Does parenting make us unhappy?
In a recent conversation, I heard about a young couple who was quoted as saying that they had decided not to have children. They had allegedly made this decision based on their belief that childless couples were happier. It is true that one gives up a lot of freedom when they choose to become parents. Children are a long term financial liability not to mention the fact that at times they can drive you crazy. In spite of the downsides, I strongly disagree with the premise that parents are unhappy because they have kids. Granted, as children go through the terrible teens, they may not seem to be very interested in their parents’ happiness. Nevertheless; in the many years I have spent attempting to help people deal with unhappiness, I found those without children were by no means happier. One of my patients who had never conceived once said to me that she felt “incomplete.” Conversely, I don’t recall ever hearing anyone say they regretted having children.
The benefits of parenting.
Some may suggest that the urge to reproduce is simply due to a pursuit of sexual satisfaction; however, I submit that the need to nurture is an even stronger emotion. My wife frequently mentions the wonderfully warm feeling she experienced when those little guys had been bathed and tucked in for the night; although I recall she looked exhausted. We were fortunate that it was possible for her to be a stay-at-home mom until the kids reached an age of relative independence (a situation that is frequently impossible to implement in today’s families).
Children are also useful in helping enhance our personality development. I have long insisted that having a child is the most effective treatment for narcissism. They teach us to look outside of ourselves. They provide us with an opportunity for a “do over” to correct our mistakes and to vicariously act out our failed accomplishments. Although they often disappoint and anger us, we continue to care about them, protect, encourage, and sacrifice for them. These qualities are ones that I once read somewhere as the definition of love which went like this: “love is caring for another as much or more than for oneself with knowledge and without compulsion.” Nowhere is this statement more apropos than in the feelings we have for our children.
Oh yes, there are glaring exceptions and I have witnessed the crippling effects of child abuse, but even in the most abhorrent of these cases one often finds examples of love gone awry. One horrible example of this received my attention when a mother was brought to our hospital after she had drowned her two children. She had a history of mental illness, but had always been overprotective of her children. She turned out to have been delusional and convinced that demonic forces were coming to sexually abuse and torture her children, and that their death was the only way to protect them from the horrors which she thought were inevitable. As has been noted by many, victims of child abuse frequently become abusers, but one might consider that by being denied a loving relationship with their children, second or third generation abusers continue to suffer by being denied the most gratifying experience of life.
Children become even more important to people like myself who have been fortunate enough to reach a “ripe old age” (when I hear this phrase I am not comforted by the thought that when things ripen they soon begin to rot). As our limitations increase and we find ourselves spending more time in doctors’ offices and funeral homes, we become more dependent on others. I recall responding to a young man who said he did not want children with, “Who will come visit you in the nursing home?” An occasional visit from social worker types is not the same as one of your own flesh and blood. The idea of growing old alone is very frightening to many people (myself included), but even when their offspring are not particularly attentive, older folks seem to find some solace in the knowledge that they exist. Even those who have been totally neglected may continue to have rescue fantasies, and even in the midst of their angst often make excuses for their children’s neglect.
Our brains are hardwired to repress most painful memories; consequently, if you want to know what is most important in life, ask an old person to reminisce. You will find them to be very accommodating: reminiscing is a favorite pastime for us old folks. In most cases their reminiscences will be largely dominated by the good times in their lives. You will also note that many of these resurrected memories will be times with family.
It was during a time of my own reminiscing that I was motivated to write this essay. The process was triggered while planning for our family’s annual vacation which has become a tradition with my gang, but has become increasingly difficult to initiate as grandchildren grow older and develop more commitments. This year was especially difficult as it turned out there was only one week in the entire year when everyone would be able to attend, and then only after manipulating schedules. At first it had seemed unlikely that everyone would be able to go, and we might be forced to cancel. I found that thought very depressing.
Now that everything has been ironed out, and I am trying to decide whether to pack my bathing trunks and risk the derisive comments of the kids about my less than magnificent corpulent body, my thoughts have turned to all those prior vacations. It has been over 50 years since the first, and it was monumental. We checked into a hotel with its southern traditions intact in Nags Head. This was a place where the family was introduced to their waiter who would care for them the entire time they were there, and dinner was a grand affair with everyone expected to “dress.” Barb was in her glory, dressing up the kids and showing them off. Later there would be trips with four kids in a station wagon without air conditioning or video games, but the misery of getting there was dwarfed by the excitement of finding a motel with a pool.
Vacation from hell.
