All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

Alas, that’s what adulthood is supposed to be about: “an overcoming” or (better yet) “a disciplining of a developmentally appropriate insanity.

And how long an activity lasts seems to have little influence on our recollections at all—two weeks of vacation, Kahneman noted in a 2010 TED lecture, won’t be recalled with much more fondness or intensity than one week, because that extra week probably won’t add much new material to the original memory. (Never mind that the experiencing self might really enjoy that extra week of vacation.) Dr. Spock points out, raising happy children is an elusive aim compared to the more concrete aims of parenting in the past: creating competent children in certain kinds of work; and creating morally responsible citizens who fulfill a prescribed set of community obligations. The fact is, those bygone goals are probably more constructive--and achievable. Not all children will grow up to be happy, in spite of their parents' most valiant efforts, and all children are unhappy somewhere along the way.

As parents, we sometimes mistakenly assume that things were always this way. They weren't. The modern family is just that - modern - and all of our places in it are quite new. Unless we keep in mind how new our lives as parents are, and how unusual and ahistorical, we won't see that world we live in, as mothers and fathers, is still under construction. Modern childhood was invented less than seventy years ago - the length of a catnap, in historical terms.

But here’s the thing,” says Paul. “I would bet that if someone did a study and asked, ‘Okay, your kid’s three, rank these aspects of your life in terms of enjoyment,’ and then, five years later, asked, ‘Tell me what your life was like when your kid was three,’ you’d have totally different responses.”   WITH THIS SIMPLE OBSERVATION, Paul has stumbled onto one of the biggest paradoxes in the research on human affect: we enshrine things in memory very differently from how we experience them in real time. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has coined a couple of terms to make the distinction. He talks about the “experiencing self” versus the “remembering self.” The experiencing self is the self who moves through the world and should therefore, at least in theory, be more likely to control our daily life choices. But that’s not how it works out. Rather, it is the remembering self who plays a far more influential role in our lives, particularly when we make decisions or plan for the future, and this fact is made doubly strange when one considers that the remembering self is far more prone to error: our memories are idiosyncratic, selective, and subject to a rangy host of biases. We tend to believe that how an episode ended was how it felt as a whole (so that, alas, the entire experience of a movie, a vacation, or even a twenty-year marriage can be deformed by a bad ending, forever recalled as an awful experience rather than an enjoyable one until it turned sour). We remember milestones and significant changes more vividly than banal things we do more frequently.

But these gains in freedom for both men and women often seem like a triumph of subtraction rather than addition. Over time, writes Coontz, Americans have come to define liberty “negatively, as lack of dependence, the right not to be obligated to others. Independence came to mean immunity from social claims on one’s wealth or time.” If this is how you conceive of liberty—as freedom from obligation—then the transition to parenthood is a dizzying shock. Most Americans are free to choose or change spouses, and the middle class has at least a modicum of freedom to choose or change careers. But we can never choose or change our children. They are the last binding obligation in a culture that asks for almost no other permanent commitments at all.

But the truth is, there's little even the most organized people can do to prepare themselves for having children. They can buy all the books, observe friends and relations, review their own memories of childhood. But the distance between those proxy experiences and the real thing, ultimately, can be measured in light-years.

But young children, whose prefrontal cortexes have barely begun to ripen, can’t conceive of a future, which means they spend their lives in the permanent present, a forever feeling of right now. At times, this is a desirable state of consciousness; indeed, for meditators, it’s the ultimate aspiration. But living in the permanent present is not a practical parenting strategy. “Everybody would like to be in the present,” says Daniel Gilbert, a social psychologist at Harvard and author of the 2006 best-seller Stumbling on Happiness. “Certainly it’s true that there is an important role for being present in our lives. All the data say that. My own research says that.” The difference is that children, by definition, only live in the present, which means that you, as a parent, don’t get much of a chance. “Everyone is moving at the same speed toward the future,” he says. “But your children are moving at that same speed with their eyes closed. So you’re the ones who’ve got to steer.” He thinks about this for a moment. “You know, back in the early seventies, I hung out with a lot of people who wanted to live in the present. And it meant that no one paid the rent.” In effect, parents and small children have two completely different temporal outlooks. Parents can project into the future; their young children, anchored in the present, have a much harder time of it. This difference can be a formula for heartbreak for a small child.

Children learn from the world through doing, touching, experiencing; adults on the other hand, tend to take in the world through their heads - reading books, watching television, swiping at touch screens. They're estranged from the world of everyday objects. Yet interacting with the world is fundamental to who we are.

Everyone is moving at the same speed toward the future. But your children are moving at that same speed with their eyes closed. So you're the ones who've got to steer.

