Parenting the Kids You Don’t Parent

A friend of mine who is a stay-at-home-mother of three young children recently confided in me that she had read an article in NY Magazine that was causing her to lose sleep at night. The article’s thesis, she explained, was that people without children are happier than people with children. RED FLAGS. Elevated blood pressure, curiosity… I had to read this article. I had to see what was bothering her, how the article defined happiness, what this new piece of media poisoning was doing to the minds of the courageous individuals in our nation’s first city who are trying to raise families there.

So, I present to you the article. You may read it and form your own conclusions, but I would also like to share mine. The women profiled in the article are all women who work outside of the home. Some of the most poignant anecdotes describe the frustrating behavior they encounter from their children in the evenings when they are home with them. These kids disobey, throw tantrums and are often disrespectful. One of the article’s conclusions is that these annoying childish tendencies are interfering with the parents’ zen, and furthermore, preventing the parents from being able to spend valuable time together. How about this as my alternate hypothesis. These children have been entrusted to another adult’s care for probably nine hours a day. The mother has done her best to hire someone who shares her child-rearing philosophy, but it is still probably a far cry from the guidance and discipline she would provide her own children. Does the nanny worry about whether the child will turn into a good adult, a Godly man or woman or is she just trying to make it through the day with a minimum of strife and make it back to her own family in the cheaper suburbs of NYC? Are there nannies who read parenting books? Or have most of them just discovered that being a nanny in NYC is a lucrative occupation and one in high demand? I found this article infuriating because while it does depict many of the troubling behavioral traits children manifest as a result of not having the full-time care of one of their parent’s, the author refuses to offer any explanation of why the kids act this way. It does not call a spade a spade. The article never even dances around the conclusion that these parents might enjoy the task of parenting their children more if they  invested greater amounts of time in shaping the children’s habits and behaviors rather than prioritizing earning a second paycheck outside the home.

Parenting is really hard. The article does a great job of making that clear. Parenting gets harder and harder as life becomes more modern or post-modern or whatever the avant garde term is. The article also makes that clear. However, the article fails to offer a hard-hitting, hard-to-hear solution to dual-working parents’ misery. How about they stop being dual-working-parents? Someone has to give it their all. It is going to be hard on that person. I know, I am her. I am quite ill-suited to be a stay-at-home mother, but I am giving it my all. And then I give it some more. I am not trying to be sanctimonious, I only want to explain that I believe staying at home with your children is an act of the will, not a “make-me happy- lifestyle choice”. I am no God-made preschool teacher, but I am home with preschoolers.

You know what I am rewarded with? My oldest child is starting to manifest her own: sense of humor, intellectual curiosity, ability to empathize, warmth toward her young siblings, fascination with the English language. She is polite to strangers, she has an endearing sense of wild fashion, she likes to invent things. She helps around the house. She spends so much time with me, that she understands when I “need some alone time” and will find a way to offer me that. Six years! Granted, we are in the “latency period” of childhood, annoyingly described in the article, but the time invested in her upbringing has been well worth it. She makes my husband and I very happy… whatever “happiness” is. More importantly, we have acknowledged the awesome responsibility with which we have been entrusted — to guide new human souls into a closer relationship with their fellow humans, and their heavenly Father on their way to life in eternity with Him.

I am pretty sure that outweighs my ability so spend time living abroad seeking out professional fulfillment, but maybe that is just me?

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  • readingmama

    Here here. I look forward to reading the article. There was another article in the WSJ about children and happiness that was partly a humor piece but came out with the conclusion that it was worth having more kids. Life is hard and when we think about ourselves first and foremost that just makes life harder. It isn't surprising that our culture that promotes self above everything else (I like to call it the Oprahfication of everything) produces unhappy people who are also very selfish.

  • Big Mama

    Excellent analysis AWOL!Your child's sole purpose on this earth is not to make YOU, the parent, happy! Apparently, this is lost on some member's of our modern, individualist, society. What a terrible way to approach parenting.

  • JurisMater

    AWOL, I think this is the best, most heartfelt and clearheaded analysis of this type of thinking that I've ever read. Thank you! I'll re-read it 5 more times with great pleasure and comment more later as the discussion continues… this is extraordinary.

