The parenting paradox

Being a parent of young kids can be very rewarding, says Jennifer Senior, but it can also make you crazy.

WHEN I FIRST met Jessie Thompson, it was mid-March, a trying time for Minnesota parents. Everywhere else in the country, spring had sprung; here, it would be at least another month before the kids could be humanely disgorged into the yard. All week long, I attended Early Childhood Family Education classes in and around Minneapolis and St. Paul, listening to roughly 125 parents talk about their lives. And all week long, almost all would give the same report: Their nerves were shot and so were their kids’ toys—the Play--Doh reduced to dry chips, the Legos scattered in a housewide diaspora.

Minnesota’s ECFE is immensely popular and unique to the state. Any parent of a child who’s not yet in kindergarten can attend a weekly class. And they do, in great numbers: In 2010, nearly 90,000 moms and dads signed up for one. The themes of the classes vary, but what they all have in common is an opportunity for parents to confide, learn, and let off steam.

The first half of each class is straightforward, with parents and children interacting in a group facilitated by ECFE’s staff of early childhood education professionals. But the second half—that’s when things get interesting. The parents leave their kids in the hands of those same professionals and retreat to a room of their own, where for 60 blissful minutes they become grown-ups again. Coffee is consumed; hair is let down; notes are compared. A parent educator always guides the discussion.

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I met Jessie in one of the smaller ECFE classes. Her contributions to the discussion, while often wry (“I blame Oprah”), also suggested that she wasn’t afraid of her darker, spikier feelings, and that she could even take a dispassionate view of them. For instance, she mentioned that she’d managed to get out of the house the previous evening to meet a girlfriend—a triumph, considering she had three kids under the age of 6—“and I had this moment,” she said, “where I realized, ‘This is how it feels when moms run away from their kids.’ I could see why moms get in their cars and just…keep driving.”

She was not seriously entertaining this idea. Jessie was clearly a secure mother, which was why she was comfortable enough to confess this fleeting vision aloud. It was also clear, though, that she was dead tired and not a little overwhelmed. She was trying to expand her new portrait photography business, based in the den of her home; she was living paycheck to paycheck; her youngest was just 8 months old. She didn’t have the resources to put her children in ballet classes and soccer, much less something as luxurious as preschool. She couldn’t afford a babysitter for so much as one morning a week. Every trip to the grocery store involved loading all three kids in the car.

One day you are a paragon of self-determination, coming and going as you please; the next, you are a parent, laden with gear and unhooked from the rhythms of normal adult life. It’s not an accident that the early years of parenting often register in studies as the least happy ones. They’re the bunker years, short in the scheme of things but often endless-seeming in real time. The autonomy that parents once took for granted has curtly deserted them, a fact that came up again and again among ECFE parents.

FEW PEOPLE TALKED about this before-and-after with more honesty or descriptive power than Jessie. In her early 20s she had taught English in Germany, worked at a pub in England, and done a brief stint as a flight attendant for Delta; now she was spending her days in a 1,700-square-foot bungalow with one bathroom. In her late 20s she had decided she wanted a career in advertising, and she was well en route to one by the time her first child was born; now she was presiding over a new, family-friendlier business (so she assumed), her peaceful downtown office replaced by a boisterous niche across from the TV room. “I really, really struggle with this still,” she told her group. “It was just me and my husband until I was 32.”

Having children enlarges our lives in loads of unimaginable ways. But it also disrupts our autonomy in ways we couldn’t have imagined, whether it’s in our work, our leisure, or the banal routines of our day-to-day lives.

One of the advantages to arriving at a household at 8 a.m. is that you can read in the parents’ faces the story of both that morning and the evening before. When I visit Jessie in her South Minneapolis home, her husband, a civil engineer, is already long gone for work. But she’s here and she’s tired: It’s clear that she either woke up early or went to bed late. It turns out the answer is both.

“Before you got here, I was so depressed,” she confesses, shutting the door behind me. Bella, 5, and Abe, 4, are both padding about, merry and oblivious to their mother’s exhaustion, while the baby, William, is asleep upstairs. “The baby got up early,” she explains. “And the others were up early too, and then the baby threw up on one of his stuffed animals.” At roughly the same moment, Abe wet the bed, which meant the sheets had to be changed and he had to be bathed. Then William started spitting up juice in spectacular projectile fashion at breakfast. “This was at 7:37,” she says. “I know, because I was thinking, ‘It’s way too early for everything to be falling apart.’”

