Yes, Babies - and Children - Are Hard
The Wall Street Journal is not the place that I'd expect to find an article detailing the challenges of a baby to a marriage, Andrea Petersen's article is a good synopsis of the impact that children can have on a marriage. My question however, why is this surprising? What has changed in our society that we now think that it's not a challenge and considerable work to raise children? Ms. Petersen does a good job of explaining the difficulties and providing some tips on handling interpersonal issues, but it doesn't go to the deeper issue.
Let's be frank, children are work. I'm the father of three and have been home with them since Eldest's birth, and I'll attest to the fact that they are work and can create considerable stress. The nature of that work changes as they age with the physically intensive, demanding activities occurring when they're very young. They grow and learn and can start handling more of the physical aspects themselves but the work becomes more intuitive and cerebral as they enter the world and begin to interact with other children and the remainder of society. Accountancy can be as tiring as digging ditches, just in a different way. Children can be great sources of joy, but that joy sometimes comes with considerable effort.
Why are we surprised at this simple reality of nature?
- Caring for babies and raising children is not only a physically demanding job, but one that entails considerable mental stress, especially in families where both parents are working. Who's going to get Junior from daycare? I've got to get this laundry folded and put away, assure that dinner's cooked and that's after I spend time playing with Junior. People sometimes forget that play is an integral part of the parent's job that provides tremendous value to the child's development and that it really is part of their parental job. The juggling can be stressful and requires constant vigilance to assure that things don't fall apart. This juggling is made more difficult by the fact that you're dealing with children who simply don't see reality or think like adults with several decades of experience. Stress can come from having to be somewhere and the small child decides to pitch a tantrum because the socks don't feel right or doesn't want to turn off the television program. And I say this from not having to worry about covering multiple children along with a job.
- Media bombards us with images showing the glossy images of children playing with parents, neat houses and happy families sitting down to mealtimes. These are superficial however, since they don't show the laundry being ignored while Mom plays Chutes and Ladders, the constant picking up of toys and strewn clothing, and the time spent cooking the meals for those happy mealtimes. There's much work involved in running the household and managing the family and this isn't shown anywhere apart from commercials for cleaning items. One of my complaints about shows such as Supernanny is that the disciplinary interventions are briefly discussed in the alloted timeframe and then there might be brief clips showing the parents putting them to use. The reality of discipline however, is that it can take a long, long time to train the child to stay in the timeout spot as children will test the parent repeatedly. They certainly don't show the desperate, often emotionally exhausted parent overcoming the urge to strangle the child.
- Not only do we tend to fall for the images in the media, but we've been sold shallow definitions of home and family. In a society that prizes time management and quick gratification, we've forgotten that a home isn't a physical thing or place. A home is a sense, a belief and a feeling. It arises from our cumulative actions and attitudes instead of the workmanship of the carpenters and plumbers that completed the structure. They simply provide the physical structure from the elements but we take that structure and create a home in which to raise our children. Homes are made, not built. Likewise, if we accept the modern notion that a family can consist of more than two parents and biologically related children, then a family is something that is truly crafted and not just thrown together pell mell.
- With divorce so prevalent amongst American marriages in the past two generations, many of today's young parents simply don't have a template upon which to model what's involved in making a home and marriage work. Women do have a biological nesting instinct that, in a sense, predisposes them to understand what's involved but many men simply don't have that. Since most children stayed with the separated and divorced mom, daughters had a model upon which to base their own home and household experience. More importantly, nor do men have the involved, active father figure upon which to model their own efforts and are, as a group, struggling to find themselves. Honestly, people don't recognize that enough factors have come together to make it difficult to be a young and involved father in today's society.
- While Americans work hard, we live in a leisure based society and that breeds self-absorption. It took me awhile to understand that there's a First Law of Fatherhood and that's that it's no longer about me, but about these children that depend upon my wife and I for their survival and upbringing. It's a mindset that takes some work to adopt and there are still moments when I'd like to pack a bag and catch a train to New York for the weekend, but that means that the responsibilities to wife and kids are uncovered. I can still take an occasional getaway by myself, but that's only after working through the logistics ahead of time.
For everything that I've just written, please don't think that I resent the kids. They are a blessing and I simply cannot conceive of a life without their presence for what they bring to me. But there is a realistic understanding that's come about from considerable effort and work, much of which was generated by these blessings.
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