The first time I said it out loud, I was alone in the bathroom at home.
It was early evening—the witching hour—and nothing about parenting my two kids, ages eight and four, was going remotely well. But it was more than just a rough night; it was a stark and deeply unpleasant sense that there had been many nights like this and there would be many more to come. In that moment of fluorescent-lit honesty, I finally admitted it, choking back tears: “I hate this.”
The second time, I was talking with a mom after school drop-off, moaning about some particularly frustrating phase that one of our then-toddlers was going through. We weren’t particularly close, but somehow I felt like she was a kindred spirit. “Sometimes I really don’t like parenting,” I confided. “I love my kids. But parenting? Most of what it actually involves? I don’t think I like it.”
I braced for possible judgment. But instead? “Oh my God, me too! I’m so glad you told me that. I thought I was a monster.”
Over the past few years, in more and more conversations with other moms at drop-off and pickup, in Facebook groups and chat rooms, this spiky truth—that parenting is something that many women struggle to enjoy, or at least find themselves loathing a decent percentage of the time—has been seeping out.
There was the thirtysomething woman at a party a few years ago who confessed to me (the wine had definitely loosened her lips) that she sometimes thought she’d be a better “cool aunt” to her kids than an aggrieved parent who, yes, loves them with every fibre of her being but, in all honesty, just doesn’t enjoy the journey much. “It’s my fault, not theirs,” she said. “They’re just normal kids, but sometimes I dream about what life was like without them.”
That fierce, forever love is, of course, a given, but the actual day-in, day-out vagaries of parenting? For me, at least, that’s a hard pass.
When I mentioned that I was writing this story to some people (folks I wasn’t planning on interviewing), I got a few raised eyebrows, as well as rather pregnant pauses. Some were perhaps reacting to the relative darkness of the topic, although I’d argue that those who echo these feelings are actually quite secure in their parenting, which makes them willing to expose them, warts and all. But other people asked me: Doesn’t everyone feel that way at some point or another?
Opening up about the dark side
There’s definitely been a rise in the “honest mom” genre—which often overlaps with the wine-swilling, benignly neglectful “bad mom” thing—with countless sarcastic Twitter accounts and social media personalities devoted to gallows humour over the harder, grosser, less joyful parts of parenting. But it’s all so couched in good-natured hilarity that, for those of us who find ourselves legitimately tearing up—angry, barricaded in the bathroom and despairing over how we’ll get through the days, weeks and months ahead—it doesn’t do the trick.
“The truth is, parenting is mostly hard and thankless,” says Casey Franklin*, a suburban mom of two young girls who works full-time from home. “The sheer, repetitive monotony of it all is a big part of it for me: packing lunches, unpacking backpacks, washing out containers, monitoring school work. I just don’t like it.” Not that anyone really gets stoked about those chores, but the rise in social media posturing and the general feeling that you should at least relish these nurturing tasks can make a parent feel doubly down.
Even though there are more and more people grousing about parenting online—usually with a hefty side of expletives—a large part of what we still see on Facebook is a constant barrage of images and words that urge us to cherish every moment. “People definitely don’t talk about it enough,” says Franklin. “I mean, on Facebook, it’s all sweet, treasured moments and moms talking about crying because their kids are heading off to kindergarten. Me? I was saying, ‘Hallelujah!’”
Disliking parenting doesn’t have to be all the time, of course, but the breakdown of time is definitely skewed for some women. “When our kids are cute, nice and thoughtful, it’s rewarding,” says Doris Grant*, a lawyer who has two sons, a second-grader and an infant, who will sardonically tell you straight up that she doesn’t really love the journey all that much, “but then there’s the other 70 percent of the time.”
The math works out the same for Anna Harling,* a mother of two and marketing executive who recently went back to work after a three-year hiatus, during which time she was at home with her kids. “It’s constantly changing, but overall I think I’m a solid 70/30 on not liking parenting,” she says. “This has nothing to do with how much I love my children, though. In fact, I stand by a quote I once heard: ‘I love my children, especially when I am not with them.’”
Like Franklin, she also cites the repetition of things as one of her biggest happiness killers—but with a twist. “Parenting is a strange mix of predictability and unpredictability, and that drives me crazy,” she says. “It goes against the rules of all of the other relationships in your life. Sometimes I can tell my kid to go to bed—at his usual bedtime, I might add—and he will go upstairs without an issue. The next night, I could do the same thing, at the same time, and it’s like I’ve set off a human nuclear bomb.”
Why now—and why more than ever?
