Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Kvetchiest Generation

Does having kids make people less happy?

According to New York Magazine's July 12 cover story, and the research discussed within it, the answer is pretty much yes, if you're talking about day-to-day, moment-to-moment happiness. And the answer is no if you're talking about how having children makes life purposeful, meaningful, and connected.  In other words, in the long run, you'll be glad you had kids, if you did -- and regret not having them if you didn't.  But in the short run, while you're bringing up kids, well, you're going identify with articles like this one, which is subtitled, "The Misery Of The American Parent."  (You can read the full article here:  "All Joy And No Fun".)

I found myself nodding in recognition and ruefully reading portions of this article aloud to Late Blooming Dad as we hurtled through time and space above the continental U.S., making our way home with our kids on a west-bound jet after a harried, hurried summer "vacation" visiting family and friends in New York City and suburbs. 
Granted, I wasn't in the best frame of mind on this plane ride, as no "vacation" with "kids" is really a vacation, it's a trip; for this insight I credit an old friend of mine who happens to be a father of three.  But in any frame of mind I'd have likely found my experience as a middle class, dual earner household in present-day urban America resonated with what's explored in this article.

Some of the findings that stuck with me are these:  parents actually spend more time with their kids per week now than parents did in the 1970s, even if both parents are working now.  Yet that time isn't exactly happy-fun-Kodak-Moment time, because parents are tired and cranky from work by the time they're haranguing the kids to do homework, brush teeth, get into PJs, etc.  Parents have LESS time alone with their spouses than before, so relationships suffer after having kids; and parents are busy ferrying kids to and from classes and lessons and various enrichment activities, where once upon a time, kids rode their bikes around their neighborhoods and played unsupervised, or at least with less adult supervision, thus giving their parents more "me" time. Parents seem to worry more now about preparing their kids to get into a great college, say, or be competitive in a more competitive professional world.    And today's parents take more parenting classes, and read more parenting books, than our parents' generation ever did.

Sometimes I wonder if we're making it all a bit too complicated.  I think back to what one wise dad friend of mine said right after I had my twins:  "It's as hard as you make it."

But on the other hand ... it IS really hard.

This past week in NY was proof of that.

Oh, the whining that went on during the 20 minutes or so it took Late Blooming Dad and I to push our kids in strollers across the Brooklyn Bridge.  We the parents were melting, dripping, drooping from the heat and humidity.  But the kids, who I remind you were IN STROLLERS, were IMPOSSIBLE.  There we were, trying to take in the sheer awesomeness of this architectural, engineering wonder, the incredible views of the Statue of Liberty, lower and Mid-town Manhattan skyscrapers, the grace of the bridge itself, and there were our kids, insisting that it was taking "forever" and they were "too tired" to keep going, and asking repeatedly, "when are we going to BE there."

An hour later, there we were cutting into a steaming pizza straight from the coal oven at Grimaldi's below the bridge, after waiting in line to experience this legendary spot and bribing the kids with cold water and the promise of ice cream after.  Our always pizza-loving kids REFUSED TO EAT THE PIZZA.  They sat and whined and continued to whine until we finished every last slice, and I can't really say I enjoyed a bite of it as a result.  They kept up the complaining until a stop down the street at the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, where their undeserving selves were treated to cold, creamy, delicious treats, which finally, at long last, turned them -- and one of our few precious vacation days -- around.

The trip was one hard day after another.  Sure, the hot weather didn't help.  And family visits aren't always easy, even if our extended family is lower maintenance than most. 

It'd be one thing if the only problem was family trips feeling like a grind.

But that's what every day life often feels like.  And the article reinforced this feeling.

So many times I find myself resentful of their fits when they don't get their way, when they take what seems like hours to choose what bathing suit to wear to swim lesson, or when they refuse to eat what I've prepared for them despite the fact that it's what they said they wanted even just minutes before.  So many moments I snap out of sheer exhaustion, and frustration.  So many times I want to get it through their little heads that so much of what I do, I do for them -- to feed them, to clothe them, to educate them, to make them feel loved and secure.  Yet I know damn well they have no idea how many hours, how much money, how much care and thought and worry goes into their upkeep and general welfare.