  • Rosemary

    I haven't read all of the article (I know, I know…) but I have read of “happiness research” which finds that having children makes people less “happy” and that the effect becomes more pronounced when the children are teenagers. The issue of course is whether day-to-day happiness of the type recorded in diaries is really what we're going for by having children of if we're looking for a different type or quality of happiness, something only visible or apparent in the longterm, or whether the search for happiness is a red herring, because most people want children no matter how stressed it may make them.I don't even think you have to bring the work piece into it. The stressors are different, but both situations are not necessarily conducive to day-to-day happiness, to be honest. (Or at any rate, not every day). Having gone back to work parttime recently after being home with small kids for 7 years, I have noticed a sudden and dramatic increase in my own happiness, though the effect on the happiness of my family has been mixed. I don't think it's fair to say that babysitters are making children spoiled brats who are unpleasant to be around, and therefore parenting is unpleasant (I think we could equally blame other stresses of urban life) as much as that having to switch gears is stressful, and being at work reminds me of the fun of being able to do things on my own, which makes the restrictions of caring for kids (esp at the end of the day when tired) feel more restrictive. That said, I savor my nonworking days with the kids more knowing that they are limited. Whether this “dual working parents' misery” (which is feeling pretty good to me) could be avoided by having one parent stay home as primary caregiver is debatable, but in my case it was only replaced by a different set of unhappinesses. Choose your poison, I guess I'm saying. Having children has its challenges but I'd do it over in a second and I believe most people would too, which makes issues of happiness/unhappiness seem completely irrelevant.

  • B-mama

    Great job, AWOL! This article infuriates me for a variety of reasons. The first is the pictures–okay, how dramatic can we be???? I will tell you this–I DON'T look like these people at any point in the day, no matter the state of my current “happiness” (ill-defined in this article, by the way). Which brings me to my next issue: How are we to measure an ephemeral emotion like “happiness” which this article so poorly defines to begin with? What variables are we testing? What is the sample size? How long have the subjects been studied? As a scientist, I need to see raw data here to believe these claims!!! You all would be floored by the manipulation of data to “prove” such things. It is often bogus!!! I could go on and on… I also second the other commenters' sentiments about parenting being a very selfLESS act. Since when has parenting been about us, the parents? These folks have missed the boat.

  • B-mama

    Just to clarify, the folks that missed the boat are the article writers, NOT the commenters! 🙂

  • Susan

    I wish we could banish the phrase: “parenting is so hard” from our lexicon. No it's not. Life is hard. Parenting can be challenging at times, especially when the children are young, or new drivers or just leaving the house for the first time, but it is not consistently hard. I worked on a busy trading floor on Wall Street for 8 years before I had a child. I was routinely yelled at by traders, woken up in the middle of the night by our foreign desk, interrupted on vacations, etc. granted the $ was excellent, but it certainly did not come easy and took a huge toll on my mental health and well being. That was hard. Hanging out at the park with my friends and our babies in a beautiful leafy suburb of NYC, drinking coffee and having time with each other was a blessing and I was grateful that I had the freedom to live my life in that manner. For me, having my children was easy, compared to what I did before I had them.

  • JurisMater

    Susan, that sounds nice. That sounds like the age-old image that stay-home moms sit on the couch all day eating bonbons and watching soap operas while their children go to school or play out of earshot upstairs. That's sure not the life I'm living. Fortunately, motherhood and running a household are much much harder than that, bringing me out of myself and dramatically extending me physically, emotionally, spiritually, even intellectually, and in my love and generosity. Having your vacations from Wall Street interrupted constantly is a far cry from wringing every drop of physical strength and love and patience out of your being by 9 in the morning, then, through grace, finding ten times more that to make it through a day of shepherding little souls to God and running a household with attention and love, and then lovingly presenting yourself to your husband at the end of each day. Calling that easy is delusional, but with God's help the joy we find in this self-giving makes it happy beyond words.

  • Big Mama

    I need to start by saying: I do not wish to engage in a Mommy War:) But I have to disagree with Susan- and I am probably looking at this from a very different perspective. Parenting is much harder than any other job in the world because of the degree of responsibility involved. I can't see what responsibility could possibly be greater than the formation of our children's souls. Our goal as mothers should be to raise our children with the hopes that they can be saints. It is the single most important thing we do as parents and it is the most difficult job in the world. Why do I think it is more difficult than being a trader on Wall Street? Because our families are bombarded constantly by temptations: abortion, divorce, television, promiscuous music, a child-unfriendly society, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, war, immodesty, birth control, our own selfish tendencies, original sin, you name it. Every single day (and night) as I mother my children, there is a force out there trying to trip me up. Managing million dollar accounts, interrupted vacations, etc. are certainly NOT not harder than raising little saints. As for the “happiness” issue in the article…God does not call us to be happy, he calls us to be holy. In doing his will, we will find both joy and sorrow.