None of this is all that surprising, says Alyson Schafer, a family counsellor, parenting expert and author of Breaking the Good Mom Myth: Every Modern Mom’s Guide to Getting Past Perfection, Regaining Sanity and Raising Great Kids. In fact, part of what may be behind so much of the discontent we’re feeling, says Schafer, is “a symptom that stems from the state of modern parenting in the Western world, where, despite more women in the workforce than ever, time-use surveys show that the amount of time women spend on household tasks and child care duties has only increased.”
But it’s more than just that—after all, women have always had to balance caring for small children with making a living. While women definitely bear the brunt of the balancing act, “It’s the way we parent today that’s different than that of previous generations,” says KJ Dell’Antonia, who edited the Motherlode column in The New York Times and is the author of How to Be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life and Loving (Almost) Every Minute of It. From activities to homework to chores, our parents weren’t nearly as involved with us and did way less for us than we do for and with our children. “As parents, our expectations of ourselves have changed,” she says. “Somewhere along the line, we, as a culture, turned parenting into work.”
Heck, the entire youth-sports industry wouldn’t be what it is if parents hadn’t bought in so early and so often. “We are rushing around more than ever with so many activities a week,” says Catherine Pearlman, a psychologist and author of the parenting book Ignore It. “Kids today do an average of three to five activities a week, whereas when I grew up it was maybe one thing, and I rode my bike there myself.” As parents, we buy into the idea that these activities are vital for the development of a child and then find ourselves stressed (and sometimes resentful) from the research, scheduling, chauffeuring and endless filling out of forms involved.
Our age can also factor in to how much we bristle. More and more women are delaying motherhood—I, for one, was 34 with my first child and almost 38 when my second arrived—and this may lead to an increased feeling of lost autonomy, according to Melissa Milkie, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto. “They may have had very interesting educational, work, leisure and travel experiences that they tend to reduce to make room for parenting their children,” she says. Of course, one could argue that younger moms, whose peers may still be out at bars, footloose and fancy-free, while they are at home breastfeeding and covered in spit-up, can also find themselves vaguely miserable. In that way, it becomes clear that the idea of being “ready” for parenting or in a “sweet spot” may be elusive. And then there’s the gender factor, notes Milkie. “By comparison, men’s lives don’t change as much as women’s do,” she says. That fact only adds to the resentment that can simmer beneath it all.
And this is another brutal reality about children: They expose the gulf between our fantasies about family and the realities, where our old way of life can feel out of reach and our expectations are way different than reality. It can feel like we have to choose between long-term satisfaction with moment-to-moment happiness—spending our days doing stuff we don’t like so that we can be a happy family overall. Despite my own strong feelings about parenting, I still think of myself as happy overall, but it’s more of a retrospective happiness—not one evidenced by how much I actually enjoy what I do from hour to hour.
I think that’s always been one of the things that’s particularly hard for me: that all the nitty-gritty jobs of parenting (the grilling of cheese, the sopping up of fluids) can sort of suck. And while I know it’s part of the deal and it has to get done, it’s not really where I shine and not an obvious part of the long game. What’s important to me and what I value most is the relationship part: the bond between me and my daughters. I suck at making lunches (or any meals), but I’m great at talking to them for hours, teaching them stuff about words, books and puns and making it clear that I am there for them, no matter what. While you can obviously argue that making meals is part of a loving relationship, to me, it is just more work than love and chips away at my ability to relish the rest.
Not surprisingly, this is all what Jennifer Senior noted in her book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, a seminal 2015 look at parenting in the Western world. Unhappiness for parents tends to cluster around the early years, she notes, and then rises again in the fraught teen years. For Jessica Helter*, a Boston mother of a six-year-old daughter, the early parenting years left her feeling like she had lost her sense of self. “I lost my feeling that I could be productive,” she says. “When you have a baby and are at home, nothing you do is ever actually done in the way that you can check it off a list. I missed feeling like I was really doing a good job at something. How much pleasure can you get from doing a really good job of cleaning up spit-up?”
To that end, society at large does us no favours for being a parent. According to the Council on Contemporary Families, the US has the largest discrepancy in happiness between non-parents and parents among 22 other countries, with factors like support for vacation, work leaves and family leaves as some of the structural reasons for this unhappiness. (Canada wasn’t included in this research.)
