Happiness, and Other Goals for Our Kids
Science can show us what parenting does to us, but can it show what parenting means to us?
This morning, my two-year-old daughter Rosalie wanted to wear her favourite outfit again. She wore it yesterday, too, and the day before, and the day before that. It's a Christmas dress, bright red with a candy cane on the front, and it comes with matching striped pants. She didn't want to wear it on Christmas Day when I wanted her to, of course, but every day since she has asked for her "beautiful pwincess dwess," and I've let her wear it most of those days.
When I think objectively about this situation and talk about it with others, I find it endearing and funny, but in the actual day-to-day parenting of this stubborn toddler, I am less amused. You see, she is equally particular about not wanting to wear a coat, or socks, or even shoes most of the time, and that means I spend a lot of time negotiating with her. But Rosalie, like most toddlers, is not a rational negotiator.</>
Thankfully, she will eventually outgrow her irrationality, as she will her favourite dress. The problem, though, is that she has these irrational opinions about so many other things: food, television shows, toys, books, and what each of her sisters should be doing at all times. I have these battles with her many times a day, and I'm sure the way in which I handle these disagreements teaches my toddler about how to deal with conflict, or about the value of strong opinions and clear communication. Yet regardless of what Rosalie is gaining from these tedious interactions, no matter how I respond, I can't avoid them. It's starting to make me crazy.
According to Jennifer Senior's All Joy and No Fun, released this month in paperback, I am not the only parent who finds her children to be emotionally exhausting. Senior refers to study after study on the ongoing, daily frustrations common among all parents and then quantifies them. Battling with Rosalie every few minutes is an extremely annoying concern. But is it unusual? According to one study cited by Senior, it absolutely is not:
In 1971, a trio from Harvard observed ninety mother-toddler pairs for five hours and found that, on average, mothers gave a command, told their child no, or fielded a request (often "unreasonable" or "in a whining tone") every three minutes. Their children, in turn, obeyed on average only 60 percent of the time. This is not exactly a formula for perfect mental health.
When I read that passage from the introduction, I knew I would relish the sense of solidarity that All Joy and No Fun would offer. It was as if all of my feelings of angst and frustration were being justified by science. I responded with a laughing, "See? I knew it!"
It seems that I'm definitely not the only parent engaging in these "absurdist loops of non-argument," as Senior refers to them later, nor am I the only one feeling like she's going insane because of them. There are multiple sources online and in books to find out how I'm supposed to deal with these "battles" for the betterment of my child. (Does forcing a screaming Rosalie into a jacket rob her of any control she has over her own life and inhibit her chance to face natural consequences, or does it teach her to respect authority while keeping her appropriately warm?) But this book is refreshing because it is only concerned with how these regular battles are affecting the parent; in this case: me.
Senior's analysis and evaluation of the impact parenting has on parents goes well beyond the child's early years. How does it affect their sense of self to raise a teenager who both reflects and articulates their deepest flaws? How do their marriages cope with the added stress and strife of child rearing? And the big question that runs throughout the book: If parenting is such a sacrifice, why are so many people doing it anyway, and how has the answer to this question changed so drastically over the last century?
These big questions Senior finds difficult to answer—something she herself acknowledges. Her underlying assumption is that all parents want to raise their children to "be happy," but Senior admits that this is a pretty difficult measuring stick to use for success. Some adults manage to be happy in spite of the fact that their parents were neglectful or abusive; some wonderful parents end up with decidedly unhappy adult children because of circumstances or temperaments outside their influence.
The overarching desire to raise children who are "happy" is a goal that is difficult for parents to analyze and even more difficult for them to control. Even so, modern parents weigh every decision, large or small, against whether or not it will make their child more likely to be happy (well-adjusted, successful, loved, or however they've defined happiness). Breast milk or formula; soccer team, piano lessons or both; cell phone or no cell phone; permitted to wear a Christmas dress for three weeks straight or forced to change—all of these decisions are made with the goal of the child's overall happiness in the foreground.
This emphasis on our children's happiness as the focal point for the family's decision-making has not always been the case. Senior talks a lot about possible reasons for all the angst modern parents experience, and she is particularly compelling when talking about how the centre of the family unit has shifted from the parents to the children—as children have become economically useless, they have become emotionally priceless. In previous generations, a couple may have decided to have children for love, yes, but they would also have had a child to help on the farm, to work around the house, or even to take over the family business. Even the shift in terminology from "house-wife" to "stay-at-home-mom" shows a significant transfer of priorities. No longer does a woman stay home for the sake of the housework and her husband; rather, her priority is to be a "mom," and everything else is of secondary concern.
