Gwynne Watkins at Salon is one among many bloggers who’ve posted responses to New York magazine’s cover story, “I Love My Children. I Hate My Life.” SD blogger Madeline Holler thinks that Jennifer Senior has got it all wrong, as does Brett Berk, aka The Gay Uncle, over at Vanity Fair. (For the record, Helaine and KJ think parents are fundamentally happy, too.) I agree that parents are probably happier than they’d admit amidst the hustle-bustle of everyday child-rearing, but I don’t think it’s fair for those of us who identify as happy to get righteous about it. Paradoxically, parenting is difficult, even if you find it easy. Furthermore, you don’t have to find parenting easy to be happy with it.
My father was a very gruff man, rough around the edges. He shouted at the top of his lungs when he was angry – and he was angry often – but he used the same voice in his most joyful moments, too. He didn’t see anger – or unhappiness – as unnatural. It was the same as happiness or joy. Just an emotion, part of parenting and life.
Berk’s complaint with Senior’s piece is that “it failed to offer any sort of line out of this tragic rut for these sad moms and dads.” He offers up his own solutions (like repeating the mantra “I am a parent and a person”) but then tries to tackle a bigger quandary – one that Watkins focuses on, too. “Why have kids in the first place?”
Watkins makes a very subtle argument in her rebuttal, one that some might see as a matter of semantics. She says it’s not that “the experience of raising children has fundamentally changed,” but “our expectations of the experience that have changed.” She opines, “Somewhere along the line, having a baby has stopped being an inevitable part of the life cycle and started to be one of those things-to-do-before-you-die, like climbing Machu Picchu or running a marathon.”
What’s so wrong with that? It seems as if Watkins is lambasting mothers for choosing to be mothers, and suggesting that said choice is not selfless, but selfish. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not even sure that it’s possible to have a baby for “the right reasons.” What are the right reasons? Because they’re cute and cuddly and lovable? Nope. Because you want to pass on your DNA or family name? Apparently not. Because you have always wanted one? Gay Uncle says no there. No, Watkins thinks the only good reason to have a baby is because you want to “entirely make room for another human being.”
Haha – yeah. So the only way you can be a happy parent, according to Watkins, is to have conceived your child with purely perfect intentions, and to celebrate them each day as an individual. Um, isn’t that exactly the prevailing attitude that Senior suggests is bringing modern moms and dads down? I think so. It’s just that it doesn’t get to Watkins, and therefore, she insinuates, it shouldn’t get to anyone else. How is that supposed to make anyone who thinks parenting is hard feel better?
Yes, some parents are trying too hard and driving themselves crazy in the process. But you can’t fault them for trying! I agree with Watkins when she says “children are people, and having a child is about forging a relationship.” But I don’t understand why she then quotes a sociologist from Senior’s piece as having said, “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.” It is tiring work! It’s tiring work to treat children like people and forge a relationship with them! Like a lot of things in life that are tiring, it is also rewarding, and Senior doesn’t really suggest otherwise.
Watkins is just splitting hairs in her analysis when she says, “Funny, that doesn’t sound like work; that sounds like having a conversation.” Sure, same diff. Watkins actually agrees with Senior (and I think doesn’t realize it) when she notes that parenting is “hard enough without the added pressure of making every moment enriching and significant,” a sentiment expressed quite liberally throughout the New York mag article.
To me, the most interesting part of Senior’s great (and I mean that in terms of quality and quantity), albeit depressing work, is the juxtaposition posed by the statistic that single parents are less happy than married ones, coupled with the fact that “the brutal reality about children (is) they’re such powerful stressors that small perforations in relationships can turn into deep fault lines.” I know personally the intense truth of this statement, and yet I’m so much happier for it.
Had I not had a child with my husband, his true colors may never have revealed themselves – or not as quickly, anyway – and I would probably still be married to a man who lied to me routinely. I’m a much happier mother as a single woman, both because I am a happier person, and because in not having to take care of a spouse in addition to a child, I have more time to live Berk’s mantra: I am a parent and a person. And granted, as Senior’s piece suggests, single parents do tend to be more depressed when their kids aren’t around, but that’s why when my daughter is with her father, I really devote myself to all the things I love to do: spending time with friends, traveling, working on projects/performances and advancing my career. I love my child and my life. Thank you, Jennifer Senior, for helping to point that out to me.