Monday, December 8, 2014

"Enjoy Every Moment" - Or Don't. Because Parenting is Hard

My husband went back to work full time last week, after eight weeks of paid paternity leave.

I've been reluctant to talk about just how awesome all that paternity leave was, because I know that this type of benefit is extremely rare (I only got six weeks of paid maternity leave when I was working with my first baby, and even that required a combination of using all my accrued sick and vacation allowances). I know a lot of other women who have recently had babies, and all of their jaws have dropped when they found out my husband was home with us for eight weeks. Most men only get a couple of days, maybe a week. So anyway, I know I've been lucky.

However, the point of this post is not to brag about my husband's awesome benefits (actually, most of the benefits at his company really suck, paternity leave is seriously the only good one). The point is to talk about all the thoughts and reflections I've had about parenthood in the past week, as I've soldiered through all the meltdowns and dirty diapers and "sleep training" alone.

Now, this may not be a revelation, but lately I've been thinking about how parenting is not very fun.

In her book All Joy and No Fun, which I read last June, Jennifer Senior writes about all the studies in recent years that have shown how parents are less happy than their childless counterparts. The statistics on this are kind of mind numbing, because it's been shown in study after study after study that having kids tends to increase stress, decrease life-satisfaction, and damage marital relationships (for another interesting and shorter read on this topic, check out this New York article)

Senior goes on to discuss and analyze many of the reasons why parenting is such a miserable task, everything from the extreme pressure to produce perfect children (a societal shift in parenting in the last seventy years), to the simple drudgery of spending time with small irrational creatures who want to sing the same song over and over and over four hundred times a day.

The point that really resonated with me was when Senior talked about the concept of "flow." This concept was developed by some famous psychologist (I can't remember the name, and I don't have the book, so I'm just talking about what I remember from reading this six months ago), and essentially what he posits is that to truly find pleasure in work, you have to develop "flow." That is, you have to get to a point where you are completely absorbed in some process, and this usually takes hours and hours of uninterrupted time devoted to your work. Kids interrupt "flow" in their parent's lives. They have short attention spans, they have needs that must be met immediately, they are constantly interrupting and disrupting. These interruptions make it nearly impossible for parents to develop any sort of "flow" when they are around their kids.

This has been so true for me lately.

Take this morning for instance. My only goal this morning was to get the dishes done. We had a big dinner with family last night, and the dishwasher was full so many of the dishes got left on the counter over night. I found a moment of peace after breakfast and started working on unloading the dishwasher. But then the baby started crying to be put down for a nap, and then my older child had a poopy diaper, and then he wanted to play a game, and then there was some melt-downs over balancing a baseball hat on a fire truck (speaking of irrational creatures), and then the baby started crying again, and then the laundry needed to be switched out, and then it was lunch time, and just as I was getting back to the dishes, it was time to feed the baby again.

Somehow I can't seem to get even one load of dishes done in a given three-hour window. But what about when I want to read a book? Write a blog post? Take care of any one of the five million projects on my to-do list?

Forget about it.

And most days, I just don't even start because I know I won't finish. I lose all of my motivation to work on things when I know I'll be interrupted and won't be able to finish. This is the single most frustrating part of parenthood for me right now. I'm not very good at multi-tasking, and this is a serious flaw as a stay-at-home-mom, because heaven knows I'm never going to get two hours of quiet, focused work time. At least not consecutively.

What I'm trying to keep in mind is what Senior discusses at the end of her book with the ideas of memory and meaning. Basically, the studies prove that the moment-to-moment act of parenting is really miserable, but there is still hope, because other studies also show that people who reflect back on their past parenting experiences find a deeper sense of joy and meaning in their lives.

And this makes sense. Most things worth doing in life are hard. Most meaningful things aren't pleasurable in the moment. Getting a graduate degree? Hard and miserable. Running a marathon? Really hard and miserable (I do not know this from experience). But when you get to the end of your life, these are the things that fill it with meaning, and meaning brings joy.

Why should parenting be any different?

So the next time some older, seasoned grandmother tells the young mother battling her rambunctious children in the check-out line to "enjoy every moment," feel free to completely ignore this advice. You are not going to enjoy every moment of parenting. It's hard. At times it's downright miserable.

But it's also meaningful. It just takes hindsight to realize that, so grit it out for a few more years.

Someday I will have all the time in the world I want to do the dishes.

(It took me all afternoon to write this post, and there were plenty of interruptions in the middle, along with some awkward one-handed typing while I nursed. But look! I actually got it written! Although those dishes are still sitting on the counter...)


  1. I love this post (and I love your last paragraph). I distinctly remember writing up my review for this book--Clark was about two weeks old, and it literally took me days to write it because I was being interrupted so often. (And here I am typing this comment one-handed because I'm nursing my now six-month-old.) Anyway, I appreciate your insights and think the picture of you and your son is darling.

  2. Parenting is so. hard. I love your realistic depiction of it. I'm glad Nathan got to take the full leave, and good luck navigating that hard terrain.

  3. AMEN! I have been starting to feel guilty recently about not enjoying that aspect of child rearing. So glad it actually makes sense psychologically. Was there by chance a way to find more happiness in your book?