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All Joy and No Fun

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This is the brutal reality about children—they’re such powerful stressors that small perforations in relationships can turn into deep fault lines. “And my wife became more demanding,” he continues. “ ‘You don’t do this, you don’t do that.’ There was this idea we had about how things were supposed to be: The family should be dot dot dot, the man should be dot dot dot the woman should be dot dot dot.”

This is another brutal reality about children: They expose the gulf between our fantasies about family and its spikier realities. They also mean parting with an old way of life, one with more freewheeling rhythms and richer opportunities for romance. “There’s nothing sexy or intimate between us, based on the old model,” he says. “The new model, which I’ve certainly come to adopt, is that our energy has shifted toward the kids. One of the reasons I love being with my wife is because I love the family we have.”

Studies have found that parents’ dissatisfaction only grew the more money they had, even though they could buy more child care.

Most studies show that marriages improve once children enter latency, or the ages between 6 and 12, though they take another sharp dive during the war zone of adolescence. (As a friend with grown children once told me: “Teenagers can be casually brutal.”) But one of the most sobering declines documented in Changing Rhythms of American Family Life is the amount of time married parents spend alone together each week: Nine hours today versus twelve in 1975. Bradbury, who was involved in the UCLA study of those 32 families, says the husbands and wives spent less than 10 percent of their home time alone together. “And do you think they were saying, ‘Gee honey, you look lovely. I just wanted to pick up on that fascinating conversation we were having earlier about the Obama administration’? ” he asks. “Nope. They were exhausted and staring at the television.”

“I’m not watching it,” insists the boy. We’re back to the videotape now, and that den in Los Angeles. Mother and son are still arguing—tensely, angrily—and she’s still pulling on his arm. The boy reaches for the keyboard. “I’m putting it on pause!”

“I want you to do your homework,” his mother repeats. “You are not— ”

“I know,” the son whines. “I’m going to pause it!”

His mother’s not buying it. What she sees is him stalling. She pulls him off the chair.

“No, you’re not,” says his mother. “You’re still not listening!”

“Yes I am!”

“No, you’re not!”

Children may provide unrivaled moments of joy. But they also provide unrivaled moments of frustration, tedium, anxiety, heartbreak. This scene, which isn’t even all that awful or uncommon, makes it perfectly clear why parenting may be regarded as less fun than having dinner with friends or baking a cake. Loving one’s children and loving the act of parenting are not the same thing.

Yet that’s where things get tricky. Obviously, this clip shows how difficult and unpleasant parenting can be. What it doesn’t show is the love this mother feels for her son, which we can pretty much bet has no equal. Nor does it convey that this unpleasant task she’s undertaking is part of a larger project, one that pays off in subtler dividends than simply having fun. Kremer-Sadlik says that she and her fellow researchers were highly conscious of these missing pieces when they gathered each week to discuss their data collection. “We’d all remember the negative things,” she says. “Whereas everything else was between the lines. So it became our moral dilemma: How can we talk about the good moments?” She pauses, and then asks the question that, to a parent (she herself has two children), is probably most relevant of all: “And why were the good moments so elusive?”

The answer to that may hinge on how we define “good.” Or more to the point, “happy.” Is happiness something you experience? Or is it something you think?

When Kahneman surveyed those Texas women, he was measuring moment-to-moment happiness. It was a feeling, a mood, a state. The technique he pioneered for measuring it—the Daily Reconstruction Method—was designed to make people reexperience their feelings over the course of a day. Oswald, when looking at British households, was looking at a condensed version of the General Health Questionnaire, which is best described as a basic gauge of mood: Have you recently felt you could not overcome your difficulties? Felt constantly under strain?Lost much sleep over worry? (What parent hasn’t answered, yes, yes, and God yes to these questions?) As a matter of mood, there does seem to be little question that kids make our lives more stressful.

But when studies take into consideration how rewarding parenting is, the outcomes tend to be different. Last year, Mathew P. White and Paul Dolan, professors at the University of Plymouth and Imperial College, London, respectively, designed a study that tried to untangle these two different ideas. They asked participants to rate their daily activities both in terms of pleasure and in terms of reward, then plotted the results on a four-quadrant graph. What emerged was a much more commonsense map of our feelings. In the quadrant of things people found both pleasurable and rewarding, people chose volunteering first, prayer second, and time with children third (though time with children barely made it into the “pleasurable” category). Work was the most rewarding not-so-pleasurable activity. Everyone thought commuting was both unrewarding and unfun. And watching television was considered one of the most pleasurable unrewarding activities, as was eating, though the least rewarding of all was plain old “relaxing.” (Which probably says something about the abiding power of the Protestant work ethic.)


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