February 22, 2008

Our Failings as a Species, and How They Relate to Parental Complaining

One of my friends and I have been emailing about something, and we're stuck, and we're hoping other people can help us figure out what is going on. I'm going to cut a big chunk out of one of her emails, because I think she does a good job explaining what we're wondering:

Why is it that when you are young and married, and you are out with other young married couples who have children (and you don't have children), and they spend the whole evening complaining about their children (which, okay, whatever, some of it is funny, some of it is sobering when they get serious about how. bad. their. lives. have. turned. out. because of offspring--this conversational tone is awkward, yes?), do they have to follow every paragraph with a question like, "Oh, I bet you guys have changed your minds, right? You're never gonna have kids, you didn't know what it was like!" or "We're really opening your eyes, aren't we?" or "I bet we've ruined any chance you'll ever have kids!" Why do they say these things so smugly? Why do they seem so horrified at their lives, and yet act superior because we don't have children? What is this smugness?

And I know I haven't had a child, so I haven't experienced it and don't know from experience all of the stuff. Obviously. But why do people have to complain and complain and complain, and tell you how awful it is, and how hard it is, and THEN freak out if you even consider NOT having children? And why do people call that selfish?

Maybe, my main question is, why do so many parents complain so much, when, duh! You are responsible for the complete well being of a tiny human! These conversations make my skin crawl.

I have been thinking and thinking on this topic: Why DO Parents Say Things Like That? Because I am totally familiar with what she is describing, and I can't quite pin down what happens. Here is what I THINK happens:

1) New parents think that they are the only ones to ever have negative feelings about parenting, or about their children. (I don't know how this happens, since we hear it all around us, but it does seem to happen.)

2) In a group of new parents, where everyone wants to talk about parenting the way a group of engaged people want to talk about wedding plans, someone finally tentatively broaches their negative feelings. Everyone else is so relieved, they're practically high from it.

3) Searching for more of that high, parents bring up negative things more often. When that high becomes insufficient, they get more and more negative, saying bolder and bolder things. People who actually dislike the entire parenting experience (as opposed to the people who enjoy parenting but also enjoy complaining) start getting more confident and vocal.

4) And when parents realize they've been talking that way in front of non-members, as it were, they suddenly get self-conscious. They're torn: on one hand, they kind of WANT to tell you the sucky stuff, because they've been working the whole "Nobody tells you it'll be like this" angle (true or not), and because they want credit for dealing with something so diffcult. On the other hand, they know it sounds awful when they describe it this way, and they don't literally mean all of it, and they think you'll think they're bad parents, and they wonder if they've gone too far and will talk you out of having kids. Also, when they look at non-parents, they remember their own non-parent selves and feel embarrassed about whatever opinions they might have had back then. CONFLICTED!

5) So then they get even stupider, and talk more when they should be talking less.

I think the SMUGNESS she describes is basic "We know something you don't know" smugness. Like when someone has been to another country and keeps bringing up how they do things there. Or when someone has been on a missions trip. Or when someone has worked in a job you've never worked in. Or when someone has had something awful happen to them. Or when someone has done ANYTHING where (1) they now know more than you, and (2) they want you to know that there is NO WAY you can know the same thing unless you go through the same thing. Man, you can't even BEGIN to understand. And so now we're going to explain it to you AT LENGTH, even though we JUST SAID that there's NO WAY you could understand, because there is NO REASON you shouldn't be able to do this too.

Married people do this to non-married people. Graduates do it to students. War veterans do it to civilians. Exercisers/dieters do it to non-exercisers/non-dieters. And, as we've noticed, parents do it to non-parents. Parents also do it to other, less-experienced parents: parents of two children do it to parents of one child, parents of toddlers do it to parents of babies, and parents of teenagers do it to parents of toddlers. Kind of makes the human species look bad, doesn't it? We want credit for being more awesome than you, and we also want you to know that you have no excuse for not being this awesome too.

Anyway, that's my theory: we do it because of one of our strengths as a species (our eagerness to bond with each other and to empathize with each other) combined with one of our failings as a species (our eagerness to one-up each other and be superior to each other).

