If we’re ever going to find happiness as parents, we have to know what to expect, says therapist Lyla Cicero.
Before I started graduate school, I spent several years taking courses I needed in order to apply, volunteering in clinical and research settings, talking to folks who already had doctorates, and simply thinking about if this was what I wanted. I knew getting a doctorate would be a massive undertaking that would impact every aspect of my life. I knew a lot of the steps in the process would be grueling drudgery, like taking my comprehensive exams and writing my dissertation. I had enough people warn me that there would be times I would wonder if I had made the wrong choice, and even consider quitting. I wasn’t expecting to feel great all along the way, but I sure did feel great when I walked up and claimed my diploma and folks started calling me “doctor.”
I have a very smart friend who also has a doctoral degree. When talking about the transition to having a daughter, she told me she thought having a child would disrupt her life for about two months, and then she would return to her “normal life”—back to work, back to the status quo in her relationship, just with “this cute little person there.” Well you can imagine the rough transition she had when reality hit. Imagine going into grad school expecting to have your life hardly altered? No one would ever get their degree. Imagine thinking you could just write your dissertation on the side in your spare time. Expectation is everything. The same experience can feel drastically different depending on what we are expecting. But in order to manage our expectations we have to make an informed choice to do something and not have it thrust upon us.
Having children is a choice.
If we don’t make an informed choice, it’s incredibly hard to have perspective while we’re going through something. Imagine if someone just rang my doorbell and told me nine months later I would be starting a doctoral program. Perhaps this was something I’d thought about before, perhaps not. For those who experience unplanned pregnancy there is no opportunity to mentally prepare. This is why I believe it’s so important to view having children as a choice, not a given. Just as I spent years deciding about grad school, gathering information and talking to people who’d done it, I made the same effort in deciding whether to have children.
Having children is a massive transition, and massive transitions strain relationships.
Let’s say your life was encapsulated in one of those cheesy snow globes. Getting married, moving, changing jobs, losing a parent, and handling an illness, would all be akin to taking that snow globe and giving it a little shake. Everything, including your relationship, would get a little tousled. Now picture taking that snow globe and just shaking the shit out of it. That’s having kids. We’ve all heard the reports that when we have children our relationship satisfaction goes down. But it’s not that kids themselves make our relationships harder, it’s the massiveness of the transition. When we are each emotionally out of whack ourselves, when we are stretched to the breaking point, when our bodies are no longer our own, when our partners’ bodies become strangely foreign, we can easily lose each other.
The key is to anticipate this and expect to have to find each other again. Otherwise, we find ourselves stunned and wondering if it’s our partner that’s the problem, rather than the transition to parenthood. Just imagine trying to stay standing in that shaking snow globe. Hold onto your partner and you’re both going to go down. You can blame your partner for not holding you up, or you can look at him and recognize he is feeling just as lost or she is no more sure-footed than you are.
Massive transitions also tax us emotionally and uproot our sense of self.
Whatever our baggage, whatever our weaknesses, and whatever problematic coping mechanisms we tend to use when things get tough, those are the things we are going to turn to when we become parents. If we expect this, we are less likely to blame our kids or wonder if we made the wrong decision. If I hadn’t expected to feel completely overwhelmed by having to finish my dissertation, I’m not sure I would have. During the past 20 months since my twins were born, when I’ve tackled those inevitable emotional peaks and valleys, I’ve tried not to conclude that I’m losing it. Instead, I remind myself that this was to be expected. Nothing changes and uproots our sense of self like creating and becoming responsible for another life. There is just no way to escape without emotional turmoil.
The rewards of having children build over time, and are largely retroactive.
A few months before she died of cancer, my mother said to my brother and me, “You kids are the best thing I’ve ever done.” I remember thinking it sounded like this had just occurred to her. I’ve heard other people make statements like this, but none of them were people whose children were still living at home. I think the joys of having children are cumulative. The more time that goes by, the more independent our children become, and the more memories of labor pains, sleepless nights, and forgetting who we were and having to figure it out all over again fade. At the same time, more and more positive memories accumulate until eventually, we feel sure the benefits outweighed the negatives (if we’re lucky).
There is a lot that sucks about parenting.
I will never forget the moment I finished the last sentence of a week of comprehensive essay exams that would determine if I got my master’s degree. I felt relieved, elated, and yet beaten down, drained, manic, bleary-eyed, like I was descending into madness. Afraid I was going to make a scene, I ran into a bathroom of the graduate school building. I began pacing around the bathroom, literally bouncing off the walls. “I’m done! I’m done,” I shouted with the kind of joy that’s just a little too tinged with insanity. I actually wondered afterward if I would ever feel good about grad school again or only see it as some kind of sick torture. I feel the same way about parenting sometimes.
Yesterday, I took a three-hour flight during which my husband and I each had a seat for ourselves and a wild 20-month-old who could not comprehend why he or she couldn’t run and climb during the flight. When that flight was over I felt a little like I did after those exams. There are parenting moments when I feel truly ecstatic and joyful, but it’s rarely uncomplicated. It’s the kind of joy that comes during a restful pit stop on a long, tedious journey. To make that journey worthwhile, we have to believe pretty strongly in the outcome, otherwise we would lack the motivation to keep forging ahead.
The truth is, the day-to-day experience of parenting isn’t enough to sustain us. It’s not our kids that are the problem. It’s the failure to make an informed choice to have children and the unrealistic expectation that the daily grind will provide consistent positive reinforcement of that decision. It is our poor expectation management that is contributing to our drooping happiness levels when we have kids.
Lyla Cicero has a doctorate in clinical psychology, and focuses on relationships, sexual minorities, and sex therapy. Lyla is a feminist, LGBTQIAPK-affirmative, sex-positive blogger at UnderCoverintheSuburbs.com, where she writes about expanding cultural notions of identity, especially those surrounding gender, sexual orientation, motherhood, and sexuality. Follow her on Twitter @UndrCvrNSuburbs.