I met Malinda when her children were small — two and four. They were largely well behaved, she told me, sleeping through the night and minimally whiny. But while she most definitely loved them, and couldn’t imagine life without them, she increasingly found herself longing for a different life. Her old life. Her life before two kids.
Of parenthood, she told me, “I’m just not sure I like it very much. I don't like the routines, monotony, and boredom of being a mom, not to mention the discipline and daily struggles,” she said. “I’m just not one of those women who love hanging out with their kids and doing kid activities.” Most days she wished she were alone, and able “to be independent and have fun again. Adult fun,” she said. “Not kid fun.” And it scared her.
What perhaps unnerved Malinda the most, though, was that when she expressed this sentiment to other women, hoping for a hint of knowing recognition, she was invariably left hanging. She felt judged — and more alone than ever. “It was almost like I was admitting to beating my children, or leaving them locked in a hot car while I went to the movies,” she told me. “These women, they couldn’t understand how I might not feel like my kids made my life 1000 percent better. And I didn’t understand how they possibly could.”
Many parents feel ambivalent about parenting at one time or another — and not just mothers, but fathers, too. Without exception, parenting is challenging, even for those who believed themselves to be fully prepared. Whether parents choose to admit that ambivalence is another story, though it shouldn’t be: Acknowledging that raising children isn’t all cuddles and cute things they say, or even exactly what you’d imagined it would be, is not the same thing as wishing those children didn’t exist. Complex feelings are normal, in parenthood and in life.
But don’t just take it from me: Studies confirm that parenthood isn’t exactly a bowl of cherries. A 2004 study of nearly 1,000 mothers by Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman found that caring for children ranked lower in pleasurability than activities that included making dinner, watching TV, exercising, napping, and even housework. Parenting: not fun. And also, possibly, depressing: In a 2008 article published by the American Sociological Association, Wake Forest University sociologist Robin Simon wrote that parents experience more negative emotions than non-parents, citing her own extensive studies as proof. When it feels like there’s a stigma to admitting such discontentment, like in the case of Malinda, the effects are, naturally, magnified.
Though it’s reasonable to believe that ambivalent parenting has always existed, there’s also proof it’s more pronounced than it’s been in the past. For one thing, present day society is at its most narcissistic, meaning people are more likely than ever before to view life in a me-first sort of way. According to a study published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science, clinical narcissism — defined by heightened feelings of entitlement, decreased morality, and a dog-eat-dog mentality — has increased by 30 percent over the last 20 years. This narcissism — what in her book The Narcissism Epidemic author Jean Twenge describes as a commitment to “being true to ourselves,” and “never compromising” — can extend to parenthood, as more and more mothers and fathers resist the notion that parenthood is necessarily life changing. Such feelings are compounded by the fact that modern parents spend more time with their children than ever before, according to a 2008 report out of Cornell University, which noted that the uptick in parent-child time had 71 percent of mothers craving more time for themselves.
If as a parent you experience feelings — fleeting or less so — of doubt or uncertainty, it’s important to acknowledge them on an individual level. Talk to friends, but don’t let their situation affect how you feel about your own, especially if they can’t relate or seem judgmental (in which case, consider that the people who tend to judge most harshly are the people most likely to have felt something similar themselves). Parenting, like absolutely everything else in life, is a very personal experience, and child rearing isn’t one-size-fits-all. There’s no “right” way to feel, at least not all of the time. Like anything else, some people are good at raising kids. Others might have to work at it more. Still others may find they don’t like it at all. It’s best, of course, to be able to figure out which you might be before embarking on the life-changing decision to have children. But feelings alone don’t brand you a bad parent. It’s empathy, actions, and effort, that count.
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com