It has been more than 40 years since we went on our last sightseeing type vacation. I had terminated my general practice, and we had decided to have a grand adventure prior to my starting a psychiatric residency. It was destined to go down in the annals of Smith history as an unforgettable experience, and indeed to this day remains a topic often mentioned when we are all together. The kids refer to it as the “Vacation from Hell.” It all began as most disasters do, innocently, when a friend showed me his new motor home. Now at that time this was a new innovation in the travel business and I was most impressed. It presented an opportunity to be closer to the flora and fauna, and would save money on hotel and food expenses. I also was naïve enough to think that with more space when on the road the kids would fight less, and I would not need to scream as much. Indeed, I pictured us becoming an on the road version of the Cleaver family.
Further investigation revealed that these motor homes were very expensive. I was convinced I could build one myself for much cheaper. With that in mind, I bought a retired dry cleaning truck and set about to make it habitable. After the installation of a stove, refrigerator, and toilet, it suddenly looked a little tight spacewise. I think one of the kids used the sardine analogy to describe it. There would be many other smart ass remarks before this trip concluded. Nevertheless; the vehicle (which would come to be known as Smith’s folly) was packed and stocked with provisions . As an added measure of security, I hung my motorcycle on the back and we were on our way determined to explore all points of interest in the wild west. Unfortunately, this trip would rival that of the Griswald’s in the Chevy Chase movie Vacation.
We made remarkably good time our first day on the road. We made it past Chicago, and I was feeling vindicated. The kids had engaged in only minor fisticuffs, but that may have had something to do with the fact that we had managed an early start, and they had slept a good part of the day. We had lunch in the “motor home” (some might suggest that I use that term lightly), and the self-contained facilities solved the problem of poorly synchronized bladder functions. As we were looking for a place to hook up to water, electricity and sewage disposal, it suddenly became very cloudy and we found ourselves in the midst of a thunderstorm with rain so heavy that it was difficult to see the road. Suddenly the idea of spending the night in a campground lost its appeal, and we checked into a motel.
The following day began uneventfully. It was bright and sunny, with not a storm cloud in sight. All went well until the late afternoon when we decided to pull off the highway in Galena, Illinois, the mention of which never fails to elicit a chuckle from Barb. Like most vehicles of its vintage, ours had a gear shift lever attached to the steering column. While pulling away from a traffic light, I attempted to shift gears, and found myself holding the unattached gear shift lever in my hand. Even in the face of this catastrophe, Barb was overcome with laughter at my facial expression as I struggled to understand what had happened. With the gear shift lever broken off at its base, the truck (at this point I no longer addressed it as a motor home ) was stuck in low gear which created some significant problems for the traffic following us and not surprisingly, they became impatient as our top speed was about 10 miles per hour.
It turned out that God had not totally forsaken us, for we stumbled upon a Chevrolet auto agency after “driving” only a few blocks. I must have still had a silly look on my face for as we pulled into the service department, the mechanic who greeted us supressed a smile as I held the lever in my hand and asked if they had one of those. Of course they didn’t, but I was told they could probably have one by the following day. With that we limped at 10 mph to the closest motel. Although the savings I had projected by sleeping in Darell’s folly was taking a hit, the kids were happy because the motel had a pool. The replacement part arrived later that next day, and we were back on the road after our second night in the motel.
Are we there yet?
If you are thinking it could not get any worse, you would be wrong. After a few hours on the road the sun disappeared never to be seen again for the next three days. As a matter of fact, it became dark enough that I decided to switch on the headlights. One black cloud to my left looked particularly ominous, and as its funnel shaped appendage moved down towards the earth, I figured correctly that we were in big trouble. Now, as a native of the southern Ohio hill country my acquaintance with tornadoes was limited to what I had read, which wasn’t much. As it advanced straight across the cornfield toward us, I attempted to tone down the terror from my voice to utter some hollow platitudes. Of course as every parent knows, kids read us like a book and my attempt to reassure them only caused more fear.
It only made sense to me to seek some shelter, so I stopped under an overpass, but was soon interrupted by a siren and flashing red light which had pulled up next to me. I was thinking, “Can this guy be serious about giving out tickets in this situation?” Then I noted that he was waving and pointing ahead apparently wanting me to move on. I was angry that he was forcing me to go back out into the storm, but being a law abiding compliant soul, we struck out again. I would later learn that under a bridge is the worst possible place to be in a tornado, and perhaps that patrolman saved our lives.
After vacating what I thought was a safe haven, I found I could only see where I was going by straddling the center line. The wind was so intense that it blew water right through the rubber seal of the windshield. Then suddenly I realized that we were traveling on the berm of the road. The highway was perfectly straight and I had been white knuckling the steering wheel to keep on that white line; consequently, I was confident that we had been simply lifted off the road and set gently back down on four wheels. In a short time the wind died down, and it was evident my promise that this trip would be a grand adventure was being fulfilled.
The tornado had moved on, but the sky still looked ominous and once again the idea of sleeping in the camper lost its appeal. Clouds and rain continued to dog us for the next couple of days and we continued to hear that conditions were right for tornadoes. These announcements were meaningless to us as we had no idea where we were, so the wisest thing to do seemed to be to turn off the radio and hope for the best. The kids were not impressed when we drove through the badlands. We did manage to catch a glimpse through the fog and mist of Mt. Rushmore but the kids were still not impressed.
Soon the sky would brighten and I was convinced that we would still salvage this vacation. I was hopeful when we got to Wyoming, bought cowboy hats all around, and stopped at a dude ranch which advertised trail rides for five dollars. It turned out as you might suspect: it was a short trail, which became shorter when I heard Barb scream for help. She was bringing up the rear and her horse decided he would rather go back to the barn at a rapid pace. Unfortunately, there was no dashing cowboy on a white charger to run her horse down and rescue her. I was having my own problems hanging on.
Our next major attraction was to be Yellow Stone park, and I was looking forward to finally testing the sleeping accomodations of the camper and awakening to the smell of bacon frying. It was a gorgeous night and after getting the kids bedded down, Barb and I decided to sleep under the stars. I quickly fell asleep, but was awakened by loud clanging sounds. Upon closer observation, the sound was coming from bears on a foraging expedition and had knocked over all the garbage cans they could find. Barb beat a hasty retreat to the camper with me close behind.
At that point, we decided we had experienced enough adventure, and after an uneventful swing south to glance briefly at the Grand Canyon, and an equally brief visit with Barb’s brother in Phoenix, we headed back north for home. Through all her travails our trusty land schooner had performed admirably, save for the minor gearshift problem. As we rolled along Kansas, confident the rest of the trip would be smooth sailing, I noticed a lack of responsiveness when I depressed the accelerator. It soon became apparent the clutch of the “motor home” was going out. This did not present much of a problem in the flatlands, but as we got into the hill country , the steeper ascends were a challenge. With the clutch slipping, and the engine racing we were barely able to top most of the hills. In spite of this minor impediment we were finally relieved to arrive home with no lives lost.
Since those days our group has doubled in size and family vacations have consistently been for me the highlight of each year. They were suspended for the past year following the untimely death of my oldest, yet the family T shirt commemorates this one as the 21st of such get togethers. They have all been deliciously chaotic affairs, but none that could match the “ vacation from hell.” We were forced to leave a day early from a South Carolina beach due to a hurricane, and there have been the usual sunburns, jelly fish bites, a broken leg, a sizeable gash from attempts to break up a dog fight, and a fall down the steps resulting in my eyeglasses having impaled my head; otherwise, they have been relatively benign afffairs. Most have involved a week at a beach and they have all been at different places as we always seem to wait too long to make reservations.
This year’s family vacation is only a few days away, and I find my feelings analogous to those I experienced as a child a few days before Christmas. I always look forward to seeng the progeny of course, but to witness them all together interacting not only with me, but with each other is a most exhilarating experience.
Here I sit three days later with a magnificent view of the Gulf. The trip down here was relatively uneventful. There was a minor issue in a parking garage in which one of the grandkids who is learning to drive ( and who shall remain nameless ) backed into a parked car. Her Mother violated every tenet I had ever taught her by leaving a note with her phone number. Well maybe I might have inadvertinately mentioned that “honesty is the best policy” rap when she was little, but never thought she would take iit seriously. Meanwhile the kids have managed to trash the place in short order. They are at times loud, argumentive, constantly in motion, and in short wonderful.
By the way, I feel compelled to mention that one of those guys who said he did not want children was my son who is on course to be nominated as Father of the century.
NOTE FROM ESHRINK’S Editor. We recently returned from our 21st Annual Smith Family Vacation (these are the vacations dad discussed above…a tradition started when Simon and Carter were babies in 1994). Unfortunately, I don’t have pictures from the “vacation from hell” but I’ve added some pictures for family of previous trips during our 21 year vacation history.