In 2015, the pollsters at the Pew Research Center set out to ask Americans about parenting.
A couple of the survey questions tried to parse whether most of us find parenting rewarding and enjoyable, or stressful and tiring. Synthesizing a couple of different results, the pollsters concluded: “The survey finds that more parents say parenting is rewarding and enjoyable than say it is tiring and stressful.”
Talk about your either-or fallacy.
What’s really called for is more of an all-of-the-above category.
Enjoyable and stressful. Joyful and aggravating. Satisfying and challenging.
On Father’s Day, between greeting cards and platitudes, let’s acknowledge the complicated fact that part of what makes parenting so fulfilling is that it’s difficult. What makes it so satisfying in the long term is tied closely to the fact that it’s often not satisfying at all in the short term.
The joys are woven tightly to the hardships, which is what makes it a profound experience.
I’m talking now about fatherhood as it relates to fathers. Fatherhood should be mostly about the welfare of the kids, of course. But it’s good for dads, too – at least the ones willing to do their best. It removes us from the center of our universes, and teaches that pleasure is not necessarily the source of happiness.
I’m the son of a pretty bad father, and I became a father myself fairly late and with some wariness. My wife and I had settled on the decision not to have kids, then slowly changed our minds as we spent more and more time around the children of our friends and family, all these wonderful young people who we’ve watched grow up and develop and launch off into lives of their own.
When we decided to do it, we had the general idea that parenting would be challenging, of course. Everybody says so. But you can’t really know until you’re there. You can’t really feel it until you’re in it.
And one of the non-Father’s-Day types of sentiments you learn very quickly is this: It’s a pain in the neck a lot of times. I usually feel like I’m getting it wrong. Almost nightly, I find myself reflecting on something I wish I’d done differently. It’s also my very favorite thing, the best part of my life, the subject I can’t stop talking about.
The difficulties – the worry, the sense of falling short, the conflict – are woven straight into the satisfactions – the joy of seeing my son grow, the pure intensity of my love for him.
It’s not rewarding despite this, but because of it. For me, a person who spent decades cultivating his tastes and pleasures, this has been the continual daily reminder of fatherhood: the hard thing is more rewarding than the easy one.
I have friends with kids at all ages. One has an infant just home from the hospital. Several have kids headed off to college – or graduating from college. Plenty have elementary-school kids my son’s age. What strikes me most about talking to other parents is the continuity of tone despite the age differences: love and concern, frustration and pride, hope and worry, a sense that perhaps they were falling short or mishandling the latest challenge.
The good and the bad, all wrapped up together in the great.
I was having coffee with a friend recently, and we talked about his adult kids. You never stop worrying about them, he said. You never stop fretting over how to act, what to do, whether you’ve done it right.
Not long after, I was having a drink with another friend, who talked about the struggles he had with his teenage sons. Parenting is just a chance to feel like a failure every day, he said – kind of joking, kind of not.
This is not necessarily a universal view. In the Pew survey, around 45 percent of parents said they were doing a “very good job.” Around 10 percent said they found parenting enjoyable all the time.
I find such expressions of total confidence and unchanging joy highly suspicious. If it ain’t tiring, you’re not trying. If it ain’t stressful, you’re not showing up. If you feel like you’re doing a “very good job” as a parent – well, congrats, but I wonder if you’re doing it right.
And I wonder if I’m doing it right. And I wonder if I’ll ever stop wondering.
It’s a pain in the neck a lot of the time. Which, somehow, is what’s great about it.
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