Why the Joys of Parenting Can Be So Difficult to Express

I’ve been thinking about a piece of feedback I get from readers every so often, which is that I don’t write about the joys of parenting enough — that I focus too much on the hurdles and pitfalls. While I’m not sure I agree entirely, as we get to the end of the year and I’m in the mood to reflect, I want to reckon with this good-faith criticism.

Sometimes this observation comes from more politically conservative readers. That point of view is well encapsulated in a 2021 article by the Deseret magazine contributing writer Bethany Mandel. In it, Mandel argues that modern motherhood has a “PR problem,” where negativity reigns and the joys are muted, that this is exacerbated by social media, and it ultimately has “deleterious effects” on both the fertility rate and “the well-being of our souls.” Mandel describes herself as pro-life, and earlier this year argued that more government spending on families isn’t the way, even in a post-Roe world.

Obviously, we disagree on the politics. I believe people should only become parents if they really want to, and not everyone wants to — that includes reproductive choice. I also believe people are having fewer babies than they might otherwise want to in part because the economics don’t always make sense — not because parenthood has taken a public relations hit.

Because I love being a mom, in a way it makes me sad when some families choose to forgo having children, but families are often making rational decisions to limit the number of kids they have in a country whose government spends less on early child care than just about all of our peer nations do. In 2018, when The Times asked younger adults why they were having fewer than their “ideal” number of children, seven of the top eight responses were financial, including: “child care is too expensive,” “worried about the economy,” “can’t afford more children,” “waited because of financial instability,” “not enough paid family leave” and “no paid family leave.” One woman said: “I’m just apprehensive about going back to poverty. I know how it goes, I know the effects of it, and I’m thinking, ‘Can I ever break this curse?’”

So: I don’t think being honest about the financial realities American parents are facing — which I write about often — means being a Debbie Downer about parenthood. I’d love it if this were a problem the free market had solved, but the market clearly hasn’t solved child care in the past four decades. And it seems to me that the proof of concept for at least some government intervention is in the expiration, about a year ago, of the expanded child tax credit. Per the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University: “the monthly child poverty rate increased from 12.1 percent in December 2021 to 17 percent in January 2022, the highest rate since the end of 2020. The 4.9 percentage point (41 percent) increase in poverty represents 3.7 million more children in poverty due to the expiration of the monthly Child Tax Credit payments.”

Where Mandel and I agree: It’s time for bipartisan work on this front.

I’m still thinking about a woman I interviewed earlier this year about the difficulties of caring for young children and aging parents at the same time who said she discovered “there’s no safety net for the elder working class. That was really so devastating.” I’ve read a barrage of headlines about how America’s retirement crisis is getting worse, for example, and I remember a lesson from Barbara Ehrenreich’s excellent 2009 book, “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.” To be unduly positive in the face of injustice is reaffirming the status quo, “with all its inequalities and abuses of power.” You can’t extol the blessings of parenthood without addressing the serious challenges that caregivers will face throughout their lifetimes.

Further, I strongly believe that it’s important for parents, mothers in particular, to acknowledge a range of emotions around motherhood. Parenting, of course, isn’t all sunshine and lollipops, so if you only accentuate the positives, that winds up doing everyone a disservice — making it harder to parent through the difficult moments if you’re crushed by guilt over every worry.

And yet.

I have to admit I do sometimes find it harder to express the existential pleasure of having children — the deep and unending satisfaction, laughter and wellspring of love that being a mother has provided me. Part of that is cultural: I grew up with the Jewish superstition about attracting the “evil eye” — to boast or express too much pride is to invite bad luck to your doorstep.

But part of it is that sitting with the overwhelming, all-encompassing love for your children can be frightening, because it brushes up against a parent’s greatest fear — that something awful could happen. I was reminded of this crush of emotions when reading Rob Delaney’s excellent, gutting new book, “A Heart That Works,” which chronicles his son’s illness and ultimate death from brain cancer at age 2. Delaney, who moved to London from Los Angeles before his son got sick, frequently mentions England’s superior safety net and national health care system. He has a few choice words for American health insurance that my editor tells me are unprintable in this family publication.

What I appreciated so much about Delaney’s book is that he perfectly juxtaposes that crush — the agony of a sick child with the terrifying beauty of being a parent. Even within a single paragraph, he will ricochet from grief and anger to gorgeousness. He describes his son’s hair, which, after chemo was over, was long and blond, “like a gorgeous little bank robber in ‘Point Break,’”and he talks about how he loved putting his fingers through it. Delaney continues:

Though I found Delaney’s book difficult to read, I’m so glad that I read it, and that he wrote it. It reminded me to be grateful for every day that I get to spend with my kids, even the hard ones. That doesn’t mean ignoring the complicated feelings each day brings, merely to recognize that there are always profound, lovely and even mysterious feelings alongside them. Sometimes I can’t put these feelings into words and other times I just don’t want to share them, I want to hoard them as my private delights.

Occasionally I’ll wish that I’d had my children even earlier, because I would get more days with them, and their four grandparents and two great-grandmas would get more days with them, too. But then I remember that if I’d had them at any other time, they wouldn’t be these specific, marvelous children. I’m not an especially religious person, but having these particular girls, and this family, can feel like a miracle. And I never want to lose sight of that, even when I’m focused on pointing out the things that I hope will change.

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