Happiness and parenting

A couple of months ago, I wrote about Stephanie Coontz’s book, Marriage.  Coontz argues that the transformation of marriage from an institution about controlling property, making alliances between families, and ensuring legitimate heirs into an emotional bond sowed the seeds of its destruction.  Once marriage was reframed as about romantic love and happiness, it became harder and harder to argue that people should stay married when the relationship failed to make them happy.  Today, pretty much the only argument that people seriously make against divorce is grounded in concern for the well-being of any children involved.  You almost never hear anyone suggest that two childless individuals who are unhappily married should stay together because they stood up and took vows about "till death do us part."

As I think about it, it seems that parenting may be the only commitment that American society takes seriously, and for which "it’s not making me happy" isn’t a sufficient basis for breaking.  Especially not for women.  Laura’s right that what makes parents happy isn’t always what’s best for the kids, but it’s also true that it’s seen as a sign of moral depravity for a mother to say "ok, this might make the kids a little worse off, but it makes me a lot better off, and I’ve made a lot of sacrifices already and it’s time for them to give a bit."  As Jody said, we still hold mothers to impossibly high standards.

Is parenthood supposed to make you happy?  It’s a fascinating question.  Parenting is often described as a selfless activity, in that you’re expected to put your children’s well-being ahead of your own desires.  But I’ve also heard people argue that the choice is have children is always made for selfish reasons; even if it’s no longer an economically rational thing to do, people choose to have kids because they think it will be enjoyable, or because they want someone to love and to love them.

Obviously, not every moment of parenting is going to be fun.  No one likes having a sick child crawl into your bed and puke all over them.  No one likes dealing with a shrieking toddler in the full throes of the "mines."  No one likes it when your child comes home sobbing because their friend was mean to them, and there’s nothing you can do to fix it.  But most of us would say that the joys usually outweigh the frustrations.

But that’s not always the case.  In her comment on my review of We Need to Talk about Kevin, Mary wrote:

"Yes, parents are supposed to be selfless, never asking for anything in return, just giving, giving, giving — but poeple whose kids don’t have special needs don’t know what it’s like to never get a hand-drawn card, or a picture, or a hug in return. It wears you down. It’s human nature to expect some response when you send love out into the universe, or out into your family. Think about it, if she [Eva] had been married to someone who treated her the way that Kevin did, she would have divorced him, and no one would have blamed her."

Meghan, at I’m ablogging, made a similar point recently about her need for emotional feedback:

"I am the adult in this scenario. I understand that as the parent, I need to be loving and patient and kind and warm even if I am not getting anything but accusing screams and wails in return. I love my daughter all the time, no matter what. I hate to admit that her feedback helps to keep me going. I mean, she is only eleven months after all. I can’t rely on her. That’s way too much responsibility for a child of that tender age.

"But those 5:15 smiles sure make it easier. Just one day without one made me realize how much they help to keep me going."

So parenting is a selfless activity, undertaken for selfish reasons.  It’s often a source of deep happiness and satisfaction, but you’re not allowed to quit even if it isn’t.  And if you complain about the ways that the workplace and society are hostile to childrearing, you’re told that "you chose to have kids" so if you’re unhappy it’s your own fault. 

8 Responses to “Happiness and parenting”

  1. landismom Says:

    I think that one of the other things that has affected this is that people rarely grow up in multi-generational families now. My mom was one of 12 children–her youngest sibling and oldest nephew were born in the same month. All of the kids in her family had lots of experience being around babies and young children–the older siblings had little brothers and sisters, and the younger ones had nieces and nephews running around. My mom and her sisters and brothers knew what they were getting into when they were having kids.
    I think that, in becoming a more highly mobile society, where more and more people move away from their families when they are young adults, we are reducing the amount of time that most of us spend with young children before we have our own. So in a way, while we do ‘choose’ to have children, I think lots of people don’t really understand the choice they’re making.

