All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

dedication

To Rusty

introduction

THERE’S THE PARENTING LIFE
of our fantasies, and there’s the parenting life of our banal, on-the-ground realities. Right now, there’s little question which one Angelina Holder is living. Eli, her three-year-old son, has just announced he’s wet his shorts.

“Okay,” says Angie, barely looking up. She’s on a schedule, making Shake ’n Bake chicken parmesan for lunch. Her evening shift at the hospital starts at 3:00
P.M
. “Go upstairs and change.”

Eli is standing on a chair in the kitchen, picking at blackberries. “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t.”

“I think you can. You’re a big boy.”

“I can’t.”

Angie unpeels the oven mitt from her hand. “What is Mommy doing?”

“Changing me.”

“No,
I’m cooking. So we’re in a pickle.”

Eli starts to whimper. Angie stops what she’s doing. She looks annoyed, amused, and above all, baffled. There must be protocols for how to handle this kind of farcical exchange in parenting books, but she doesn’t have time for books right now. She’s got lunch to make, dishes to wash, and nursing scrubs to change into.

“Why can’t you change yourself?” she asks. “I want to hear this reasoning of yours.”

“I can’t.”

Angie stares at her son. I can see her making the rapid calculation all parents make at this point in a cage match with a child, trying to determine whether it pays to relent. Eli is indeed capable of changing his own clothes, and unlike most three-year-olds, he usually succeeds on his first try, with his shirt facing forward and one limb in each pant leg. She could, in theory, hold her ground.

“Maybe you can go upstairs and get me new clothes for you to change into,” she says, after mulling it over. “Maybe you can find me some green underwear. In your underwear bin?”

From an adult’s perspective, this deal has all the face-saving elements of a good compromise. It’s win-win. But Eli, being three, is not taking yes for an answer. Stalling, he wanders over to Angie’s knapsack. “I think Zay wants this,” he says, fishing out a granola bar. Zay, short for Xavier, is his younger brother.

“No, he doesn’t.” Angie is calm, but firm. She’s picked a lane, and she’s staying in it. “I need you to do what I ask you to. You’re not listening right now.”

Eli keeps sifting through the bag. Angie walks over and points him toward the stairs.

“I need help!” protests Eli.

“No, you don’t,” she answers. “I put all your clothes where they’re supposed to be. Go upstairs and get them.” A suspenseful couple of seconds tick by. Brinksmanship with a three-year-old
.
She looks conspiratorially at Zay. “Your brother’s being silly, isn’t he? What are we going to do with him?”

Eli huffs but capitulates, slowly making the climb to his room. A minute or so later, he appears at the top of the staircase, naked as a cupid, and tosses down a pair of clean green underwear.

“You
did
find your green underwear,” Angie exclaims. “Good job!”

She beams and pounces on it, as if it were a bridal bouquet.

 

BEFORE BECOMING A PARENT,
Angie, it seems safe to say, would never have imagined that she’d be delighted to witness a preschooler throwing underwear down the stairs. She probably wouldn’t have imagined the elaborate negotiation that preceded this gesture either, or that this kind of negotiation—at once ridiculous and agitating—would become a regular part of her mornings and afternoons. Before this, Angie worked as a psychiatric nurse in the evenings and biked and painted in her off-hours; on weekends, she went hiking with her husband at Minnehaha Falls. Her life was just her life.

But the truth is, there’s little even the most organized people can do to prepare themselves for having children. They can buy all the books, observe friends and relations, review their own memories of childhood. But the distance between those proxy experiences and the real thing, ultimately, can be measured in light-years. Prospective parents have no clue what their children will be like; no clue what it will mean to have their hearts permanently annexed; no clue what it will feel like to second-guess so many seemingly simple decisions, or to be multitasking even while they’re brushing their teeth, or to have a ticker tape of concerns forever whipping through their heads. Becoming a parent is one of the most sudden and dramatic changes in adult life.

