Is Being A Parent Truly That Miserable?

Sleep Like A Baby
Image by peasap via Flickr

The endless drama of modern urban parenthood continues as the blogosphere dissects a New York magazine article about why so many parents are miserable:

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. Basic aspects of the mothering experience, like labor and breast-feeding, took on a spiritual significance. Now, as we prepare to make the many sacrifices necessary to become parents, we anticipate nothing less than enlightenment in return.

But being a parent isn’t about getting a happy ending. There is no ending. As soon as your child is born, the profound truth hits you: this is forever. And yet, if New York magazine is to be believed, modern parents never stop obsessing about whether they’re doing everything they can to make their children the most accomplished little people they can possibly be. It’s as if they’re expecting to cross a finish line any day and be showered with confetti. And in the meantime, they don’t realize that they’re missing out.

If you’re having a baby for reasons of self-gratification, of course you’re going to be miserable. Becoming a parent is less about enriching your life than it is about up-ending it entirely to make room for another human being. And that’s what Senior’s article is missing: the fact that children are people, and having a child is about forging a relationship. Take this quote from a sociologist Senior interviewed about why parents are so disgruntled: “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.” Funny, that doesn’t sound like work; that sounds like having a conversation. The true reward of parenting isn’t looking back with nostalgia, as Senior concludes; it’s getting to watch a baby turn into a fully realized person. It’s hearing the thoughts and opinions of somebody who didn’t exist until you brought them into the world. It’s a humbling, daunting, awesome experience — and it’s hard enough without the added pressure of making every moment enriching and significant.

I chose not to have kids, thereby placing myself — and my partner, who feels the same — into a distinct minority, about 20 percent of the population.

You won’t hear us hand-wringing endlessly about ohmygod, my career. I am so tired! It’s so hard! OMG! Or, the aging, ill distant parents — plus the career/job/school/whatever. A life decently lived is, de facto filled with responsibility to and for the health and happiness of other people, not just getting and spending.

Which can be hard and endless and filled with ambivalence, along with love — for work or your Mom. Not just your offspring.

You want kids? Have ’em. You don’t want them — don’t.

But spare us the endless narcissism of questioning and second-guessing your reproductive choices.

Of course having and raising healthy, responsible children is a shitload of work.

Who told you otherwise?

21 thoughts on “Is Being A Parent Truly That Miserable?

  1. inmyhumbleopinion

    Spot on.

    Parenthood is hard. Life isn’t fair. No one owes anyone a living. And no one promised you a rose garden.

    Deal with it, people.

    And oh, btw. I wouldn’t trade my kids for anything in the world. They are smart, hilarious, good people. Yes, they drive me crazy sometimes, and yes, the responsibility is daunting. But I am not unhappy with my life with them in it. The pleasures of watching and supporting their growth as human beings far outweigh the pains. I’m proud of myself for being the best parent I can be (which in no way should be interpreted as perfection), and I’m proud of them, their accomplishments, and their aspirations.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks….You are, as always, a breath of fresh air.

    Part of my annoyance with this sort of writing/navel-gazing is how it places parenthood’s demands — which are fairly predictable, after all — as the most important, if not the only family relationships worth endless discussion. I have an older, ill parent who lives a six-hour flight away from me; neither of us can move. That’s extremely stressful for me as an only child, but it’s not nearly as sexy as whining about your kids. I need real help (and am doing my best find it) but you won’t find a lot of New York magazine stories about this sort of family drama. Yet it is one many of us are facing, or will soon.

  3. bobshanbrom

    Oh, Caitlin, you’re missing out on the feeling of having spawned you now lie dying, hook-jawed and scaleless, on the banks of the River of Life. I have a daughter entering puberty and everyone I’ve talked advises me to go on Prozac for the duration.
    But, seriously, having children is a tremendous revelation about how you the parent are psychically constructed. They are perfect mirrors. And a pretty good kick in the pants.
    And you’re right about parenting being a subset of nurture.

  4. I think that people who are miserable as parents look at it as a job instead the amazing experience it is.

    My son will be six in August and I wouldn’t change a thing about the past six years. Has it been exasperating, tiresome, annoying and just plain “will you stop running around the house for five goddamn minutes!?”? Absolutely but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

    It’s the wonderment I feel every time I take a serious look at the insane pile of growth hormones that is my son. It’s the pride I feel in watching him grow.

