Children: Stairway to Heaven?

Or: silent, unobtrusive self-denial?

Posted Nov 05, 2016

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

What possessed us? We were so happy! Why, then, did we take the stake of all we had and place it all on this outrageous gamble of having a child? … it’s against the rules, isn’t it, to actually have a baby and spend any time at all on that banished parallel life in which you didn’t. (Let’s Talk About Kevin, p. 12)

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is a quote from the novel Let’s Talk about Kevin. Eva, the mother and voice of the novel, raises an interesting point. Having a child requires banishing a life of independence, self-government and self-centered joy. It requires letting your actions be governed by the needs of another person.

Science journalist Robin Marantz Henig once wrote:

There's a rumor going around that the dirty little secret of parenthood—the secret that other parents won’t tell you, because misery loves company—is that those first 18 years of parenting are the most difficult, most exhausting, least fulfilling years of anyone’s life.

She got that right. Having a child isn’t something that automatically makes you snort-laugh in the morning or fall into a permanent state of awe, joy and enthusiasm. Being a parent is no tea party. It may occasionally make you scream in exhilarated pride, but every so often it makes you wonder why you ever wanted children in the first place. It’s not like you can sell Mr. Poopy Pants cheap on eBay.

One day my fellow school parent in crime Peggy accurately noted: "I never knew what happiness was until I had kids … and then it was too late!"

The sacrifices and demands start long before you do the you-know-what in order to reproduce. In 2006 the Centers for Disease Control released its “Recommendations to Improve Preconception Health and Healthcare” as part of its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The report recommends that “all women of childbearing age in the United States receive preconception care services.”

This is putting a lot of agonizing pressure on women who want to become parents. And on women who don’t. And being redefined as incubators makes those of us with a womb feel like lower cast members. Organizations such as the March of Dimes re-branded preconception care as a well-woman health package. But the message couldn’t be clearer. We women are thought of as vehicles expected to keep our wombs healthy and fit for babies.


Rebecca Kukla, Professor and Senior Research Scholar at the Kennedy Institute for Ethics at Georgetown University, finds the preconception movement deeply troubling. It sends the message that “the ‘purpose’ of women’s health care is the protection of babies and society.” When women’s bodies are viewed as always pre-pregnant, people inevitably start treating women who consume light to moderate amounts of alcohol, smoke or use recreational drugs as irresponsible, even when they don’t find these behaviors unacceptable for men.

The expectations of what women should do magnify tenfold when the blue line appears in the window of the do-it-yourself pregnancy kit. At that point you are, as Kukla puts it, “encouraged to discipline virtually all dimensions of your body and behaviors:” what you eat and drink, where you work, where you relax and when and how you exercise.

Cut out cheese made with raw milk, and preferably all imported cheeses just to be safe, forsake red meat, sushi, tuna, mackerel, swordfish, and alcohol. Humor people: eat pickles and ice cream. Don’t empty your cat’s litter box. Don’t sit on new furniture or eat food cooked in new pots and pans.

You are encouraged to do this, despite the lack of evidence that continuing a normal lifestyle imposes no additional risk on a developing fetus. Light or moderate drinking, for example, has not been found to increase the risk of fetal damages. Yet, as Kukla argues, that doesn’t stop an increasing number of industrial countries from issuing no-alcohol guidelines for pregnant women, including the US, Canada and the UK.

Once the little tadpole arrives after a gazillion-hour long labor, the laundry list of dos and don’ts isn’t getting any shorter. Have everyone wash their hands or use hand sanitizer before they touch the little precious one the first few weeks. Breastfeed for twelve months. (You have to return to work after six weeks, you say? Too bad. Bring a breast pump. Hospital grade. Looks like a tool box”). Introduce solids only after six months. Forsake alcohol. Ring in the new year with a glass of pink Alka Seltzer. Pop monster vitamins daily. No blankets or comforters in the crib, and Baby on her back, or you may end up with rock-a-bye baby.

In fact, if you don’t continue to discipline your behaviors even after your bundle of joy exits your womb, you could get arrested. This is what happened to Tasha Adams, a stay-at-home mother of three, in November 2013. Tasha was dining with her family when the police suddenly turned up. A waitress at the restaurant had noticed Tasha breastfeeding her infant daughter after having a beer, so she called the police, who arrested Tasha for endangering the welfare of a child.

