Monday, 12 July 2010

Parents Hate Parenting

Check this out. An article by a New Yorker, analysing the analysis which routinely turns up the idea that parenting makes people less rather than more happy.

The article trawls through a number of American studies by psychologists and social economists, and paints a saddening picture of millions of households condemned to misery by their foolish desire to have children.

Along the way Scandinavia is mournfully mentioned and tossed aside. Scandinavia is in danger of turning into Paradise in the popular imagination, haven of all things to all people — proper welfare, good schools, happy parents and every child looking like Pippi Long Stocking, as the population dance till midnight in the Arctic summer. When one actually talks to people who come from Scandinavia, apparently it's not as marvellous as the rest of the world thinks. They have arguments too, and high taxes, and furious arguments about the concept of the 'Free School'.

But essentially Scandinavia represents an unattainable reality that Americans put forward as the impossible alternative to what they have created for themselves. All the focus in US research is on the moment-to-moment happiness of the individual, and they are surprised when the results come back negative.

Yet one only has to flick through most European philosophy, from the Greeks to Nietzsche, to realize that the happiness debate, and whether one is an individual or part of a collective, has been raging over here for a good 2400 years. It's a debate that has influenced why democracy has evolved in the way it has, and why the idea of the welfare state could eventually be bodied forth (all right, it took a couple of devastating wars to really motivate the British, but still).

Children, like all mammalian organisms, are temporally-embodied, forward-flung creatures. They have no way to go but forward, onwards and upwards. The fact that adults experience them as on fast forward is simply a result of entropy. Our systems are slowing, theirs are not yet slowing. We exist along a temporal continuum towards our own mortality. That's just the way it is. The fact that other parts of our brains have developed to experience and remember pleasure and pain (and let's not forget we don't do this recall all that accurately) is a sideshow in the dynamics of bodily disintegration that is really going on.

Parenting takes place as a minute speck of atomic jiggling within this cosmic flux. But if we turn the telescope around and direct it at our lives, our microscopic concerns, and the microdramas of our lives with growing children, are magnified to fill the field of vision entirely.

Am I saying that we have all lost proportion? Yes, I think so, both when it comes to raising children, but more broadly in the way that we believe that happiness is an entitlement. Of course I'm not arguing that we should all be destined for depression and despair, and that our natural condition is pessimism. I'm not Beckett. Or Schopenhauer. But we do come at the end of a long tradition of deferred gratification, which has turned in on itself on since 1945.

In part this inward turn and re-evaluation of the nature of happiness has been necessary, because some citizens were actively being excluded even from deferred gratification, such as women under patriarchy, or about 50% of the population of most countries.

Deferred gratification, however, once you've ironed social inequality out of your reckoning, has a surprising amount going for it. The wine tastes sweeter after a hard day's work than after four lattes.

No comments: