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Being a Parent versus Parenting

Dear Lochlan,

I’m sorry. Sometimes I feel as if I’m failing you. My personal struggles have a way of seeping into our life together. I’m tired and frustrated and I don’t always have the energy to do all I should for you. No, that’s not fair. I do everything I should for you. What I don’t do is all you’d like me to, and if I’m being perfectly honest, only part of that is because I don’t have the energy. The other part is because I don’t really want to.

As I said before in Pre K, I’m kind of sucky at “playing”. Moving cars or trains around on the floor with no game plan makes me twitchy. I’m happy to engage in a board game. I dig building. I’ve made more inanimate objects talk than I can possibly count and I’ve embodied every bad guy from this planet and beyond for you to destroy and capture, but I can only do it in ten to thirty minute intervals before I start planning my escape. I love talking to you. I love going places with you. I love singing and visiting and hugging and snuggling, but playing, just random “play with me” moments, exhaust me. I’m not four. I’m not a boy. I have nowhere near the energy you do and there are so many other things I need (or would like) to be doing. I love to work. Love it. It makes me feel good. I like using my brain. I feel pride in a job well done. I aspire to do better, be better, than I am, not just as a parent but as a person. Despite the fact that my life closer resembles a 1950’s housewife than the millennium power player I thought I’d be, I still aspire for things to be different. I cook and clean and do laundry because it needs to be done. I research the best schools and camps because I want you to be happy and fulfilled. I take you from class to class and involve you in extracurricular, play dates and sports because that’s what a good mother does, but I’m not fulfilled by it. I’d love to be one of those women I see at preschool drop off in full Lulu Lemon on her way to spinning, but my finances can’t stretch to exercise classes, and I don’t have time to waste those two and a half hours on something as frivolous as me. I have to get home, attempt to be creative on cue, then return to my job as a full time mother.

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I love being your mom but being a parent is sometimes a tough pill to swallow. There are days, like recently, when you were furious at me for A: choosing “totally the wrong shorts”, B: having the audacity to take off your long sleeve shirt so you wouldn’t be hot, and C: “interrupting” you, all before I’d even had a chance to brush my teeth, when I just want to say, I’m out, and go catch a movie. I don’t want to be away from you for long, but sometimes I could use an afternoon, an evening, a day, when I wasn’t in charge. I think that’s not so much selfish as self preservation.

I recently read an article in the New York Magazine called All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting, that gave weight to some of the more complicated feelings surrounding parenthood and that ultimately, made me feel a bit better (and more justified) in my shortcomings.

The article points out that being a parent is something that most of us chose and when asked, would say we would be miserable without. I agree wholeheartedly with this as having you was an active choice that I can’t imagine living without. The article, however, goes on to say that most people assume having children will make them happier yet “a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not, in fact, happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so.”  The article quotes a 2004 study by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winning behavioral economist who, after surveying 909 working Texas women found that “child care ranked sixteenth in pleasurability out of nineteen activities.” * Preferred activities included cooking, exercising, TV, talking on the phone, napping, shopping, even cleaning. The article suggests that perhaps much of the problem may be attributed to the fact that raising children has fundamentally changed.

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“Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity. As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed. (The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child’s value in five ruthless words: “Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”) Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses.”

Reading that resonated on many levels. I do see childhood as a privileged and protected time. You’re an adult with responsibilities for so long that I think having the opportunity to be a child without pressure is key, but I also want you to go as far as you can in life and with that hope comes a certain amount of stress. According to the article I’m not alone. Apparently middle and upper class families are particularly susceptible to unhappiness as they are more likely to “see their children as projects that need to be perfected”.  Though your Dad and I try so hard to not put that anxiety on ourselves, or worse, on you, the fact of the matter is there’s so much competition, so much emphasis on making the “right” choices and choosing the “right” path that it becomes overwhelming. The article acknowledges that feeling saying, “middle-class parents spend much more time talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution. And this is very tiring work.” Yet it appears that level of diligence is something few parents feel they can neglect “lest they put their children at risk by not giving them every advantage.”  It’s a tough road to navigate and one that leaves very little energy left for for Ninjango, let alone doing something for yourself.

