I’ve been reading the article “All Joy and No Fun” from the New York Times Magazine with interest.
I’m in a position to speak about the “joys” (or otherwise) of parenthood now that I’ve been in the thick of it for 16 months.
Anyone who knows me can attest that I haven’t always been a happy girl. I inherited mild chronic depression from my dad’s side of the family. I’m also somewhat of a complainer, like him.
The flip side of that is I acquired my artful mind from him, and the ability to look back with rose-colored glasses. The deep, sweet places that my mind travels are intricately woven with the threads of loneliness and occasional discontent that cling to me like a stray dog.
I worried about these qualities in the lead up to our choice to foster kids. Would I spiral down, and take them with me?
From the article: “When you pause to think what children mean to you, of course they make you feel good,” says Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. “The problem is, 95 percent of the time, you’re not thinking about what they mean to you. You’re thinking that you have to take them to piano lessons. So you have to think about which kind of happiness you’ll be consuming most often. Do you want to maximize the one you experience almost all the time”—moment-to-moment happiness—“or the one you experience rarely?”
So the distinct ability to look at the kids for what they represent — beauty, truth, innocence, family — allows us as parents to have the “joy” of parenting and achieve happiness. But a large portion of the time we are living in the function of parenting: the logistics of making life-with-kids happen, from laundry to school to birds and bees.
The curious notions put forth in this long article (please read it because it is very interesting) is that American parents are less happy because we want MORE for our kids. The more details of our kids’ lives we have to worry about, the less our kids make us happy.
What I Mean
Yesterday, I was sitting in a lawn chair watching the kids jump around in the kiddie pool. I had a book on my lap that I wasn’t really reading. The kids weren’t paying any attention to me. I was just sitting there, hanging out.
For a moment, I heard myself worrying: “I should have invited some other kids over. I should have organized a playdate. They are always playing by themselves at home. They aren’t socializing.”
Then I caught myself. My train of thought was interrupted by two things: the ever-pragmatic voice of my mom in my head repeating over and over: KIDS ARE HAPPIEST AT HOME. That, and the tumbling peals of their laughter in the pool.
They were happy. But where are Mom and Dad happiest?
One of my favorite authors, Bill Bryson, wrote the book The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a funny memoir of his childhood in Iowa in the 50s. Actually it is funny, but it’s also quite bitter. Bryson clings desperately to his memories, and bemoans the loss of the simpler life that children had “back then.” Reading it, I felt an uncontrollable regret. I grew up with a similar childhood in the 70s, riding my bike to the library, walking to school, unencumbered by playdates. But every parent today seems to cling to the notion that we are NOT safe anymore. That children must be sheltered, protected, coddled. The parents lose their own time (they have LESS free time now than they did back in the 70s) and the children learn to cling, to be afraid.
What Memories May Come
My mom, who raised 6 kids before she went back to work teaching, doesn’t commemorate my childhood the same way. She was GLAD when Dad got home so she could thrust a baby in his arms. They argued the same way Colin and I do about who carried the biggest burden of “work.”
Yet, in the same way, my mom oozes with joy over her family. She tells me she would “never trade it, not a day of it.” Her sister, Mary Ann, recently deceased, had 13 children. Mom always said Mary Ann would have had more if she could.
For me, the year past has been the happiest of my life: but also the most complex and wearying. Every morning, we go through boring/grueling routines of reminders, repetition, and a great deal of talking about pee. But I see living examples of what we achieve as we have stuck to our beliefs, values and goals.
They smile at us, say thank you, and give us the very best hugs.