Care and Feeding

Everyone Told Me Parenthood Would Be Miserable

It’s nothing like I expected.

A mother reads to her young daughter.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Prostock-Studio/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I (she/her, age 33) spent my entire adult life saying I would never have kids. Everyone, including my own parents, told me parenthood was relentless, exhausting, and thankless. It sounded horrible to me. I also have bipolar disorder and could not fathom the strain on my mental health that a baby would cause. Then my sister had a kid, I fell in love with that kid, and my husband and I changed our minds and decided to have a baby too. We went into this clear- eyed that we would be exhausted, knowing that parenting would be extremely difficult, so we started therapy during my pregnancy as a proactive measure.

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Our lovely daughter is now 3 years old. My question: Is parenting supposed to be this easy? I feel lied to. Parenting doesn’t feel difficult or draining or relentless or in any way horrible to me. Our daughter is extremely high energy, but she gets through tantrums quickly, sleeps through the night, and is generally a joy to be around. I definitely have days when I’m tired, but overall this whole parenting thing hasn’t made me drained or exhausted; it makes me feel driven, purposeful, and motivated.

No one ever told me about the positive aspects of parenting! I had no idea that I would love another person so much it sometimes feels like my heart could explode. Or that having a baby would force me into a healthy routine and sense of structure. Or that it would make my career feel more important, because I’m providing for a family. If I had known it would be this great, I would have had a baby way earlier. Am I missing something? Is there some key factor in my child’s development that is supposed to make this harder? My partner agrees that this is much easier than we anticipated. We are both worried we’re doing something fundamentally wrong.

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—Should it be this Easy?

Dear Should,

I’ll tell you a story. For years, I too was sure I didn’t want to ever be a parent. For me, it was because I feared it would derail my work—my life—as a novelist. So when I got into my mid-30s and suddenly realized that I wanted to have a child—that I was willing to have my life “derailed” by motherhood—I steeled myself. I too went into therapy while pregnant, not only to prepare myself for the life-derailment ahead, but also in the hopes that this would “cure” me of all the things that ailed me before unwittingly passing them along to my child (the latter a fruitless task, alas). And then I had a baby, and found that I loved being a parent. I loved every single thing about it. Even though I had one of those babies who didn’t sleep, it turned out that I didn’t mind being bone-tired for the sake of my child. Taking care of her was a joy for me. I was astonished to find that I wasn’t bored (that had been one of my great fears, too: that spending time with a baby, a toddler, a 5-year-old who wanted me to play with her would be mind-numbingly boring). Like you, I felt purposeful, enlivened by this experience, better—happier—overall. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that it seemed to me I became a better writer, and a more productive one.

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I wish I could say that it works out this way for everyone. As you know, it doesn’t. Lots of people, even those who feel it is fulfilling in many ways, do find parenting to be more challenging than not, especially when their children are as young as yours. They may have children who are more of a challenge to raise for many reasons; they may have postpartum depression; they may discover that having a child puts too much strain on their finances, or their marriage, such that those stresses creep into all aspects of their life; they may find it excruciating to “balance” (there is never a true balance!) childrearing and work. And there are many other parents who find it alternately a pleasure and a pain (year by year or day by day … or hour by hour). But the fact that you and your husband are finding that raising your child brings you pretty much unremitting joy doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. Or that you’re doing anything wrong, or that there’s something missing in your child’s development. It means that you are unusually well suited for the demands of parenthood, that you had your child at the right time for you, that you are raising your child with the best parenthood partner for you—and a host of other possible explanations that you would know better than I, if you were to pause to consider them. I can’t promise that it will always feel this easy. I myself found year 14 very challenging. (I got through it by telling myself it was nature’s way of preparing me for my kid leaving home in a few years, to inoculate me against missing her quite so much.) But my guess is that for you, as for me, being your child’s parent will turn out to be one of—if not the—best things about your life. I am very happy for you. Just keep on keepin’ on.

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letter, What My Daughter’s Karate Teacher Did Is Not Normal—Right?: The teacher warned a boy that if he didn’t behave he would get a kick to the butt.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

I had my first child in November, and it has shaken my perspective on work. Before I had the baby, I planned to stay in my stable but stymied job for another year and start looking for new work if my boss didn’t announce her retirement by the year’s end. I picked a good daycare close to my office so I could walk to see the baby on lunch breaks. He starts there in May. As I’m sure many, many new parents have experienced, returning to work was way harder than I anticipated. I’m also struggling with the dysfunction and low morale at my workplace. I truly love the organization and its mission, but the boss has been here for decades and is checked out but nonetheless micromanages. Other leaders at work are trying hard but struggling in their roles, hindering my team’s efforts and ideas. Taking time off or working part-time is not option, as I’m the primary breadwinner in the family. And while the work I do could easily be done remotely, that flexibility isn’t offered. Advancement isn’t an option in my current role, and efforts to reshape the position so I can have a bigger impact have been unsuccessful.