In addition to the numerous restrictions imposed on new mothers, there are uncounted pressures to stimulate cognitive and physical development and ensuring that baby measures up to or surpasses her peers. The blogosphere is oversaturated with opinions and advice on how to get your little grasshopper on the Ivy-League track. Start her on mommy-baby gymnastics and music lessons as soon as it’s safe to take her out of the house. Run the Toddler Counting iPad app on kiddo’s iPotty, teach babe baby sign language, read The Alphabet Book; Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb; and The Shape of Me and Other Stuff to her every night for at least an hour, sing Hush Little Baby to her after reading, and during the day go to the playground and bring her to your mother group meetings (everyone has a mother group, right?).

No wonder honest parents often report (or at least think to themselves) that they hate being parents. Writer and yoga teacher Rebecca Lammersen says it well:

I remember the first time I hated it. My eldest daughter was about 4 months old. All I wanted to do was shower but she didn't want me to, so I clipped her into her bouncy seat, brought her in the bathroom and showered while she screamed. I hate this, I thought. I love her, but I hate this, being a mom. I'm completely responsible 24-7 for this other person with no reprieve. What about me? How selfish am I? I just want to "do" me sometimes, is that so wrong?

It is not exactly "In" to tell people that you do not like being a parent. People fear being considered selfish and ungrateful. Anonymous reports of disliking being a parent are more common than signed declarations. On JustRage, "Anonymous" reports:

My kids are of toddler and preschool age. They fight, scream and demand all the time. I am so unhappy. No one tells you how awful it is to be a mother. no one! Yes there are little sweet things that happen from time to time but over all it's terrible. I am so exhausted that I can't sleep at night. My nerves are shot from the kids constant yelling, fighting, and having to explain, soothe, or whatever 24/7. I am tired! The amount of work that it takes to be a Mom and a housewife is inhuman. I never have a moment to just relax because when I am I am thinking about what work has to be done. It's fucked up. Yes I love my kids but I hate mothering them. Whatever happened to it takes a village to raise a child?  For the most part, I am the sole caregiver. My husband works from early morning until they are almost ready to go to bed. He has social functions for work and in my opinion has it real good.I had to give up my career and my entire existence for my children. And do you think anyone appreciates it. It's just expected. I didn't even get a mother's day present last year. I fantasize about running away from it all. It's too much!!! If I had to do it all over, I wouldn't have any children.

The fact is that as a new parent you are supposed to surrender yourself to the control of an a-rational, soon to become irrational, human being. The degrading starts shortly after a disgraceful, absurdly painful thirty-something-hour-long labor. You stop wearing your long earrings to avoid having your ear lobes ripped off when your rug rat latches out to grasp them. You wear sweatpants and an old sweater, so your nice clothes don’t get ruined when Baby spits up, poops or pees on you. After returning to work with old milk in your hair, you carry a hospital-grade breast pump passed the security guards (who suspect it is a bomb 50 percent of the time) and spend your hard-earned coffee and lunch breaks expressing milk like a modern farm cow.

Thumb-sucking toddlers and the terrible twos are hardly worthy of mention. You know your baby has reached the toddler stage when eating Cheerios suddenly is a way of practicing softball with Mommy’s head as a target. “Farts” and “poop” are the funniest words ever and must be uttered during any conversation with you at least three times. You instantaneously hear your kid’s “I want a fork and knife” as “I want a fuckin’ knife,” because “fuckin” is her most frequently used word. You use the air freshener as a “monster spray” to get rid of supernatural villains before bedtime, but that backfires at 2 a.m. when the monstrous beasts return and you have no idea where you left the Febreeze.

A few years later you are the supposed to function as the ultimate servant. Shannon, mother of two, noticed how her life had been taken over by her kid: “My child's schedule dictates everything. My daughter has Rainbows on Monday, gymnastics on Wednesday, dancing on Saturdays and swimming on Sunday. I don't even have time to dye my hair." I envisage her lips curled with icy contempt, her nose wrinkled in distaste as she jots down her impuning thoughts. Or, shall we say, the tip of the iceberg.

