REWARD AND PUNISHMENT

Posted in Rants on July 19th, 2010 by Ed

A former student with whom I have kept in contact asked me a while ago what the post-college years – the twenties, in essence – are like. I thought about this a lot when I hit 30, and it boils down to this. First, everyone you know moves away. Then everyone you know gets married. Then everyone you know has kids. Then you never hear from anyone you know anymore.

This piece – "All Joy and No Fun: Why parents hate parenting," forwarded to me by my sister with three children – is all over the interwebs for the last few days. One of the few inviolable taboos in modern society is that no one may admit how much they hate having children or express any regret after having made the decision to do so. You hear this every once in a while, usually followed by outward expressions of horror from the listeners or a strong rebuke. But all of us, whether we have children or not, struggle with the same unavoidable question: if having kids is so amazing and rewarding, why does it look like it's so awful?

Being a non-parent the question is more important to me. And I do think about it quite a bit. If kids are wonderful, why does everyone who has them look like they would murder someone for an uninterrupted night of sleep? Why do Mom and Dad always look so unhappy wrangling their multiple children who have no interest at all in obeying basic requests? Why does the joyous addition of a child to the family drive the parents apart, up to and including divorce? Don't get me wrong, I'm sure parenting has its benefits too, but think back to before you had kids. From the outside looking it, it looks like a lifetime commitment that takes up all of one's time and money, straining all other relationships and necessarily forcing one to give up most if not all of one's independence.

Everybody understands this before having kids. Yet most of us will do it anyway. Why?

The sad truth, and the article only tapdances around this, is that a lot of people do it because they expect it to make them happy. Depending on someone else, be it a child or a spouse or a friend, to make you happy is of course a very poor strategy. The best answer to the "Why?" question, however, is the difference between happiness and joy. Long- and short-term rewards. Yes, the day-to-day of parenting sucks. Having kids changes everything about your life. But in retrospect people (mostly) say they would do it again and/or that it was the most rewarding part of their lives. Like anything else, it seems like we're more likely to regret not having kids than having them. So I suppose having kids sucks, until it doesn't. It's hard and miserable, but we don't regret doing it.

That conclusion makes a lot of sense, and I think it explains why so many people are reading and recommending the article. Joy vs. pleasure. Gratification vs. satisfaction. My question is why we, and by that I mean Americans, think we have to pick one.

The article touches on this so briefly that it's easy to miss, but a major contributor to the short-term misery of parenting in this country is directly or indirectly related to politics. It makes little sense to me when I read public opinion research explaining that having kids tends to make people a little more conservative, because there is no better way to get a first-hand look at how badly our welfare state has deteriorated. And it hasn't happened by accident.

Parenting is miserable in part because we make it miserable. Other countries have a year of paid maternity leave; Clinton had to fight tooth-and-nail to get the FMLA passed, granting a generous 6 months of unpaid leave. Parents also have to panic about how they are going to pay for their child's health care, because family plans are pricey and are getting more pricey in a hurry. Then they fret about affording college, because while college is free in most of the western world even the public schools are expensive here. Then they panic about paying for private K-12, because of course no one can send their kids to public school given the systematic dismantling of public education in this country since the seventies. Then they have to find affordable child care, because Mommy (or Daddy, depending on who takes the unpaid leave) needs to get that ass back to the office and start bringing home a paycheck ASAP to afford all of this stuff. And of course because of our idiotic urban planning and absence of workers' rights we have long commutes and 9+ hour workdays that guarantee we'll spend precious little time with our kids before we collapse in bed at an embarrassingly early hour.

Throughout the article the author emphasizes the point that parents can't seem to think or talk about anything but parenting. "I swear I feel like I’m surrounded by women who were once smart & interesting but have become zombies who only talk about soccer and coupons." It it amazing, then, that in a country in which so many adults have kids and elections in which working- and middle-class parents are far more likely to vote than singles we don't insist on policies that encourage family life and child rearing. On the one hand, we realize that the bare basics found in other democracies would alleviate many of the worst, most taxing aspects of parenting. But on the other hand, SOCIALISM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It's a very persuasive counterargument.