In 1968, a sociologist named Alice Rossi published a paper that explored the abruptness of this transformation at great length. She called it, simply, “Transition to Parenthood.” She noted that when it comes to having a child, there is no equivalent of courtship, which one does before marriage, or job training, which one does before, say, becoming a nurse. The baby simply appears, “fragile and mysterious” and “totally dependent.”

At the time, it was a radical observation. In Rossi’s day, scholars were mainly concerned with the effect of parents on their children. What Rossi thought to do was swing the telescope around and ask this question from the reverse perspective: What was the effect of parenthood on
adults
? How did having children affect their
mothers’ and fathers’
lives? Forty-five years later, it’s a question we’re still trying to answer.

 

I FIRST STARTED THINKING
about this question on the evening of January 3, 2008, when my son was born. But I didn’t really explore it until more than two years later, when I wrote a story for
New York
magazine that examined one of the more peculiar findings in the social sciences: that parents are no happier than nonparents, and in certain cases are considerably
less
happy.

This conclusion violates some of our deepest intuitions, but it stretches back nearly sixty years, even predating Rossi’s research. The first report came in 1957, a peak time for the veneration of the nuclear family. The paper was called “Parenthood as Crisis,” and in just four pages the author managed to destroy the prevailing orthodoxy, declaring that babies
weaken
marriages rather than save them. He quoted a representative mother: “We knew where babies came from, but we didn’t know
what they were like
[emphasis his].” He then listed the complaints of the mothers he surveyed:

 

Loss of sleep (especially during the early months); chronic “tiredness” or exhaustion; extensive confinement to the home and the resulting curtailment of their social contacts; giving up the satisfactions and the income of outside employment; additional washing and ironing; guilt at not being a “better” mother; the long hours and seven day (and night) week necessary in caring for an infant; decline in their housekeeping standards; worry over their appearance (increased weight after pregnancy, et cetera).

 

Fathers added more economic pressure, less sex, and “general disenchantment with the parental role” to the brew.

In 1975, another landmark paper showed that mothers presiding over an empty nest were not despairing, as conventional wisdom had always assumed, but
happier
than mothers who still had children at home; during the eighties, as women began their great rush into the workforce, sociologists generally concluded that while work was good for women’s well-being, children tended to negate its positive effects. Throughout the next two decades, a more detailed picture emerged, with studies showing that children tended to compromise the psychological health of mothers more than fathers, and of single parents more than married parents.

Meanwhile, psychologists and economists started to stumble across similar results, often when they weren’t looking for them. In 2004, five researchers, including the Nobel Prize–winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, did a study showing which activities gave 909 working women in Texas the most pleasure. Child care ranked sixteenth out of nineteen—behind preparing food, behind watching TV, behind napping, behind shopping, behind
housework.
In an ongoing study, Matthew Killingsworth, a researcher at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco, has found that children also rank low on the list of people whose company their parents enjoy. As he explained it to me in a phone conversation: “Interacting with your friends is better than interacting with your spouse, which is better than interacting with other relatives, which is better than interacting with acquaintances, which is better than interacting with parents, which is better than interacting with children. Who are on par with strangers.”

These findings are undeniably provocative. But the story they tell is incomplete. When researchers attempt to measure parents’ specific emotions, they get rather different—and much more nuanced—answers. Drawing from 1.7 million Gallup surveys collected between 2008 and 2012, researchers Angus Deaton and Arthur Stone found that parents with children at home age fifteen or younger experience more
highs,
as well as more lows, than those without children. (They’ve just submitted their results for publication.) And when researchers bother to ask questions of a more existential nature, they find that parents report greater feelings of meaning and reward—which to many parents is what the entire shebang is about.

Children strain our everyday lives, in other words, but also deepen them. “All joy and no fun” is how a friend with two young kids described it.

