Parenting Makes People Miserable. What Else Is New?



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.

In fact, one imagines that Senior—full of maternal euphoria shortly before being pelted by garage parts, and "guided by nerves, trawling the cabinets for alcohol" afterward—would sympathize with Rich's excruciating ambivalence. And that Lori Leibovitch—the executive editor of parenting site Babble who confesses to some jealousy regarding childless women ("there was a richness and texture to their work lives that was so, so enviable")—would be unsurprised by Rich's confession that "I envy the barren woman who has the luxury of her regrets, but lives a life of privacy and freedom." 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.

But there is one crucial difference between these mid-century women and Jennifer Senior: Neither Rich, de Beauvoir, nor McCarthy wrote about parenthood per se. They wrote about motherhood. Which makes sense, given that in their era, women were expected to do nearly all of the parenting. Rich, de Beauvoir, and countless other feminists blamed the torturous nature of child-rearing on the uneven distribution of labor; in their view, the discontents of parenting would end with the liberation of women. Rich wrote of a "new fatherhood," including "redefinitions of fatherhood which would require a more active, continuous presence with the child." De Beauvoir advocated for giving women more purpose in life: Get them out of the house, give them something to live for apart from motherhood, and they wouldn't fixate on their children quite so much or find them quite so disappointing. These were persuasive arguments—so persuasive, in fact, that the world we live in now is basically the one they wished for.

There are still inequities today: In one of the surveys cited by the article, 71 percent of mothers crave more time alone, as opposed to 57 percent of fathers, and most of the parents who shared their dissatisfaction with Senior were women—as, of course, is Senior, who felt the need to write the piece in the first place. But there is at least some expectation that men will take an active part in caring for their children; there is, most definitely, an expectation that women will have jobs as well as babies. And yet, the women Senior interviews still describe child-rearing as "drudgery," as "labor;" they still complain that there are "just. So. Many. Chores." Sharing the work was not, as feminism seemed to promise, a cure-all. Caring for a child is still a massive source of stress, even as we gain equality. Parenthood now is not more fun, but more fair.

The difficulty of child-rearing, wrote de Beauvoir, "is seldom realized by [one's] husband: It is the attempt to control a being with whom you are not in communication... to obtrude yourself upon an independent stranger who is defined and affirmed only by revolting against you." Maybe now, what with fathers who worry about their "work-life balance" and take an active part in cultivating the child's far-distant college prospects, men realize the difficulty. Maybe that's the best one can honestly ask for. Still: God help them, the poor guys.