Watching a group of two year olds in an art class it was striking to see how engrossed they were in their work. The teacher walked around them at intervals squeezing a glob of different color paint on the children’s papers each time, asking each child where he or she wanted the new color. The children were using rollers instead of brushes, creating the most amazing effects as the colors mixed and the roller changed direction.
Were the children having fun? Perhaps, but not in the usual way we think of children having fun. They were very serious about their work. How about the teachers? They, too, were serious about what they were doing, with many tasks involved besides squeezing paint. But both children and teachers were clearly experiencing much joy in what they were doing, the teachers in particular finding joy in the amazing creations the children were producing.
This brought to mind Jennifer Senior’s book, “All Joy and No Fun,” which I had recently read and written about. I was struck by the sub-title, “The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.” The dictionary defines paradox as “a statement that seems to contradict itself but which contains a truth.” In this instance, thinking of all joy and no fun as a paradox would mean we see joy and fun as the same thing. But in many ways they are not. Creative activity, as in the example above, can bring one great joy, while the work itself is most often not fun – ask any writer or artist.
Perhaps the idea of a paradox applies because when we expect joy and fun to be the same, discovering the truth that they are not comes as a shock. Apparently, it is “modern parenthood” that has created an awareness of this distinction, although it undoubtedly has been true of raising children in the past. While there are many factors of modern life that have made parenthood more difficult in some ways, it would seem that a major change has been one of expectation.
We have a great emotional investment in our children – possibly more so than in generations past. Because we no longer have children as an economic investment, to carry on a name or title or to support us in our old age, more and more we think of children as our creation. Andrew Solomon, in “Far From the Tree,” writes “There is no such thing as reproduction. When two people decide to have a baby they engage in an act of production . . . it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own.”
Raising children has always entailed work – perhaps even more in an older time with fewer modern conveniences. But there seems to be greater stress in parenthood these days, and much of it seems to come from the expectations we have of our children and of ourselves as parents. If children have become our productions, it leads us to see them as reflections on us, on our own worth and on our accomplishments as parents. Certainly everything that surrounds us in the parenting world – magazine articles, books, blogs, movies and TV – gives us that message. Somehow, the message has come through that if we did everything the right way the outcome would be, or should be perfect.
The balance between parents and children is out of whack. In her book, Senior talks about “flow” and “autonomy” in explaining why parents are taxed by their interactions with and the demands of children. The physiology and brain function of young children are offered as a means of understanding how children and adults are different, and why the way children operate is particularly stressful for parents.
Of course children are different from adults. But they are not part of another species and it is possible to recognize and even identify with their feelings and behavior. The question in the differences between parents and children is who is supposed to accommodate to whom? This is a central question with which many parents struggle and too often leads to a capitulation of one to the other. Children are not prone to capitulation and their struggle to prevail is what makes life difficult for parents.
Women as mothers, in particular, struggle with remnants of the “good mother” ideal in an era that values autonomy which women have fought to achieve. The conflict between what they feel they should give their children and what they want for themselves is strong. There is no single answer to that conflict. Rather it comes up daily, in many situations that require deciding in favor of a want or need of one’s child or of one’s own. This becomes especially difficult in the face of unrealistic ideas about what children actually need – as opposed to want.
Raising children is not all joy, but neither is it no fun. The no fun part might be diminished if we could accept children for who they are, rather than who or what we think they should be.