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According to research, all parents today, regardless of social status, seem to spend more time with their kids than (when I was born) in 1975. “Today’s married mothers have less leisure time (5.4 fewer hours per week), 71 % desire more time for themselves (as do 57% of married fathers), and yet 85% still think they don’t spend enough time with their children.”

The article reminds us a few generations ago “people weren’t stopping to contemplate whether having a child would make them happy. Having children was simply what you did.” It goes on to say “We’re lucky today to have choices about these matters, but the abundance of choices—whether to have kids, when, how many—may be one of the reasons parents are less happy.” 

It also matters what age you are when you have your kids: “When you become a parent later in life there’s a loss of freedom, a loss of autonomy. It’s totally different from going from your parents’ house to immediately having a baby. Now you know what you’re giving up.”  There’s no more “let’s meet up for dinner” or “wanna catch a movie?” Your freedom and autonomy no longer exist, you traded them for parenthood, and for the most part you also traded your disposable income and marriage first mentality.

It’s been said that you should always put your relationship first, that a happy marriage makes a happy family, but in real life that can prove quite difficult. Thomas Bradbury, father of two and professor of psychology at UCLA, says: “Being in a good relationship is a risk factor for becoming a parent.” Psychologists Lauren Papp and E. Mark Cummings asked 100 long-married couples to spend two weeks meticulously documenting their disagreements. Nearly 40 percent of them were about their kids. “And that 40 percent is merely the number that was explicitly about kids, many other arguments were ones couples were having because they were on a short fuse, tired, or stressed out.” According to Changing Rhythms of American Family Life one of the biggest problems with marriages with children “is the amount of time married parents spend alone together each week: Nine hours today versus twelve in 1975.” Husbands and wives apparently spend less than 10 percent of their home time alone together. “And it’s mostly just two tired people staring at the TV.” 

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Lest you feel depressed my love, or feel I’m somehow saying having you was a drain on my happiness or a detriment to your father’s and my marriage, I will tell you that is unequivocally not the case. Your father and I are stronger as a couple because we are both so devoted to our family. If anything you have brought us closer together. Life, in itself is more of a strain, but statistics (and my heart) will confirm that “though parenting might make people unhappy, not parenting makes people feel worse.” That when we “take stock of our life, in the end, it isn’t by how much fun we had, but what we did with it.” Children give us a real sense of purpose and a point to our lives. It might not always be fun, but it’s exceptionally rewarding. Tom Gilovich, a psychologist at Cornell highlighted the concept of “retrospective happiness”. The idea of looking back on our good times – the very things that in the moment might have felt like a complete drag – but later can become the “source of intense gratification, nostalgia and delight.”

I know this to be true. You’re only four and a half and I already feel it. It might be just a trip to Target or grocery shopping or brushing your teeth. Time we’re simply filling in, or errands that just have to be done – those ho hum, nothing special, moments between moments – but in retrospect those times are some of the best. It’s time just spent together, snippets of connected activity where I get to steal a kiss or two from your sweet skin and talk with you about everything and nothing. Days I know I’ll look back on with nostalgia and longing. I may miss my old life. I may have days when I desire my autonomy. Times when explaining why it’s not “unfair” that you can’t have a mall pretzel at 5:30pm is just too much, when the selfish takes over and I can’t bare to pick up another toy, or I just want to shut my door and be alone, but I wouldn’t give any of it up for the world. You are by far the best thing I’ve ever done, my most prized accomplishment. In my heart of hearts, I know even if I don’t get as far as I’d like in my professional life, looking at you makes me feel like a success. I love you. Your presence has blessed my life.

