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Posts tagged ‘parenthood’

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.

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.

“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.

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.”

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

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

A Mother’s Contribution

Ok, so after some feedback on my post regarding my feelings of failure for having nothing to show for myself and my days but random errands, I would like to clarify that I in no way under value my role as a mother. I am aware of the positive contribution I’m making to both my son’s life and to society as a whole by creating a kind and loving person who might someday add to the world. Being a mom is no joke and whether you are a stay at home mom or a working mom I believe it is truly the most important job you can have. That being said however, motherhood, though infinitely rewarding, can also be totally thankless. Your life quickly becomes reflected solely in your child’s contribution to the world. If your son is behaving like an angel you can feel good about yourself because obviously you are an excellent mother. If, however, your little angel is acting like a total brat – God forbid in public – then you can kiss your feelings of self worth good bye because you are clearly blowing it.  For those mothers who are completely fulfilled by raising their children I say kudos. It’s certainly a real job and doing it should be enough. I’m just finding it’s not enough for me.

I think these feelings stem from a combination of things. How I was raised and the expectations, real or imagined, that come with that. How I want to be living and the difficulty of those dreams culminating realistically in today’s world and, my personality – charming or otherwise – that is constantly striving to be “better”. I grew up in what I would refer to as a post-feminist world. A world where I didn’t fight for equal rights but expected them. A time were statistically a woman’s paycheck may still be less than a man’s, but theoretically I could do whatever a man could. I was raised in the “have it all” generation. I could have a successful and rewarding career and still be a amazing hands-on mother. All career paths were open to me and the sky was the limit. I used to worship this amazing mom that lived down the street. She was a gorgeous, successful lawyer with 2 kids and a great marriage. I babysat for them and I thought, that is the type of woman I want to be. When she quit her job to stay home with her kids full time it almost killed me. What was she doing? When they moved out of the city to to be able to afford a bigger place I was floored. Just go back to work and get a bigger place in the city! What was going on with my role model? She was really letting me down.

As a grown woman I now understand. We can’t have it all. Or maybe we can, but not all at the same time. We have to make sacrifices along with our choices, and that’s something they don’t teach in school. I went to a top notch, private, all girls school where I was exposed to infinite opportunities and almost limitless possibilities for my life. I excelled there. I was a student leader and debater, the lead in plays and the captain of the swim team. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t “make” it. My mom used to joke that I better marry someone really wealthy to keep up the lifestyle  to which I’d become accustomed. I was insulted. Marry rich?! ! Please! I was going to be rich and successful myself!  Coming from my kind of background, if you don’t end up with a really awesome job – the corner office, the medical degree or, in my case, as a Hollywood player – you can feel like a failure. You had every opportunity and you squandered it. I’m not rich and successful yet, so I beat myself up. I push harder and often find it difficult to truly enjoy my life because I feel like I’m not moving forward. Stay at home mom was not a Career. Capital C. It was something our mother’s did when the options were limited. We were the new generation. We could be anything. We could be Someone. I’m not Someone, so I sometimes feel like a no one.

Maybe it’s just a no win situation. Stay-at-home mom’s feel like they should be working. Working mom’s feel like they should be home more. You want kids but don’t have the right partner or you have the right partner but don’t want kids and then feel you have to apologize for that…

I have lots of friends who love their jobs but are still struggling financially. Maybe they’re happy or maybe they beat themselves up too. Of that I’m not sure. What I do know is, for the most part, we all want what we had growing up…plus more. We want it to be better for our children than it was for us. Problem is, it’s a lot more expensive to have the basics these days, let alone more. Things you want for your children – a nice home, top notch education, food, hell…organic food, enrichment classes, college, let alone all the stuff these kids need today – costs money. If you aren’t making money you feel you aren’t contributing. So many people have 2 working parents just to keep up with the bills and expectations they have for themselves. People are mortgaged to the hilt to live the lifestyle they grew up with or the lifestyle they think they need. When the economy fell apart in the US 2 years ago, it was the first time Sean and I were relieved to be behind the 8 ball. We had no 401 K to deplete, no house to lose, no stock portfolio to tank. Life as an actor is already feast or famine so the job market remained about the same for us. When you live like that and you have 7 years of post graduate studies on your resume you feel like an loser that you aren’t contributing. And contributing in today’s world means making money. Being Someone means having a Career or at least a job. I feel more successful saying I’m a writer than I do saying I’m a mom. What does that say about me?

I love being a mom. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’m proud of myself. I’m exceptionally proud of my son. But am I reaching my full potential? I don’t want my sense of self worth to be totally tied up in him. I don’t want his success in life to be a direct reflection of my success in life.  That’s not fair to him or to me. I need something that is all mine. Something that makes me, me. And I’m still looking for it. When I find it I think I’ll feel more complete. When I find it, quite frankly, I think I’ll be a better mom.

Then I’ll tell him to marry rich.

Cassie Pappas Photography