(Not directly related to money. But related to the greatest form of riches. I wrote this article several years ago but didn’t have a forum for publishing it. Thanks to school holidays I don’t have any other articles ready to publish.)
I have two young children. My son is three and my daughter is two. [Now: seven and six.]
I love them to bits. I adore them. And I’m grateful to have them in my life. I wouldn’t ever give them back. They light up my life. They make me smile big, dopey grins.
I love being a parent.
But many times, I find myself not enjoying the act of parenting.
This feels like a controversial thing to say, even when I make it clear that I love my kids.
Rather than say it myself, I’ve collated the words of other authors who have voiced many of the sentiments I’ve experienced over the past few years more clearly than I could.
It’s okay not to enjoy every aspect of parenthood
Samantha Rodman, a clinical psychologist, wrote a brave and provocative Washington Post article that was published in 2014. It was titled “I’m just not that into toddlers, including my own”.
Rodman admits: “for all the time I spend with my children, I enjoy only about a quarter of it — and even that estimate may be high”.
“I know a lot of people complain about the terrible twos, but ages 2 and 3 and (most of) 4 are especially hard on me. I don’t have the patience. The noise and bickering — which I never knew as an only child — put me constantly on edge.”
People try to console you by saying this phase goes fast. But “[w]hen you’re in it, time doesn’t go so fast — it goes hour by painful hour. And squelching your feelings doesn’t help. In my practice, I’ve watched parents who try to pretend they love every moment with their toddlers (or whatever other stage) end up more depressed, anxious and guilt-ridden, while acting more impatient and harsher with their kids.”
“being a great mom doesn’t have to mean being equally great at every phase of your kids’ development. It makes sense that a mom who is wonderful with an older teenager may be pretty bored and dissatisfied as the mom of a baby. Nobody asks a terrific high school teacher why she doesn’t moonlight in day care. To expect one mom to be everything to every age of child strikes me as an unfair and unreasonable burden.”
“The key is openly admitting that your strengths may not lie in toddler parenting, or baby parenting, or whatever stage of parenting is hardest for you. And during that stage, it’s okay to reduce the quantity of time you spend with your kids, especially if you try to increase the quality of the remaining time with them.”
Does parenting matter? Perhaps not as much as we fear or hope.
David Roberts wrote an interesting article for Vox titled “Most parenting advice is worthless. So here’s some parenting advice.” In it, Roberts says:
“parenting styles inside the home, apart from extreme cases like abuse or neglect, have very little long-term influence on a person’s personality or success in life, at least that social scientists have been able to detect”
“If the David Brookses of the world were honest, their parenting advice would begin: Have a healthy kid, live in an affluent area (with low crime and good schools), be from a socially privileged demographic, and make a decent amount of money. From there on, it’s pretty much coasting.”
“Most of your parenting choices pale in significance to who you are, how much money you make, and where you live. Within those parameters, your choices are unlikely to substantially affect your kid’s Adult Success at all. Whether she succeeds as an adult has to do with her genes, her friends, and a whole boatload of luck and circumstance. / You’re not on the hook for her Adult Success. You can relax.”
“A large proportion of the Parenting Industrial Complex isn’t about kids — it’s about generating content for nervous parents who feel like they should be doing something.”
Similarly, the Rationally Speaking podcast interview with Bryan Caplan (George Mason University economics professor and author of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids) (transcript here), is provocative.
The title of the episode is “Does parenting matter?”. And in short, Caplan’s answer was no.
Caplan’s thesis was that parenting doesn’t matter as much as we think. You might be able to get some behavioural change from a child, but this is short-term in nature, and is more likely to make them better “flatmates”, rather than influence their long-term life outcomes.
Parenting is not the be all and end all of your life
When you have children, you take on a huge amount of responsibility. Especially when they are young, they are totally dependant on you.
But parenthood shouldn’t completely define you. It’s not healthy – for you, or for your children. (Think about it: it’s a lot of responsibility to burden a child with. Let them work on defining themselves, and not have to define you as well.)
You need to balance your priorities as a parent with other important elements of your life. This includes your relationships with others, especially your significant other.
In “How American parenting is killing the American marriage” , Astro and Danielle Teller write about “the religion of parenthood in America”.
