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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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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jonalee #

    I think as parents, in the baby and toddler stage you are building the affection and connections that get you through the rest of parenting. I see a secure confidence in my children by building that foundation. Then we need to be available as they grow up. Every stage is different. I have enjoyed every stage, sometimes some more than others… But there is a real part of us parents that really want that feeling that we are contributing. I am not saying that we are not by being home, it is just that feeling that you have one thing that you do well and are at least a little good at besides changing diapers and cooking dinner. When my kids were preschool age, my husband would come home from a business trip and I would kiss him and say, “here you go I will be back in an hour” and go pick up Starbucks and take a walk. You need a few moments to feel like a grown up. Some days I have just had to choose joy and when I did it spilled out onto my kids. I will never regret choosing joy, but I might need 15 min of quiet to make that decision. LOL! Loch is so lucky to have an amazing mom like you. You are just saying what most moms are truly thinking when no one is watching.

    November 19, 2012
  2. I cannot tell you how much this resonates with me right now, Leigh!!

    November 19, 2012
  3. Dana #

    I could so relate to this! Bravo once again Leigh! This blog, like your others, is incredibly well written and poignant.

    November 19, 2012
  4. Big, BIG hugs to you, Leigh! I may be “super-homeschooler-craft-projects-mom,” but I have to tell you — I don’t like playing, either. Playing a board or card game is one thing, but I’m just not that into fairies and cars and princesses and dinosaurs. Peace be with you, and thanks for the reassurance that it’s not just me! –Kelly

    November 19, 2012
  5. Heather #

    Your honesty made me weepy. Mother of twins here, and I totally get it and feel much much better after reading your blog. My attention is divided in two. Some days, most days I feel that neither gets what they need from me unless a caregiver comes to help. It takes a village and I wish we had that around and were a society that held that practice. Anyway, well done and thanks

    November 19, 2012
  6. OJ #

    Leigh – So thrilled to read this and find your blog. Just brilliant. Lochlan is a lucky little munchkin to have so much love, even if his mum doesn’t excel at “playing”….frankly, one day he might come to the same realization as you and discover that playing ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

    November 21, 2012
  7. Laurie Wallace #

    So true. Funny, no one told us before we had our kids that we might feel this way at some point.

    Love, Laurie

    November 22, 2012
  8. Shan #

    Ah! The honesty that lies beneath the doting smile of all of us exhausted mothers! Thanks so much for speaking my own heart so eloquently 🙂

    November 28, 2012

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