Parenthood is a common experience. It’s also a demanding experience, which explains why people in the midst of it sometimes feel the need to adopt a battle-scarred persona in their interactions with the newbies.
Years ago, when I was visibly pregnant for the first time, and later, when I had one little one, I came to dread these three words: Just you wait. Whatever happy feeling or observation I had at the moment risked being dismissed with the warning that terrible things were imminent. My time would no longer be mine, and everything was about to go haywire.
One of the unsung upsides of having a larger brood—I had my fourth just nineteen months ago—is that no one says those three words to me anymore. I have also gained a lot of knowledge since then about how people, and working women in particular, spend their time. As a result I have learned that the majority of things people warned me about are not the inevitable result of parenting. Those three words—“just you wait”—are often more about people’s own insecurities than anything else. True maternal wisdom means letting them go. Our time still remains what we make of it.
I don’t know why parenthood seems to involve competing in the Misery Olympics. To be sure, most veteran parents will include an obligatory It’s-The-Most-Meaningful-Thing-I’ve-Ever-Done line or two in their warnings, but I distinctly remember a number of themes in these “just you wait” laments.
- Having kids will ruin your career.
- Having kids will ruin your body.
- Having kids will ruin your sex life.
- Having kids will mean you will have no free time whatsoever.
I would not deny that some people could have these experiences. One survey found that mothers claim to have just seventeen minutes of free time per day. Women with children constantly lament a lack of time for self-care. Parenting magazines are full of articles on how mothers may not want to have sex for months (years?) after giving birth, so new fathers should be understanding. You can’t miss that the number of mothers at the top of major organizations is scandalously low.
On the other hand, the number of women without children at the top of major organizations is also low. To be honest, most men don’t get to the top of the heap either. This would be true whether people have children or not, so it seems unfair to blame kids for all of it.
For those of us with more modest ambitions, it’s helpful to note that most parents combine work and family just fine. If you are an organized person who plans ahead to meet deadlines, and makes time for networking and strategic thinking prior to having children, it is quite possible you will continue doing so after. Many of us who liked what we did pre-kids like what we do post-kids. In my case, my kids have given me more fodder to write about.
On the physical front, many of us learn the hard way that, independent of fecundity, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay svelte as we get older. Kids don’t make it easier to eat kale and exercise, but they don’t make it impossible. The reason most people don’t exercise is not that kids have taken all their time, it’s that they don’t want to exercise. On the intimacy front, your mileage may vary. I was always happy to get the six-week postpartum green light to get reacquainted with my husband (this may explain why we have four children).
It is the free time assertion, though, that I find particularly fascinating. According to the American Time Use Survey, employed parents with kids under age 6 have 3.4 hours of leisure time per day. This is less than employed people without kids—who have 4.5 hours—but it is not bad at all. I know from my own time diary studies that women with younger children (under age 2) tend to have less leisure time than other people, but the good news is that children spend a mere two years being under 2 years old. They grow up, and time to read, do hobbies, and such expands. And even those of us with kids under age 2 manage to fit in some leisure time, such as watching TV. I am reminded of the Dr. Phil episode a few years ago when time use researcher John Robinson went on to talk about his finding that women had thirty hours of leisure time per week. Audience members were in high dudgeon about this idea that they had any free time, which is funny, in that watching the Dr. Phil show is pretty much the definition of a leisure-time activity.
The truth is that parenting, like any other endeavor, is largely what you make of it. Some people are prone to drama and some are not, but whatever woe one person experienced does not necessarily mean you will or won’t. Which is why I've come to believe that the words “just you wait” are more an attempt to justify one’s own life than offer helpful advice. “It will be fine,” is much better and avoids the Misery Olympics. Which is good—because in the Misery Olympics, no one wins.
Photo Credit: The Mullers