Does Parenting Suck?
Does parenting suck? Surveys and scientific data have sure supported that notion, indicating especially that for Americans, parenting is making people more and more "unhappy" over the years—especially people with money. Now some data show that parenting is rewarding on the long- haul and in a different way than momentary pleasure.
- - -Note to childless/childfree readers: you might want to avoid the last section, about my own experiences step-parenting and approaching biological parenting. The whole piece does discuss parenting/childing issues in general and ain't necessarily safe for those wrestling with the grief of childlessness. - - -
Can we get a big "duh" on that? Do you feel "happy" and "unstressed" and like life is a big bowl of cotton candy when you're climbing Mount Everest, frozen and oxygen-starved and convinced you're losing your mind and about to die? Probably not. Does that trip up Everest become a major, beautiful, amazing defining moment of your life? I should freakin' hope so!
Are Tough Challenges Rewarding in a Special Way?
Same with other gripping, deep, frustrating, yet rewarding aspects of life. For each hour of bliss, "fun," or "happiness" I experience writing, making art, and trying to facilitate ways for other people to do or distribute their writing or art (ya know, community events, putting out a magazine without getting paid, etc etc)—I probably spend two hours in drudgery mode, thirty minutes in grumpy mode, and fifteen minutes in hell. Some people say they can't staaaand writing, it drives them crazy, they're such a martyr, but they HAVE to do it. I've always thought that was silly, but if I break down my own time, I gotta admit it's not like I'm swimming in creative ecstasy all the time.
It might be that difficult activities generate a sense of meaning, importance, and some ineffable feeling a bit more transcendent than moment-to-moment "happiness," not despite their difficult-ness, but because of it. I hate to admit this (because my parents were always on about it when I was a kid and I thought it was soooo dumb), but earning something, going through a challenge, brings a sense of reward, contentment, pride, and amazement that I don't usually find in something that just plops itself neatly into my lap.
Does Writing Suck?
A recent example from my professional life: winning a grant vs. getting a sweet writing gig. Most writers I know, especially younger/newer ones, would dance a zillion jigs to get a nice, regular, well-paying gig like my new one for the Science Fiction channel. The drudgery and undeniably dull bureaucratic hassle of a grant proposal would pale in comparison; having it be successful would be fairly unglamorous, too. I experienced the reverse. I'm very pleased to write the SyFy.com "Eureka Idea Lab" blog, but I've got lots of experience writing similar things. Landing a gig like that feels great in the moment-to-moment; the hard, impossible work of becoming a professional writer is mostly far behind me. Landing a gig is a familiar and pleasant sensation. Trying to get the gig didn't suck my soul dry and make me throw my calculator across the room in a fit of frustration—unlike attempting to write the grant.
I've been trying to sort out the whole grant-getting game for years now. It's aggravating and difficult in most moment-to-moment work. I feel like a loser and a failure, in addition to being an idiot for not giving up this wretched game. But my cool blog writing gig doesn't make me feel like I scaled Mount Everest. Winning a $12,000 RACC grant I wrote for Plazm magazine? That felt like reaching the peak! Writing the grant sucked big donkey balls. Having written the grant, especially as it succeeded, feels fantabulous. It's not just about the money, it's about knowing I worked my ass off to learn something that, for whatever reasons, was really hard for me to figure out.
Everyone's lives are full of such examples, from the small ("Ha! I fixed that broken alarm clock all by myself!") to the huge ("I got through twelve years of Alzheimer's disease as my mother's caretaker, and I'm a better person for it"). Moment-to-moment irritation and drudgery may not produce instantaneous "happiness," but they can culminate in major life satisfaction and deepen our sense of wonder, humility, and amazement in the face of human strife, the vastness of the universe, little things like that. To me, it's no surprise that parenting operates the same way, but perhaps on a longer scale. Instead of gaining satisfaction after working at something challenging for a short time, like getting a difficult Masters degree in two years, you're putting in decades of challenging drudgery peppered with moments of intense satisfaction and awe.
Joy, Fun, Hate, Parenting, and Scientists
"All Joy and No Fun: Why parents hate parenting" by Jennifer Senior in New York magazine (thanks, Jane, for sending it my way) covers some of these studies in parenting satisfaction. I highly recommend the article. It looks a bit at how much parenting has changed in American culture, and how that affects our ability to enjoy it on a moment-by-moment basis. Comparisons are made to French and Danish parents, whose daily life happiness is higher than Americans', possibly because there is more direct social support for childrearing in those countries. However, Senior doesn't tackle the challenge of what parents here can do now to make the day-to-day more tolerable. Given that no one's going to give us a paid year's parental leave or free childcare, how can we truly enjoy the individual moments with our kids? A little Buddhist mindtraining, perhaps?
(The article also kicked off a fine froth of online commenting about childless and childfree living versus parenting, the usual venomous and/or self-righteous arguments, with a particularly New York flavor. Dotted among The Usual Huffiness you'll find evidence that people are actually thinking about the conversation, reading the article carefully, and being open-minded.)
Step-parenting, Bio-parenting: What'm I Getting Into?
Coming to biological parenthood for the first time, under two months 'til I deliver if all goes well, I understand that I'm getting into something challenging that will dull my wits and rattle my core. I know that having a baby will threaten my marriage and wreak havoc on my other relationships. I worry about my mental and physical health. There will be little time for the things that I have considered "fun" during most of my life: sitting alone, writing, going to Burning Man, eating a decadent meal out on the town, going on artist's residencies, and the like. I fully expect to become a zombie mom who can barely utter three words that aren't about baby's bowel movements, sleep, or nursing.
And the rewards? I'll just have to see what they feel like. Being a stepparent has been extraordinary, and heavily influenced how I approached the biological clock when it hit. Aspects of my childfree life that seemed perfect in the past paled in comparison to the moments of joy, and the larger sensation of exhilaration, that I felt as a stepmom. It rarely felt like I was "giving up" frequent late nights out on the town in order to romp in the park with A., have family dinner right at 6 pm, go to a 9 a.m. soccer game (me??? at a kid's soccer game?? wtf?) or even to stay up through harrowing nights of temper tantrums or illness.
The question of whether it was "worth it" wasn't even a question for me. It wasn't just "worth" the frequent hecticness, semi-frequent pain, and occasional tedium; step-parenting and my relationship with A. made my life just plain better. Richer. Weirder. Funner. Unpredictable in new ways. Chock full of love and intensity. Guess it must've happened at the right time in my life, with the right cast of characters, including a frickin' fantastic guy and his unbelievably cool, wild daughter.
It's this experience that I look at when I read the New York magazine article or consider how having a baby may affect my life. Every kid is different. Every birth is different. I have no way of knowing what's coming up.
Being a stepmother has its advantages; not only did I skip the whole diaper-poopy-screaming-toddler phase, because I met A. when she was 4 and 1/2, but other parents were around to do much of the heavy lifting. Now I'll be the poopy-screaming-diaper-toddler-exhausted-freaking-out mom, and I won't be able to call this kid's "real mom" for the occasional tête-à-tête about discipline, school, or what the child should be allowed to post on Facebook. *I* will be the "real," biological mom. Eek.
But if raising a biochild brings even half the love, satisfaction, beauty, and astonishment I've experienced co-parenting A., I will have to consider the experiment a huge success... even if I don't feel "happy" and "light" and "fun" every day, moment by poopy-diapered moment.
Images from "Please Rescue Me," a performance I did at the Haybarn Theatre, Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont, in 2006. I think Em Delaney shot the pics.