Parenting Makes People Miserable. What Else Is New?

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It's easy to mock New York magazine's recent article on "why parents hate parenting." So many of its points seem obvious: Children decrease romance between spouses, diminish one's social life, and can be unholy terrors. (Jennifer Senior, its author, relates an awful-sounding interlude in which her son dismantled a wooden garage and then proceeded to pelt her with the pieces of it as she made repairs.) Still, there's one conclusion Senior makes that merits a bit of skepticism. She suggests that the hatred of parenting is recent, and raises "the possibility that parents don't much enjoy parenting because the experience of raising children has fundamentally changed." In some important ways, it has. But the complaints raised by the piece aren't new at all; in fact, people—women, most notably—have been voicing them for the better part of the last 60 years.

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir wrote of the mother who finds that "her child by no means provides that happy self-fulfillment that has been promised her." Instead, when this woman is busy, and "particularly when she is occupied with her husband," she finds that "the child is merely harassing and bothersome. She has no leisure for 'training' him; the main thing is to prevent him from getting into trouble; he is always breaking or tearing or dirtying and is a constant danger to objects and to himself." Adrienne Rich opened her 1976 book on motherhood, Of Woman Born, with one of her own journal entries, in which she noted that her children "cause [her] the most exquisite suffering... the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness." Later in the book, she would go on to argue that a mother of eight who dismembered her two youngest children and laid them on the lawn as "a sacrifice" was not precisely crazy, just fed up.

It would appear that having a child has never been fun. In fact, it would seem to have been non-fun in the same ways for the better part of the last century, at least.

In fiction, we have Mary McCarthy's 1963 novel The Group, in which the fragile Priss has a nervous breakdown because her husband insists she breastfeed their newborn. Priss doesn't have enough milk; the perpetually hungry baby never stops crying; Priss never stops feeling like a failure. She comes to dislike her husband. ("Up to now [his politics] had not mattered; most men she knew were Republicans... But she did not like the thought of a Republican controlling the destiny of a helpless baby.") She comes to dislike her baby. ("She felt, to her shame, that he was a piece of hospital property that had been dumped on her and abandoned—they would never come to take him away.") Obsessive devotion to child-care advice, inadequacy, and shame, the child-induced dissolution of marriage, even Priss's annoying desire to be assured that "higher-income" parents really do have it harder than the earthy, procreative lower classes ("middle- and upper-income families," Senior's article tells us, are most affected by the stresses of child-rearing; one woman longs drippily for the privileged, ankle-beading ease of a Namibian mother): Nearly all the talking points of the article are covered here, in the pages of a novel published 47 years ago.

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Sady Doyle is a freelance writer based in New York City. She blogs at Tiger Beatdown. More

Sady Doyle is a writer living in New York. She has contributed to Salon's Broadsheet, the American Prospect, the Guardian's Comment is Free, and Feministe. She blogs at

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