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All Joy and No Fun

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But the intensification of family time is not confined to the privileged classes alone. According to Changing Rhythms of American Family Life—a compendium of data porn about time use and family statistics, compiled by a trio of sociologists named Suzanne M. Bianchi, John P. Robinson, and Melissa A. Milkie—all parents spend more time today with their children than they did in 1975, including mothers, in spite of the great rush of women into the American workforce. Today’s married mothers also have less leisure time (5.4 fewer hours per week); 71 percent say they crave more time for themselves (as do 57 percent of married fathers). Yet 85 percent of all parents still—still!—think they don’t spend enough time with their children.

These self-contradictory statistics reminded me of a conversation I had with a woman who had been in one of Nachamie’s parenting groups, a professional who had her children later in life. “I have two really great kids”—ages 9 and 11—“and I enjoy doing a lot of things with them,” she told me. “It’s the drudgery that’s so hard: Crap, you don’t have any pants that fit? There are just So. Many. Chores.” This woman, it should be said, is divorced. But even if her responsibilities were shared with a partner, the churn of school and gymnastics and piano and sports and homework would still require an awful lot of administration. “The crazy thing,” she continues, “is that by New York standards, I’m not even overscheduling them.”

Mothers are less happy than fathers, single parents are less happy still.

I ask what she does on the weekends her ex-husband has custody. “I work,” she replies. “And get my nails done.”

A few generations ago, people weren’t stopping to contemplate whether having a child would make them happy. Having children was simply what you did. And we are lucky, today, to have choices about these matters. But the abundance of choices—whether to have kids, when, how many—may be one of the reasons parents are less happy.

That was at least partly the conclusion of psychologists W. Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge, who, in 2003, did a meta-analysis of 97 children-and-marital-satisfaction studies stretching back to the seventies. Not only did they find that couples’ overall marital satisfaction went down if they had kids; they found that every successive generation was more put out by having them than the last—our current one most of all. Even more surprisingly, they found that parents’ dissatisfaction only grew the more money they had, even though they had the purchasing power to buy more child care. “And my hypothesis about why this is, in both cases, is the same,” says Twenge. “They become parents later in life. There’s a loss of freedom, a loss of autonomy. It’s totally different from going from your parents’ house to immediately having a baby. Now you know what you’re giving up.” (Or, as a fellow psychologist told Gilbert when he finally got around to having a child: “They’re a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit.”)

It wouldn’t be a particularly bold inference to say that the longer we put off having kids, the greater our expectations. “There’s all this buildup—as soon as I get this done, I’m going to have a baby, and it’s going to be a great reward!” says Ada Calhoun, the author of Instinctive Parenting and founding editor-in-chief of Babble, the online parenting site. “And then you’re like, ‘Wait, this is my reward? This nineteen-year grind?’ ”

When people wait to have children, they’re also bringing different sensibilities to the enterprise. They’ve spent their adult lives as professionals, believing there’s a right way and a wrong way of doing things; now they’re applying the same logic to the family-expansion business, and they’re surrounded by a marketplace that only affirms and reinforces this idea. “And what’s confusing about that,” says Alex Barzvi, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU medical school, “is that there are a lot of things that parents can do to nurture social and cognitive development. There are right and wrong ways to discipline a child. But you can’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others and constantly concluding you’re doing the wrong thing.”

Yet that’s precisely what modern parents do. “It was especially bad in the beginning,” said a woman who recently attended a parents’ group led by Barzvi at the 92nd Street Y. “When I’d hear other moms saying, ‘Oh, so-and-so sleeps for twelve hours and naps for three,’ I’d think, Oh, shit, I screwed up the sleep training.” Her parents—immigrants from huge families—couldn’t exactly relate to her distress. “They had no academic reference books for sleeping,” she says. (She’s read three.) “To my parents, it is what it is.”


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