I came across an article recently that referred to parenthood as a trauma. Written by a father one can only conclude, who has been traumatized by fatherhood. The author writes of the bleak circumstances new parents often face, a reality that cannot be counteracted by the love you feel for your child.
Many statistics are quoted in support of this thesis. For example: The percentage of mothers and fathers exhibiting signs of clinical depression (more mothers than fathers), fathers experiencing increased symptomatology for five years only if they lived with their child; increased reductions in the level of satisfaction with their lives on the part of both fathers and mothers; more negative emotions experienced when parenting than during any activity other than working.
Being the parent of an infant is described as sleeplessness, screaming fits to attend to, a loss of autonomy, social isolation and sheer monotony. Such a description is enough to cause depression in and of itself. The intention, however, is to reassure parents that such feelings are justified by the reality of parenthood despite an ideology of parenthood to the contrary. The ideology apparently, is that the love of one’s child makes all the sacrifices worthwhile, which if not matched by the actual experience leads to feelings of shame and guilt.
While true that an ideology of motherhood has contained the idea of self-sacrifice – a mother is supposed to put her child’s needs ahead of her own – fathers have not generally been included in this injunction. In today’s world where women pursue careers or work at jobs to support or help support a family, they nevertheless continue to endure criticism and suffer feelings of guilt for not making care of their children their priority.
Although one father famously told me, “Guilt is not my thing,” now that fathers are more involved in the care of their children – many more than before as primary caregivers – they undoubtedly have a deeper understanding of what is really involved in the care of home and children. At one time, many fathers had the idea that women who were full time caregivers did nothing all day. But are more fathers and mothers suffering from depression than ever before?
Undoubtedly there is a discrepancy between fantasies about having children and the reality as it is actually experienced. Women who are pregnant (although many couples today say “we are pregnant”) read everything imaginable about pregnancy and childbirth. It often seems as if the birth of the baby is the end all and be all when actually it is just the beginning. It is difficult to adequately prepare women and men for the real change that will take place in their lives.
The first three months of a baby’s life can be difficult as infants become adjusted to life outside the womb. Eating and sleeping are not yet regulated and parents become sleep deprived and also preoccupied and anxious about the infant’s well-being. One reason fathers may become depressed relates to a mother’s total involvement with her baby, often emotionally unavailable to her husband for a time, creating stress for the couple. Here is where more realistic preparation could be very helpful.
New social realities create difficulties for parents as compared to years ago. Many young families no longer live near parents or other relatives who in the past provided a support system. Many women are either in professions or other work outside the home to which they are committed for financial or personal reasons. Maternity leave and other benefits vary tremendously with many mothers facing limited or no paid leave at all. Other advanced countries have recognized that the first year of life in particular requires a support system for parents.
The need for child care is an ongoing issue which continues to be a source of conflict in our country due in large part to an unwillingness to accept that mothers are no longer automatically full time caregivers. Larger social concerns about latchkey children and problems that have arisen are put at the doorstep of parents rather than accepted as social responsibility for finding solutions.
The fact that many men and women are becoming parents at a later age than was previously the case may also play a role in some of the difficulties they are now experiencing. One thing that is certainly true is that having young children leaves less space for personal time. Becoming a parent does mean relinquishing to a greater or lesser extent a focus on oneself. The older you are the harder that is to do.
Despite the difficulties and/or sacrifices involved, the fact is that most parents find satisfaction in parenthood. Like any relationship, relationships with children require compromise. The compromises required in parenthood can be growth producing for children and parents alike.