Why Do Parents Make Parenting Sound So God-Awful?

Snapshots of life at home.
Feb. 6 2014 8:45 AM

“My Life Is a Waking Nightmare”

Why do parents make parenting sound so God-awful?

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But for me, a childless woman, the cumulative effect of all of this “honesty” is a growing sense of dread. I’ve known since I was a child myself that I would like to have kids someday. I’ve also never been under the illusion that parenting is easy. But it’s one thing to understand on an intellectual level that parenting is, as Jennifer Senior’s new book puts it, “all joy and no fun.” It’s another thing to see the drip-drip-drip of horror stories from parents who spend hours each day getting stubborn children to sleep and cleaning up pee. As the writer Emily Gould tweeted a few weeks ago, “At this point I’m expecting Guantanamo but worse, based on the parenting blogs I've scared myself with.”

This is not a call to return to the days of pressure and pretending. And parents are sort of in a no-win situation here—damned if they overshare their misery, damned if they are thought to be bragging and preening online. (One friend recently confided in me that the website STFU Parents has made her afraid to post anything nice on Facebook about her son.) But the cumulative effect of a Doocified world is that the Web is now flooded with “honest” anecdotes, and “brave” confessions about less-than-perfect parenting. Is it really “brave” when honesty is what’s getting the book deals these days?

Then there’s the fact that the parents writing these stories are, almost without exception, very capable women. These are not the “worst moms ever”; they are competent, loving parents who occasionally feel overwhelmed. They are parents who think and read and write about parenting. Almost by definition, they are doing just fine. Yet, culturally, we applaud their “bad” parenting while becoming less and less tolerant of actual bad parents. This is a country that is increasingly willing to prosecute pregnant women and young mothers for their mistakes with drugs, or for leaving their children home alone in moments of desperation. In a middle-class parenting subculture in which self-acceptance is a bedrock virtue, it’s impossible not to notice a disconnect.

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Another disconnect: As I read these parenting posts as a way to peer into my possible future, there is one question that plagues me the most. If becoming a parent “changes everything,” as everyone says, then what is its promise to those of us who are already happy? If those changes are primarily terrible, as so many voices online seem to agree, then it had better have some serious joy to offer. Is anyone writing about joy? Is there a way to do it without seeming obnoxiously smug or totally dishonest?

I emailed my friend Amy, who wrote a 2013 novel about a depressed, exhausted stay-at-home mother. Amy’s Facebook page, on the other hand, makes her life as a parent look genuinely rewarding. Not perfect, not spotless, but joyful. I asked her about my complaint that online portrayals of parenting are terrifying to nonparents. “Parents of young children don’t give a fuck because they are too exhausted and tapped out to care about people without kids. Ha!” she wrote back. “You don’t have kids because you think they aren't going to spend many years being assholes; you have kids for other, more inexplicable reasons. ... If a bitchy tweet could change someone’s mind about having a baby they probably just don’t actually have that crazy strong desire for a baby that some people do.”

That’s fair enough. And no one would ask parents not to talk about parenting on parenting blogs, or on their own Facebook pages. Parents, do what you need to do to get through the long, exhausting days! Commiserate away! It’s not your responsibility to promote the parenting brand. But if you can manage it, consider occasionally sparing a thought for the nonparents among you who are eavesdropping on your online conversations: We’re over here, sleeping through the night, taking long quiet baths, and going out to eat on the spur of the moment. If you can find it in your full but weary hearts to pity us, try.

Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.