Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Parenting's Dirty Secret

You don't mind that I trashed the house, do you?
The truth about caring for others, even darling small children, is that nobody really likes it. People will talk about how "rewarding" it is, and a lot of lip service is paid to its joys, but all you have to do is look at people's choices to discover their real feelings. If people can afford it, they ship their aged parents off to the old people's home, their mentally ill relatives off to the mental institution, and their children off to daycare. Or they hire others to come into the home to do the unpleasant work of caregiving for them (nannies, home health aides, nurses, etc.). For as long as there have been rich people, they have been hiring others to do their caregiving for them (for example, until recently virtually all children from wealthy families rarely saw their parents and were cared for by hired help instead).

Caring for others is intrinsically unpleasant. It's disgusting (exposure to all kinds of bodily fluids, nasty diseases and infections) and exhausting, because the work is endless (so you bathe, clothe, feed, amuse and rest the demented old person on Monday; on Tuesday you must do exactly the same thing all over again).

It's also very unsatisfying, because while it makes a tremendous difference, the effects are not easily measurable and tend to be long-term (meaning you don't see any obvious change/effect at the time). This is especially true when caring for the sick or old. While children will eventually be able to care for themselves, the best you can hope for with the chronically ill or aging is to slow the slide slightly. If you provide top-notch care to the guy with Alzheimer's, he will be happier and the course of his disease may slow, but he's still going to be demented: hardly a satisfying outcome for all your hard work.

Finally, people who need caretaking are usually not nice. People in pain are irritable, people with high needs are constantly demanding things, the elderly tend to be inflexible and stubborn. Leaving aside the undeniable cuteness of toddlers, their social skills and general pleasantness level generally leave a lot to be desired. Yesterday little R bit me in the face, just to see what would happen; she regularly has screaming fits whenever she doesn't get her way; and she has pooped on the floor (and on me) before. And this is a really delightful baby, as children go.

I absolutely believe that caring for others is extremely valuable; I would even go so far as to say that without doing it, you never become a fully developed human being. But the hypocrisy and self-delusion surrounding this act totally annoys me.

Everyone should be willing to admit, yes, caring for children/old people/sick people is awful and painful and NO ONE wants to do it, even their nearest and dearest. We do it anyway because it's the right thing to do. But people who go on and on about how parenting (or any other caregiving activity) is so much fun, and so rewarding, and so fulfilling, are either 1. lying 2. delusional or 3. not actually doing most of the caregiving (for example, most men).

NB: Of course parenting and other caretaking activities aren't all bad. I do enjoy caring for little R a great deal, most of the time, and even caring for the demented has its moments of transcendence and reward. I am just focusing on the more negative/realistic side of things here.


  1. Holy Jesus, thank you for writing this. I was just this morning feeling like there must be something wrong with me! There must! Because I hate this! It's awful taking care of these children, and everyone else seems like they are having! so! much! fun!. I just figured I was doing it wrong or there's something wrong with me, because lord, does this SUCK. A lot.
    Now I feel much better, so thank you.

    1. That's why I like honesty: then you realize you really aren't alone after all!

  2. I think it's a give and take relationship (although I have never had to care for anyone except my little one...except when Jon broke his neck and was barely mobile for a couple of months...that one was way less fun than caring for a baby...and I think he was way whinier). I know that mine is in daycare like 80% of her waking time so I probably shouldn't even talk but as painful/annoying/hard/exhausting as it is with her sometimes (esp those first 3 months), as soon as she does something super cute, all those feelings almost fly out of your head and you forget just how hard it is. Instead you spend time celebrating that little something - a smile, a laugh, a kiss, a new learned skill. So's's hard. But since I only get to see that little nug for like 3-4 hours of awake-time, I'm not gonna complain.

    I would probably be singing a totally different tune if I was a SAHM.

    1. You're right that the super cute things compensate for a lot. When little R comes running over to me and gives me a great big hug, beaming with glee, it's easy to forget all the 3 am wakings and tantrums and pooping in the tub. I would definitely say the good FAR outweighs the bad (though with a relatively easy and healthy child that's easy for me to say).

      But the fact is that there's something that needs to be compensated for. You don't need to focus on the positives of drinking wine with your girlfriends or eating delicious food, because that's fun already. You only need to do that for tasks which are unpleasant, if important/worthwhile (like starting an exercise routine, or going to a rather dull job). Sadly, caring for others is more like the second than the first.

  3. "If people can afford it, they ship their aged parents off to the old people's home, their mentally ill relatives off to the mental institution, and their children off to daycare.” - I think that is a bit harsh, and this is coming from someone who “ships” my kids off to daycare. I do this because I have to. If I could afford it, I stay home with own children. But as it turns out my income contributes to things, clothing, and our rent. So without it we would be struggling. I do not ship my kids off to daycare because it would be unpleasant and inconvenient to be with them.