Some people have flippantly concluded that these studies can be boiled down to one grim little sentence:
Children make you miserable.
But I think it’s more accurate to call parenting, as the social scientist William Doherty does, “a high-cost/high-reward activity.” And if the costs are high, one of the reasons may be that parenthood today is very different from what parenthood once was.

 

SOME OF THE HARDEST
parts of parenting never change—like sleep deprivation, which, according to researchers at Queen’s University in Ontario, can in some respects impair our judgment as much as being legally drunk. (There’s something wonderfully vindicating about this analogy.) These perennial difficulties are worth dissecting and will certainly play a role in this book. But I am also interested in what’s new and distinctive about modern parenting. There’s no denying that our lives as mothers and fathers have grown much more complex, and we still don’t have a new set of scripts to guide us through them. Normlessness is a very tricky thing. It almost guarantees some level of personal and cultural distress.

Obviously, there are hundreds of ways that the experience of parenting has changed in recent decades. But broadly speaking, I think three developments have complicated it more than most. The first is choice. Not all that long ago, mothers and fathers did not have the luxury of controlling how large their families were, or when each child arrived. Nor did they regard their children with the same reverence we modern parents do. Rather, they had children because it was customary, or because it was economically necessary, or because it was a moral obligation to family and community (often for all three reasons).

Today, however, adults often view children as one of life’s crowning achievements, and they approach child-rearing with the same bold sense of independence and individuality that they would any other ambitious life project, spacing children apart according to their own needs and raising them according to their individual child-rearing philosophies. Indeed, many adults don’t consider having children at all until they’ve deemed themselves good and ready: in 2008, 72 percent of college-educated women between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine had not yet had children.

Because so many of us are now avid volunteers for a project in which we were all once dutiful conscripts, we have heightened expectations of what children will do for us, regarding them as sources of existential fulfillment rather than as ordinary parts of our lives. It’s the scarcity principle at work: we assign greater value to that which is rare—and those things for which we have worked harder. (In 2010, over 61,500 kids resulted from assisted reproductive technology.) As the developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan has written, so much meticulous family planning “inevitably endows the infant with a significance considerably greater than prevailed when parents had a half-dozen children, some at inauspicious times.”

A popular but uncharitable way to interpret this change is to say that modern child-rearing has become a narcissistic undertaking. But there’s a slightly more sympathetic way to think about this change too: by postponing children, many modern parents are far more aware of the freedoms they’re giving up.

 

THERE’S A SECOND REASON
our parenting experience has recently become more complicated: our
work
experience has gotten more complicated. We carry on with our day jobs long after we arrive home and kick off our shoes (the smart phone continues to ping; the home desktop continues to glow). Even more important, women’s saturation of the labor market—the majority of mothers now work—has dramatically rewritten the rules of domestic life. In 1975, 34 percent of women with children under the age of three were in the workforce. In 2010, that number jumped to 61 percent.

That women bring home the bacon, fry it up, serve it for breakfast, and use its greasy remains to make candles for their children’s science projects is hardly news. Yet how parenting responsibilities get sorted out under these conditions remains unresolved. Neither government nor private business has adapted to this reality, throwing the burden back onto individual families to cope. And while today’s fathers are more engaged with their children than fathers in any previous generation, they’re charting a blind course, navigating by trial and, just as critically, error. Many women can’t tell whether they’re supposed to be grateful for the help they’re getting or enraged by the help they’re failing to receive; many men, meanwhile, are struggling to adjust to the same work-life rope-a-dope as their wives, now that they too are expected to show up for Gymboree.

The result has been a lot of household aggravation. It’s no accident that today’s heirs to Erma Bombeck, the wicked satirist of domestic life who reigned in my mother’s generation, are just as likely to be men as women. It was a man who wrote
Go the F**k to Sleep.
It was a male comic, Louis C.K., who developed a grateful cult following of moms and dads. “When my kids were younger, I used to avoid them,” he said in a Father’s Day riff in 2011. “You want to know why your father spent so long on the toilet?
Because he’s not sure he wants to be a father.

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