So often I resent the lack of time to myself, time I used to have SOOOOOO much more of, and the lack of which I feel all the more acutely for having had kids later in life.  I know exactly what I gave up to have them.

So often I miss my freedom of movement, long for the ability to leave the house the moment I decide to do so, instead of having to pack enough clothing and provisions to make an ascent of Everest every time I go out, and have my departure delayed by the sudden, urgent need Thing 1 or Thing 2 experiences to bring along something that of course, at this very moment, cannot be located.

And yet, and yet, and yet ....

I don't regret having kids.

They DO allow me to feel my life is purposeful and rewarded, connected and rich, just like the article also says.

Moments of every day, they are off-the-charts adorable.  Sweet.  Loving. Gorgeous.  Kind.  Gentle.  Joyful.

It's just that they somehow manage to morph from adorable into pains in the ass just at the moment when my ability to cope with their pain-in-the-assness is at its lowest. 

I have held it together when they took twenty minutes to select the appropriate pair of socks for school today, and made us all late.  I have held it together when they've delayed and delayed bedtime time with requests for water, the sudden need to pee again, and the refusal to make a decision on the crucial question of what book will be read aloud to them by flashlight.  I have held it together when I've had to change their sheets at four a.m. knowing I have to be up and ready to work in a pitiful few hours, and I already stayed up too late filling out their forms for summer camp.

But after holding it together so many times a day, I inevitably get to a point where I am NOT going to be able to hold it together another goddamn second.  I blow up.  I yell.  I stomp my own foot down.  I slam a door.  I snap at my husband. I storm back into my kids' room, after storming out, and make them feel so guilty they're going to tell their daddy, "Mommy doesn't love us anymore."  And after he tells me, it's a pretty easy to see why that NY Magazine cover proclaims, "I Love My Children.  I Hate My Life."

It's moments like those that prompted me to turn to Late Blooming Dad one night in bed recently and say, "I don't understand.  I wanted this.  So why am I so angry?"

Clearly my expectations for parenthood must've been way out of whack.  I know I didn't really expect it to be all moments in which you catch your son's flaxen-haired highlights glinting in the sun while he turns and gives you the most delighted smile, or when your daughter spots you enter the preschool play yard and runs to greet you with wide open arms and a hug for the ages. 

But until you're in it, you can't know the drudgery of parenthood, nor the relentlessness of it.  There is ALWAYS something more you need to do for your kids before you go to bed at night.  There is always another meal to plan and prepare.  There is always another cold, another rash, another booboo.  There are trips to the emergency room and there are routine check-ups.  There are schools to find, and camps, and classes.  There are birthday parties for which presents must be bought.  And there are moments when an overtired, overwhelmed, cranky kid pushes every button you have, and steps on your very last nerve.

Maybe parenting isn't really as hard today as this article makes it out to be.  Maybe we're all just a bunch of kvetches compared to our own parents, expecting too much from being a parent while making it harder for ourselves.  But I don't remember my own parents being this harried.  I don't think they would have described parenting as a "nineteen-year grind," the way someone in the article does.

I remember having a lot of fun with them.

It's not that my brother and I weren't pains in the asses.  I'm sure we were.  But my parents did a lot of stuff with us they seemed to be enjoying, or at least, I remember my parents that way.  I know my mom and dad and I had our conflicts, especially through my late adolescence.  But I don't know if either of them ever got to a "I love my children, I hate my life" moment.  Somehow I doubt it.

My take-away from New York Magazine's piece, in the end, is that even though me and my fellow parenting contemporaries may be less happy, moment-to-moment, than our parents were, at least nobody out there is saying it's a walk in the park; parenting today, for various reasons, isn't much fun too much of the time, but at least we're all pissy about this together.  And there's some comfort, if cold comfort, in that.

If our parents were part of the Greatest Generation, when it comes to parenting, ours is the kvetchiest generation.  But at least we're all kvetching together.  

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