Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

Why Raising Children Is So Hard

How child rearing is really challenging

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You don't really know what an experience is like, of course, until you have it yourself. I remember thinking to myself when my wife and I first began discussing the idea of having children that this was especially true regarding parenthood. In the past I'd been able to predict with reasonable accuracy a number of novel experiences based on previous similar experiences, but no experience I'd yet had seemed even close to the experience of having a child (sorry, owning a pet doesn't come close).

The truth is that parenthood is both wonderful and awful at the same time. What makes it wonderful are all the things people tell you. What makes it awful, however, isn't quite as intuitively clear. Certainly the obvious things like tantrums, stubbornness, and lifestyle changes are difficult. But they aren't what I've found the most challenging. For me, what makes child-rearing the most challenging are the following three things:

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  1. Children follow their own schedule. They find dust fascinating and want to play with it while you're trying to get them to school. They don't want to sleep or eat (you'd think evolution would have thought to program that differently). They want to read the same book, listen to the same song, and watch the same movie over and over and over again. Having a child is like having one of your limbs suddenly develop a mind of its own with desires and interests that are different from yours. You're quite attached to it, however, so can't—and don't want to—get rid of it. Yet living with it suddenly becomes an unexpected challenge—not so much because you must now work to manage something that previously obeyed your every whim (you can forgive that because, being a part of yourself, you love it), but because its new independence of mind becomes a constant reminder that any control we think we have in life is an illusion.
  2. We want to do everything for them. This is sometimes because of #1 above: children often move so slowly that impatience gets the best of us and we start putting on their shirts, their pants, and their shoes when they're perfectly capable of doing it themselves. But just as often, it's because we want to spare them difficulty. Our desire to do so, however, is clearly as misguided as it is understandable. How, after all, did we learn to succeed at challenging tasks except by having the chance to fail at them, by learning to tolerate our own frustration so that we could channel it into trying again? In fact, I can think of few skills more important to learn—perseverance in the face of obstacles—to which parents represent more of an obstacle themselves.
  3. We want to spare them pain. This one is what makes parenthood the most challenging for me. I simply want my son never to be hurt, either physically or emotionally. When he was born, I wasn't surprised by how much I loved him almost immediately, but I was by the strength of the urge I felt to protect him. Yet none of us are spared pain in life, and the sooner we learn how to survive it, the sooner we learn how to thrive in it. Thus as parents, we must sometimes allow our children to be hurt. Yet exactly when to hold back and when to leap in requires judgment, self-control, and constant vigilance. It's a bit like trying to lose weight: you can't abdicate responsibility for protecting your children any more than you can entirely stop eating. You have to protect them from genuine threats but also allow them to experience what pain you think they can handle so that when you're no longer around to make it better, they can make it better themselves. But it makes you hurt yourself. And it's exhausting.

My main point here, then, is that nothing in life is only wonderful (or awful), even having children, something many tout, at least in the abstract, as the most wonderful experience to be had. But our experiences never occur in the abstract and thinking of them as if they do, expecting them to be entirely black or entirely white, will only yield unrealistic expectations and thus predispose us to suffer through something that, in the end, really is wonderful.

 

Dr. Lickerman's book The Undefeated Mind will be published in late 2012.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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