    However, I’m not one of those parents who lords his child to non-parents. “I have the most amazing child in the world and you are miserable because you don’t. Neener, neener, neener!” Those parents annoy the hell out of me.

    What I do bring to my childless friends is the crazy and mind-boggling things my kid will do and say. Those are the things that make parenting worth every sleepless night, every blood pressure spike and every worry.

    So, yeah, people who say parenting makes you miserable are full of crap.

  5. jake brodsky

    I was a teenager when my youngest sister was born. Yes, I baby sat her, I changed diapers, I helped feed them their first solid foods and so on. That more than anything taught me the essential need for birth control (until you’re quite sure you want those children).

    My wife remembers when her much older brother and sisters had their children. She had her share of child care experience when she grew up as well.

    We both had a pretty good idea of what parenting children would be like; and so far we haven’t encountered any significant surprises. The work load is about what we expected, though the emotional bonds are another thing entirely.

    While there have been times when I questioned my own sanity, I do not regret anything about deciding to have kids. One thing that no amount of preparation can convey is the sheer enormity of being a parent. It is daunting. It is humbling. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    Bob, David and Jake…Thanks…such interesting thoughts.

    Bob,I have no doubt a kid would have mirrored back my worst (and perhaps some good) qualities. Occasionally, it is sad and painful to see others’ joy in their kids and it’s not in my life — I have no nieces or nephews (nor are any likely) nor close friends whose little kids are part of my life.

    David, I enjoy the time I spend with most kids. I am also acutely aware, as Jake says, what an insane amount of responsibility you assume by having a child, let alone several, who are utterly dependent upon you. I could not imagine that; the joy and pleasure of parenthood were always very clear to me. But I have had the severe challenge, since I was about 12, of a mother (divorced, few friends) who relied heavily upon me at times and I just could not picture having more people needing me all the time.

    I like to do things very well. I would not have enjoyed being a half-assed or distracted parent. Kids deserve your best.

  7. annlindenmuth

    I loved being pregnant; I loved nursing all 3 of them until they couldn’t stand it any longer, and I had a helluva time letting go — the first of many times I have had to let go. That said, as the posters before me, it was the hardest job I ever held, and the most gratifying at the end of every day.
    And now I’m loving my schnauzers ‘almost’ as much as I love my children and grandchildren

  8. Caitlin Kelly

    ann, thanks. I am currently visiting my best friend from college — whose daughters are now 20, 19 and 17. So I hear all about parenting from her, and from some of my friends; most of them, like me, have no kids.

    I think what’s a shame is that parents assume the child-less don’t like kids, and I’d be very happy to borrow a few from time to time…if they were old enough to hang out and enjoy it. I think kids can be tremendous fun so I am always annoyed when people whine about them. Few (good) things in life come easy.

    1. kahihicolo

      Caitlin, I really, really support this post. I a have no children, but I love the kids from whose parents I’ve come to love.

      Be it family, or friends -oh who’s kidding anyone, mostly friends, I love their kids. I played ball with them when they were young, and what a joy it was watching them fascinate at that “Yeah, I ment for that pitch to go that way!” -to the guys night out in the tent…

      I let one rip in the tent, and they all ran for cover, but they all remember and love Uncle Scotty.

      Let’s face it? You don’t have to have kids to love them. However, you shouldn’t abandon them when they get older.

      If you really love the kids, you should make every effort to be as much a part of their every minute as much as you were when it was easy. -When the farts were funny.

      I didn’t and I regret it. And know that my boys are growed up (Texas speak) although they’re in Kansas, all I can do is challenge their memory.



      Chris, it’s me!

      “Are you on the guest list? Gaurds!!!!”

      1. annlindenmuth

        You don’t have to have kids to love them. However, you shouldn’t abandon them when they get older.
        This simple statement reminded me of something that we really don’t have enough of here in the USA — extended family. I seriously wonder how many of those (parent) problems wouldn’t have seemed nearly as big if there had been more family members close to take up the slack when Mom or Dad couldn’t or wouldn’t.
        I was 1 of 3 (literally) stay-at-home moms when my kids were young, naturally, all the other kids on the street wandered over to our place on a regular basis because (I think) they needed attention and boundaries — the worst thing I ever had to say to one of them was “Scott Handley if you can’t play nice you’ll have to go home and be by yourself.”
        In other countries the whole family lives under one roof (while that never would have worked with my mother, it does seem to work well in a world where that is the ‘norm’) and I think that makes it much more difficult for a child to get away with things he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with. It also means the mother and father have a ‘plan b’ so that THEY can take the ‘time-out’ and allow Grandma, or Auntie to take up the slack. Having extended family close means that the kids have a better chance at being socialized at a younger age, and that’s good for all of us.