Which explains why she was up early. Why she was up late the night before is another story. Nighttime is Jessie’s one opportunity for uninterrupted work, and she has an afternoon deadline today. Plus, she was fretting: She and her family will soon be decamping to the suburbs, in order to cut costs, but she doesn’t know a soul in her new community. Between her worries and her work, she didn’t climb into bed until 3 a.m.

On some mornings, Jessie admits, she’s so exhausted that the most she can do is set bowls of Cheerios and a cup of milk on the kitchen counter and then return to bed. “I do know a couple of moms who get enough sleep,” she says. “I always wonder how they do it. Because I sure don’t.”

Of all the torments of new parents, sleeplessness is the most infamous. But most parents-to-be, no matter how much they’ve been warned, don’t fully grasp this idea until their first child comes along. Perhaps that’s because they think they know what sleep deprivation feels like. But there’s a profound difference between sustained sleep loss and the occasional bad night. David Dinges, an expert on sleep deprivation, says that the population seems to divide roughly in thirds when it comes to prolonged sleep loss: those who handle it fairly well, those who sort of fall apart, and those who respond catastrophically. The problem is, most prospective parents have no clue which type they are until their kids come along.

ADAM PHILLIPS MAKES a keen observation in his book Going Sane. “Babies may be sweet, babies may be beautiful, babies may be adored,” he writes, “but they have all the characteristics that are identified as mad when they are found too brazenly in adults.” He lists those characteristics: Babies are incontinent. They don’t speak our language. They require constant monitoring to prevent self-harm. “They seem to live the excessively wishful lives,” he notes, “of those who assume that they are the only person in the world.” The same is true, Phillips goes on to argue, of young children, who want so much and possess so little self-control.

Yet children do not see themselves as excessive. “Children would be very surprised,” Phillips writes, “to discover just how mad we think they are.” The real danger, in his view, is that children can drive their parents crazy. The extravagance of children’s wishes, behaviors, and energies all become a threat to their parents’ well-ordered lives.

This insight helps clarify why parents so often feel powerless around their young children, even though they’re putatively in charge. To a preschooler, all rumpus room calisthenics—whether it’s bouncing from couch cushion to couch cushion, banging on tables, or heaving bowls of spaghetti onto the floor—feel normal. But to adults, the child looks as though he or she has suddenly slipped into one of Maurice Sendak’s wolf suits. The grown-up response is to put a stop to the child’s mischief, because that’s the adult’s job, and that’s what civilized living is all about. Yet parents intuit, on some level, that children are meant to make messes, to be noisy, to test boundaries. “All parents at some time feel overwhelmed by their children; feel that their children ask more of them than they can provide,” writes Phillips. “One of the most difficult things about being a parent is that you have to bear the fact that you have to frustrate your child.”

THERE ARE BIOLOGICAL underpinnings that help explain why young children drive us crazy. Adults have a fully developed prefrontal cortex, while the prefrontal cortexes of young children are barely developed at all. The prefrontal cortex controls executive function, which allows us to organize our thoughts and (as a result) our actions. Without this ability, we cannot focus our attention. And this, in some ways, is one of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with little kids: Their attention is unfocused.

But again: Children themselves do not perceive their attention as unfocused. The psychologist Alison Gopnik makes a distinction between a lantern and a spotlight: The spotlight illuminates just one thing while the lantern throws off a 360-degree glow. Adults have a spotlight consciousness. The consciousness of small children, on the other hand, is more like a lantern. By design, infants and preschoolers are highly distractible, like bugs with eyes all over their heads. And because the prefrontal cortex controls inhibitions as well as executive function, young children lack compunction about investigating every tangential object that captures their fancy. “Anyone who tries to persuade a 3-year-old to get dressed for preschool will develop an appreciation of inhibition,” she writes. “It would be so much easier if they didn’t stop to explore every speck of dust on the floor.”

Mothers and fathers believe that if only they could convey the logic of their decisions, their young children would understand it. But young children lead intensely emotional lives. Reasoned discussion does not have the same effect on them, and their brains are not yet optimized for it. “I do make the mistake of talking to my daughter sometimes like she’s an adult,” a woman named Kenya confessed to her ECFE group. “I expect her to understand. Like if I break things down enough, she’ll get it.”

The class instructor nodded sympathetically. It’s the “little adult” problem, he explained. We mistakenly believe our children will be persuaded by our ways of reasoning. “But your 3-year-old,” he gently told her, “is never going to say, ‘Yes, you’re right. You have a point.’”

From the book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior. ©2014 by Jennifer Senior. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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