I had my first child at age 19, very young by our current cultural standards. Since then, like most parents, I’ve worked at being the best parent I can be (sometimes more successfully than others), and I have loved my children more than I ever knew was possible. At the same time, I have also endeavored to live just as fully as I would have without children.
I have never believed in sacrificing one’s personal happiness for anyone, including our kids. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t be generous; serving others is one of the most satisfying things we can do, and essential to creating the kind of world we all wish to live in. I’m not talking about the many small compromises, or momentary discomforts that come with the territory of loving someone else as much, if not more than we love ourselves. I’m talking about sacrificing the big picture. Nothing good comes from foregoing our callings, giving up our passions and dreams.
If we surrender our own success and fulfillment in order to invest everything in our children, should they grow up to sacrifice their lives in service to our grandchildren? This logic has always seemed broken to me. A vicious cycle. Nurturing ourselves and heeding our soul’s calling not only contributes to our own happiness but helps us put more light into the world in which we, our children and our grandchildren all live.
Until recently, I fooled myself to some extent into thinking of motherhood more as a relationship --- like being a sister, daughter or friend --- than a job. Not that I didn’t see it as chock-full of importance and obligation, but that it was simply a part of the fabric of our families and identities, not a vocation.
This view has served me well in many ways, as I haven’t used motherhood as an excuse to hold me back from doing or creating a lot of things I’ve been called to do in this life. I still finished college (though it took a lot longer than 4 years,) researched and wrote a thesis that moved me, performed in a circus troupe, accepted exciting job offers, took a life-changing trip to Haiti, and in a few weeks, I’ll pack my bags and head to Nicaragua to go surfing – not bad right?
On the other hand, I’ve spent many days (or typically evenings, in that hellish window between dinner and bedtime known as the 'witching hour') pulling my hair in frustration and wondering why it seems so damn hard to keep it all together, feeling like things aren’t working, and asking why it seems like other women my age are getting so much more accomplished than I am.
It wasn't until I was in my thirties and my children were 6 and 13, that I became much more real with myself about the implications that motherhood has had on my life. It is a relationship, but it is so much more; not just an enormous emotional obligation but a role full of tasks that demand a significant amount of time.
This issue regarding time is one I tried to keep secret from myself for years, but I can no longer deny its reality. So, while I continue to follow my dreams and encourage all moms and dads to do the same, I am being much more realistic about the number of hours in my day and week that are not available due to the demands of parenting. Some other activities, pursuits and achievements can and do get crowded out of the schedule.
Things are harder with children. There, I said it.
I have learned that I stress less and enjoy my family most when I work fewer hours. But when I keep my work schedule light, I experience less career satisfaction. I want to work more. I want to do more and create more. I would if I could manage it. I think it’s important that I/we start speaking up honestly about this.
When I heard about feminsting.com creator Jessica Valenti’s new book, Why Have Kids: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness I couldn’t wait to hear another feminist’s take on the topic of parenting and life satisfaction.
After giving birth to her first child, Jessica Valenti’s experience of parenting, which was less blissful than she had expected, led her to explore the social politics around child-rearing in our culture today. Putting modern parenting in a feminist context, Valenti examines the expectations we as women put on ourselves in the domain of parenting. What expectations does society place on us? How does parenting affect our lives and what changes do we still need to enact in order to make parenting a more manageable and less limiting choice?
One area I found brilliant was that Valenti encourages moms not to look at parenting as “the hardest job you’ll ever do,” arguing that this puts too much pressure on moms to put aside their other dreams and passions in the seemingly noble pursuit of being the perfect parent. This really resonated with me and my philosophy on parenting.
In response to one mom-blogger’s online manifesto declaring parenting the hardest and most important role we can possibly play, Valenti responds:
“We must believe that parenting is the most rewarding, the hardest, and the most important thing we will ever do. Because if we don’t believe it, then the diaper changing, the mind-numbing Dora watching, the puke cleaning, and the “complete self-sacrifice” that we’re “locked in for life to” is all for nothing. We must believe it because the truth is just too damn depressing.”
Whether you have children, or are considering having them, I recommend this book because it helps shed light on some of the common pitfalls parents can avoid, and encourages critical discussion around the impact this choice has on us.
At times, Why Have Kids? seems more like a defense of child-free living than a call to empowered mom-hood. Though I believe the author's intent was to open up a dialogue, rather than to argue for or against parenthood, the book frequently cites studies that show parents who are having children for “the joy of it” are ending up unhappier than their child-free peers.
While the responsibilities that come with having children would certainly seem to lead to added stress and frustration, I wonder whether the studies mentioned measure positive affect or whether they refer to overall life satisfaction? These are sometimes broken up into two separate categories in positive psychology as “happiness” can be too vague a term. Do parents expect more moments of joy? More sense of purpose or belonging in their lives? More love?
Although parenting has provided me with plenty of stress and a greater workload, it has also afforded me the opportunity to experience a capacity for love, compassion and generosity I might never have otherwise experienced.
I think Why Have Kids? could have looked more closely at the idea of love/meaning as the reason for becoming a parent, rather than coming back to the default word “happiness” so frequently.
There are many reasons why I had children. Among them: love, chance, societal expectations, and perhaps a desire for immortality -- a part of me that lives on when my time here is up.
I'd also say that when I imagined life without kids, I often wondered who I would spend special occasions with in my older years. I liked the idea of having adult children, and maybe grandchildren who would come together to celebrate holidays and milestones.
I encourage everyone to consider their reasons for having children, or not having them. However, like any important choice, don't let fear or guilt be the deciding factor. Following any calling is challenging and at times unpleasant. Becoming a parent is scary. So is standing up for not wanting to be one in the face of other's expectations.
As for me, I will continue to treasure my children, while at the same time fighting for my career, my creativity, my self-expression and most definitely, my happiness.