  9. Steve Weinberg

    Before I fathered children with my remarkable wife, I worried about bringing them into a world filled with nuclear weapons. I worried about whether I would stick their skin while changing diapers and draw blood. Most of all, self-centeredly, I worried about how I would manage if the children were brain damaged or otherwise psychologically/physically disabled.

    So, naturally, I considered not fathering children. But my wife made it clear before we married and during the early years of our marriage before conceiving that she would almost certainly look for a new husband if I decided against fatherhood.

    I took the plunge. I lucked out: no nuclear holocaust (yet), no major injuries while changing diapers, no psychological/physical problems. The children are now 30 and 26; I love, like and respect them.

    But it could have turned out differently, so I never question the sanity (or any other dimension) of those who choose to remain childless.

  10. Ms. Kelly,

    Being a parent (in my case of three, 36, 25, & 20) is “supposed to be about” anything other than reproducing. Plants and animals have been doing to for literally billions of years without a greater meaning than survival. Organisms that reproduce, survive and produce other organisms that reproduce, organisms that don’t reproduce don’t produce organisms that don’t reproduce. We inherit a powerful desire to reproduce that is has no “meaning” beyond reproduction.

    What human beings do take all of our inherited desires, including the desire to reproduce, is to give them meaning. Our ancestors had completely a completely different “meaning” to raising children. Parents needed labor for farming or hunting &c. and making labor through sex was the easiest way to get labor. Having children was a matter of survival and that was the meaning. There might be some more meaning than that, but it secondary to survival.

    It is the modern parent, who rather than depend on their children’s labor, find their children dependent on their labor that have the freedom give new, emotional and spiritual meaning to reproduction. However, these are overlaid meanings upon an a primal desire. At the end of the day, the meaning of having children is the meaning we give give it.

  11. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks for such thoughtful answers.

    The challenge, equally (believe it or not) is finding the meaning of one’s life, or purpose, when you do not have kids. It is easy enough to endow parenthood, fairly or not, with tremendous emotional freight. If you are not hoping to create the next generation physically,(and emotionally), yet still want to contribute — as my partner and I very much do — to the world, it is a challenge.

    He mentors young journalists, as do I. It may not sound like much, but it gives us great joy and satisfaction, when it works, to help the young un’s. One young friend, for example (who could be my daughter in age) seems to value whatever advice or role modeling I can offer and I feel lucky and honored she trusts me to do so. We love their enthusiasm and talent. They are our friends, not our kids, but we do nurture them and it’s good stuff.

    I was fairly terrified of the illness/injury/math homework/etc. of raising kids from birth. But we do miss, and value, whatever emotional connection we have with younger people.

  12. kahihicolo

    “You want kids? Have ‘em. You don’t want them — don’t.

    But spare us the endless narcissism of questioning and second-guessing your reproductive choices.”

    Hang on, hang on…I think I ripped a stich I’m laughing so hard..

    Whew, let me take a breath…

    I wasn’t prepared for Caitlins’ comments after becoming enthralled by New York Mag’s insert.

    You Go Girl!

    I really wanted kids. I nagged my partner for years for us to adopt. (Sure we wouldn’t have to go through all that reproductive -sperm/ovary bull-shit thing -we’d just adopt.)

    Hell, I’d even do the cap-and-gown thing, just make sure it’s bathed, and it’s diaper changed.

    But wait, he somehow convinced me that being a parent isn’t all that it’s supposed to be.

    And he used me as the subject of his argument.

    He reminded me that -with regard to my family, they consider me to be broken, because I’m gay, and because I’m with him.

    And because I’m gay, it was because of the spinach they forced me to eat…Because they did everything they were supposed to as parents.

    And boom-when they got divorsed, it was the she-did-it, he-did-it he’s gay. If there’s ever a non-sequiter thing you can impose on an invididual, that’s the one!

    He’s gay because you wanted the divorce. No, it’s because of you.

    You had custody, so you fucked him up?

    You weren’t there, that’s why he’s fucked up!

    Uh, guys, my plane is leaving for Australia in a few minutes… That’s where my job is, and I’ll be in Mexico after that.

    And for the record, I’m not fucked up!

    I heard one of them say, “I did everything I could for him!” And the other one say, “Bullshit!”