... "Having it all" is the phrase of a culture that, as Adam Phillips implies in 'Missing Out', is tyranized by the idea of its own potential. A few generations ago, most people didn't wake up in the morning and fret about whether or not they were living their lives to the fullest. Freedom has always been built into the American experiment, of course, but the freedom to take off and go rock-climbing for the afternoon, or to study engineering, or even to sneak in ten minutes for ourselves in the morning to read the paper- these kinds of freedoms were not, until very recently, built into our private universes of anticipation. It's important to remember that.

Having worked so hard to have children, parents may feel it's only natural to expect happiness from the experience. And they'll find happiness of course, but not necessarily continuously, and not always in the forms they might expect.

If one takes meaning into consideration, happiness might best be described as “a zest for life in all its complexity,” as Sissela Bok writes in her book. To achieve it means to “attach our lives to something larger than ourselves.” To be happy, one must do. It could be something as simple as teaching Sunday school or as grand as leading nonviolent protests. It could be as cerebral as seeking the cure for cancer or as physical as climbing mountains. It could be creating art. And it could be raising a child—my “best piece of poetrie,” as Ben Jonson said in his elegy for his seven-year-old son.

In addition, Steinberg has found that adolescence is especially rough on parents who don't have an outside interest, whether it be work or a hobby, to absorb their interests as their child is pulling away.

It is unrealistic, I think—and by “unrealistic” I mean it is a demand that cannot be met—to assume that if all goes well in a child’s life, he or she will be happy. Not because life is the kind of thing that doesn’t make you happy; but because happiness is not something one can ask of a child. Children, I think, suffer—in a way that adults don’t always realize—under the pressure their parents put on them to be happy, which is the pressure not to make their parents unhappy, or more unhappy than they already are.

I was so struck by Flow’s negative implications for parents that I decided I wanted to speak to Csikszentmihalyi, just to make sure I wasn’t misreading him. And eventually I did, at a conference in Philadelphia where he was one of the marquee speakers. As we sat down to chat, the first thing I asked was why he talked so little about family life in Flow. He devotes only ten pages to it. “Let me tell you a couple of things that may be relevant to you,” he said. And then he told a personal story. When Csikszentmihalyi first developed the Experience Sampling Method, one of the first people he tried it out on was himself. “And at the end of the week,” he said, “I looked at my responses, and one thing that suddenly was very strange to me was that every time I was with my two sons, my moods were always very, very negative.” His sons weren’t toddlers at that point either. They were older. “And I said, ‘This doesn’t make any sense to me, because I’m very proud of them, and we have a good relationship.’ ” But then he started to look at what, specifically, he was doing with his sons that made his feelings so negative. “And what was I doing?” he asked. “I was saying, ‘It’s time to get up, or you will be late for school.’ Or, ‘You haven’t put away your cereal dish from breakfast.’ ” He was nagging, in other words, and nagging is not a flow activity. “I realized,” he said, “that being a parent consists, in large part, of correcting the growth pattern of a person who is not necessarily ready to live in a civilized society.” I asked if, in that same data set, he had any numbers about flow in family life. None were in his book. He said he did. “They were low. Family life is organized in a way that flow is very difficult to achieve, because we assume that family life is supposed to relax us and to make us happy. But instead of being happy, people get bored.” Or enervated, as he’d said before, when talking about disciplining his sons. And because children are constantly changing, the “rules” of handling them change too, which can further confound a family’s ability to flow. “And then we get into these spirals of conflict and so forth,” he continued. “That’s why I’m saying it’s easier to get into flow at work. Work is more structured. It’s structured more like a game. It has clear goals, you get feedback, you know what has to be done, there are limits.” He thought about this. “Partly, the lack of structure in family life, which seems to give people freedom, is actually a kind of an impediment.

More than almost anything else, the experience of parenthood exposes the gulf between our experiencing and remembering selves. Our experiencing selves tell researchers that we prefer doing the dishes -- or napping, or shopping, or answering emails -- to spending time with our kids. (I am very specifically referring here to Kahneman's study of 909 Texas women.) But our remembering selves tell researchers that no one -- and nothing -- provides us with so much joy as our children. It may not be the happiness we live day to day, but it's the happiness we think about, the happiness we summon and remember, the stuff that makes up our life-tales.

Neurologically speaking, though, there are reasons we develop a confused sense of priorities when we’re in front of our computer screens. For one thing, email comes at unpredictable intervals, which, as B. F. Skinner famously showed with rats seeking pellets, is the most seductive and habit-forming reward pattern to the mammalian brain. (Think about it: would slot machines be half as thrilling if you knew when, and how often, you were going to get three cherries?) Jessie would later say as much to me when I asked her why she was “obsessed”—her word—with her email: “It’s like fishing. You just never know what you’re going to get.” More to the point, our nervous systems can become dysregulated when we sit in front of a screen. This, at least, is the theory of Linda Stone, formerly a researcher and senior executive at Microsoft Corporation. She notes that we often hold our breath or breathe shallowly when we’re working at our computers. She calls this phenomenon “email apnea” or “screen apnea.” “The result,” writes Stone in an email, “is a stress response. We become more agitated and impulsive than we’d ordinarily be.

