Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Parenting (all joy and no fun)

In parenting, the highs are great. There is something magical, even divine, about the experience itself. But the day-to-day strains are really, really tough and might interfere with what we think of as fun.

When I was a new parent, someone once told me that the days are long but the years are short. I think this person would have also agreed that it's "all joy and no fun." Parenting is hard. If you want to do it right, it demands every fiber of your being. If you're an ambitious and selfish person like me, then sometimes parenting goes against your nature.

I listened to this podcast the other day and it really resonated with me. Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, speaks on NPR's "Fresh Air" about the impact of children on marriage, work, parenting roles, relationships and even one's sense of self.

Did you know it's only been in the last century where having children is more of an emotional decision as opposed to something practical? 

"There's a kind of historic transformation one can almost look at that shows the moment that having children was sentimentalized, which was really let's say between 1890 and 1920," Senior says in the interview. "Activists really started aggressively protesting child labor. And around that time, kids became economically worthless and emotionally priceless."

Ever since then, Senior argues, children have become these exalted creatures at the center of our lives.

The result is our aggressive involvement in our children's upbringing and education. It has given birth to helicopter parenting and Tiger Moms. We are under the impression that in order to get our kids ahead, we have to cultivate them. It's no longer acceptable to be average.

I definitely feel the pressure of modern day parenting.
As an educated, career-driven woman (raised by a Tiger Mom and has herself become a Tiger Mom), I spend long, concentrated hours with my children and have poured an enormous amount of capital -- financial and emotional -- into their development. I'm their practice coach, homework tutor, chauffeur, janitor, tour guide, errand runner, chef, playdate coordinator, disciplinarian, family therapist and fixer-of-boo-boos. When they were babies I researched what kinds of toys to buy, which stroller was the best, and read every parenting manual I could get my hands on (if you've ever been to the parenting section of the bookstore, then you know how overwhelming this can be). 

I worry about my children finding their passion at an early age (and developing it into adulthood). Sometimes I stay up at night because I wonder if I made the right parenting choices that day. At the market, if I buy the cheaper, non-organic chicken I wonder if I'm inadvertently hurting my kids' health. 

Crazy, right? 

I know I'm not the only one. There's a whole generation of us, feeling like we need to raise these super humans.

"Parents now think that they're supposed to be shoring up their children's self esteem," Senior says. "They think that they're supposed to make their children happy, now that we regard children as very precious and valuable and priceless. But if you think about it, that's a very weird goal."

It begs the question: is this kind of over-involved parenting benefitting our children?

Another thing I found fascinating in the podcast was the discussion of women's roles in the modern family and comparing it to societal norms 50 years ago. The housewife vs. the stay-at-home mom.

In the 1960s, if you stayed home with your kids, what were you? You were a housewife, says Senior. You didn't focus on your kids, you focused on your house. Your house had to be clean, you had to master the difference between oven cleaners and floor waxes and stuff that made your wood nice and shiny. And now if you stay home with your kids, you are a stay-at-home mom. You focus on your kids. You are a professional mom. 

I've always had this inner fight with today's aggressive style of parenting. Part of it is that we have too many choices. It's like the infinite menu at Canter's. Never before in the history of parenthood have we been presented with such a nauseating variety of car seats, sunscreen, baby food, bouncy seats, diaper pails, playmats, educational videos, iPhone apps, after-school sports, extracurricular activities and more. Subliminally we're told, "Did you pick the right one? You know if you choose the wrong crib it could affect your baby's sleep which could affect his chance of getting placed into a good kindergarten. Which you know means he hasn't got a snowball's chance in hell at an Ivy League school."  

We live in a culture where women start researching preschools while their babies are in utero and free play for children is an almost non-existent concept.   

Before we had kids, my husband and I decided that our marriage would come first. Not the children. We knew the strength of our family would come not from how much energy we poured into our kids, but how much we invested in our relationship. It's the best decision we ever made (beside having those precious little ones). 

When we feel like we're going crazy and when parenting gets to be too much, we remember in the end everything is going to be OK because we turned out OK despite the fact that our parents didn't slather us with SPF 100+ sunscreen or buckle us into the "right" car seat.        

Listen to the entire podcast here and tell me what you think. Is parenting all joy and no fun? 

Photo circa 2011 (Izzy, aka Choco Face, got into some mischief that day).
Parenting is so tiring it feels like a mild chronic illness.
I am the bow and my child is the arrow.