Today a friend posted a link to this article on facebook and I couldn’t pass it by without commenting. The article, titled “All Joy and No Fun; Why Parents Hate Parenting”, cites research claiming that kids make parents depressed, anxious, stressed, and generally unhappy. It suggests that the source of the problem may lie in a change in parenting techniques from previous generations or an unrealistic expectations of parenting. At one point it suggests that perhaps a stronger welfare system, which extended paid maternity leave, state-subsidized childcare, and free education and healthcare, might make parents happier and less stressed (“We’ve put all this energy into being perfect parents,” says Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, “instead of political change that would make family life better.” – p. 4). It ends by admitting that perhaps the problem is a faulty definition of happiness, that perhaps the sense of purpose that can come from raising children is more important than moment-to-moment happiness, which edges towards a hopeful view, but all in all the article seemed to present parenthood as a trap of drudgery that sucks the happiness out of life and “shrinks your outer world to the size of a teacup” (p. 4).
I had so much trouble reading through the article (six pages of depressing statistics and interviews with unhappy parents, not to mention the seventeen – and counting – pages of comments from readers, including statements like “The world is overpopulated as it is” and “Get a nanny and enjoy your life!”) I almost didn’t make it to the tentatively positive second-to-last paragraph suggesting that “The very things that in the moment dampen our moods can later be sources of intense gratification, nostalgia, delight” (p. 6).
I cringed as I read terms like “economically worthless” and “economic assets” applied to children and phrases like “diminishing returns” and “purchasing power to buy more child care” tossed into a discussion of parenting. How can we talk about the rewards of children and family in economic terms like that? It made me both sad and frustrated.
And then the article delved into how “couples’ overall marital satisfaction went down if they had kids” (p. 3), “with children invariably reducing marital satisfaction” (p. 1). It boldly states, “Healthy relationships definitely make people happier. But children adversely affect relationships.” (p. 4). It cites a study that documented disagreements in 100 long-married couples that showed that “nearly 40 percent of them were about their kids.” The article went on to interview a father of two, who shared the strain his children put on his marriage and how neglected he felt. Parenting meant saying goodbye to “an old way of life, one with more freewheeling rhythms and richer opportunities for romance.” He admits that one of the reasons he loves being with his wife is that he loves the family they have, but he says ““There’s nothing sexy or intimate between us, based on the old model” (p. 4-5). ““This is the brutal reality about children,” the article concludes, “they’re such powerful stressors that small perforations in relationships can turn into deep fault lines” (p. 5).
As I read all this, all I can think is: it doesn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be this way. And kids are not the problem.
I know that there are so many layers to the issues here and I don’t mean to be simplistic, but perhaps part of the problem is our consumer culture. We tend to focus on what we can get out of any given thing, experience, or even person. If you’re not satisfied with what you got out of a deal, you’re encouraged to switch to a competitor (I’m sure we’ve all seen advertisements along the lines of: “Unhappy with your current _____? Well, here at _____ we promised to provide you with more _____ and better _____” and so on).
If someone approaches parenting with this what-do-I-get-out-of-it consumer attitude, they will doubtless end up unhappy. Can you imagine? “What can I get out of parenting? Sleepless nights, stinky diapers, higher grocery bills, less freedom….um, no thanks…maybe I’ll look into the no-kids deal….” Even (perhaps especially) if a person looks to their kids to fill their need for happiness and fulfillment, they’ll end up disillusioned and, ultimately, unhappy.
The same can be true in marriage. If you look to your spouse as the source for all your fulfillment and a remedy for all your needs, you’ll end up disappointed and unhappy (and perhaps divorced and looking for a new-and-improved model?).
A lot of this reminded me of some of the things we discussed in our pre-marriage counseling. We went through the book Intimate Encounters by David and Teresa Ferguson (definitely a worthwhile book). In one chapter it discussed the different stages of marriage and the unique challenges that come with each one. In the stage where a couple starts to have children, it’s vital that the couple feels secure in each others love and in the knowledge that they are still a priority for their spouse. If the couple hasn’t invested time and energy into making their spouse feel emotionally secure (which requires sacrifice and a putting aside of selfishness), adding kids to the family probably will cause tension and insecurity, not because the kids are the problem, but because they can magnify problems that already exist (so in that sense, the article is right in calling children “powerful stressors” that can turn “small perforations in relationships…into deep fault lines”).
But again, it doesn’t have to be this way. The Fergusons go on to talk about how, if the couple has taken the time to develop a healthy relationship (I’m reminded of what George and Sarah taught us early on about the importance of setting aside a weekly “date night” and guarding that time jealously), the addition of children can actually help them grow in intimacy through a sense of joint accomplishment (not just in the act of producing a child, but in the whole process of raising the child together and forming a family). This is a valuable season of marriage.
I don’t think any amount of research and statistics will convince me that parenting is an unhappy state, merely a necessary evil for the preservation of humanity. I’ve watched friends and family have children and have seen a profound joy in it, even among the stresses and frustrations.
But I’m curious: what do you think about this article and the ideas it presents?