In today's Globe and Mail, there is an interesting piece by Sarah Hampson on parenthood. She argues that it is trendy for women to be publicly proclaiming what was previously taboo to admit: having children is challenging, sometimes unpleasant and does not necessarily lead to happiness. While complaining about domestic duties and economic inequality was the issue du jour for our mothers, complaining about parenting is what women do today. I guess that makes me fit right in.
I can't argue with her either. Obviously from this blog it is clear that I find parenting challenging and often unpleasant and I would say that the majority of conversations that I have with my friends who are also parents involves complaining about our children.
I have also realized, through my studies in psychology, and anecdotally through my conversations with my girlfriends, that having young children is very hard on a marriage. I don't know anyone who would disagree with this. Is this why so many marriages fall apart? It's hard to say. But the good thing is that a lot of the issues involved in parenting small children that cause marital strain end naturally as children grow up, so if you can wait it out, there is a good chance that your marital relationship can heal.
Hampson also argues that you should not go into parenthood expecting it to make you happy and blissful, because that is simply a myth, just as it was a myth that marriage and being a good wife was going to make our mothers happy. What having children does do she says is this:
Anyone who has been through the crucible of parenthood - and it is a life-altering one - knows that it's not going to make you blissful all the time. What it provides are lessons in vunerability, patience, humility and love it its most generous form. It doesn't plant a beatific smile on your face as much as give you a kick in the butt to say that life is not all about you and your next manicure appointment. When you adjust to the change, there's rick great beauty in the acceptance.
I couldn't agree more.
And yet it's a funny thing. Do I regret having children? Never. Do I envy the few friends I have who have chosen to remain childless? Not at all. If anything I feel sorry for them, which is silly because they are happy with their choice and research backs up the fact that married people who are childless by choice are equally as happy, if not happier than their married peers who have children. I just always wonder if there will come a time when they regret their choice.
Will knowing that parenting is difficult and unlikely to lead to happiness decrease the likelihood that a woman (or man) will want to have children? I doubt it. I think there must be some biological drive involved. Of course you can never fully understand what being a parent is like until you are a parent. But still, I remember when Adam and I decided to start a family how strong that drive was for me. Really nothing else mattered to me at the time. And again, when we were trying to conceive the second time, having another baby took on primary significance in my life. And there is nothing you could have said to me that would have lessened that drive.
The infertility literature has produced some interesting data. There are studies showing that parents who go through IVF to conceive, are somewhat more satisfied with parenting than those who conceive naturally. This is not surprising since anyone who goes through IVF - at least in places where you have to pay for it out-of-pocket - is likely to be older and upper middle class. Also, IVF pregnancies are obviously all planned, so parents may feel better prepared, and possibly more grateful for parenthood.
But the reality is, parenting is still challenging for women who go to great lengths to get pregnant, and they are still at risk for postpartum depression and other psychological and emotional issues associated with parenting. When I was trying to get pregnant with Little A, even though I already had one child, the thought of not having a second and making my family "complete", made me dispondant. So I was incredibly shocked when I was hit with postpartum depression and anxiety. "But isn't this what I wanted?" I kept asking myself.
While Hampson's tone in this piece was somewhat derisive, I feel that this increasing openness about the realities of parenting is healthy. No, it's not going to change anyone's mind about having children if they desire a family. But it allows parents to support one another during some of the most difficult life stages.
I do think that normalizing the fact that having young children places strain on a marriage could perhaps save some unions that might otherwise end prematurely. In fact, I think it makes perfect sense that in addition to becoming a miscarriage/infertility counsellor, I am going to offer couples counselling. Support while struggling to get pregnant...and then once they have children, support for overwhelmed parents on how to manage their relationship.
What I am NOT going to offer as a professional is parenting advice...no, that's an area where I doubt I will ever be an expert!
In any case, as my good friend, Jess, and I discussed yesterday, it only takes a few moments of bliss here and there (e.g. your kids hugging, before scratching each other's eyes out) to make it all worth it.