It doesn’t help that work is unremitting in the era of smartphones and constant connectedness. The office trails you at home—or is your home, in the case of so many women who are doing home-based businesses as a way to make ends meet and stay in the workforce—divides your attention and can cause you to bristle when your kids and your email are both ringing in your ears. The number of parents who do some or all of their work at home continues to grow, which may be good in terms of workplace flexibility but often translates into parents trying to do two things at once and feeling worn down by it all. “I’ve consciously realized that I’m rushing the kids to bed so I can get back to work,” Pearlman tells me, “or so that I can have a second to myself to get a moment of rest.” My head is nodding furiously as she speaks.
For Helter, her frequent dislike of parenting bleeds over into other relationships. “My whole affect changes, and I think it makes me a drag to be around with other adults,” she says. “I also feel like a bad wife to boot.” More nodding from my end of the phone when I think about all the evenings when my husband has arrived home to find me marinating in dinner and bedtime struggles and in the same sour mood as so many other nights.
Looking for risk factors
Yes, it’s normal to be annoyed by parenting—and by your kids—sometimes. But some people are more likely than others to find themselves struggling to find joy in parenting—for starters, anyone who is prone to depression and anxiety, says Pearlman. “We’re doing a better job of talking about postpartum depression, but we’re not so great at understanding depression and anxiety that can come long after that period,” she says. “In particular, that kind of anxiety can affect the way we feel from day to day that affects how we feel with our kids.”
Being part of the sandwich generation—caring for both kids and aging parents—is another strain, notes Pearlman. And there’s another type of woman who is more likely to dislike parenting: the one who didn’t really want kids in the first place (and who never took the time or space to wrestle with that) and felt pressured by her husband or society to stick within the parameters of what a woman should be.
I have my own theory about why it’s particularly onerous for me, and it has to do with distress tolerance—that’s psych-speak for being able to handle the ups and downs, bumps and bruises of life without feeling like you want to run to the bathroom and cry. My own threshold is woefully low and, during the inevitable tantrums, endless rough phases and innumerable challenges of parenting, I find myself deeply uncomfortable, more so than people who might have a better ability to withstand these sorts of things. “You need to prepare for these bumps along the road,” says Schafer. “In psychology, we say that unhappiness and dissatisfaction are represented by the gap between expectations and reality. You just have to remember that you are not in control of others—just yourself. To create a smaller gap, it’s important to embrace reality.”
Dell’Antonia thinks that people who embrace all that parenting entails with the least chafing tend to be people who are happy spending time within the process as opposed to the goal. She likens it to cooking. “Some people aren’t as invested in the presentation as they are in the actual steps along the way,” says Dell’Antonia. “To try to be happier with the process, remember that you can be happy when things aren’t great. You can be happy when your kids are getting bad grades or being upset about long division. This is fine, and you don’t always have to fix it. Just be there and be present.”
Really think about what is important to you in parenting to winnow it down to what matters to you and what’s worth all the effort, says Pearlman. “There are a lot of shoulds—about what we should do or how our kids should act—and neither of us can always fit those shoulds,” says Pearlman. “Instead of getting caught up in the shoulds, do what works for you, not your neighbour. It’s about the concept of being a good-enough parent. Good enough is great!”
Of course, another way to make things more pleasant is to outsource whatever you can, whenever you can, from finding babysitting so that you can have more me-time to hiring a housekeeper if maintaining a clean home is important to you and driving you crazy. Obviously, that’s not financially feasible for everyone, but even if you manage to take tiny breaks for self-care, it can help, says Schafer. “No one would expect an ER nurse to work seven days a week, all year long,” she says. “You shouldn’t feel guilty for taking time, and to be good in the moments when you’re on duty, you need periods of recovery. It may just be saying to your partner, ‘I am going to go to the coffee shop and read my novel while you do tuck-ins’—whatever it takes for you to recover.”
After talking to so many women—mothers and experts alike—I’ve come to realize that how you feel about parenting is about being able to accept incongruity. It’s about the radical notion that two opposing ideas can coexist at the same time—that you can love your kids to the ends of the earth while simultaneously hating a lot of the day-to-day slog of mothering. A mother can sometimes chafe at the lifestyle but still love her family. Finally, it’s about giving it a name and talking about it. Admitting all of the ugly and confusing things—to myself, my husband and my friends—has helped it actually ebb in a way that denying or keeping it secret hasn’t. I hated breakfast time today and gritted my teeth through another morning meltdown, but the day isn’t ruined and I will bounce back because I’m giving it an exit valve. Those moments were messy, but they’ve passed. The bigger picture is more important, and it’s perfectly beautiful.
*Some names have been changed
This article was originally published online in February 2019.