forgot I was an autonomous individual, I was just some theoretical child. Seriously: helicopter parenting is the thing right now, but by constantly worrying about this and that and how it'll affect your child in 20 years, you're going to end up being unhappy and making your children unhappy. You have to have more parts to your life than just a parent, or your being selfish and expecting that child to fulfill you, when, hello, it's a child.

  • Socrates

    I am a father of four kids under 8. In my experience, parenting makes me very happy most of the time, and sure it is not for everyone. But for kids to be happiness destroying... If you spend parenting time obsessing that you could be doing something else, well it is hardly surprising you won't enjoy it. Happiness is a choice a lot of the time.

  • Mrs. D

    Being a woman who doesn't want kids, I run into the "you'll regret it" line all the time. My answer now is to say that I don't have to regret it, because adoption and foster parenting have no biological clock. That shuts a lot of people up because, well, how can they berate someone who is willing to give an unwanted child a home, if they do decide they'd like a child in their life? (Yes, there are a few who insist that if the kid is not composed of 50% my DNA, I'll be sad, but I (a) secretly laugh at them while ignoring them; and (b) if they're very insistent, start to detail all the genetic flaws in my family and why that would suck for a kid)

    In addition, I volunteer time with youth groups and organizations, so that also keeps people at bay about not being fulfilled. I can honestly say that I know what it's like to be around kids - FOR ONLY A FEW HOURS A WEEK - and I know that a more full-time commitment isn't for me. But others don't have to go volunteering, if they don't want to, just remind others that the choice to not have kids is never permanent.

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