There are so many moments as a parent that make it worth it. Moments that melt your heart with joy and make you say things like, “God, we’re so lucky” and if you can accept that there will also be times of exhausting, overwhelming tedium, extended moments where you wonder where your life went, then you’re well on your way to being a happy and successful parent. Your Gigi tells a story about when your Dad and Uncle Matt were young and she would sneak out to the garage just to hide in the car and have a break. I always thought that was a hilarious image, but now that I’m a parent it’s starting to look like a pretty good idea.

Why do you think I have so many magazines in the bathroom?

I love you kiddo. Cut me a little slack will ya?

xoxo your loving Mom

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*all quotes from Jennifer Senior, New York Magazine, “Why Parents Hate Parenting” July 4, 2010

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Halloween

I am posting a week early because I believe a post on Halloween will feel less relevant next week. With the election tomorrow, I anticipate there will be other things to discuss than goblins and candy corn. To that point, I’d like to encourage everyone to get out and vote tomorrow. This is an incredibly important election and I hope you’ll vote with both your head and your heart. xo leigh

I love Halloween. I love dressing up. My family loves dressing up. We’re those people. We decorated our house with (mostly) home made decorations on September 29th, we bobbed for apples in our backyard, Sean sewed his and Loch’s costume and we throughly enjoyed everything the holiday had to offer from picking out our pumpkins at the local farm, to Monster Mash playing in our house day and night. We love it all. That’s why, when our trick or treating turned out to be kind of disappointing this year I was bummed. It’s like when you love a book so much and then the ending falls flat. You feel kind of like Meh (and yes, I’m talking to you The Historian).

We were really excited to go out. Halloween night is the culmination of an entire month of anticipation and our expectations were high. This year we were kindly invited to join Lochie’s best friend, his family and some of their extended friends in the tony neighbourhood of Tuluca Lake, CA. It’s a beautiful area, filled with houses ranging from lovely medium size homes to humongous, bohemeth estates of the extraordinarly wealthy. The problem is it also seems to have become one of the “it” places to be if you’re on the hunt for candy and a killer Halloween atmosphere. It’s a full size chocolate bar neighbourhood if you get my drift. We were psyched to be included in our group. We love the family and being there seemed legit because we weren’t just driving ourselves to a cool neighborhood to knock on doors. It’s where our friends ACTUALLY live. It’s also an area I can imagine buying a house, because even with it’s obvious 2%ness, it retains it’s old school neighborhood feel. People know each other, talk to the dog walkers, notice when things seem off and generally seem pretty friendly. So, despite the fact that it, like the rest of the residential streets in the valley, has very few street lights, it seemed to be the perfect place for our little costumed babies to experience trick or treating.

We were a small(ish) group of four families with the oldest being six and the youngest being two. We started our evening enjoying pizza and taking pictures of the kids. Sean and I were the only parents dressed up but, that’s us, and pretty soon the people who didn’t know us understood we weren’t so much weird as enthusiastic and accepted us as such. Around 6pm we started walking the neighborhood while it was still light. From a favorite Disney phenom cum rocker’s house where her staff give candy out in front of her closed gate, to the family who’d deliberately taken their gates off the hinges to make their house look haunted, the neighborhood was fantastic. We crisscrossed the street and the kids were having a ball.

As the darkness came so did the big kids. Personally I think there should be a mandatory cut off on trick or treaters. Just as we aren’t supposed to drink in this country till 21, I think trick or treating should be cut off at 13. If there’s a “teen” in your age, you’re too old. I understand that I sound Grincy (or whatever the Halloween equivilent would be) but if you’re out in big groups with your high school friends and your pillowcases pushing ahead of the little kids you’re doing something wrong.

We ended up at a dead end street called the Tuluca Lake Estates which is basically a mecca for entertainment industry big wigs who do it up BIG for Halloween. One lawn had a life size pirate ship, complete with strobe lights, fake wind and sound effects. Another house, which apparently chooses a new theme every year, capitalized on the love of all things Super Hero and had decorated with dozens of skeletons dressed in destroyed superhero costumes, posed in full battle. Aqua Man held a trident to Superman’s neck. Spiderman had reduced Ironman to a helmet and a pile of bones. Another lawn had at least ten life size ghosts playing ring around the rosie. This one street was like a theme park and it was at once both completely fabulous and total bedlam.

