I was cooking dinner last week when a message popped up on my phone. It was from my best friend and included a link to an article entitled “American parents are miserable: Moms and dads alike face a massive ‘happiness gap’.”
Below the link, my friend wrote, “See, it’s not just us!” followed by a smiley face emoji.
I truly could not love her more.
Standing at the stove stirring a skillet of fresh corn and diced tomatoes, I read the article in its entirety. In it, the author adeptly offers a thorough accounting of current and past research, which all universally point to the same conclusion: When compared to those without kids, on nearly every measure possible, we parents—especially American parents—are simply less happy.
It’s not the first time I’ve seen a study or findings like these. Every few years, it seems, researchers pop up and remind us that, in general, kids are little happiness saboteurs. The problem is, every time the conversation moves on to explain why those with kids are less happy, a very quick pivot happens. Rather than bringing us in closer to the real experience of parenting, the discussion often zooms way out to consider policies around things like family leave and childcare that make parenting in the U.S. that much more stressful. Don’t get me wrong; that’s a critical part of the story and shouldn’t be lost. But that’s just it; it’s only part of the story.
So, I had an idea to write the other side of the story, to offer a close-up, authentic account of what parenting today really feels like.
And then, I sat here. For two days. Two days of staring at a blinking cursor and a blank page while fear staged a full-blown protest in my head. There she was again, as usual, hauling out her little picket signs, marching and yelling: Hell no, I won’t go! You can’t write that! They’ll all think you’re an awful person! ! You sound like a whiny baby! This idea is stupid.
Miracle of all miracles, I am learning that when she gets really worked up like this, that’s the exact moment I need to press on. So, I went to the bargaining table and sat with fear, and I offered one concession. We would start this very honest account with the following disclaimer: Of course, I love my children. A lot. I don’t regret becoming a parent. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m grateful. So, so grateful!
OK, now that’s out of the way. Deep breathe. Come in close. Let’s go.
It’s 7:30 am. I’m on my second cup of coffee. The kids are parked in front of SpongeBob eating instant oatmeal that came from a packet which I’m sure is laced with too much sugar. I’m in the bathroom getting ready. In my left hand, I wave my hair dryer back and forth, aiming it at the crown of my head. In my right, I’m thumbing out an email on my phone. I push send, check the time, flick the hair dryer off and yell:
“Kids, are you dressed? Is your hair brushed? Did you pack your backpacks?”
I take a big swig of coffee and flip the dryer on again. Just then, my daughter rushes in.
“Hurry up mom. We have to go in 10 minutes!”
“I’ll be right there,” I say, abandoning the dryer and throwing my hair into a ponytail. Wrapped in a towel, I run the length of the hallway to the laundry room in search of a clean pair of underwear. The last load I didn’t get around to folding on Sunday is still sitting in the dryer, a wrinkled mound of white. I reach in, pull out a pair of nude briefs, and race back to my room to throw on clothes.
I pour my third cup of coffee and join my kids at the front door, scanning them quickly for things like shoes and backpacks. I fumble with my keys and my phone and my coffee cup and my purse and wonder what I must look like to my children, so frantic and frazzled.
Once in the car, it’s more of the same. Checking emails at stoplights. Peppering the kids with questions.
“Did you remember your library book? Do you have that permission slip for your field trip? When is crazy hair day again?”
As soon as the school bell rings, I head home and for the next six hours shift my attention to work. I write, respond to emails, take phone calls. I am focused, yet never able to completely quiet the constant flow of thoughts running in the background. All day long, like a leaky faucet, my to-do list related to home and family and children intrudes.
Drip: Make sure to pay the gas bill and pick up the dry cleaning.
Drip: Don’t forget, Brady needs new shoes.
Drip: Schedule the car for service.
Drip: What am I going to make for dinner?
When pickup time rolls around, I’m one grand exercise in apologizing.
“I’m sorry guys, I’ve got to jump and go pick up my kids.”
“I’m sorry, I have a hard-stop right after this call.”
“I’m sorry I’m late, mommy’s meeting ran long.”
