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July 30, 2014

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Parental pity party

When I became a father, I expected to change in all the predictable ways — to become more responsible and more exhausted, to lose contact with friends and lean more heavily on relatives, to grow steadily balder of head and softer of belly.

What I didn’t expect is that parenthood would make me such a whiner.

I’m not sure I’ve contributed personally to the Internet’s ever-expanding Book of Parental Lamentations — what Ruth Graham, writing for Slate, calls the “endless stream of blog posts and status updates depicting the messy, tedious, nightmarishly life-destroying aspects of parenting.” But in private conversation, I’m often the sort of parent Graham complains is scaring her away from motherhood — all too eager to Tell It Like It Really Is, and enumerate all the horrible aspects of the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me.

Coming from the financially secure and happily married, this whining can feel unseemly, self-indulgent and unfair to one’s kids. In my own case, it’s also philosophically problematic, because a Catholic columnist should presumably be trying to talk his acquaintances into having as many kids as possible.

But a not-so-quiet desperation can seem pervasive among parents, and it’s worth trying to understand why.

Fortunately, Jennifer Senior’s new book, “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” is an excellent primer on possible explanations for the great parental pity party. It ranges across the problems with U.S. family policy (basically, we don’t have one), the changing role of children (who went, she notes, “from being our employees to our bosses”), the unsettling of gender roles, the “having it all” stresses inherent in the maternal quest for work-life balance, and the way economic uncertainty and technological change make it hard for parents to figure out what kind of world they’re supposed to be preparing their children for.

But Senior’s most insightful emphasis, I think, is on the gap that’s opened — thanks to our society’s extraordinary wealth and libertarian social ethic — between the lifestyles and choices available to nonparents and the irreducible burdens still involved in raising children.

As she puts it, parenthood is “the last binding obligation in a culture that asks for almost no other permanent commitments at all.” In this sense, it isn’t necessarily that family life has changed that dramatically in the past few generations. Rather, it’s stayed the same in crucial ways — because babies still need what babies need — while outside the domestic sphere there’s been an expansion of opportunities, a proliferation of choices and entertainments and immediately available gratifications, that make child rearing seem much more burdensome by comparison.

This has two consequences for young, reasonably affluent Americans. First, it creates an understandable reluctance to give up the pleasures of extended brunches and long happy hours, late nights and weekend getaways, endless hours playing Grand Theft Auto or binge-watching “New Girl.” Second, it inspires a ferocious shock when a child arrives and that oh-so-modern lifestyle gives way to challenges that seem almost medieval, and duties that seem impossibly absolute. And the longer the arrival is delayed, the greater that shock — because “postponing children,” Senior points out, can make parents “far more aware of the freedoms they’re giving up.”

“Welcome,” a colleague emailed me after our first daughter was born, “to unavoidable reality.” Which is exactly right: In parts of American society, death and children’s diapers are the only unavoidable realities left.

Unless, of course, you avoid the diapers by avoiding the children altogether, as the developed world’s inhabitants are increasingly inclined to do.

In an earlier column, I described this retreat from childbearing as (in part) a symptom of cultural decadence, in which modern comforts crowd out intergenerational obligations. This idea was not well received by many readers, but I think it’s actually the unacknowledged worldview behind a lot of the parental griping you find online and elsewhere: The “look how impossible my life has become since I had kids” genre is a way of passing judgment, not all that subtly, on people who have opted out of the parental mission altogether.

And though I agree with the implicit message — that parenting is tough, necessary and praiseworthy — a brag disguised as a whine about your own un-decadent hardships is probably not the best way to hold decadence at bay. Better for parents to be cheerful warriors, to emphasize the joy rather than the misery, while also extending tolerance and understanding — rather than judgment infused with envy — to friends and neighbors who choose a different path.

Which is what I pledge to do from here on out. Enjoy your lingering brunches, my childless friends, and I’ll enjoy my rushed meals and puree-stained fingers. Dirty diapers for me, dirty martinis for thee! Let peace and tolerance prevail!

And no, of course my angels had nothing whatsoever to do with that stain on your favorite sweater.

It must be béarnaise sauce.

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.

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