No matter how perfect our circumstances, most of us, as Adam Phillips observed, “learn to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like.” The hard part is to make peace with that misty zone and to recognize that no life—no life worth living anyway—is free of constraints.

Parents can project into the future; their young children, anchored in the present, have a much harder time of it. This difference can be a formula for heartbreak for a small child. Toddlers cannot appreciate, as an adult can, that when they’re told to put their blocks away, they’ll be able to resume playing with them at some later date. They do not care, when told they can’t have another bag of potato chips, that life is long and teeming with potato chips. They want them now, because now is where they live. Yet somehow mothers and fathers believe that if only they could convey the logic of their decisions, their young children would understand it. That’s what their adult brains thrived on for all those years before their children came along: rational chitchat, in which motives were elucidated and careful analyses dutifully dispatched. 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.

The author observes the shift now that children are not a source of labor for the family, that they have gone from employees of the parents to the bosses of the parents.

The author says that one of the difficulties of modern parenting is the uncertainty of what parents are preparing children for. In traditional societies this was clear, as parents prepared children for a society and for roles much like their own. She writes, "There is no folk wisdom.

The phrase "having it all" has little to do with having what we want.

THE SENTIMENTALIZATION OF CHILDHOOD has produced a great many paradoxes. The most curious, however, may be that children have acquired more and more stuff the more useless they have become. Until the late nineteenth century, when kids were still making vital contributions to the family economy, they didn’t have toys as we know them. They played with found and household objects (sticks, pots, brooms). In his book Children at Play, the scholar Howard Chudacoff writes, “Some historians even maintain that before the modern era, the most common form of children’s play occurred not with toys but with other children—siblings, cousins, and peers.

They also create wormholes in time, transporting their mothers and fathers back to feelings and sensations they haven't had since they themselves were young. The dirty secret about adulthood is the sameness of it, its tireless adherence to routines and customs and norms. Small children may intensify this sense of repetition and rigidity by virtue of the new routines they establish. But they liberate their parents from their ruts too.

This is another thing that quantitative studies of American time use cannot show you: for the majority of mothers, time is fractured and subdivided, as if streaming through a prism; for the majority of fathers, it moves in an unbent line.

TO MY MIND, THOUGH, there is a third development that has altered our parenting experience above all others, and that is the wholesale transformation of the child’s role, both in the home and in society. Since the end of World War II, childhood has been completely redefined. Today, we work hard to shield children from life’s hardships. But throughout most of our country’s history, we did not. Rather, kids worked. In the earliest days of our nation, they cared for their siblings or spent time in the fields; as the country industrialized, they worked in mines and textile mills, in factories and canneries, in street trades. Over time, reformers managed to outlaw child labor practices. Yet change was slow. It wasn’t until our soldiers returned from World War II that childhood, as we now know it, began. The family economy was no longer built on a system of reciprocity, with parents sheltering and feeding their children, and children, in return, kicking something back into the family till. The relationship became asymmetrical. Children stopped working, and parents worked twice as hard. Children went from being our employees to our bosses. The way most historians describe this transformation is to say that the child went from “useful” to “protected.” But the sociologist Viviana Zelizer came up with a far more pungent phrase. She characterized the modern child as “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.” Today parents pour more capital—both emotional and literal—into their children than ever before, and they’re spending longer, more concentrated hours with their children than they did when the workday ended at five o’clock and the majority of women still stayed home. Yet parents don’t know what it is they’re supposed to do, precisely, in their new jobs. “Parenting” may have become its own activity (its own profession, so to speak), but its goals are far from clear.

Vocabulary for aggravation is large. Vocabulary for transcendence is elusive.

We enshrine things to memory very differently than we experience them in real time. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has coined a couple of terms to make the distinction. He talks about the "experiencing self" versus the "remembering self.

We long for experiences “of profound connection with others,” he writes, “of deep understanding of natural phenomena, of love, of being profoundly moved by music or tragedy, or doing something new and innovative.” Just as important, we long for esteem and pride, “a self that happiness is a fitting response to.” Implicit in Nozick’s experiment is the idea that happiness should be a by-product, not a goal. Many of the ancient Greeks believed the same. To Aristotle, eudaimonia (roughly translated as “flourishing”) meant doing something productive. Happiness could only be achieved through exploiting our strengths and our potential. To be happy, one must do, not just feel.