  • Queen B

    AWOL, I too think you may be on to something. My life is unique in that I have months where I am totally working followed by months when I am totally home. I notice partway through the months when I am working that my kids' behavior is more challenging for me when I get home. I don't think it is a result of anything my sitter is doing. Rather, they are more hungry for my attention, or want to play are ready to test my limits since I haven't been around. Furthermore, since I have more limited time at home when I am working, I have to divide my attention between my kids and making dinner, laundry, etc in the evenings. That is never pleasant, and often makes me feel more frenzied because my kids are acting up more because they want my attention. It usually takes about a week after I am home full-time for me to re-establish our routine so that my kids seem to feel more secure in the organization/rules. After that, I notice a significant improvement in their behavior, number of timeouts, my frustration, etc.

  • JurisMater

    Articles like this one–overstated and unbalanced, with a clear agenda from the outset, as B-mama identified–are a large part of the reason parents are unhappy. Personally, the mentality that raising children isn't sophisticated or important or worthwhile is my greatest mental battle. What if parents were treated and spoken of as heroes instead of photographed as half-dressed, wild-eyed buffoons being had by their children, as in this article?As AWOL referred to, this article hits on something when it says that parents are less happy because now they have complete choice over when to have children. I've always thought that's a lot of pressure–you contracept into your mid-30s to pursue self-actualization or whatever, then you're completely to blame when you choose to give that up in order to pursue the (to quote AWOL) make-me-happy lifestyle choice of parenting. When it turns out to be hard work, well, that's your problem Mom. Since practicing Catholics enter marriage expecting children to arrive 9 months later, and since, later on in the marriage, NFP leaves plenty of room for “user error”, that takes a lot of the “choice” pressure off : )Another thing I'm wondering: what would most parents say the purpose or goal of raising children is? Because I think I can see how it would be much more confused and tangled and even depressing when it's ends-driven (raising achievers) versus forming souls in love of God one day at a time.Also, I think they should have measured parental happiness around 10pm every single evening, by escorting parents into their bedrooms of their soundly-sleeping children and assessing parental reactions at that moment. The author was getting at this at the end of the article saying that parents are nostalgic for their parenting days after it's all over, even if it was hard at the time. But I think this nostalgia and appreciation and gratitude happen on a daily basis. The daily grind is hard work to be sure; it is in every job. Investment bankers and lawyers aren't skipping around the office with glee as they work, and most at-home moms aren't either, most of the time. But the work that bankers and lawyers do doesn't end each day with anything that approaches the satisfaction of watching and listening to your own sleeping child before ending the day. That is glorious, a clear and uninterrupted experience of the depths of parental love, and it's every single day.

  • Susan

    With all due respect JurisMater, your response to my remark was over the top and histrionic – “wringing every drop of physical strength and love and patience out of your being by 9 in the morning” when I dared to say that for me, I found being a stay at home mother much easier and more fulfilling than my big Wall Street job. I only spoke from my experience. There are women out there that love being home with their children and don't complain about it. Life is hard. Period. In my adult life I've had to face sudden death of a parent, divorce, a very public scandal involving homosexuality, alcoholism, money issues, you name it, I've seen it. My family has been a great source of joy for me. Any challenging season that I have lived through as a mother has paled in comparison as to what life dealt me on its own.

  • B-mama

    Susan, you sound like a woman who has lived enough life to truly have an inspiring perspective on motherhood. With young children, I find great joy in the challenges and struggles of day to day life, but cannot yet embrace your optimism. I will get there… day by day, prayer by prayer. Thanks for your inspiration!

