I’ve been intrigued with two new books focused on the challenges that modern parents face. I’m in the midst of reading Jennifer Senior’s book, All Joy and No Fun, which was featured on NPR recently. I feel a bit validated, as many of the issues women are facing today, and their problems, were highlighted by their own mothers in the book I wrote with Deborah Carr, Making Up With Mom: not enough “me” time and too much time invested in their kids. Senior says that women today are stressed, primarily because they’re in the service of their children. In our book, the mothers of these women complained that they brought the pressures on themselves. They don’t let their children entertain themselves. They should be less indulgent and less scheduled. They helicopter parent them until they lose the ability to be resourceful and self-sufficient. We wrote that these types of complaints were cause for a generational rift. I’m curious, if we went back, seven years after interviewing these mothers of young children, whether they would agree that Mom was right. In her book, Overwhelmed, also featured on NPR, Brigid Schulte, makes many of the same arguments that Senior does: that women today feel compelled, more than ever, to do it all, to be the perfect career woman and the perfect mom and in doing so, are super stressed.
When my children were young, I found myself on the same treadmill as those featured in both of these books. A type A person by nature, I scheduled my kids in scads of extracurricular activities, booking them with a lineup of summer camps that made them busy as a corporate CEO. With my oldest child, now 22, I was slightly obsessed with ensuring she get into a college with the most prestigious name. I poured money into standardized test tutors. I sweated over ever B that came home on a report card (though there were rarely any.) I worried about my kids’ welfare and their future. I worried about my job. But, listening to the authors on recent NPR interviews — who themselves are the parents of young children caught up in the rat race — I realize that I’m no longer that person. With the benefit of time, I have changed. Now the parents of three almost grown-ups: ages 22, 19 and 16, I have a very different view. I’m not obsessing. And I’m no longer overwhelmed. With my third child beginning the college search, I’m not focused on pushing her to apply to the most competitive schools. Instead, I want her to attend a place where she’ll feel comfortable and happy. She’s decided, to reduce her own stress levels, to apply to several schools where she has a strong chance of being admitted. That’s lifted the pressure on her to agonize over scoring high on the standardized tests. She’s bright, resourceful and delightful and I’m sure she’ll make the most of her education and be successful — wherever she goes. And I’m taking a cue from my oldest. As she embarked on babysitting before finding a full-time job, she remarked that the only qualification of a mother these days is to be a cook and a chauffeur. She sees the craziness of parents’ lives today and has sworn that she’ll do it differently. Should she have children, her time will not be spent in the car. A recent college graduate, she’s looking to surround herself with a community of supportive friends. Instead of slaving away at a low paying internship or punching a clock at a nine-to-five office job, she got a position on a farm. Money isn’t the priority for her; the chance to be outdoors in nature makes her far happier, at least for now.
If anything good is to come out the intense lifestyles of today’s middle-class parents, and their musings about the negative impact it has, it’s that our children will likely do things differently. I’m already seeing that in the millennials who are focused on meaningful passions and non-profit work, on changing the world for the better, on protesting round-the-clock hours spent at work, on leading a balanced life. This all makes a great deal of sense to me. Instead of getting caught up in such matters that ultimately will seem trivial: sports trophies, long discarded report cards and a bevy of college acceptance letters, my wish for my children is simple: to have people in their lives they love who love them back. That support can get you through the toughest of times. I’m sure that mothers today will continue to complain about how they’re falling short and how insanely busy their lives are. I hope that this discussion will ultimately lead to moderation, to giving kids — and with that adults — less to do, so they learn how to be bored and even work at a minimum wage job and perform household chores. In the end, these years will fly by and many of us will wish we spent less time agonizing over the challenges, and more time embracing the true joys that come with parenthood.