Parents in a recent survey agreed, by a six-to-one margin, that parenting is seen as more difficult today than in the past.
Indeed, to hear today’s moms and dads tell it, Ruth Graham wrote recently at Slate, parents “never get their houses clean, never have sex, never read books or have adult conversations, never shower, and never, ever have a moment to themselves.” That’s hyperbolic, as Graham and parents themselves know, but (many parent-bloggers seem to say) it’s not far off the mark.
How could parenting be so hard today, when the basic tasks of feeding, clothing, protecting, and educating kids have never been easier? Responding to Graham’s piece and drawing on Jennifer Senior’s book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Ross Douthat suggests one major reason that parenting seems tougher now than ever before:
It isn’t necessarily that family life has changed that dramatically in the last 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.
I’d add two more theories to the ones Graham and Douthat mention. First, only in recent decades has becoming a parent truly been a choice. For most of history, it was a given: You were a child, you grew up, you got married, you had kids, you grew old, you died. Now the “having kids” stage is totally optional (even if a stigma is still attached to declining or not being able to do so). And the downsides of our choices seem to weigh more heavily on us than the downsides of inevitabilities. Contrast parenting with, say, working. For most Americans, having a job is not an option: it is a necessity. You may find work boring, frustrating, or exhausting, but it’s unavoidable. Its downsides are just about universal, and when you complain about work, you know that most of the human race could make similar complaints.
But in the contemporary U.S., having a child, even for those who feel a moral obligation and a strong desire to do so, is an option. It marks a major but not inevitable change in life, and so its burdens feel especially heavy. You are not sharing the experience of parenting with everyone in your generation, in the way that all teenagers share the turbulence of adolescence or all octogenarians share the struggles of aging. Parenting is something you took on voluntarily—and now you must live with the consequences, many of which you never expected.
My second theory about why raising kids seems so hard today is the proliferation of parenting philosophies, health guidelines, educational options, and more. Being a parent today doesn’t just mean having a baby and raising him or her to become a reasonably healthy, literate adult. From the positive pregnancy test onward, it means navigating a dizzying array of contradictory advice on just about everything: what to eat and avoid during pregnancy, what painkillers (if any) to accept during childbirth, whether or not to let your infant cry himself to sleep, how to potty-train her, at what age he should enter kindergarten, whether and how to pass on your religious faith to her, at what age he can stay home alone, how much time she should spend watching TV, exercising, reading. . .
It’s no wonder even the most conscientious parents are overwhelmed—and as a consequence, sometimes both uncertain and defensive about their choices. The blogger Jennifer Fulwiler once described parents’ feelings perfectly. Despite the inconvenience of teaching her kids about the Tooth Fairy and Santa, she finally decides to continue the tradition simply because “it is the way our families have always done it”:
And I need—desperately, seriously, dying-man-in-the-desert-level need—one area of my life as a parent that I do not have to agonize about. As a modern mother, I am required to obsess over every. single. aspect. of my children’s lives. I have to make ALL THE CHOICES about ALL THE THINGS and I am EXHAUSTED.
Sorry for the caps lock, but seriously, people, I am supposed to be pouring all this energy into what food we eat and what types of shows they watch and what type of video games they play and how much time they spend doing those things and what sports they play and what sorts of clothes they wear and whether we should vaccinate and circumcise and pierce ears and…GAH! I can’t even send my kids to the school down the street without second-guessing it because now we have the options of homeschooling and charter schools.
There was a time when mothers just did things the way their own mothers did, and that was that. There are plenty of downsides to that kind of cultural environment, but I’d imagine that one huge upside is that you don’t burn up half your mental energy questioning everything you do. Ultimately I’m glad that we live in an age where we’re all free to break from tradition and do things our own way. But I have to draw the line somewhere, and I’m drawing the line with our fairy traditions.
Unfortunately, there’s no good way out of the quandaries Fulwiler describes. Of course parents should put some thought into how they feed, educate, and raise their kids, even if today’s multiplicity of choices means those decisions are harder to make than they were for previous generations. Maybe the best option is simply to realize that most parents really are trying to do what’s best for their kids, and to extend a little more grace to the parents who raise their kids differently than you raise yours.