That's not quite as . . . useful a theory as I'd like to have, though, so please add your voice to the discussion and maybe we can hammer this out a little better.


Jess said...

I like your theory. It's very well-developed. I also think that people want other people to be like them so they can commiserate. Pulling others into the fold, so to speak.

desperate housewife said...

Wow, this is fascinating. All I can add is that I have been very guilty of this sort of thing- complaining to my childless sisters on the phone at great length about, just for example, baby barf getting horked down my back and into my underpants, but then reacting with horror when they tell me they've decided parenting isn't for them.
I can't really explain it other than to say it is the same thing as labor/childbirth horror stories- when you've been through something physically and emotionally difficult, you want CREDIT for it, you want the challenges that you've embraced to be ACKNOWLEDGED. You want, in essence, a SMIDGEN of a pity party. But you also don't want to scare someone off of what you consider to be The Thing That Has Given Your Life New Meaning, so you hastily scramble and apologize and backtrack when women stare at you with horror and state their intention to hire a surrogate.

stephanie said...

Non-parent here who VERY recently has gotten to the point of almost reconsidering having children due to the horror stories I hear from my friend with kids. I was also the last to get married, so I always feel like I'm running to catch up and be a part of the "club" -- which is ridiculous. I want to get all indignant about it, but I fear I will be just like them when we actually DO have children. I know I am, on some level, relieved to be a "smug married" now. Finally. Check THAT off the list of MUST DO items. UGH!

I am, however, part of a "club" most of my friends are not and that is Club Orphan. And while I say (and MEAN) that I wouldn't WANT any of them to know how absolutely shitty it is to have lost both parents before I turned 30 (i.e. before I got married, before I'll have children, before, um, I WAS READY TO BE PARENTLESS), there is a smugness to being a part of this group, too.

As in, tsk tsk... listen to people complain over trivial things. They have NO idea what they are eventually in for when the shit really DOES hit the fan. And somehow, that makes me smarter? And feel awful all at the same time.

Ugh, Swistle, this post is making me feel terrible about humans in general. Someone contribute something to make me feel better about my horrifying self!

stephanie said...

PS, that was supposed to be friendS with kids. As in, most of them do, not just one. :)

Emily said...

This is one reason that I really love finding and reading parenting blogs.

I haven't grown up with kids all that much (though much more than some of my friends!), so I don't know the nitty gritty details about it. I can take care of a baby for a few hours, but I don't know about all the gross details, and the sleep dep, and all of that.

So reading parenting blogs, or blogs of people who happen to be parents and who talk about being parents, has really helped me understand the things I can look forward to (as it were). I like to think that will make it easier for me.

I mean, it used to be that I'd grow up with my girl friends from high school and we'd all be married and have kids at the same time and we'd have each other to talk to. I don't really have that, although I'm starting to with some friends having kids, but I'm going to be among the first if things go the way I think (and hope) they will.

Mommy Daisy said...

Ugh, don't you just hate when people act better or more knowledgeable about things than you? I do. Even if they do know more about a given thing, they don't have to be so smug about it.

I feel that way then catch myself doing the same thing. It's an ugly game we play. And I don't understand it either.

Natalie said...

I think SMUG just about sums it up. Not that we're meaning to be, it's just that we ARE. I am not really guilty of this, but probably only because most of my friends already have children. I have an older friend and her children are grown. When I'm venting about something my son has or hasn't done she'll often remark: well, you just wait, the problems get bigger as they get older.

She means absolutely no harm by telling me this and I manage to bite my tongue because I know I would probably do the same thing!

elizasmom said...

I think this is a very interesting phenomenon, and what Desperate Housewife says in terms of wanting acknowledgement of what you went through REALLY resonates with me.

I really flailed around when my kid was a newborn and because I have such a deeply ingrained suck-it-up reflex, I got caught in this stupid trap of wanting to look like I had my act together and at the same time being desperate for someone to get that I didn't. While I have a couple of friends who were awesome in seeing through it and validating my experience, a couple of the people closest to me never did, and I catch myself perseverating about how HARD the post-partum thing is because I am waiting, waiting, waiting for some very specific people to finally acknowledge that "Yes, it WAS that bad and I am sorry you had to go through this, but you did OK."