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I feel like being a new mom has made me less tolerant of the generally sad state of things at work, the lack of mentorship, and my workplace’s unwillingness to invest in my department. I’m in the running for a few jobs that would be a step up, more money, and great learning opportunities. But I am having cold feet about making a change. I’m worried that I’m making a decision too quickly (I returned the office in mid-February). I’ve worked for this organization for three years. Typically during my career I have switched jobs fairly frequently, whether to a new employer or to a new role at the same workplace. I don’t think this is a great pattern. And the excellent daycare we picked out would be farther from another job (though, with more flexibility, I’m hoping I could pick him up early at least a few days a week even if I can’t see him on my lunch break).

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I struggle with increased depression and anxiety since having the baby, and I am a little apprehensive that the stress of a new job could make it worse. On the other hand, if I’m going to have to be away from the baby, I want it to be time spent learning, growing, and earning as much money as possible while doing something challenging. But I know that any of these new positions would be a lot of work compared to my current position, where no one really expects much of me. Thank you so much for any insight you can offer!

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—Working Hard for the Money

Dear WHftM,

Being miserable at your job is no way to live. And while starting a new job will be stressful in some ways as you adjust to it—and taking on more responsibilities and learning new things and just plain working harder will in itself be a challenge—if you are going to work at a job, I believe that working at one that does not make you feel defeated and frustrated is a much better choice than staying at the one you dislike. It’s hard for many people to go back to work after they have a baby, and it’s criminal that you had to when your baby was still so young—that there isn’t a system in place that would allow you to have more time at home with your child before returning to the office. But that’s the grim fact we can’t do anything about.

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What you can do something about is a work situation that is getting you down. I can tell that it’s hard enough for you to be away from your baby; it will help you if the many hours you spend at work are meaningful to you. (And while you’re looking around for a new job, don’t rule out the possibility of finding one that you can do remotely, at least part of the time. An awful lot of work is happening that way now.) Good luck to you as you work through this. And let me suggest that if you are dealing with increased depression, and you aren’t already seeing a therapist, you make an appointment with one. (There is no downside to seeking help when you are struggling.) I’ll be rooting for you.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

• If you missed Friday’s column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m writing with an age-old question: my 16-year-old daughter refuses to study for the SAT and we don’t know what to do about it. Here’s the situation: my husband lost his job due to COVID, and our family’s financial footing has been on shaky ground since then. My daughter is academically high-achieving. The only way we can pay for college without her taking out student loans is if she receives an academic merit scholarship—which would actually make college cheaper than if she attended our state school (I’ve done the math). These scholarships are frequently doled out on the basis of SAT scores. My daughter claims she understands this, but absolutely refuses to put any time into preparing for the test in any way. We have purchased test-prep books, helped her make a study calendar, and even bought her a few sessions with a test prep tutor—stretching our already stretched finances—and she basically put in the bare minimum of effort to avoid embarrassing herself in front of the tutor. Her scores have plateaued and are about 150 points away from what would earn her a scholarship. My husband is of the mind that we should just back off and let things happen as she makes them happen. I see the value in this, but also believe her choosing to slack off is a giant mistake that will demonstrably affect her future (if her options are either community college or an expensive school for which she receives $50k in loans per year, both will meaningfully impact her post-college trajectory in a way I don’t think she understands). I feel sick at the thought of just letting a 16-year-old decide to change her life while we sit back, throw up our hands, and say, “It’s her decision.” What say you? What can we do to help her understand the gravity of the situation? Before my husband’s job loss, money was never an issue for our family, so I think she genuinely doesn’t realize how bad things are.

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—Beside Myself Mom

Dear BMM,

I don’t think what your husband is suggesting is the equivalent of throwing up your hands. Backing off in the face of a 16-year-old’s intransigence about something that may (I’ll get to the “may” in a second) affect her future is not bad parenting. It’s just common sense.

You cannot make her take the SAT more seriously. And honestly I’m not the least bit sure you should try, anyway. This may be an age-old question, but it’s no longer an entirely relevant one. Fully two-thirds of colleges and universities are no longer taking standardized test scores into consideration, or they’re making them optional. And while some of those schools do consider SAT scores for—and only for—their merit-based scholarships, this does not represent the whole scholarship picture either. Merit-based scholarship is more complicated—and can be fairer—than you’re aware of.

