Parenting: Hard, fearful work

Forget optimist and pessimist, religious and secular, blue state and red state. The dividing line of note these days is between those who have children and those who don't.

Several recent studies rating the happiness of couples with children and those without have made headlines and stirred responses that illustrate the divide. Sociology professor Robin Simon of Florida State University received hate mail when she published her compilation of data from the National Survey of Families and Households. Simon concluded that childless couples report being happier than parents of any age or stage of parenting. In fact, parents – even empty nesters – have a greater incidence of depression than childless couples.

“Parents have more to worry about than other people do – that's the bottom line,” she said. “And that worry does not diminish over time. Parents worry about their kids' emotional, social, physical and economic well-being. Young children in some ways are emotionally easier. Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems.”

Childbirth vs. happiness

In May Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert presented slightly less dire conclusions at the third annual Happiness and Its Causes conference in Sydney, Australia. Echoing his 2006 book, “Stumbling on Happiness,” Gilbert said that marital happiness plummets after the birth of the first child but rebounds after the last child leaves home.

That doesn't surprise me. The most exhausted I've ever been was the year after the birth of my first son – a time in my life when I realized that I could live without sleep or decent meals but that the continued survival of my child depended on my constant vigilance.

So why do parents report that children are their greatest joy in life? According to Gilbert, we like and value those things that are most expensive.

“It sounds like children. We pay for them in time, attention, blood, sweat and tears – what kind of idiots would we be to devote all of that to the rearing of our young if they didn't bring us some happiness?”

Parents do report feeling that their lives are more meaningful and fulfilled than couples without children, but the childless couples I know don't seem mired in existential angst. My husband and I were married for seven years before we decided to have children, and I can say unequivocally that those were very happy years. We went to good movies, watched lots of late night TV, slept in on the weekends, and volunteered at church and in various community organizations. We filled photo albums with pictures of our pet cat and challenged ourselves with graduate courses or gardening when we were bored.

Then that old biological imperative for a child started nudging me as my 30th birthday loomed, and life as we knew it ended.

Like most parents, we aren't sorry – we can't imagine not ever having had children, and we would be devastated if something happened to them now.

But I'm also willing to admit that the moment I knew for certain that I was pregnant with my first son, the world shifted in a way that gives the lie to the sunny expectations of parenthood.

Suddenly my body was co-opted by someone with a stronger claim than my own, and every drink, every bite, wasn't for me alone.

When my son was born, my beautiful home became a chamber of horrors, with poisons, electrical sockets, glassware waiting to rupture into shards. Despite encasing our son in a bulky plastic and metal carseat, we knew that our sporty car was a deathtrap, that other drivers were unprincipled maniacs.

The fears I had entertained before children seemed ridiculous. Large hairy spiders? Before kids, I would have run for the broom. Once my children were able to crawl around, I found I could smash them with my bare hand.

My childless friends worry about global warming, about staying healthy, about retiring with enough money to live comfortably. I worry about those things, too, but if the oceans rise or I get cancer or I lose my job, my children will suffer an impoverished life because of my inaction, my choices, my luck. Just as my present time has been taken over by the needs of my children, my future has been mortgaged to them as well.

Time with kids eternal, fleeting

One paradox about raising children is summed up for me by the cartoon Baby Blues, which occasionally runs a panel called “The Days are Long but the Years are Short.” That certainly has been my subjective experience of how time with children can be both eternal and fleeting.

In “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen tells a joke that expresses another paradox. One woman at a Catskills resort says to another one, “I don't know why I keep coming back here. The food is terrible!” And the other woman adds, “Yes, and in such small portions, too!”

Raising children is very hard work, but it doesn't last long enough – and like most parents, I'd do it all over again, no matter what the experts say.