NYMP Q&A: The Parenthood Paradox
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Why are we so hard on ourselves with regard to the parental role?
These days, people work harder, longer hours. We all have an office in our pocket. If you make the kids the center of your universe, you make your life difficult. But it’s hard to separate out our lives. Parents I spoke to feel great shame about the fact that their kids are an interruption of Mommy’s email time, instead of the other way around. Parents should give themselves the option of not being complicit in this cycle of responsiveness at work. Set the ground rule that you are simply not going to look at the phone or reply after, say 5pm. Then of course you stay up until the wee hours responding after your child is in bed, so you pay the price in exhaustion…. But go ahead and put a price on it!
In speaking with so many parents during your research, what findings surprised you most about the modern family?
I was very surprised to find out that the women are the hard asses. Women all have similar stories—they are the taskmasters, they are frustrated with their husbands. And it’s a simple function of time. Women have more exposure to their kids, they log more hours. Women literally spend twice as much time doing child care. So naturally they are the ones aggressively monitoring their kids. But it’s the mom who’s there when a child comes home and wants to go to so-and-so’s house. It’s the mom who demands to know who so-and-so is, how you know him, and whether she has met his parents. If men spent more time with their kids, they would start driving the same hard bargains.
And what did you learn about the way parents are affected by their kids?
I was surprised at the range of emotions, the highs and lows of the relationships. For example, I was shocked at how much physical aggression adolescent girls direct toward their mothers. And I was always very amazed to see parents of those same adolescent kids choke up with pride when speaking of their kids, marveling at what their child had achieved. Seeing all of that lived out was pretty profound.
You write that raising happy kids is a pervasive goal, a beautiful one, albeit an unfair one: an elusive aim. What would you say to parents who deeply believe that it is their responsibility to raise kids who grow up to be happy?
That’s a very risky goal. Not every kid is happy, and kids suffer from the tension. It’s very stressful for a child if he’s not doing that for his parents. You can’t teach happiness and self-confidence, but you can teach your kids to be decent, productive, and to have good morals.
Author Curtis Sittenfeld wrote about your book that it seemed like you must have been spying inside her house, it was so familiar and real. Was this relatability part of your goal in analyzing the paradox of modern parenthood?
I wanted to create a pool of informed knowledge. And yes, I wanted people to discover that they are not alone. Their parenting experiences are quite normal. My goal was to hold up this mirror: “See, it’s not you, it’s everyone!”
Lucy Bayly is a NY-based writer, editor, and mother of two young boys; she lives amongst a rapidly expanding pile of rainbow bracelets and Lego police vehicles.
Jennifer Senior is a mother of a 6-year-old boy and is a contributing writer at New York magazine; she lives with her family in New York City.