Alvin Rosenfeld, Child psychiatrist and author of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap, believes that over-scheduling children is not only a nationwide parenting epidemy but how today’s generation of parents believe they should parent, and how their friends and relatives expect them to parent. Little attention is paid to the fact that all that over-scheduling does is generate a frazzled child, and a stressed out parent.

But it is not just the agonizing stress associated with child rearing that makes parents ambivalent about parenting. It’s also the state of boredom you enter as a new parent. Admit it. Kid stuff is for the most part incredibly boring. Reading Green Eggs and Ham for the umtieth time or watching your kid going down a slide twenty-seven times in one and the same afternoon, while you do your best not to talk to the helicopter mom next to you on the green bench, gets tedious pretty quickly. As comedian Jerry Seinfeld said to Jimmy Fallon on his Tonight Show appearance analyzing modern parenting:

I am not, you know, a great believer in our style of parenting. What I mean is you, me, anyone who has kids now, I just think we’re too into it.… when I think of the bedtime routine for my kids, it’s like this Royal-Carnation-Jubilee-Centennial of rinsing and plaque and dental appliances and the stuffed animal semicircle of emotional support… I gotta read eight different moron books. You know what my bedtime story was when I was a kid? Darkness!”

“They grow up so fast!”

Parents of adult children reiterate this to you at regular intervals.

“Enjoy it while you can!”

Enjoy it? I don’t know which planet these people were born on. Or maybe they are simply experiencing the bliss of memory loss. Surely, no one who is honest (and have a life) will miss the days of Legos and dollhouses and diapers and training wheels. Those days when your house looked like the trash vortex in the Pacific ocean, a swirling dune of plastics and other manmade debris twice the size of Texas.

The negative emotional effects of parenting little kids is supplemented by the physical aftermath of having a baby (for the unlucky 50 percent of the reproducing population, to which I belong): while your body may eventually stop leaking urine each time you crack a smile and the gaping canyon separating your abs may shrink and your vagina may at last respond to an ungodly number of Kegel exercises, do not think for a moment that you will ever get your pre-baby body back. I know that's what you want but it ain’t going to happen. Expect stretch marks, spider veins, cottage cheese deposits, a sagging butt and a hefty roll of flab that pooches out above the waistline of your low-cut jeans. Nicole Welle from InForum hits the nail on the head when she writes:

Women in our society want to look as if they have never had children. And for most women who have, all of the diet and exercise in the world is not going to do it. It's a fact: after pregnancy, a woman's body is never the same. The number on the scale might be, but after the skin has been stretched, organs rearranged and hormones skyrocketed off the charts, it's pretty obvious why some things will never go back to those "pre-baby" days.

Welle mentions that she has received an endless number of pseudo-compliments on her body she could live without. We all get them. Well meant insults in disguise. “Oh. My. God. You have NOT just had a baby” (translation: “You look like a mountain but you should see my friend Michelle who just had triplets”), “I hate you. I can't believe you just had a baby. Stop it.” (translation: “You look like you are five months pregnant, but I was hoping your belly blubber would reach down to your crotch”), “I can’t believe you breastfed for more than a year. You look a-mazing” (translation: “You are doing one hell of a job folding your post-breastfeeding pancakes into your bra”).

You miss your pre-baby body. But more than anything, you miss your old life. Taking forty minutes long hot showers whenever you like, enjoying $200 dinners at Talavera Cocina Mexicana with your SO (or even just eating with two hands—huge step up), running five miles without a three-wheeled stroller, grabbing a spontaneous Immaculate IPA at the uni bar after your last class, consuming cardboard slices of pizza from Pizza Hut on Friday night, resting comfortably on your new Ikea couch Sunday night, watching PS: I Love You.

Good news: You will eventually get these privileges back. Eighteen years later … Eighteen years ... Eighteen years are one-fourth of your lifetime, one-third of your adult life. No time like … uhmm … the future.

