I’m not a parent. But I spend quite a lot of time with people who are. My own, mostly. And being a parent has got to be – hands down – the hardest job in the world.
Firstly, there is the way in which parenthood is sold to us all.
In general, society promotes deep enthusiasm about parenthood. The act of bringing a new person into the world as a cause of unalloyed joy and celebration. There is a lot of concentration on the high points, with the troubles acutely edited. In general, the script is that parents should accept with no guilt and good grace that, of course, being a parent is wonderful and difficult; rewarding and depleting; exciting and, at times, a bit tiring.
The problem is, that the evidence doesn't really back up this preconceived picture. Using data sets from Europe and America, numerous scholars have found some evidence that, on aggregate, parents often report statistically significantly lower levels of happiness (Alesina et al., 2004), life satisfaction (Di Tella et al., 2003), marital satisfaction (Twenge et al., 2003), and mental well-being (Clark & Oswald, 2002) compared with non-parents.
Regardless of whether we love being a parent or not, for some of us, society’s well-intentioned enthusiasm for parenthood can have unintended habit of triggering a very difficult consequence: it might become extremely hard to admit publicly to having problems around our new families. It might feel like a grave and serious failing of our own, a mark of a particularly deficient nature. We might feel unbearably guilty at certain thoughts we may have in the privacy of our hearts: that we’d rather not see our family for a few days; that we look very wistfully at the time before we had children; that we suspect we’re not naturally cut out to be a parent; that at certain points we resent our own child. Despite these feelings probably being particularly common.
Donald Winnicott, a mid-20th century psychologist who worked with parents and children, was particularly concerned by how many parents he observed in his consulting rooms who reported they were deeply disappointed with themselves. They reported feeling they were failing as parents and hated themselves deeply as a result. They stated they were ashamed of their occasional fights with their partners, their irritability, their times of boredom around their own child; their many mistakes; they were haunted by a range of anxious questions: are we too strict, too lenient, too protective, not protective enough? What struck Winnicott, however, was that these people were almost always not at all bad parents. They were not, by some fantasy ideal standard, perfect: but they were – as he came to put it, rather wonderfully – ‘good enough.’
And here’s the thing – good enough here is even better than perfect! Because EVERY SINGLE CHILD will live the rest of their life in a very imperfect world. We cannot get on if we are dependent on those around us living up to the highest imaginable ideals. The good enough parent is at times irate, stupid, a bit unfair, a bit tired or a touch depressed. There will be delays, confusions, mistakes, outbursts of irritation – and always (or almost always, which is enough) a background of deep love and good intentions. The good enough parent is the perfect parent for the times half a century ago. And now.
And to add further complexity to the job of parenthood, there’s the component of just running the household with other people. The success of which pretty much determines more of our satisfaction from day-to-day than any other part of our lives.
Domestic life, properly understood, is the neglected locus of some of the most profound and noble challenges open to any of us.
The Romantic view of love forgets about this part of the love story. It is fascinated by, and deeply sympathetic to, the troubles and confusions surrounding the search for a life partner. It is deeply disturbing then, from the Romantic point of view, to find that a loving couple (people who are truly ‘right’ for one another, who overcame conflict and prejudice to be together) are liable to wind up spending a great deal of their lives – after they have finally found one another – bickering: over the TV remote control, the state of the kitchen work surfaces, whose turn it is for the nappy change and who is meant to sweep the floor and when. Standard love stories rarely take us into these challenges. But these are the real challenges of love. And of life.
Because we don’t ever see these things as ‘challenges’ or haven’t formulated household labour as ‘real work’, we don’t ever really accept that household management and division are going to be hard and important. So, when it comes to looking at the buttload of domestic activities that exponentially pile up once children are involved– doing the laundry, keeping the fridge stocked, cleaning up after meals, making the beds, arranging a roster for picking up the kids, deciding what friends to see and when – these are things that we think should just happen in the background of real life. They never demand much thought. They are mere chores. No one could be meant to do them. It is simply a matter of everyone taking a fair turn at a boring, banal but sadly unavoidable drudgery.
And when we expect something to be easy and it turns out not to be, there’s a particular kind of struggle and bad mood that follows. Arguing about who should take out the rubbish, or whether to keep the bedroom window slightly open at night take on a distinctively painful form. Not only are we seriously angry, we can’t take our anger seriously. We fall into that pattern of behaviour typical when a problem hasn’t faced up to its own complexity. There might be nagging. There might be some passive avoidance. Or sulking. There might even be some door slamming. All of these are just symptoms of deeply serious issues that have fatally insisted on their own simplicity.
The true reality is that, this stuff is the hard stuff. The challenges of who gets up out of bed to turn the light off (and all other financial and practical responsibilities of sharing domestic life) is a sign that this is tough gig. Probably the toughest there is. Conflict in these areas is the logical consequence of the difficult tasks we have been accorded. If we admit that sharing a space and a life with other people is very difficult, we come to conflicts with a very different attitude. And it means that we’re doing it right.
Lastly, there’s reading all the ranting about parenthood available for parents on the Internet. By people who aren’t even parents. Exhibit A. It has got to be the toughest job around.
This week is Perinatal Depression and Anxiety Awareness Week. We will be helping to spread some awareness to help you become PNDA Aware. You can also check out the PANDA website for more info.