And being fully aware that this is actually something I need to have out with those people has not stopped me from this behavior, which I'm sure comes off as crazed Cassandra-type rantings —followed by idiotic backpedaling because now that she's not a newborn and I am not crazy, my kid is the most awesome person in the universe and even though I NEVER EVER want to go through that again, in retrospect, it was a price worth paying.

I DO hope, though, that I am not smug.

Wendy said...

I think it might also relate to what people say vs. what they actually want to say. I love parenting blogs, but the ones that I keep reading voraciously (and go back and read every post in the archives) are the ones where people manage to tell you all the really negative awful bits, complain about their kids, complain about their spouse, everthing...while at the same time managing to get across exactly how much they love their kids and this whole parenting gig and wouldn't give any of it up even for a minute (unless maybe there was chocolate and wine and a hottub but even then only for a very short while because having a break makes us appreciate our families even more you know?)

Or maybe its just that we've been told that bragging isn't very nice, but that complaining is sort of socially acceptable...and so we don't want to make our childless friends miserable about not having kids, so we just tell them the negatives. When you stop and think about it, someone who talks about nothing but how wonderful their kid is and how happy happy their lives are...those people you really want to just dump a bucket of water on. Or maybe something more interesting than water.

What I think I'm trying to say is that hitting exactly the right tone, the way you manage most of the time on this blog, is pretty impressive.

Tessie said...

What a great discussion. I'll look forward to reading the comments.

I agree that this is in no way specific to parenting. I particularly liked the veteran/civilian and exerciser/non-exerciser examples.

For me, it seems like it boils down to our human attraction to "fairness". When we go through something hard, we want to be acknowledged, and we also want OTHERS to experience the same thing. In some cases, this looks a little like "misery loves company", but it also applies to the BEST things about parenting. But I think the worst parts are easier to describe, since they are more concrete. For example, lack of sleep, or physical pain, or financial hardship, or whatever.

At any rate, I think we have an innate desire to level the playing field with everyone we know, even though that is impossible.

BOSSY said...

Bossy thinks parents with young children do this because tiny sections of their brain fell away during the childbirth process. Or maybe that's just Bossy...

desperate housewife said...

Had to comment again in regards to what Tessie and Wendy mentioned: I think that is very true; part of it is a wanting to even the playing field. Wanting, actually, to NOT appear smug, not wanting to brag about the wonder and magic of parenting. Because, barf. We assume no one wants to hear about how much we love our little darlings and how we think the world revolves around them. We especially feel this way around childless people, because what if they WANT to have kids and can't right now, for any number of reasons? You don't want to rub in their faces what you have that they don't, so instead you complain, to (at least theoretically) make them feel better about not having kids yet.

Alice said...

this is fascinating. i have very little to add here, as i'm single & childless and my most socially advanced friends are JUST NOW starting to have babies... but i love all the thought everyone is putting into their theories and responses. i'll be back to read them all..

Jodi said...

I sort of get the opposite reaction when I am talking with people who don't have kids. Yes, 7 kids is a lot, but I love being with my kids and working on making them the best they can be.

Usually when I am talking with someone who has kids they ask me things like, "How can you handle all of the?" "What were you thinking?" "Don't you just want to runaway?"

I always smile and just respond with, "I love my kids." Sure there are days when I don't want to be the mom. Just like there are days when everyone would rather not be at work. But overall I love being with my kids. I usually try tell the people that having kids is great and something I would never change about my life.

Afterall, there is nothing like those moments when a child crawls into your lap and whispers "I love you Mommy."

brenna said...

I think we complain/commiserate over stuff that other parents know is just run of the mill, average, sucky stuff that all parents go through, and we don't realize in the moment how terrible it all must sound to someone who isn't a parent. Because someone who isn't a parent doesn't hear it like another parent does. They just hear about the barfing and the screaming and the sleepless nights, and wonder why the hell anyone wants that. Where a parent can hear about the barfing and the screaming and the sleepless nights, and know that while, yes, it sucks, it's buffered by the hundreds of things that are really awesome about having kids.