  2. bj Says:

    I think you’re touching on a larger issue, which is a change in morality that moves from talking about one’s obligations to god, or to society (in general), to a sense of comittment to those less powerful than you, over whom you have power.
    That’s the underlying root of why liberal morality imposes demands on your committment to your children, while remaining silent on your obligation to your spouse (who is supposed to be your equal, and over whom you are not supposed to have power). This sense of liberal morality (and I believe there is a very strong sense of it) is important to remember, because it’s simply not true that those of us on the left are “amoral” in the sense that what ever makes you feel better is fine.
    I think the evolving liberal morality has actually had a big impact on lives (changes in our attitude towards child abuse, sexual harrasment, rape, can all be laid at it’s feet).
    It’s also important to remember that this idea of selfless sacrifice for one’s children is not an old-fashioned tradition. In the past, the child-parent relationship was always a two way street. Children had strong obligations to their parents and family, in addition to their family’s obligations to them. Children were expected to support their parents, and even their younger siblings. Children were a resource to the fmaily. It’s only now that we think of children as being a one-way cost, to whom we have obligations, while they don’t.

  3. bj Says:

    hmh, my previous post sounds a bit preachy, doesn’t it, like I have the true answers. A sign that I need my own blog. But, let me just add the caveat that I’m stating an opinion.

  4. jen Says:

    BJ makes an interesting point. I recently finished reading Coontz’s Marriage book as well, and was stunned to find that families’ incomes went *up* when they had kids … they sent the kids to work! That was the whole point! Or the tradition of orphan trains, where street kids were sent out west to “find families”. These families took them on solely as a labor source and worked them very hard. A very big change from today.

  5. Elizabeth Says:

    At a meeting I was at last year, Cynthia Harrison from GWU made the point that except for the brief period of the 50s, families were almost never able to survive on a single workers earnings. She argues that the story of the last century plus has been of mothers’ movement into the workforce making it possible for teenagers to stay out of the workforce and in schooling.

  6. Mel Says:

    A topic close to my heart . . I followed all your links (well, most of them). Interesting viewpoints. I’ve never thought being “happy” had anything to do with marriage vows . . . and never could quite understand how my parents could say with a straight face, “We love you. We just don’t love each other anymore.” I happened to blog about my parents’ divorce today, or at least a little bit of it. Anyway. There you go. A rambling comment!

  7. manny Says:

    At a meeting I was at last year, Cynthia Harrison from GWU made the point that except for the brief period of the 50s, families were almost never able to survive on a single workers earnings
    I don’t know too much about women’s labor history, but I’m surprised to hear this. I know that women on the farms worked at least as hard as men, and that young, unmarried women were the first to go into cloth factories when the industrial revolution began. But my impression was that from at least colonial times on, most middle-class and working-class wives stayed home and tended house while the men went out and earned a wage. Is this wrong? If it’s right, there must have been several years in most families’ lives where they got by on a single wage, since children can’t do useful work for at least a few years. I have heard of them starting as young as 5, but not earlier, and their wages were very low until they were teenagers.
    I agree that marriage must be a commitment to one’s spouse and to the joint partnership. At the same time, if there are no kids, how MUCH commitment? Surely there is a limit and each person must set it? There is a story of a famous rabbi, (Judah Ha-Levi, maybe?) who was planning to divorce his wife, a woman known for her beauty and graciousness. His friends came to dissuade him, singing her praises. He heard them out, then took off his shoe, and said, “can one of you tell me, where does this pinch my foot?”
    Oh, and I totally agree that having kids is not normally selfless. Mother Teresa committed her life sight unseen to strangers with no hope of a return; most of us are not Mother Teresa. Dan Savage expressed this well in his book, “The Kid,” where he says that he wanted to adopt because (a) he really likes kids, (b) he wanted someone in his life who would not care if he got fat, and (c) he wanted someone who would give a damn when he died. Good reasons, IMO. Personally, I would give any amount of money for my daughter’s giggles.

  8. emjaybee Says:

    ” I’ve never thought being “happy” had anything to do with marriage vows . . ”
    Hmm. The logical follow up to that would be “then why make them?” Yes? Understand, I’m not being snarky. I’m talking about the deep, satisfied sort of happiness you have when you are doing what you want and are glad to have chosen. Not every minute good feelings sort of happiness. No one gets that. But even when I am mad at or exasperated by my spouse, even on those days when I think longingly of my single life which had no obligations, I don’t regret being with him, because it passes and I see the reasons I married him come out in something he does later. If that never happened…if all it was was exasperation and no relief, and no counseling worked, and we just couldn’t understand one another…it would be hell. And we’d have to end it.

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