Parenting: It’s not really that bad

We’ve branded parenting in all the wrong ways. Is it any wonder that more and more couples are opting out of having children?

 by Tiffany Gee Lewis,

 Parents, we are good at many things. But these days, we aren’t so good at selling our job.

We begin with the best of intentions, building shrines to our unborn children, impeccable nurseries frosted with designer furniture and pastels. Before our children are a year old we’ve documented each smile and burp and broadcast it to the world.

We are hell-bent on raising specimens of genius and talent. The moment they utter that first miraculous word, we schedule the upcoming 20 years of their existence with music, art lessons, sports, and tutoring. We load their lives like a gym bag, filled to the brim with cleats and ballet slippers. But outstanding kids come at a high price. We’ve branded parenting in all the wrong ways. Is it any wonder that an increasing number of couples are opting out of having children?

First, there’s the supposed sticker-shock of raising kids. According to a recent Time magazine cover story, “The Childfree Life“, the cost of raising a child born in 2011 to the age of 18 is $234,900. Even on a double income, that figure is staggering. It seems there is only one way to raise a child, and it is down a road paved with gold.

Even more, there’s the frenzy that defines the modern-day family. Life already moves so quickly these days. Parents seem to have their foot on the accelerator. We broadcast snapshots of joy on social networks: happy at the amusement park! Happy at the ice cream parlor! Happy, happy, happy as we go, go, go. Behind the camera, most of us stumble around like zombies, juiced up by latte and fruit snacks, as we try to maintain the breakneck schedules we’ve set for our families.

Notice this: 10 years ago, when you asked a parent how they were doing, they would say, “Fine”. This is what I hear now, almost daily: “We’re so busy”. This is in summer mind you, that former bastion of freedom and boredom, when a kid had enough time to count blades of grass and tally the mosquito bites on his leg.

It’s not entirely the parent’s fault. We all feel this crushing societal pressure to make our kids into something grand – the next YouTube sensation, Mark Zuckerberg, or Yo-Yo Ma. We field all sorts of marketing messages, starting with those plush nurseries and toddler flash cards. Even the schools have pushed for more résumé padding: the community service, the academic clubs, and the college-level courses starting at twelve. It doesn’t take long before we begin to buy into the idea that letting kids just be is an affront to our ego as parents.

Not long ago I got cornered by a man trying to sell me on his local sports club.

“How many sports does your kid play?” he asked, pointing to my 9-year-old.”He just started basketball,” I began. “Four sports,” he shot back. “In order to develop his muscles properly, he should play a minimum of four sports per year.”

I was speechless. Four sports may be a realistic number if you have one child and live your life solely to shuttle that child from one practice to another, watching his muscles properly develop. But I have four children. That’s sixteen sports a year, on top of the music lessons, Scouting, church events – oh yeah, and that thing called school.

We’ve all read the studies and books. We know what’s best for our children, and it is not this. As quoted in Bruce Feiler’s book “The Secrets of Happy Families“, a recent study by Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute asked kids what they wanted most from their parents. Guess what? It wasn’t quality time. They wanted parents who were less tired and less stressed. But we’re all on this train together, and no one wants to be the first to push on the brakes.

In the US and Europe, the birthrate is dropping at a rapid clip. When we read about couples who make the conscious choice not to have kids, we balk. We get offended. We wonder aloud why everyone doesn’t want to board this machine that is roaring down the rails toward imminent doom.

Family life has changed. Once upon a time, children were viewed as a physical asset. They helped work the farm. They took over the family business. They cared for their ailing parents. Back then, children came without a manual or a nursery of their own, and happy was the man who had his quiver full of them. Today, children have become an emotional asset, something to blog and fret about. We wear our kids’ accomplishments like glittering badges. But those badges come at a huge emotional toll, to parents, to a marriage, and to the poor kids who get lugged along for the ride. The family unit is shrinking, weighed down by financial and material expectation.

Years ago I was walking through a parking lot when a shopping cart went whistling past. A little boy sat in the front basket, squealing with delight while his dad sailed on the back, steering the cart at top speed between the rows of cars. I stood a moment and watched them glide away into the sunset. I felt like I had witnessed some sacred event between father and son. There was no one to post it on Instagram. It didn’t require a six-week class, complete with a sparkly uniform. It was a moment of free-form joy, an intimate connection.

That’s the snapshot we need to send to the world. Parenting is a singular experience. To have stewardship over a helpless baby and help steer it toward adulthood, with all the bumps and hurdles along the way, is a task that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Of course it isn’t all flying carts and laughter, but it doesn’t need to be expensive or frenzied either. It needn’t include a family four-pack to Disneyland or a trust fund. Some of the happiest families I’ve known have raised a whole brood of kids on pennies, ingenuity, and homegrown tomatoes.

That’s the parenting we need to sell. It needs to grace the cover of all those fancy-pants magazines, knocking aside the hand-crafted toys and designer baby socks. Deliberate, unadorned childhood. That’s why we got into this business in the first place. And it’s most definitely worth the sticker price