“I’m sorry kids, I just have to send this one last email and then I’m all yours.”
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
To be a parent today is to live with a constant, pervasive, underlying suspicion that you’re simply falling short. Note, I didn’t say failing, because that’s not it at all. Rather, in an attempt to do it all, you repeatedly feel as though you’ve done none of it particularly well. You’re trying hard at everything and yet feel this nagging sense that you haven’t accomplished enough. Which is strange because when you look at your life objectively, it seems you’re ticking off all the right boxes.
Your kids are clean, fed, safe and in bed by 8:30 PM. You read to them, enroll them in enriching activities, and provide fun experiences like family hikes and camping trips. You buy them ice cream on Wednesdays and cook family dinner on Sundays. You obsess over their happiness, their feelings, and literally ache when they are hurt or sick. In work too, you give your best. You hit your deadlines, contribute, and can point to things that got done because you made them happen.
And yet, somehow, all of it never quite feels like enough. When you’re working, you’re thinking about home. And when your home, you’re thinking about work. You’re constantly multi-tasking which just feels like code for living in a state of distraction, overwhelm, and being only partially present at any given moment.
Remember how Clark Kent used to dash into the phone booth, seamlessly switching from normal Clark into Superman? Parenting is the opposite of that. In parenting, you never shed one role for the other. Instead, you’re constantly trying to integrate and straddle worlds that don’t fit together neatly. Parenting is emailing during your son’s Little League game. It’s thinking about how you need to sign him up for tutoring or take her to the eye doctor in the middle of your conference call.
When parents report that they’re less happy, I think it’s because deep down, many of us think this experience should be something different than it is. Although not many talk about it, I would guess that we all feel spread pretty thin. That instead of leaning in, many of us feel like we’re muddling through. Instead of achieving dizzying success or magnificent failure, we’re just sort of landing in this middle place, which is neither exciting nor horrible.
The problem is, in America, we celebrate the outlier. By that I mean we idealize those who are super-successful, who seem to be doing it better and achieving more than the average person. There’s nothing inherently wrong with recognizing great talent or accomplishment, but as parents, we often find that our own reality looks nothing like the outlier. And that makes us wonder, are we somehow deficient?
If you were to describe the life of a parent as an investment vehicle, I’d guess most of us would be bonds; stable, safe, dependable. The only problem is, we’re living in a culture that has pledged allegiance to the high-flyers, one that’s obsessed with success and growth. No one here really wants to be a bond; everyone wants to be Apple or Microsoft.
As a result, the average experience of parenting – the one that 99 percent of people are having – starts to feel less than, not enough. Thereby, we are not enough.
Is it any surprise that we report lower levels of happiness? Better childcare and family policies would definitely help, but that’s not all. We need to start speaking more truthfully to each other about what parenting looks and feels like day to day. And we need to stop buying into the myth of the outlier.
If the outlier is a parent, chances are, their life is just as messy and complicated and overwhelmed as yours. Only, they can’t tell you that because most of them want you to buy their book or their diet plan or their organizing system. Listen to me; they have a vested interest in you thinking their life is better than yours. As long as you believe that, you’ll keep on buying what they’re selling.
We need to give ourselves permission to admit that this is hard. Even when we’re doing it all right, it’s still hard. We have to be brave enough to tell the truth so that others can see themselves in our stories, so that we aren’t all walking around convinced everyone BUT us has it figured out.
So this is me telling you that most days I feel like I’m falling short, even though I’m giving it my best; that when it comes to parenting and managing my life, I’m more average than outlier. And if you ask me to explain why my happiness has dipped since having children, it’s not because I wanted subsidized childcare (although that would be amazing, and gosh, I wish our country could get there), it’s because for the past decade I’ve been trying to measure myself against a false standard that makes my parenting experience feel downright flawed.
I’m more convinced than ever that the path to closing the “massive happiness gap” all us moms and dads are facing is paved with truth, realness, and honesty. In this space, on this blog, I’ll try to keep doing that. Hope you keep coming back.