Babies! They don’t care whether you’re having fun or not! Such, anyway, are the conclusions of this recent NY Magazine article, which is a SHOCKING EXPOSE on how rearing a tiny creature unfamiliar with manners, basic safety precautions, the very notion that everyone around them possesses a unique subjectivity, and your more modern feces-disposal methods MIGHT JUST BE A WEE BIT STRESSFUL. Also, that creature might throw wooden boards at your face for kicks. ALSO, if you screw up, “SON OF FEMINIST BLOGGER BECOMES SERIAL KILLER, PREYS ON MOUTHY WOMEN” will be just everywhere and you will be so embarrassed.
You know who’s always had the notion that these things are stressful, though? Like every second-wave feminist ever! And, in a shocking twist, I wound up writing about this for The Atlantic. To wit:
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir wrote of the mother who finds that “her child by no means provides that happy self-fulfillment that has been promised her.” Instead, when this woman is busy, and “particularly when she is occupied with her husband,” she finds that “the child is merely harassing and bothersome. She has no leisure for ‘training’ him; the main thing is to prevent him from getting into trouble; he is always breaking or tearing or dirtying and is a constant danger to objects and to himself.” Adrienne Rich opened her 1976 book on motherhood, Of Woman Born, with one of her own journal entries, in which she noted that her children “cause [her] the most exquisite suffering… the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness.” Later in the book, she would go on to argue that a mother of eight who dismembered her two youngest children and laid them on the lawn as “a sacrifice” was not precisely crazy, just fed up.
And that’s before we take a look at The Group. Anyway! What is to be made of this recurring phenomenon? What are we to do with this data, aside from being intolerably smug about our unoccupied uteri? (You still might want to be intolerably smug about your unoccupied uterus. I know I am!) The amazing Amanda Hess of The Sexist and I will now try to figure this business out.
SADY: Hello, fellow non-parent! Enjoying your non-parental non-miserable lifestyle yet? Because I sure am!
AMANDA: God, I am too. I plan on enjoying it until I have children too late in life, at which point memories of my blissful childless years will only contribute to my ultimate unhappiness.
SADY: If only we were all having children immediately after leaving our parents’ homes! Surely this would alleviate our misery. Also, it would help if we were not so rich and successful. This makes it harder for us, unlike the lower classes and immigrants, who simply take these bodily matters of procreation in stride. POOR PEOPLE: Not at all subject to undue stress in the matter of having kids!
AMANDA: Indeed. It is so very taxing to have the time to dote over our own happiness.
SADY: The thing is, I don’t think that the news that raising children can be stressful IS NEWS. Like 74% of second-wave feminists were talking about how grueling it is to raise children, and/or to have that as your primary responsibility.
AMANDA: Haha. And now that it’s shared, people are suddenly all like, “Should we even be doing this?”
SADY: Right? Like, “wow. It turns out this is HARD. Who knew?”
AMANDA: “Who” indeed! I do find these studies of happiness interesting, but I find it strange that people are looking for some sort of definitive answer from them: Like, Everyone procreate! Or, Condoms!
SADY: Right. I mean: “Happiness Studies,” in and of itself, which I hear is actually a growing field, is strange. We can measure what makes people happy or unhappy, but ultimately I guess I’m with Senior on this point: Are we questioning what role “happiness” plays in our life choices? I mean, I have recently come to feel that I might not want kids, but this has to do with the fact that I am (a) poor, and (b) high-strung. I can’t get a dog without Googling care instructions obsessively and researching what sort of terrible ailments might wind up killing it. But was “happiness” what people had children for, ever, anyway? Maybe the issue isn’t that “parenting has changed”—because it seems to have changed most fundamentally in terms of who has to do it—but that we EXPECT “happiness” from popping one out in a way we didn’t use to.
AMANDA: Right. I think the happiness part is some new-agey conception of raising children. It’s important to remember that joy aside, the fact is that now a lot of people get to choose whether they have children or not, and if so, when. And so it becomes much more of a quality-of-life question than a biological-necessity one. And so I think it’s fair to expect that you do the thing that you think will make you the happiest. But there’s also a lot of fear-mongering about that, because of that whole ovary-loss thing. So people are like, “If you don’t have kids now, you will never be happy and you’ll regret it for the rest of your life!” And people on the other end are like, “Once you pop it out, there’s no turning back! Life-ruiner!” When, actually, I bet that a lot of people could find meaningful, happy lives doing either of those things.
SADY: Yeah. I mean, women are so, so frequently scared out of, like, LIVING, or doing anything other than having children ASAP, because they’re told that their fertility is evaporating and they’ll be unhappy forever if they don’t have babies. And I think it’s worth noting that a ton of the parents interviewed, who were speaking most directly about being unhappy and frustrated, were women. Men in that article were mostly “experts,” even if they were also fathers.
AMANDA: Right, I think there is some stat in there that women are on the whole less happy. Which, you know, probably has something to do with that whole “shared parenting” thing not being completely shared, and the general added expectations placed on mothers. One of my favorite parts of the story was the suggestion that you “always regret the things you didn’t do, not the things you did do.” Like, why does the “thing I do” have to be having babies? There are plenty of things I won’t be doing if I end up having kids.
SADY: Haha, yeah. “I will never regret not having children, when I die because my child threw boards at me and one of them had a nail in it and it punctured my skull and killed me.” But I’m also wondering if being told that children are the KEY TO HAPPINESS (if you are a woman) has to do with the disappointment (among women) that children don’t auto-fulfill you? I mean, Simone de Beauvoir talked about this. Her whole deal was that women are told having children will fulfill them, and then it doesn’t, and then they hate their children. Her solution: Make something else in your life more important than getting pregnant?
AMANDA: But there’s nothing more important than hating your kids! If you never do that, you will regret it for the rest of your life!
SADY: It’s true. You’ll never regret hating your kids as much as you’ll regret not hating them. It is fun to think about fathers in all this, though. I mean, I like to imagine they’re at least MARGINALLY more involved in dealing with the poop and the breaking things and the eighteen years of college prep these kids are all being put through now.
AMANDA: Right. The story did mention that the most unhappy parents of all were those who were the non-custodial parent (mostly fathers). So having a kid and not raising it? Depressed for life. Having a kid and raising it too much? Also depressed—single parents and moms in general were less happy. Solution: Move to Norway?
SADY: Right. I, predictably, DID enjoy the part where they were all like, “maybe if we had state-sponsored child care?” “Also, longer maternity leave helps?” Like: All of these things that feminists are advocating FOR WOMEN would actually make parents’ lives easier, in the long run. OR, you could just live a life of heedless wanton non-impregnated self-satisfaction. Until you die, and there is no-one who will visit you at the nursing home. Except for that one robot seal thing.
AMANDA: Right. I mean, is that the whole point of it? That someone will be there to care when I die? That seems to be the last-ditch explanation when I press people on why this is necessary. I’m guessing it’s more like a Stockholm syndrome thing.
SADY: Yeah. Probably. We love our tiny oppressors!
AMANDA: The baby captors stole our happiness! Join us!