The tween and teen years are hardly any easier. The adolescent brain is wired differently. While the brain becomes more interconnected during puberty, it relies more on the limbic system, the center of emotion and memory control, than the prefrontal cortex that is essential for rational decision making. This results in poor impulse control, a thirst for risk taking and a limited ability to think in the abstract. You are dealing with someone who is better prepared for the zombie apocalypse than the third quarter’s Spanish test. When “fucking serious fucking cool” are the nicest words you hear from your munchkin’s mouth, you begin to feel a dull ache grow beneath your rather thick skin, a dull ache that soon turns into irritation, anger and hurt feelings. Your can hardly believe your little angel has turned into a moody, rude and disrespectful little demon, dressing in hot pants with her butt cheeks hanging out for public viewing (at least you are saving a bunch on laundry detergent). Your little cutiepie suddenly possesses all the character traits you thought you had raised her not to have: the false sense of entitlement, the “talk-to-the-hand” attitude, the dreamer mentality—a high-paying job will simply land in her lab despite the Fs on her Spanish quizzes, the missed homework and book reports and the all-nighters on Facetime with her BFF, supplying her with the dazed, feverish, blackened eyes of an insomniac. Wanna buy a sweet sixteen? Major discount. In fact, if there are no takers, we are doing free giveaways.

One day I find my tween in the kitchen, now two years ago. She’s on FaceTime with a male classmate. Yup. Male. Male with a penis. All my maternal alarms go off. Plus, the kitchen looks like a war zone. Half-opened cans of anything you can possibly imagine, glasses half full of liquid, mixtures of oil, garlic and cayenne pepper. Becky and classmate-with-a-penis’s conversation goes something like this:

Boy: Eat some more sardines!

Becky: I already did that. It made me throw up.

Boy: C’mon. Do it for me.

Becky: Okay, only one more time … shit, I have to throw up.

Boy: C’mon. Eat the rest.

Becky: No. I already threw up twice.

Boy: Do it for me.

Becky: Noooo. Do you know how disgusting that shit is?

Boy: For me. C’mon. Do it for me!

Becky: C’mon. I already ate wet cat food, dry cat food, oily garlic-y cayenne pepper, hot pepper sauce and sardines. What else could you possibly want me to eat?

Boy: Me!

Becky: Ha-ha, I will add you to the things of disgusting things to eat.

I am horrified. After making her hang up faster than a speeding bullet, I give her a 10-seconds sex ed course.

Me: You know. Penises and vaginas. Always use a condom. Always. Always. Always. Don’t put penises in your mouth. At least not without a condom. And don’t ever let a boy control you. And who the F was that S/M boy? You are in fifth grade for God’s sake.

Becky: Mom, what the F are you talking about?

Me: The guy you were FaceTiming.

Becky: Oh William. He’s in my class. It’s not like that. Not. At. All. We’re just friends.

Me: Sure. Why did he make you eat bizarre things?

Becky: Because it’s funny.

Me: Okay, just don’t get anywhere near him at school.

Becky: Easy. Guys and girls don’t hang. It’s a school rule.

Me (thinking): Best rule that school ever came up with.

“Developing independence is part of growing up,” your childfree girlfriends squeal when you finally find an hour for a cafe night a la the old days. Independence. Sure. That would be nice. Real nice. If your teen tormenter actually started tidying up her room, picking up her dirty underwear and carrying out the garbage once in a while, then maybe—just maybe—could you tolerate the “‘Why are you checking up on me? Don’t you trust me?” And the “Please use the trash can”/“Make me!” exchanges.

Having to be around a grouchy couch potato constantly talking back to you or rolling her eyes simply pushes you over your limits. Over the cliff. Way over. You feel trapped, feel you have no options but to turn the other cheek. Jesus! It’s not as if you can bribe her with stickers when you want her to complete her book report—or put her down for a nap when she screams “I hate you!” at the top of her lungs. And the cute little “ninth grade will be the two best years of your life” lost its appeal ages ago.

An automaton. That’s what you are. Not a person with autonomy.

Of course, there are things that you could do and that reportedly work. You could have your badly behaved teen listen to the “Barney” theme song for 30 minutes as a punitive measure or literally hold her tongue with her fingers or run around barefooted in dog poop in the backyard. Only problem is that it vastly exceeds your capacities for cruelty.

“Yup, tweens and teens can be so much harder to deal with than young kids,” says Abigail, a 36-year old mother of a teen and a kindergartner, as we sit down at a shaded table at the Venetian pool in Miami. “If Hunter throws himself down on the floor, screaming at the top of his lungs, when we are already late, I simply drag him to the car. But I can’t drag a 13-year old who is only a couple of inches shorter than me anywhere.”