So then we freak out, thinking we might have scared someone away from having kids.

Pickles & Dimes said...

I think everyone is relieved to find someone who thinks the same way they do about a particular subject, even if that's not the popular opinion.

But sometimes when talking with parents, I seriously think they resent Jason & I being child-free and they want us to be MISERABLE like them.

Marie Green said...

Ha, ha, ha,... well, I had to go back and read it, b/c whenever you said "parents" I was think of MY parents... then I realized that it I, as in ME, was the parent. How come I keep forgetting?

I think this is the reason why we are drawn to people in the same phase of life as us... some of my closest friends have children (more than one) and their kids are around my kids' age. Because, we as a species also LOVE to hear "I totally hear you".

Minnesota Matron said...

Apt! Deft! I totally agree with the metaphor of going to another country: parents, nonparents or Veteran/nonveteran etc. There are some transformative and all-encompassing experiences that change us, distinguish us from others.

I think there is a smugness there because as a parent, you DO know things that a nonparent doesn't.

But the flip side might be what the nonparent gets that we can't imagine. People ask if I can imagine my life without children. Yes I can! It would be a rich, rewarding, busy and full life! I don't think raising children is the defining act of my lifetime, or at least I hope it's not.

Do you?

If children is THE defining act of an adult life or THE most important thing you can do, what does that do to your relationship with your children? Do they become products? Projects? Extensions?

All too often I think there's just too much focus on those kids and not enough on adult land. Then there's disappointment after disappointment and tension all around -- and the grown-ups lose interest in the big adult world and sometimes the ability to talk about anything whatsoever at all.

JMC said...

I think your theory is pretty damn close. Enough so that I can't think of anything to add.

skiplovey said...

When talking to non parents I make a point of prefacing any story about my kid with "every child is different" so as not to seem like I know everything/anything and that they as parents would probably have different experiences. Plus I tend to highlight the more positive aspects when talking to non parents. Why? Because I want my friends to have kids and bombarding them with a bunch of horror stories is not going to convince them.

When I'm with my mom friends, we do gab and complain about this and that but it's usually pretty minor. Mostly it's "has your kid done this?" kind of stuff. I think it gives you a sense of "Ok I'm not the only one having one of those kind of days" which makes most people feel better. Knowing that you are having a shared experience lessens to some extent some of the stress, like "if everyone else can do it then so can I."

I decided before I had a child that I would not be one of those people that reveled in the kid horror stories, mostly because they annoyed me and also, why have kids if you're going to be such a complainer. Now that I have a child I realize that some complaining can come with the territory but I really try to keep it to a minimum. Especially after seeing some of the devil children other moms have to contend with, mine is actually a pretty mellow fellow and for that I'm darn lucky.

jen said...

I have no idea. Usually, like another poster says, I get the opposite. People tell me "oh I bet you can't wait to leave them with grandma" Or "how can you DO that all day?" or other things that are basically the same as saying "boy, they're really irksome, aren't they?" THAT bothers me. I like my kids, I try not to sound like I'm complaining about how sucky my life is... but I was thinking the other day how BORED we'd be with life, and ourselves, if we didn't have kids. So I'm useless. I was also the first person to really have kids. Only one of my friends had a baby before me. One left that doesn't have kids, and she's always saying dumb things that only non-parents think are funny. Things that non-parents repeat that they heard somewhere, that are funny to them, but wouldn't be funny if THEY had a beloved child!

Holly said...

Okay, I think most of the theories are pretty good. I think the thing that bugs me the most about this phenomena is that when we say out loud those things, we are breeding negativity. Yes, kids are a mess! Yes, they throw up at inopportune moments! But are we really so miserable that we would complain about them to our friends? Would we do the same thing with a different group of friends? Complain about the childless friends? Or whatever.

I guess, for me anyway, this is just one more symptom of our me-me-me culture and one more way we bring kids up who don't have the kind of self-confidence they'll need to make good sound decisions (if you are willingly badmouthing them to your friends, certainly you let off annoyed vibes in their presence as well).