  • rightsaidred

    I disagree with you a bit AWOL.Here's my take on the article: If you measure “happiness” in terms of present pleasure in your day to day life, I have no doubt that childless people are generally “happier” than those of us parenting numerous young children. Unfortunately, such a short term measure of happiness isn't really the best measure of a fulfilling life. In our culture, the extended adolescence of college and the self fulfilling 20's and 30's make many people accustomed to instant gratification, and many learn to measure their “happiness” in a very short sighted way. Later marriages, years of married life w/o children, dinners out, exotic vacations, ample leisure time, and accumulating fun new toys, can all bring great pleasure and increase one's short term “happiness.”. If this was your former lifestyle and worldview, the shock and extended sacrifices required to raise a child are obviously going to make many people less happy (even if this feeling is only temporary).So I don't necessarily think the data can be explained simply by looking at working moms vs. stay at home mothers. If you controlled for those that stayed at home vs. those that worked, there might be a small increase in present “happiness” of those that were at home with their children. But if you are measuring happiness as current pleasure, those without children will lifely report that they are happier than those of us in the throws of young motherhood. As Catholics and Christians, we should have children in an act of love (gift of self). When we give of our self, great sacrifices are always required, sacrifices that in the short term don't always make us happier. Sure there are moments of pure joy (such as those you describe in your post), but there are often many moments of struggle and suffering, and so it's ok to not feel as “happy” day to day as someone traveling the world or eating fancy dinners many nights. The saints didn't chose a happy life, but rather a fulfilling one. We rarely see things properly in the moment. I think the more important question would be asking older people about their choices and fulfillment. I don't really care how happy my contemporaries are with their choices, but rather how my elders feel about their choice to have children. Few wish they went childless.And that's my explanation of the data.

  • rightsaidred

    “In fact, to be truly happy, we need to be deprived of much happiness in the shallow sense. For true happiness requires wisdom, and wisdom requires suffering.” Peter Kreeft, Handbook of Christian Apologetics

  • JurisMater

    Red, awesome analysis! So well said, there's much more to discuss here. But I still think AWOL's onto something–you get out of something what you put into it, and I do think it's the case that the children who bring their parents the most joy are those who are carefully and lovingly parented hands-on, even into the teenage years.

  • Erin

    I agree with a lot of what's being said here, but I have to stick up for at least part of Susan's point of view. Having just made the transition from full-time lawyer to full-time stay at home mom, both are hard, but i certainly prefer the latter to the former. Life is hard. Being a working mom is hard, and being a stay at home mom is hard– in completely different ways. I thought I was tired when I was working full time, had a toddler and 9 mo pregnant. I thought I would be less tired being at home–I would get to take naps, sleep in, watch TV… right? Boy have I been surprised at how much MORE tired I am looking after 2 boys all day (and when exactly did I think I would be able to take those naps and watch TV?). BUT, despite my physical tiredness, my mental health is 100% improved being at home, with my loves, my house, and my humble homemaking tasks all day, and without the blackberry dings sending shivers through my nerves. So, maybe that's where I can call it “easier” than working. Am I tired? Oh yeah. Is it hard? Oh yeah. Is it better than working at the office all day (am I “happier”)? OH YEAH.

  • Lav16

    The author of a book I'm reading now, The Happiness Project, discusses this exact topic in the current chapter on parenting. The author comes to the conclusion that her definition of “happiness” in parenting is something called “fog happiness”… she says while it may be difficult to stop in the middle of exasperating days and think “I am so happy at this moment!” when she thinks of her vocation as a mother (my words) and the fulfillment marriage and children have brought to her life, she is struck by an undefinable fog of happiness that she never would have experienced otherwise. Interestingly, in the book, her friend makes the same analogy regarding hospitality. He says that while he can't admit to being thrilled or even particularly happy during the prep, hosting, and cleanup, the cumulative overall effect of communing with friends is one of fog happiness. Don't know if that makes sense to you but it did to me. Truthfully some of my happiest individual moments with my son are not with my son at all, but rather with the glass of red wine I have right after he falls asleep at night. 🙂 On the other hand, the cumulative effect of his presence in my life is one of sheer indescribable happiness. To get really theological on everyone (because I know you ladies can handle it) as we contemplate what true “happiness” means in regard to life in general and parenting in particular, I think we forget that as Christians we're not even called to seek happiness at all, but rather what we've come to know as the concept of Christian joy, which does not always correspond to the human concept of happiness (and is often in direct opposition to it!) Yet this concept of “joy,” being permanent, eternal, and directly from God, will always lead to more fulfillment than temporal and temporary sense impressions of this totally human idea of “happiness”…the joy of course comes in our daily dying to self and living our “yes” in our God-given vocations. Oh, I really did not want to phrase things in a way that sounded biased against non-Christian or non-religious parents but the truth of the matter for me is that I can't even conceive of navigating motherhood (especially single motherhood as a working mom) without that Christian concept of joy and purpose factoring in. In regard to the negative behaviors of children being directly related to not having a mommy home full-time, I have to say I respectfully disagree with that connection. Such a generalization might be a bit off-putting to the 38% of “heads of households” who are single moms who have to work, as well as the many, many families who earn under $50K with two incomes. It is true that there are working mothers out there who want to stay home and could if they sacrificed more and planned better. But it is also true that there are a myriad of mothers who cannot stay home. I don't think the glorification of the wonderful privilege of stay-at-home motherhood necessarily needs to involve the chastisement of every other type of situation. Especially as Christian women, I wonder if we could in particular pray for, do novenas for, or reach out to the mothers in our community who are in any of these situations:–single working mothers who bear 100% of the nurturing responsibilities, 100% of the breadwinning responsibilities, and 0% companionship.–divorced/widowed working mothers–married working mothers in tense marital relationships, who receive little or no help with childcare and house work. –very low-income working mothers, many of whom not only can't afford a cleaning lady, but themselves work full time cleaning other women's homes, only to go home and be faced with their own. I wish I were more well-versed in my knowledge of all of the saints, but I'm sure there has to be a patron saint of single mothers and/or widows, something like that? Or else we could just stick with the good old Blessed Mother, who hasn't let me down in the past. 😉

