Of course, no one would believe a parent who claimed that parenting is easy and devoid of difficulties. We all know it’s a tough road, and we expect parents to solemnly nod in agreement when someone speaks up about the frustrations of sleepless nights, messy homes, daycare bills, and all things diaper-related. But it’s worth it. Or, at least, that’s what we expect to hear. And sometimes I wonder if parents are saying that it’s worth it only because they know that’s what everyone wants to hear. I mean, is it really worth it?
Are parents happier people than non-parents? Or, leaving out the need to compare people’s happiness, are parents happier people than they were before they became parents? I’m not so sure.
Having children has been an honored position in cultures across the world for centuries. I grew up hearing Bible stories about Hannah, who prayed to God that she would conceive a child, for her childlessness was an embarrassment. Children – sons, in particular – were a sign of distinction, and parents were to be revered. Marriage was often the social structure through which childbirth and child-rearing took place. But people didn’t talk about how raising children was itself a fun thing to do. Hannah rejoiced when she became pregnant, but she also promised to give that child up. The wealthy have been hiring servants to raise their children for them since the invention of money. Having children was valued as a prominent social status, but it feels like a recent development – in the last hundred years or so – that parenthood has been hailed as a joyful and enjoyable experience. I don’t have reams of research data to back this up, but I do suspect that the idea that parenthood makes adults feel happy and fulfilled might be a myth invented in the modern age as adults have become more financially independent and in control of their reproductive destinies.
Not too long ago, human beings survived only by banding together, and if you watch any kind of global-disaster-themed television shows, you know we’re just a zombie apocalypse away from being right back to a herd-survival state. People didn’t marry for love; they married for security, often beyond just the spouse you married, but along with your spouse’s entire clan. Children provided labor and security if you were lucky enough to grow old and need someone to care for you. It was not simply necessary to reproduce to continue the human race; it was necessary to survive.
But not anymore. Men and – perhaps more remarkably now – women do not need to get married and have children in order to ensure their survival. In much of the industrialized, civilized world, in the middle or upper class, one can live a safe and secure life all by oneself. The social expectations of marriage and parenthood still exist, but are steadily eroding as adults wait longer to get married and start families. And, of course, there’s readily available birth control. Which is good, because no one is going to stop having sex. But it’s easy to have sex these days and not get pregnant. Today, adults really do have the luxury of choosing not to have children.
So why do we still have children? Well, lots of reasons, of course. For me, it was a belief that parenthood would be fulfilling and meaningful. That raising a child is a higher calling, that it is an endeavor that connects me with the most fundamental task of the human race and allows me to leave my legacy in the world in a primal and basic way. These things are true, of course; but I’m not sure that these things add up to happiness.
Where is this coming from? you might ask. I’ve been reading this blog for a while now, Daniel, and you seem to love being a parent! What’s with this suddenly dour assessment of being a parent? Well, I don’t think it’s sudden; even in my happiest – or perhaps I should say “happiest” – moments, I still miss how easy my life was before daycare payments and bedtime battles. I still look with envy at my peers who don’t have children. And when a peer gets pregnant and gives birth to a newborn, I kind of pity them.
This week, our little one has been home all week with fluctuating low-grade fevers. She only acted sick for about four waking hours, but she can’t go back to school until she’s been fever-free for twenty-four hours. So every twelve hours or so, she spikes a little fever, which keeps her home. Grandparents have been extremely helpful, but both of Curly Fries’ parents have lost their patience this week with a little one intent on running around the house bare-assed and jumping up and down in her crib an hour past bedtime. Which has reinvigorated my internal sociological inquiries into the reasons people in our society still have children.
It’s an interesting thought experiment, I suppose. Examining the sociological and cultural shifts in American civilization even in the last fifty years turns up a lot of strange assumptions about what “traditional” families should look like and why. But I guess I need to own that it’s really just a lengthy extrapolation of the feelings behind “Why me?” In those moments when I lose patience, when I’m just tired all the time, when I’m lamenting how tight finances seem, when I just want to escape, I can’t help but wonder, “Why did I do this?” And when I can’t come up with an answer, I think, “Why does anyone do this?” There must be some good reasons, because the human race hasn’t died out yet. But I’m uncertain what those reasons are more often than I seem to have a grasp on them.
If this seems too gloomy to all of you fine readers, then I apologize. Maybe you knew exactly why you had children and now you are the happiest you’ve ever been and your life is nothing but sunshine and rainbows and little kisses on the cheek. Next week I’ll try to present a glossier view of parenthood. But I think the expressions of unbridled delight in the blissful thrills of parenthood need some checks and balances. And what can I say, exhaustion brings out the honesty and self-doubt in me. I can only hope that these traits will make me a better parent, if not always a happier one.