The surrounding streets were bumper to bumper parking. No one could drive anywhere. There was a stretch golf cart tooting around a bunch of mouthy early teens yelling “Move!” to anyone who got in their way. Hundreds of people had obviouly heard about this neighborhood and it was as if they were getting dropped off by the bus load. Every house had a line of at least twenty-five people (often double or triple that) clamering for candy. The home owners (or in most cases their nannies and housekeepers) sat in their driveways or on their front porch behind tables. One house even set up a velvet rope to keep the crowds in check. There was no time to interact. No time for the person giving out candy to say “Oh, and what are you?” No time for the generous homeowners (who were easily spending $1000-$2000 on candy) to appreciate the kids in their costumes. No room for the kids to check out the decorations that had been so elaborately set out for their enjoyment. I would have loved to really look around, to take it all in, but it was all I could do to keep my eye on my little jedi and his pirate friend amidst the dark and the crowds. I took to taking them up to every house, clutching their little hands, lest I lose track of them. The candy line was like a convayer belt and, honestly, it was kind of depressing.

This is literally on someone’s front lawn.

As we were pushed aside by bigger and bigger kids (and I’m talking 13-20 – most just in jeans) I felt more and more irritated. I started saying things outloud like, “There’s a line” and “You’re going to knock a four year old over, really?” For every nice teen waiting their turn who had  put together a cool costume  – big shout out to the Book of Mormon kids who could sing the opening number, the awesome Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and my matching Princess Lea who wanted her picture with me,  you guys were great – there were ten, burly, shouldn’t be out, little jerks jamming up the streets and elbowing their way past the pre-schoolers. When I was young no self respecting teenager was still going door to door. Or, if they were, it was later, after the little kids were done. You didn’t need a watch back then, as soon as the big kids came out, you knew it was time to go home.

This, however, was chaos and I think the ones who suffered most (aside from the parents who looked strung out and tired) were the kids. The boys never let go of my hands. The pirate kept telling me he was scared and my jedi was seriously put out to wait in a line. Loch was asking to go home by the end of the dead end street. It was no longer fun. It was overwhelming.

What happened to trick or treating in your own neighborhood or like us, the neighborhood of your friends? Driving thirty minutes to get to the “right” neighborhood is weird. It’s like dragging your kids to best fishing spot to “catch the big one” when all they want to do is drop a line off the end of your dock. The houses were amazing but we couldn’t enjoy them. Even the people who owned them, and had gone to all the trouble, weren’t getting much out of it. It was an onslaught and probably why they delegated their candy job to the help.

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At the end of the day if you asked Loch if he had a good time he’d say yes, he dressed up and hung out with his friends, but as his mother, I know it could have been better. I miss the old days before we started supersizing everything. I missed the purity of watching my kid trip up someone’s walkway to ring their bell. I missed watching from the street as he spoke to the home owner and received his candy. Last year he was a vampire and everyone kept saying, “Oh, look Dracula!” and he’d say, “No, I’m a vampire.” not knowing that Dracula was, in fact, the most famous vampire. I missed him running back to us to show us his goodies and I was sorry not to be able to interact with the other adults in our group without worrying we’d lose track of our children in a mob. Secretly, I even missed my voyaristic love of peeking into other’s people’s homes. We had a lovely time with our friends back at their house but I prefer trick or treating when it’s more wholesome and less commercial. I appreciate the expensive decorations but they come with too many fans. I’m ok with a hand carved jack o’lantern on the front porch and I favor a Halloween that’s more cute superheros and less evil clowns. This year was a perfect example of how bigger is not always better. Sure, Loch came away with a lot of loot, but he was happiest when we got home and he was able to hand out candy and play with his friends. He felt safe there, and in that happiness he could finally relax and just enjoy the holiday he loves so much.

I couldn’t agree with him more.