All Joy and No Fun by Judy Bolton-Fasman
News flash: People who don’t have children are happier than their parental counterparts. New York Magazine’s Jennifer Senior is the latest writer to usher this taboo subject out of the 3 a.m. feeding and drop it into the bright light of day. Senior recently wrote a piece for the magazine called, “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting,” that set off fireworks as well as weary nods of recognition in the blogosphere. Senior knows what she’s talking about and begins her piece with a picture-perfect homecoming to her 2-year-old son after a hard day’s work. Their short-lived reunion ends up with her “trawling the cabinets for alcohol.” Senior gathers a trove of academic studies stating the obvious: parenting is the toughest job you will not love most of the time. It was therefore understandably shocking when researchers in Scotland published a paper that children have a positive effect on “life satisfaction” and that domestic joy increases with the number of children in the family. It’s true; children are a financial boondoggle, an emotional strain. For all of the years we’ve been paying for private schools (a choice, I know), summer after summer of camp, and year round extracurricular activities, Ken and I could have owned a small sunny island far away from all of this madness. Our house could have been paid off by now instead of occasionally doubling as an automated teller machine. The quest for parental happiness is a wild ride the likes of the Bizarro rollercoaster at Six Flags, complete with a 200-foot drop. In his best-selling book, “Stumbling on Happiness,” Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert has found that happiness takes a nosedive when the first child is born. I see his point. In the middle of Anna’s night feedings, I’d ask Ken, “Will we ever go dancing again? Will we spontaneously hop on a flight to Paris some day?” My sensible partner gently pointed out that we didn’t really do those things before the baby. Happiness returns for a time when a child becomes physically independent. Ages 6, 7 and 8 are nirvana in the childrearing landscape. And then adolescence hits. Now we’re in murky territory – a soupy panorama of puberty, hormones and a teen’s false sense of wisdom. As a parent, you learn your way around and through your child’s adolescence. For example, I don’t attempt conversation with either of my children on a school morning. I know from bitter experience that trying to be cheerful at that hour of the day is folly. Grouchy kids aside, the teenage years are not that bad. So far. When Anna was 10 she asked me if she had to hate me when she became a teenager. I assured her that hating your mother when you turned 13 was not a hard and fast rule. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t a frequent source of embarrassment to her. There was the time I picked her and a posse of her friends up from a party and, gasp, went inside to get them. I didn’t make that mistake twice. And she never berated me again. We had an understanding, a secret handshake of sorts. According to Gilbert’s research, happiness finally sticks when the nest empties. The kids are gone and you can tango until dawn and finally take advantage of those cheap airfares on Never mind that you’re too broke or exhausted to think about doing those things. There has to be more to parenting than enduring drudgery in the hope your child will occasionally check in on you in your old age. According to Gilbert, a proud father and grandfather, the reward of parenting is “transcendence.” Only children can bring about “the most exquisite suffering” – the extreme heights of pleasure and pain that the poet Adrienne Rich ponders in her classic “Of Woman Born.” Transcendence. Watching your children walk into school. Sitting through a scratchy, screechy violin recital that reminds you that your daughter plays the violin as badly as you did. And yet it’s the music of the gods. Listening to your 6 yearold son sing, “How Much is that Doggy in the Window?” at a school concert and almost passing out from the cuteness of it all. As the children get older, you regularly arrive at similar states of euphoria after several minutes of unadulterated kvelling. Transcendence also happens while keeping vigil at your child’s hospital bed. Until that moment, you didn’t know how selfless you could be. It happens when your child gets into the kind of trouble that a time-out can no longer address. And then there is the hatred that can bubble up from deep inside of you if anyone hurts your child. The opposite of transcendence is exasperation. You issue rapid-fire orders: Get off Facebook. Do your homework. Get in the shower. Brush your teeth. And my personal favorite: Stop texting while I’m talking to you. Maybe parenting consists of intense moments of joy without a through line to sustained happiness. But I think an old Yiddish saying best captures the highs and lows of parenting: You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child.

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