I remember taking a college course years ago, during which my very caring but objective professor explained that children have evolved from being assets to investments. “Think about it,” I recall her saying. “In the past, children worked on the family farm or contributed to the overall functioning of the household. Now, we invest in our children. We work to support them. We build our schedules around them, train them, sacrifice our time and resources for them – all in preparation for sending them out into the world, away from the family.” In essence, she was agreeing with Jennifer Senior, an author who recently said in her book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, that “children [have gone] from being our employees to our bosses.” While it may be historically “accurate,” this all sounds pretty negative and detached, doesn’t it? Are children really all joy and no fun? As I sit down to write at the end of a long and eventful Mother’s Day, I’m giving serious thought to the question. Times have certainly changed. Cultural ideas about family and marriage have shifted to include the preservation, even the reverence, of the individuals within them. “Until fairly recently, what parents wanted was utterly beside the point,” says Senior. “But we now live in an age when the map of our desires has gotten considerably larger, and we’ve been told it’s our right (obligation, in fact) to try to fulfill them.”
The problem is, while the pursuit of our individuality is noble and noteworthy, as parents it can sometimes be elusive. Do we pursue our own goals or the needs of our children? Who wins? Fostering both can be difficult (if not impossible) after all, and that can be downright frustrating.
And yet, here’s what I have to say at the end of what was an incredibly rewarding Mother’s Day spent with my 16 year-old daughter: Yes, parenting requires effort, attention and sacrifice, often to the displacement of one’s self. But it’s through that sacrifice that some of my greatest rewards have come. When you care about a child, everything is heightened somehow. From watching ants bring food into their anthill with your toddler to discussing the theater production you’ve just seen with your teen; from kissing boo-boos to talking through boy trouble; from holding their hands as they take their first steps to letting go as they head off for college – raising children provides us with a chance to relive our own childhoods, to recognize the magic that’s all around us in the world, to revel in a bond that’s been built over years of being a mentor and hero, and to examine our own lives and what we want to do with them when our children grow up and move on. Parenting not only provides us with a perspective outside of our own (after all, if we let them, children teach us as much as we teach them), it also provides us with a greater sense of self because our children reflect who we are, bolstering our strengths and encouraging us to improve upon our weaknesses.
There has been a wonderful sense of accomplishment in guiding my daughter toward independence and defining herself but, equally important, it’s through losing myself in that process that I’ve found myself, too. We’ve shared, played and even laughed along the way. I don’t disagree that parenting can be exhausting and that, when done well, it can require putting your own needs and wishes aside for years. I don’t argue that parenting is a demanding, expensive and sometimes laborious job, either. What I AM saying is that I’ve never loved a job more.