    "but all you have to do is look at people's choices to discover their real feelings.” - so what are my real feelings exactly? That I don’t like taking care of my own kids so I ship them off? This is a false and rude over arching statement by you.

    I think caring for children is hard and not always rewarding. I think sometimes it’s painted in a way that is always sunshine and rainbows and we feel guilty when our feelings don’t match up to what the world thinks they should be. But if I had my choice I would stay home with my children instead and actually it is something we are moving towards.

    This post is really a slap in the face to people like me. Working moms who wish things had turned out a bit differently. Not to say I think if I staid home with my kids that we’d be skipping through fields and eating ice cream. I know that. But I also know that my “true feelings” are not reflected by my working and child care situation.

    1. I read your comment very carefully and rethought about what I was trying to say with this post, so thanks very much for such a thoughtful perspective.

      I didn't mean to imply that working mothers in particular dislike taking care of their children. I think everyone dislikes taking care of children (this actually has been proven by time studies). The choices of those who actually HAVE a choice, ie wealthy elites, confirm this for me: when is the last time a Hollywood celebrity DIDN'T have a nanny?

      That sounds really negative, though, and I don't mean it that way. I love being a parent, and little R honestly makes me extremely happy every day. Going on trips together, eating special meals together, hugging and chatting and reading books, it's all a joy.

      But daily caretaking tasks aren't really about the Hallmark moments. The tedium and grind of dealing with all varieties of human effluvia, cleaning up messes for the 1000th time, preventing your charge from harming themselves, getting your rest/sleep interrupted, are just not any fun. At best they are mildly unpleasant.

      That doesn't mean these tasks are unimportant, or that people don't freely choose to do them, or even long to do them (as in your case). It does mean that they aren't 'fun' or 'enjoyable' in the way that eating cake (or even watching TV) is.

      Maybe it makes more sense if you think of it in regards to sick old people? Imagine a beloved father. His children passionately want to take care of him and make considerable sacrifices to do so. They tend to his every need (changing his bandages, giving him medicine, bathing him, organizing everything for him); some feel devastated because for reasons beyond their control they are unable to do all that they intended to. But no one in this scenario actually enjoys the caretaking itself; they just enjoy the knowledge that they are helping their beloved father. Parenting is pretty much the same.

  4. I have not been in the position to care for the every need of any other human being, so unfortunately I can't speak from experience, but I do think that I am scared of that part of myself--the one that would be horrified to have to care for a person constantly. With children, it doesn't scare me as much because I know that there are different stages of development if the child is healthy. But what if they aren't? I had a cousin with muscular dystrophy and his mother gave up everything-EVERYTHING-to care for him when he couldn't take care of himself. And he had all of his mental faculties about him until he died. I know if I had to do it for my children or my parents, I would, but it's still a very scary and dark side to me that thinks about how awful it would really be.

    A thought-provoking post, for sure, which is why I like reading your blog.

    By the way, that photo of Little R is really, really adorable :)

    1. Yes, there's a good reason caregivers tend to have very high rates of depression.

      On the bright side, there really is something beautiful about caretaking too, not because it's fun (which it isn't), but because of the way it leads to personal growth. I really do think it's an essential experience to have in order to become fully human (although certainly it doesn't need to be with children).

      It's a kind of spiritual discipline, to submerge your desires for the good of another, and I think you might surprise yourself with your capacity for love and patience. Kind of like being married, when you clearly perceive the other person's real and glaring flaws (after the love haze has worn off), but open up your heart to love and accept them anyway. It can be a magical thing, to realize that you had that capacity within yourself.

  5. You are very wrong !by generalizing this you sound even more pathetic.of course it is hard work-you got this one right- but then what comes easily?you could say that most people if given the opportunity - would complain, but then if talking about your own child I would rather try to be the exeption not the rule.

    1. I'm not sure exactly what your point is. Maybe you are trying to say that most people secretly think this (=would complain) but ought to keep silent about it to avoid hurting their child's (or parent's, since the post was about caregiving in general) feelings?

      If that is what you're saying, I really don't agree with you. I think it's important to acknowledge that caregiving is difficult and sometimes horrible, because it's the truth.

      Once R is an adult (or even earlier, depending on her rate of development) I would feel perfectly comfortable telling her that it is very difficult to care for others, but that in the end it's worth it and what makes us fully human (what I said in the post). I would be doing her a disservice to lie and pretend otherwise: someday she too will probably be caring for another human (whether a relative, a child, or a partner I can't say), and then I hope my words will have helped prepare her for the inevitable difficulties. My mother was very honest with me about the difficulty of motherhood (once I was grown up, of course), and I am very grateful to her.