  • Mary Alice

    While we can agree that happiness is not the goal of our lives, it does have an impact on our day to day relationships, so it is a topic worth exploring. Sometimes the goal of happiness can itself make us unhappy, because as a Christian I can be happy in bad times if I can focus on the big picture. Without this perspective, it would be much harder to be happy when a child has just vomitted in my lap.As far as day to day happiness for families goes, I think that community can be a big source of happiness. Susan describes being happy as a mom at the park, and to do that requires a nice neighborhood park and some friends to hang out with. I have been very happy at the park sometimes, but I have also been lonely when I was new in town and had a hard time making friends at the park. In one town, I seemed to always go to the wrong park and there was never anyone there.If parents have already established a community which is less supportive of or interested in the things that go along with having kids, and that can be a source of conflict — if social activities require a babysitter, and you work all day, you may not be able to get out and have a break or time alone with your spouse, or if you do it may be disturbed by guilt or worry about your kids. This happened to me when I was in my early 20s and was the first of my friends to have kids. I just couldn't keep up with the nightlife of the swinging singles, and that was pretty lonely, too.Community can be formed when the kids start school, but this is getting harder in the city right now because kids are not going to neighborhood schools as much anymore. When I was a kid in the city, even the private schools were mostly neighborhood schools. My parents worked, but they had help, and they had lots of good friends among the families at my school, and I remember them being very happy. As we got older, I think that there was more worry, about our teen misadventures, but we did things like ski and hike as a family and that was a big source of happiness for all of us.Recently, I have found community at our local pool, and we are so much happier than we were swimming alone last summer. We biked there yesterday and three different mothers put a few of my kids in their cars to get us home when it started to rain. I watched one working mother look nervously at the sky when she dropped her daughter off, she was going to leave, but she had someone to call for a pick up if practice got canceled. I watched a Dad and two little girls bike home in the rain, perhaps not happy in the moment, but that makes for a great memory, too. In our community, working mothers seem to be well integrated socially and just as happy or not happy as the rest of us. Perhaps this is because we are slightly more affluent so those who are working can afford to have reasonable hours and decent help at home, or they are married to teachers who do more Dad parenting.I think that breaks for Mom and Dad are really important to the happiness of the family. And happiness does matter, even for Christians. It is not everything, but we are not called to a life of total drudgery, and our mood impacts our family. As they say, if momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy! For me, time at the park or the pool can also be a break if my friends are there, so I don't really need a girls night out, but a margarita night from time to time would help, too. I have heard that our perception of happiness is skewed — we need to have had 5 happy experiences for every 1 unhappy one to check off a box that says “happy childhood.” I think this might be related to the concept of the “fog of happiness” but it shows that it may take a long time to figure out whether your endeavor was a happy one. Growing up, we had some very unhappy moments, but my overall perception of a happy childhood is a large part of what keeps me coming back to family activities now, with my brothers and also as an effort with my own children.While I value happiness, Red is right to point out the dangers of perpetual adolescence. If we strive only for happiness, we can miss out on opportunities for growth, if we avoid challenges, and especially if we allow our children to do so. People who cannot find or make their own happiness in the midst of hard work but require leisure or material goods to be happy are going to have a very unhappy life.

  • Harmony

    Al Mohler had some good thoughts on this article and how Christian parents should be thinking differently:…Now I must read all these thoughtful comments!