Is becoming a parent one of the worst things that could happen to you? Over at Slate, Ruth Graham worries that it might be, based on that new genre of writing that I like to call “True Parenting.” This has become a staple of blogs and Facebook pages in recent years, and if you know any parents, or just happen to be literate, you almost certainly know what it is. Modern parents love to publicize the gory details of the relentless, noisy, messy treadmill that is child-rearing. Graham asks us to consider whether so much honesty about family life might scare would-be parents back to their studio apartments and bachelor pads. Also, as someone who herself wants to become a mother (or thought she did), she’s curious to know: Is it really that bad?
All in all, I enjoyed Graham’s piece. Without being nastily judgmental, she manages to press some good questions and cleverly highlight the oddities of the True Parenting genre. Parents complain that they can’t find a single second for themselves, but they seem to be constantly online. Clever, capable women portray themselves as screaming, hair-flying incompetents, but you know they’re actually some of the best parents out there. Is it long-form humble-bragging, or are the rest of the kids in real trouble? Also, given how much misery parenthood evidently involves, could someone offer a more adequate explanation for the “I wouldn’t change it for the world” claim that typically marks the conclusion of such missives? What if you’re happy now? Is there any reason to carpet-bomb your already-fulfilling life by having a baby?
Here’s the thing, Ruth Graham. Parenting (as you’ve surmised) is hard. People used to get some preparation for it, through babysitting and younger-sibling care, and just by living in places where kids were a regular part of life. Nowadays many people spend their early adulthood in childless university campuses or urban “kiddie deserts,” and any children are seen, if at all, only on flickering screens. It is no longer strange to make it to age 30 without ever changing a diaper. Should we be surprised if adjustment to family life is often a bit rocky?
When and if people do take the plunge, they’re expected to soldier on side by side with still-childless people who, instead of running to support and congratulate new parents, often look from the sidelines with a skeptical detachment, or even a challenging “prove to me that this hare-brained childbearing scheme won’t sweep you away into irrelevance” glare. Obviously, this does not help. When parenthood was a natural, expected step along the path to established adulthood, it probably seemed easier, but also was easier. By recasting parenthood as a choice, we’ve increased the challenges for those who do choose it, while diminishing the available support.
Having spent several years of my own pre-maternal life among childless adults (often graduate students or young professionals), I could fill a book with all the complaints I used to hear from people who seemed to regard child-rearing as a kind of elaborate hobby. Among other things, that meant parents were obliged to prevent their offspring from causing any inconvenience whatsoever to the blissfully childless. A crying baby or underfoot toddler in a public place was seen by many as a heinous, inexcusable imposition, and I wish I had a nickel for every time a childless friend griped about the same True Parenting discourses that Graham discusses, remarking that “if you didn’t want to do this, why did you have kids?”
Right, great question. Why have kids if it’s not all going to be one non-stop Norman Rockwell dream? Why have kids if they aren’t going to please and fulfill you at every turn? People’s willingness even to ask these questions reveals how shallow their view of parenthood really is. They’re the kinds of questions that we really might ask a friend who was overwrought over an actual hobby (say, wind-surfing or knitting): why do it? If every challenge provokes this same question, we’ll quickly find ourselves wondering whether there’s any point to life at all. Why work when you could just go on welfare? Why soldier through the snow and wind of a nasty winter when you could just drop all your responsibilities and move to the Bahamas? In fact, why deal with any of it when life is just so gosh-darn tough? As Epictetus observed, the door is always open.
Faced with this kind of flippant dismissal, it’s hardly surprising if the True Parenting genre gets a little aggressive at times. Those clever, capable women who now regale us with tales of poop and popsicles often came out of that same family-unfriendly atmosphere, and many have skeptical friends who are still in the no-baby zone. So it’s not surprising if they have chips on their shoulders. And yes, non-parents, they probably do want you to feel like pampered, self-centered wimps. Don’t take it too hard, though. Most parents look back on their own former selves as pampered, self-centered wimps.
Finally, I should address the most critical question: Is it worth it? If so, why? Certainly, there are cultural changes that could make the plunge into parenthood less daunting. It would be possible, too, for parents to feel less stressed and more affirmed. Still, child-rearing will always be miserable and magical, for more or less the same reasons. It’s a “happy pig or unhappy Socrates” sort of conundrum. Parenthood makes life harder, but also richer. It’s less pleasant but more meaningful. That’s because love fundamentally changes us as human beings. Like the dissatisfied Socrates, we can look on the unburdened (including our own former selves) with a certain amount of wistful envy, but it isn’t in our nature to want to stuff love back into its Pandora’s box.
For most of us, parenthood offers a uniquely effective way of making our lives about something bigger. That’s not to suggest that non-parents fritter away all their time in frivolous, self-centered amusements. But consider this. An expectant mother is literally the whole world to another human being. That’s fairly remarkable in itself. When that human is born, he will immediately recognize her voice and smell. This is one of those new-mother experiences that you don’t forget. You cradle that tiny one-hour-old person in your arms, and he gives a contented little sigh and settles right to sleep. And you think, “wow, this little guy just met me. He knows practically nothing about the world he’s just entered. But he’s anxiety-free in a way that I can’t even fully understand, just because I’m holding him.”
It’s pretty amazing. Are there other ways to be so utterly, completely irreplaceable to another human being? There can’t be many.
Of course, that incredible little person also has incredible needs, and absolutely no respect for yours. On this job, there are no after-hours, weekends or holidays, and you don’t get paid for overtime. Or regular time. You’re enslaved to the thirty-second attention span of your little monster such that even a mundane chore like bathroom-cleaning can start to look fun if only you only get to do it uninterrupted. No matter how thoroughly your physical and emotional needs get trampled, you can never quit.
An employer could never get away with drawing up a contract like the one you implicitly have with your kids. So yes, it’s reasonable to be a little bit terrified. It’s no small thing to let another person become the main star of your life. It’s even harder when you realize that one day they’ll just walk right out the door again, leaving you twenty years older but no longer able to sleep in on a Saturday morning.
Still, if the opportunity beckons, you should do it. Because if you don’t, you’ll be the person who chose the happy pig over Socrates. You don’t want to go to your grave knowing that one of your most important life decisions was to run away from love.
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas. Follow her on Twitter.