There's no doubt about it and I think you'd be hard pressed to find a parent who would argue with you, parenting has its share of stress. When you have a child, there is less time for the couple to spend with one another, less time for individuals to spend on their own, and there is another living being to be responsible for. These are all givens. There is a lot of research that suggests that parents hate parenting, so with all these built in challenges, is there something deeper besides just the evolutionary push that drives people to become parents?
An interesting article about the complexity of parenting just came down the pipe of New York Magazine titled All Joy and No Fun: Why parents hate parenting. Over 80 percent of the article sets out to give examples on why parenting leads to disharmony and unhappiness. The final 20 percent gives us a different angle saying that perhaps happiness may not be defined as perceived fun in the moment, but perhaps what is most important is a sense of meaning and purpose in life and parenting provides that.
The part of the article that struck me most was when Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert said, "When you pause to think what children mean to you, of course they make you feel good," he says. "The problem is, 95 percent of the time, you're not thinking about what they mean to you. You're thinking that you have to take them to piano lessons. So you have to think about which kind of happiness you'll be consuming most often. Do you want to maximize the one you experience almost all the time" -- moment-to-moment happiness --"or the one you experience rarely?"
So how I interpret this is that often times when parents get busy (as those who are not parents also do), we get kicked into a state of auto-pilot not being aware of what really matters or what is meaningful in life. In other words, 95 percent of the time (I would argue more) we're on auto-pilot. So Gilbert's question is actually the wrong question. We don't want to make decisions just based on our habitual way of living, we want to build more pauses of awareness in our life so we can get in touch with the meaning of life that is there.
Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "Life is routine and routine is resistance to wonder." It seems to me that Gilbert's question doesn't take into awareness that we can pop out of this auto-pilot and become more aware of what is most important in life and expand that 5 percent to a point where perhaps it even weaves into our moment-to-moment awareness. In other words, we can be more intentional with our attention and lead a meaningful and purposeful life.
This obviously expands out from even the topic of parenting.
Cornell Psychologist Tom Gilovich "recalls watching TV with his children at three in the morning when they were sick. "I wouldn't have said it was too fun at the time," he says. "But now I look back on it and say, 'Ah, remember the time we used to wake up and watch cartoons?' " The very things that in the moment dampen our moods can later be sources of intense gratification, nostalgia, delight.
Is there a way we can become more aware in those moments where our moods are dampened that these may actually be precious or even sacred moments in life. In other words, can we create what I call a present nostalgia? This is the ability to bring that feeling for reminiscence or longing to the moment that it is actually happening. One way of doing this is to imagine yourself many years from now laying down toward the end of life looking back to this moment. What is here now that you're not seeing?
In respect to parenting, your child will never be this age again, they grow so fast. Some aspects of that may be relieving, but others would create a sweet sadness and give us a chance to get in touch with the preciousness and meaning of the times.
It's almost impossible to experience the unhappiness that the researchers found in the first 80 percent of the New York Magazine article while experiencing this sense of present nostalgia, which is very much also the reality of the moment. Why wait until the moment passes to be aware of it?
So rather than just acquiescing to the routine of life, we can be more intentional and dig a bit deeper into what really matters right now.
Whether someone chooses or does not choose to have children is a personal choice and there is no judgment, it's impossible to truly put ourselves in another's shoes.
However, we can be more intentional with the lives we have noticing that when the kids are sick and we're at home taking care of them; it may not be fun in the moment, but there is something precious about it. The more precious moments we cultivate in life or become aware of the greater stress reduction and increases in well-being (based on my professional research published in The Journal of Clinical Psychology).
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.