Along these lines, I felt that there was a gap in the research regarding the increased role of women in the workforce and how this has impacted increased frustration in parents. This general topic was important for Senior, judging by how many of her points circled back to women and work. But she seems to have overlooked how women's expectations for themselves have shifted. For example, I sacrificed my career and independence so that I could stay home to wipe dirty countertops and snotty noses. But is this more difficult because I once assumed I'd have various intellectually fulfilling career options? To be clear, I'm certainly not advocating for taking any steps back in this area. Raising my daughters to assume that a role as wife and mother is the ultimate goal in their lives could very easily end in disappointment and heartbreak—not to mention the social cost of encouraging them to limit their potential to only one (albeit valuable) area. I'm not offering any solutions, but I would have been very interested to see one of the many referenced research studies compare the levels of satisfaction between stay-at-home parents who always expected that to be their role and parents who initially had different career goals.
In any case, Senior's assumption is that, lacking any other measure for success, all parents ultimately want their children to be happy, often at almost any cost to their own sanity and (ironically) happiness. But that goal, as Senior concludes, is too vague and too difficult to grasp or to measure, and at the very least will mean different things to different people. For some parents, financial success through a lucrative career is the goal; for some it is positive social and emotional connections; for others it is being able to have freedom for all kinds of interesting life experiences. Christian parents will likely have a different idea of what a "happy" life entails. It will probably have more to do with a faithful and passionate relationship with Christ and a life of service that contributes to the common good and the coming of the Kingdom.
But for Senior, what this end-goal happiness looks like isn't really the point. I'd guess that most parents don't even have a well-articulated parenting goal; their overall desires come out more as a desperate, sighing, "I just want them to be happy." Senior's focus instead is on where happiness can be found if you're a parent. In fact, the majority of the book reveals and discusses the negative impact that raising children has on parents. Nearly all the research she cites indicates that parenting is bad for our careers, our finances, and our marriages. So the big question: why do we do it? To answer this, Senior finally acknowledges that all the studies analyzing our day-to-day experiences ultimately miss something. By its nature, scientific analysis can show us what parenting does to us, but it cannot as easily indicate what parenting means to us. And there, in that immeasurable space, is the joy of parenting.
Senior's final chapter is her best. In it she delves into the incalculable joy that parenting brings. Children simultaneously complicate and simplify our lives, forcing us to focus on what matters most and to pour our hearts and our selves into someone else. For all loving parents, there is great joy in the experience and the nostalgia of raising children, even if there is not a lot of fun in the day-to-day act of it.
I think Senior's assumption that we all want our kids to be happy is correct. I absolutely want my kids to be happy—oh, how I just want them to be happy—and I think everyone wants their children to be successful and fulfilled by whatever definition of happiness they are using. Senior herself does not argue that this should be our goal, and as a Christian, I appreciate her perspective. I certainly don't think I can guarantee my children's happiness, and I don't even believe it's my job to do so. My job as a parent is not to ensure my kids' happiness or success, and it's not even to ensure that they remain strong in their faith or committed to the church. As much as I'd sometimes like to be in control of everything, those jobs are quite simply above my pay grade. Instead, my job is to act faithfully, to make the best decisions I can with the resources I've been given, and to trust the One who is in control of the over-arching story of the world, my life, and of the lives of the children I love so much. I pray that, for myself and for my children, our individual stories end in earthly happiness and contentment, but I know that tragedy, heartbreak, pain, and despair do happen and do not necessarily indicate failure. As in other areas of life, in parenting we are called to be faithful and obedient, even in the face of an unhappiness with a cause and purpose often beyond understanding.
In the final chapter of the book, Senior discusses the distinction between our "experiencing selves" and our "remembering selves." My experiencing self is the "me" who fights with Rosalie to put a coat on and who tries to decide whether or not to bribe her with a cookie. My remembering self is the "me" who, only five minutes later, looks at her walking tip-toe on the cold sidewalk in her bare feet and feels "wistful for the person [she's] about to no longer be."
But I have a confession to make about something that not many of the case studies in Senior's book seem keen to admit. This morning, after Rosalie eagerly handed me her favourite outfit, she put it on with adorable pride and gratitude and unsuppressed glee. My remembering self will absolutely look back at this whole candy cane dress episode with joy; but this morning, in that moment, even my experiencing self was pretty darn happy. Parenting this precious, stubborn, hilarious child—and her three equally complicated and wonderful sisters—is, indeed, a very difficult and stressful undertaking, but it is also a divine privilege, and sometimes even (dare I admit it?) the most fun I've ever had.Subscribe