Thank you for this thought-provoking post on a day when we are trapped inside due to weather and my precious ones were caught in a lie about whether they'd actually cleaned the playroom, then the most precious one cut her sister's hair! While they were cleaning! Yes, my angels (said totally tongue-in-cheek this afternoon) have pushed me this morning. But, BUT, I love them and I realize they are going to act like children on occasion. And so, I can chuckle - mostly because of this whole nonsense about parents being smug (I'm sure I must have been guilty of this at one time or another)... a reminder that my life is much more enriched and happy because I have my children in it.

Maybe if we focused instead on the blessing and laughter that comes from them, instead of all the things that go wrong, we wouldn't be so unhappy as parents.

annenahm said...

Your theory seems about right. Back in the eighties, there was that bumper sticker that said something like:

Stress: Squelching the desire to choke the living shit out of some asshole who deserves it.

I think there are shocking moments of parenting that might have a similar definition - as everyone says, parenting is very stressful.

I think a lot of us can only allude to the horror of facing our own inner monster while focusing on the smug secret that we were there and resisted.

Or maybe I am just talking about me. Which, PS: All my kids continue to live.

LA & BD said...

I am a young, married w/o children, and I have to say that I really enjoyed this post and the comments.

To me these conversation used to sounds like "I just chopped off my big toe! It HURT, and BLED, and now I'll WALK FUNNY FOREVER! Wait, what? You don't want to chop off your toe, too? What's wrong with you? You don't know what you're missing!"

As I get closer to the feeling that yes, I do want to have kids, I can appreciate these conversations more from a full-disclosure point of view. So, although I can't fully comprehend either the good or the bad parts of parenting, at least I know going in that it's neither all sunshine and flowers OR all a big suck-fest.

Plus, I figure it can't be ALL bad or else there would be a whole lot more one-child families.

Thanks again for a great post! ~LA

Bea said...

This reminds me of when I moved to Winnipeg. When they realized that this would be my first experience of Winnipeg winter, all the native Winnipeggers just grinned very smugly and gleefully and said "You'll see." I figured they were entitled.

Blogversary said...

I don't think everyone has that smugness to them.

But, there is a sense of pride in raising children because it is HARD WORK!!

I think the bigger pictures is that if we get stuck in the negative talk pattern that it is addictive.

I think those that go on and on about parenting to non parents just need to take a breath and ask themselves if are simply feeding THEIR EGO by talking or actually helping the non parent.

Mairzy said...

I've fallen down somewhat on my own resolution, but I remember when I found out I was pregnant for the first time, I decided I would play up the positives of parenting. I did find that when I emphasized the positives, people assumed I didn't suffer from the negatives as well... so maybe I'm not quite as relentlessly upbeat as I started out being. I like sympathy, after all.

We're very quick to notice the bad parts of life, while taking the good parts for granted. Plus, as you said, we love to one-up others.

Also, it's so very easy to describe the throwing up, the tantrums, the demands, the drive-you-up-the-walls. But who can explain the depth of love you have for these little people? Who can describe why it's as amazing a joy to hear your thirdborn try to pronounce "horse" as it was with your firstborn? You can't really describe it because it's so hard to understand yourself: that you helped create a new person, and that new person needs you and loves you, and you'll never, ever stop loving her or him. You end up just sounding sappy.

At least if you're complaining you can be funny about it.

Jenny said...

As another childless person with nothing but friends with babies, I hear these converstaions ALL THE TIME.

I'm not sure I can make a coherent point but I think maybe some of the talking that parents do is also due to the fact that birth, motherhood, and parenting in general are not honored or validated enough in our society. So people share their battle wounds just to be recognized.

Also, childless people do their own version of this. I do not share all the details of my nights out followed by lazy weekend mornings with coffee and the newspaper, followed by brunch somewhere nice, where we discuss, gee what should we do today with my friends with small children. I am more likely to tell them about how, no, I'm still not pregnant, trying to conceive is really hard, etc.

What I REALLY hate is when I get some kind of, "Oh you guys are so spoiled" attitude from freinds with kids when we get to travel or remodel the basement or whatever. Can't we just all validate eachother's choices? Yes, we can travel or remodel, but both of us are working. And all those joyous "I love you mommy' moments that you get to enjoy that you never tell us about, we DON'T get to have those.