    “I’m not fucked up!”

    Ok. Like my partner said, we’re not having any kids. Not that we have the latitude to get divorced, we’re just not.

    God bless the kids who are born to parents bound to use them as sufferages.

    Or are we sufferegents? Who knows? I do know that kids should never be an excuse to what’s wrong with one’s life.

    So if you want to have a baby, don’t be a baby. Step up. And make sure that regardless of the decisions, strategies, mistakes, and paths they choose, be supportive so they can rationalize -in their own way- their own path.

    Chances are -after carefull mistakes, they’ll make the right ones.

    Or just buy them a pet.

  13. Caitlin Kelly

    One of the reasons I think non-parents make that choice — and it is very much a choice — is a result of life in their family of origin and whatever nuttiness lay therein. If your childhood was unpleasant in some significant ways, (could be alcoholism, mental illness, abuse, incest — and my childless friends all fit these bills), you are much less eager to sign up for starting the cycle again. Some parents are a much greater burden to their children than children could ever have been.

    Some do later go on to become wonderful parents. But some of us shy away from the whole thing, weary and burned.

  14. bettyej

    I am a Mother who think that children are a blessing. Sure, it’s not a easy job being parents, but it is a worthwhile one when you see the love in their eyes and feel the joy when you hold them in your arms.

    Your job as parents never end. They grow into adults and if you took the time to teach and guide them, they will always be ok.

  15. Caitlin Kelly

    “In other countries the whole family lives under one roof (while that never would have worked with my mother, it does seem to work well in a world where that is the ‘norm’) and I think that makes it much more difficult for a child to get away with things he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with. It also means the mother and father have a ‘plan b’ so that THEY can take the ‘time-out’ and allow Grandma, or Auntie to take up the slack. Having extended family close means that the kids have a better chance at being socialized at a younger age, and that’s good for all of us.”

    I totally agree. It was always made clear to me that my parents had little to no interest in helping in any way with grandkids if I had any kids — so, funny thing, it didn’t appeal hugely. My partner and I work in journalism with long weird hours; that plus commute plus no family help….the whole idea of so much unrelieved hard work seemed overwhelming.

    1. annlindenmuth

      Pat yourself on the back for having a clear picture of what would and wouldn’t work for you — that is so much better than stumbling into anything thinking that ‘you/we’ will learn as we go. I think that has happened in far too many families and both the children and parents are the worse for it.
      Now go tell one of those wonderful students how much you appreciate the opportunity to work with them! 🙂

  16. Caitlin Kelly

    Ann, thanks… I think our “kids” (younger friends and students know how much we enjoy them.) On this road trip (currently in BC) I made sure to introduce one to another, a young woman I met in the youth hostel to a former student in LA where she will travel later in the year.

  17. I was not expecting to get pregnant, I’ll put it that way. My dad was very disappointed. His words, “Don’t you know how this happens?” Well yeah dad, I mean duh. Mom and I had the talk when I was way too old to have the talk! But when mom sat him down and explained that I didn’t have to tell them, that I could have just spirited the baby away and never told anyone, he changed his mind.

    I am glad I had my daughter. It made me grow up way before I wanted to, yes. But it has been a heck of a ride! She’s smarter than you and me put together, and someday she’s going to be an incredible woman. I never complained. It was hard, and it still is. Parenthood is a JOB, people. So is life, so is love, and anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

    I get so sick of people who are always “my baby” this and “my baby” that, when you know damn well they don’t really give two rat’s asses. Show me a parent who lets their kid play in the sandbox without hosing them down in sanitizer, and I’ll show you a kid who’s really happy. Show me a parent who understands the value of reading to their child and explaining when their child happens to see something on TV they shouldn’t instead of turning it into something shameful, and I’ll show you a child who grows up well-rounded and balanced. Show me a parent who bitches a moans every step of the way, and I’ll show you a child who regrets being a child.

    Your children are a reflection of you; if you hate being a parent, your children will hate being children.

  18. Caitlin Kelly

    “Your children are a reflection of you; if you hate being a parent, your children will hate being children.”

    Great comment!

    I bet she’s a pistol like her Mom! One of the greatest gifts my parents both gave me was, paradoxically, not hovering or helping in ways many do…it made me ferociously independent and pretty resourceful at an early age. It was clear that they trusted me to figure many things out, and I did. I was allowed (ouch) to fail and screw up and it is certainly instructive.

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