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The fact is that a great many of the best private colleges and universities in the country award significant need-based aid, and today nearly all of them to do this without considering test scores. Admission to these schools itself is the merit-based decision. It is granted on the basis of a holistic consideration of the application, including grades, the difficulty of the classes those grades were earned in, class rank, leadership positions, and the admissions essay, among other factors. If the high-achieving student (as you have noted your daughter is) gets in, the school will make sure that whatever costs the family can’t cover are covered by the school.

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So the options you believe your daughter will have if she doesn’t get that 150-point bump you are so focused on (taking out substantial loans for an expensive private college or going to a community college) are … how can I say this gently?—I can’t, I guess—wrong. I’ve talked about this before, and not just in this column, either. I have made it my mission to get the word out to as many college-bound kids from low-income—and for that matter “middle class”—families as I can. I’ve discovered that college counselors at public schools generally don’t seem to be sharing this info, either because they don’t know (which seems unlikely), are too overburdened to have time to do this kind of micro-advising with their best students, or don’t think it’s fair to distinguish between students on their roster who are likely to get into such schools and those who aren’t. And I’ve found that college counselors at private schools are likely to assume their students don’t need this sort of information.

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When your daughter is ready to start looking at colleges, offer her a list of private colleges that meet the full financial need of every student they accept (by the time she’s ready, there is likely to be an updated list elsewhere online, so keep your eyes open). I can tell you that eleven years ago, I was able to send my daughter off to a very expensive, very good school for a good deal less than it would have cost to send her to the flagship state university where I teach, even with my hefty employee discount (I too did the math). (FYI: college professors in the arts and humanities don’t make a lot of money.) If you want to do your own (further) math, fill out a practice FAFSA now. The number that it spits back to you at the bottom of the form—the “expected family contribution”—will tell you what you would have to pay if your child attends an institution that will meet her full financial need, including those that meet full need without any loans at all, not even the small ones that some schools require as part of their financial aid package, along with direct scholarships and grants and work-study.

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But to return for a moment, before I close, to your frustration at your child’s refusal to do what you tell her she must do: you are fighting a losing battle, and the harder you fight, the more deeply she will dig in. Are there some things worth putting your foot down with a teenager about? Sure. If she is endangering herself, and there is anything you can do to stop her from doing so, be as tough as you need to be (it still won’t be easy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying). But for anything short of that? Hell, no. And this particular battle is one of the ones least worth fighting.

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Want Advice From Care and Feeding?

Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a strong-willed 4-year-old who leans towards being an introvert. He is doing well at preschool and is generally a happy child. He hasn’t been out much due to the pandemic except to preschool and some playdates. We recently enrolled him in soccer and he refuses to play. His friends from preschool go to the same soccer program, which is once a week for 45 minutes. My son says, “I don’t like it” and sits outside the field. No amount of cajoling, bribing, or threatening works. We have tried to talk to him about why he doesn’t like it, but he won’t explain. We offered him the chance to choose another activity—we suggested swimming—and he says he doesn’t want to do that either. I am at my wits’ end about what to do. Do I keep taking him every week even though he refuses to play? Or do I give up? If I give up, he might get the message that his stubbornness will work in future scenarios too.

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—Out of Ideas

Dear Out,

Or he might get the wild message that you are paying attention to what he tells you about how he feels.

If your 4-year-old doesn’t want to play soccer, why make him play? If right now—and please, let’s not forget, he’s only 4—he doesn’t want to participate in any organized sports/activities outside of preschool, for godsakes, let it go. When something pops up that he is interested in, whether it turns out to be soccer or swimming or fencing or playing a musical instrument or taking a dance class, enroll him in that. Let him know, right now (and periodically—though not constantly), that if there’s something he wants to try, you’ll make it available to him. Go ahead and suggest some things to him from time to time, too (maybe not sports? At least for now, he seems to have made it clear that he isn’t interested in them). But forcing kids to participate in activities that are supposed to be fun for them when they don’t want to teaches them nothing except that their own desires and interests (and non-desires and non-interests) are of no importance to their parents.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

Recently a friend of a friend’s brother, Morgan, died of cancer. Lately, I have been teaching my 6-year old daughter about death and grieving. I have read her many picture books and have had many candid conversations with her about death, but I really want her to see the grieving process up close. Is it inappropriate of me to take her to Morgan’s funeral as a learning experience?

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