Abigail goes onto tell me about her ultimate nightmare. She and the two kids were about to leave for Miami International Airport to visit her mother in New Jersey for her birthday while her husband was on a business trip. They were all packed and ready to go.

Then the taxi arrived. Suddenly Kailee has one of her hormonal anger fits. ‘I am not going.’ she screams. It comes out of nowhere. I ask her why not. She suddenly doesn’t like flying, doesn’t like her grandma, just wants to stay home. The taxi driver is getting antsy, so I try reasoning with her. It has no effect, of course. But what options do I have? I can’t drag her to the taxi. I would if I could. But it’s physically impossible. Minutes pass. Many minutes. So many minutes that I have to send the taxi away. At that point there’s still time to call another. But only barely. An hour and a half till the plane is departing. She doesn’t give in. I tell her she will be grounded forever without electronics. She doesn’t care. In the end we miss our flight and my mom’s birthday. Kailee is grounded forever … or at least for several weeks without electronics. But she doesn’t care. She doesn’t even fully understand what she has done, and she doesn’t understand what it feels like to have wasted a lot of money on three plane tickets or how hurt my mom was when she found out we weren’t coming. My mom doesn’t understand either.

There is a good reason teens misunderstand you, don’t trust you and don’t seem to care about others. A brain that isn’t sufficiently controlled by the prefrontal cortex but is too often ruled by the emotional center in the limbic system is not fully equipped for mind-reading. Your teen may attribute the wrong motives to your words and actions, fail to read your emotional state on the basis of your facial expressions and attribute a greater importance to their own feelings and interests than to those of others. Add to that that the teen brain has fewer receptors for oxytocin, the neurotransmitter that allows you to trust and bond with others and feel less self-conscious, and you have a self-centered eye-rolling creature who feels that everyone is watching her.

Abigail is on the school board of her daughter’s school, which was where I found her. The school board meetings are usually at night but occasionally she has to attend a meeting at the school during the day.

"Kailee has told me to pretend I don’t know her, when I go to her school,” Abigail says with a frown. “So I don’t. You have to pick your fights. But it’s a strange feeling to have to walk by your own daughter and not even be allowed to say ‘hi’ to her.”

“Are there any good times?” I ask.

Abigail takes a sip of her water bottle. “I guess. But they are far and few between. When Kailee turned twelve it was as if she became a completely different person. A stranger. Try having a pissed-off, emotionally abusive stranger living in your house 24/7.”

Abigail looks exhausted. She tells me that the kindergartner years are duck soup in comparison to the teen years. “Hunter is so easy in comparison, and I know he is not easy.”

I ask her why she thinks teens are so much more difficult than younger kids. While teens are premature, you would think they have matured big time over the decade or more that has passed since the rugrat years. I expected her to mention hormones. When faced with terrible teens, we often blame the hormones that are suddenly darting through their bodies. And that is no doubt part of it. But Abigail has a different explanation.

“They are struggling with their identity,” she says soberly. “They know they want to be their own person but they have no idea who they want to be. All they know is that they do not want to be like their parents. All those inner struggles with their own identity, they blame their problems on the only people they can safely blame them on. Their parents. Everything is our fault, and nothing we do is ever right.”

Finally finally finally, used-to-be-rugrat, now rude grunting creature, is off on her own at the age of eighteen, maybe twenty, maybe twentyfive. God forbid it’s thirty! But however long the night, dawn will break; eventually she leaves. You feel sad because radical changes to our daily routine make us emotional, like missing the algae-ridden aquarium you used to hate. But it’s finally time to let your hair down. It’s at that moment that you regain some of that autonomy you used to have in your kid-free years. Bi-monthly nights out with the gals, gourmet pizzas at Pi'ami, Netflix on Sundays with your hubby, the trip to Thailand’s jungles you have dreamed about since your sweet sixteen. Maybe you will finally have a taste of a kidless life. A taste—a la the taste of turkey harbored in Tofurky. It will never be quite the same. It will never be beef fillet mignon. Or turkey. The worries and responsibilities will likely continue for the rest of your life. Like the post-teen deterioration of your gray matter.

Berit "Brit" Brogaard is a co-author of The Superhuman Mind.

Penguin, used with permission
Source: Penguin, used with permission