“Sometime between when we were children and when we had children of our own, parenthood became a religion in America. As with many religions, complete unthinking devotion is required from its practitioners. Nothing in life is allowed to be more important than our children, and we must never speak a disloyal word about our relationships with our offspring. Children always come first. We accept this premise so reflexively today that we forget that it was not always so.”
“In the 21st century, most Americans marry for love. We choose partners who we hope will be our soulmates for life. When children come along, we believe that we can press pause on the soulmate narrative, because parenthood has become our new priority and religion. We raise our children as best we can, and we know that we have succeeded if they leave us, going out into the world to find partners and have children of their own. Once our gods have left us, we try to pick up the pieces of our long neglected marriages and find new purpose. Is it surprising that divorce rates are rising fastest for new empty nesters? Perhaps it is time that we gave the parenthood religion a second thought.”
The authors also talk about the fierce reaction to Ayelet Waldman’s 2005 essay in the New York Times: her “blasphemy was not admitting that her kids were less than completely wonderful, only that she loved her husband more than them.”
In her essay, Ayelet Waldman answers the question – how will she respond if her children resent her for loving her husband (their father) more than them? – “I will tell them that I wish for them a love like I have for their father. I will tell them that they are my children, and they deserve both to love and be loved like that. I will tell them to settle for nothing less than what they saw when they looked at me, looking at him.”
And what’s wrong with that?
If my children decide to have children of their own, I want them to be responsible parents. But I also want them to retain their identities, to continue to enjoy their lives, and continue to prioritise the important relationships in their lives.
Not only will this good be for them, but I think it will enable them to be better parents for my grandchildren as well.
Parenthood is a gamble
We all have an idea about what it will be like to raise children, and the family holidays that we’ll enjoy with our loving families as we age.
But what if we really don’t control who they turn out to be?
Claire Creffield has published a powerful essay about “Parenthood, the great moral gamble.” It puts forward a compelling case that “The decision to have a child is more ethically uncertain than you might realise”, putting the reader in the shoes of parents who, despite their best intentions and efforts, had children who have done monstrous things. (Try to imagine what it would be like to be Adam Lanza’s mum.)
This message is also expressed powerfully in the “Bad Baby” episode of This American Life. All you need to do is listen to the first ten minutes. It will haunt you.
And what about if we can’t control whether we personally get on with our children? Or the complex dynamics that naturally occur when there are multiple personalities in the one environment?
Astro and Danielle Teller state:
“When people choose to have children, they play a lottery. Children have the same range of positive and negative characteristics as adults, and the personalities of some children are poorly matched with those of their parents. Nature has protected children against such a circumstance by endowing them with irresistible cuteness early on, and by ensuring that parents bond with children sufficiently strongly that our cave-dwelling ancestors didn’t push their offspring out in a snowbank when they misbehaved. Much as parents love their children and have their best interests at heart, however, they don’t always like them. That guy at the office who everyone thinks is a jerk was a kid once upon a time, and there’s a pretty good chance that his parents also noticed that he could be a jerk. They just weren’t allowed to say so.”
Having children is one of the most amazing things you can do.
I look at my children and think:
I created a universe! Here is another node to the universe, and this amazing experience we call life, with their own rich internal world, and unique perspective of this journey that we’re all sharing.
And I have helped to create it?!
It gives you the opportunity to see the cycle of life through another perspective. It takes you back to when you were young, and gives you another way of looking at your own childhood and what you’ve experienced.
It brings special holidays like Easter and Christmas back to life. It brings you closer to your own extended family, the world at large, and the organisations that keep it ticking along.
And even though I’m fairly convinced that my children will be who they’ll be, I can’t help but think:
You don’t get a second chance. And the stakes are so high.
So I battle through when it’s hard, as effectively as I can. I experience highs and lows and I experience many things in between.
And I love them and I try to express this love, and I try to spend time with them and be good to them, because I know that even when they’re 90 years’ old, they’ll remember whether their parents were kind to them.
And I try to make sure bad things don’t happen to them, and that they live in a stable home, and don’t have to worry about things that I’d rather children not have to worry about.
And I satisfy myself with the knowledge that I may not reach the heights of being a great parent, I can try not to be a bad parent. There will be moments where I’m good or great, and all I can do is be the best dad I can be.
And I can love them every moment we’re here on this earth.