REWARD AND PUNISHMENT

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.

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170 Responses to “REWARD AND PUNISHMENT”

  1. Elle Says:

    Actually, I withdraw that question. I can no longer find it in myself to care.

  2. Ed Says:

    After careful reconsideration, I am leaning toward seeing it your way. I am not quite ready to cave in to the point of prostration and profuse apologies, but looking back I think I sound more defensive and stupid than I traditionally care to sound.

  3. ZenPoseur Says:

    No apologies required. I'm happy if just one or two people are slightly more aware of these issues, and slightly less likely to squelch (or tolerate the squelching) of women's voices, when these issues come up.

    Also, Elle? You are a rock star. I mean, holy crap, did you kick ass here. You're a bona fide riot grrrl.

  4. Hazy Davy Says:

    Elle, ZenPoseur, and any who are arguing against their point:

    It's not at all inappropriate to "apply a gendered lens". And I didn't say it was, either. It was ridiculous for everyone to have such a heated discussion about the veracity of the point.

    A totally fine point to make in this context: Some women choose not to be parents because the burdens are far greater on them than they are on fathers. (Furthermore, I expect this may be a more dominating factor than perceived economic pressures, etc. etc.)

    But that's not what people are arguing. Folks are still saying "oh, no, not me. I'm a good guy." or "YOU DON'T KNOW" or "no, really, here's some data, mothers have a raw deal". They're arguing about the veracity of your assertion of the inequity, rather than about that perception's impact to the decision to become parents. [And really, nobody can argue that the perception doesn't exist, with a straight face, can they?]. Discussing people's choice to not be parents because of a belief there's inequity = contextually relevant. Discussing whether or not the belief is valid = tangent. (Insulting each other with condescending remarks, well…)

    Now, I am sorry I didn't take the time to parse out each of the individual comments. It really isn't right for me to have railed against the aggregate as though only one person had made all the statements on each side of it. Judging from some of the replies, I'm quite sure the same was done to me.

    I am, at least, consistent. I have quite a long track record of taking related tangents off into separate threads on the community blog I've run for >10 years (8 years of which, you could have easily found, ZP, before claiming I'm "new here").

  5. Elle Says:

    @ ZenPoseur – Aw, shucks. It was a pleasure hanging out on the thread with you. (Also, Anonymouse.)

    @ Hazy Davy – Thanks for your last comment, which has clarified things considerably. I had thought, following on from your 'no need to get quite so angry, ladies' that you meant something more fundamental (and more obnoxious) when you said that things were going off at a tangent.

    You are quite right, of course, that this thread has consisted more of scoping the evidence base (I am being generous) than it has discussions of the main thrust of the original post. It's unfortunate that if argument B depends on set of facts/assumptions A, that any disagreement of what constitutes A will derail the whole discussion.

    @ Ed – I loved, loved your posts on Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Jackson, and the Super Bowl ads. You do, by and large, Get It on violence against women. (I wish you would take time away from fighting with bewinged cockroaches to write a book about it, because the USian men currently writing VAW books are so very, very sanctimonious, and you are very funny.) This blog is the only generalist American politics blog that I regularly read, and I think it would be a truly unstoppable force of awesome if it had the tiniest sprinkling more of Getting It across other things you write about.

  6. Acerbas Says:

    The last several posts sure read as if some of you are congratulating one another as if this was a sport and your team won. But looking over this massive thread reveals that very few commentators (of either gender) were actually reading each others posts and responding to one another in kind.

    So congratulations to the victors, I suppose. But anyway you cut it, discussion and communication lost (as it usually does on the internet).

  7. ZenPoseur Says:

    Personally, a few is all I aim for, Acerbas. You can't change the world in a day.

  8. beau Says:

    @Acerbas – This is what it looks like when people have an argument, and no-one storms off in a huff. A little backslapping, a little backpedalling, and evryone's friends again (pretty much).

    It's weird, I know. But it happens here from time to time. One of the many reasons I love g&t.

  9. Elle Says:

    The last several posts sure read as if some of you are congratulating one another as if this was a sport and your team won.

    How odd! There is a culture on feminist blogs of the commentariat giving each other props when they like what each other has to say, or the way it's been said. It's got nothing to do with 'winning'.

    But anyway you cut it, discussion and communication lost (as it usually does on the internet).

    No internet discussion is truly complete without such an observation. Will no one think of the children?

  10. Anonymouse Says:

    @Elle: @ ZenPoseur – Aw, shucks. It was a pleasure hanging out on the thread with you. (Also, Anonymouse.)

    Right back at'cha, and a ^5 to Ladiesbane, too, whose post jarred me out of Lurkerdom and got me to post.

    The bottom line is that there is a PERCEIVED problem that women are frustrated and annoyed at bearing the disproportionate responsibility in a household. Is there documentation to prop it up? Several people have provided sources that affirm there is.

    Much like we saw the Affirmative Action thread, rather than face that and discuss how to change the perception (if not the reality), several posters spun off into furious screeds about how "they're making me CELEBRATE the LESBIANS".

    I learned a lot on this thread; I'm not usually a debater. Thanks, all, for the education!

  11. Hazy Davy Says:

    (Huh? Did I miss something?)

    lesbian

    (Thinking that my homage to The Boss is going to now result in people just nicknaming me "Hazy". I kind of like that.)

  12. Hazy Davy Says:

    (That didn't work… the second line should say:

    " lesbian" (control F was misidentified as an HTML tag)

  13. Hazy Davy Says:

    @#$%^

    CTRL-F Lesbian

    There, now at least the word has been said a number of times in the comments.

  14. Glynda Vatterott Says:

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