Great post, Swistle. I love reading all of these responses.

LoriD said...

Part of the smugness is also a peception problem receiver's end. Even with my closest friends, I felt out of place during child-rearing discussions. I'm pretty sure they did not mean to be smug, but wanted to somehow include me in the conversation, hence comments like, "these stories are good birth control for you, Lori".

My friend reports feeling the same way when she was the first to get married and have kids and the rest of us would be yakking about dating or new jobs or something that was relevant to our stage in life, but not hers. To her, there was a certain smugness to us saying to her, "you're so lucky you don't have to deal with these things."

So I guess my theory is that in any given group of friends there will be people in different stages of life. The ones who are not part of the majority for the group feel a little out of place and perceive their friends efforts to draw them in as smugness. Sometimes, anyway.

Astarte said...

How on earth did you have time to come up with all that while chasing around all five kids?! I agree with you entirely. On other thing I think is that people, especially SAHMs, are looking for is validation that our life choices are, in fact, challenging, and worthwhile of respect. It's childish, like a 'look what I can do!' thing, but there it is. I've been trying more and more to just keep my mouth shut unless I have something positive to add, and I've noticed that it's actually making me feel better.

Astarte said...

One other thing - don't think that people without kids (or someone to care for, like an aged parent or something) are selfish, but they are generally more self-centered, just by virtue of not having someone else that they HAVE to focus on. That's not a bad thing, just a difference; they have the ability to focus their lives' directions on what they personally want to do and where they want to live, rather than having to worry about a dependent.

Elizabeth said...

I feel like there's this weird expectation - I think we get social cues that people want to hear the bad stuff. I know I would feel really weird gushing on to anyone about how much I love my child or how amazing it is to be a parent. I'd feel very patronizing and over the top. I don't know if that's right or not, but I just can't imagine someone asking how it's going and me saying "I just adore the little guy", for some reason. That seems smug to me. So because I can't talk about how crazy I am about a my kid, I switch to jokey negative stuff as a default way of talking about my baby.
But I will say I don't sit around with groups of parents and bitch or wax on about my baby - when I get around someone my own age, I'd much rather talk about something besides my kid. I'm with him all freaking day, for god's sake, I want to talk about Britney Spears.

Farrell said...

As far as the "You can't POSSIBLY understand" and then explaining it thing? Yeah, that annoys me too. But I think that is a result from the fact that unfortunately in my experience (and I hate that I am saying this), there aren't that many people out there capable of EMPATHY. I don't know if that makes sense.

Melissa said...

Bingo! You nailed it girl!

Farrell said...

also, people tend to want you to join "their club." This was a seinfeld episode i think. So married with children friends want you to join their club so you can all complain about children together; married people want non-marrieds to join their club so the husbands can bitch about the wives together and therefore "bond" and the wives can bitch about their husbands together and therefore bond. human nature i guess. perhaps just not the best of it. it could all go back to "like attracts like." and the "we have common interests/similar circumstances" type of thing. Except of course, you don't, because each marriage is different, each child is different....

Carolyn said...

For folks who wait for years to become a parent, as I did, these discussions can be especially hard. It is frustrating to hear, "You'll see when you're a parent," or "You won't be able to go out to a concert once you have a baby," when another month has gone by and you are no closer to motherhood.
Now that my daughter is home, this is a good reminder to not be too negative.

Penny said...

I think it's mostly because it's easier to make a joke out a hard thing to talk about it seriously.

And it's also easier to be smug about a thing that kind of bit you in the ass more than you thought than to be humble about the thing that did so.

Leah said...

On the nose! People are insecure while at the same time being show-off know-it-alls. CONFLICTED!

the new girl said...

I love this post and these comments. What a great discussion. I think you're theory is a good one.

I think that the thing about knowing it's going to be hard and then being 'surprised that it's so hard' is an interesting point. I feel like it's a difference between 'knowing' cognitively and 'experiencing' emotionally. I mean, I think everyone can 'imagine' that it's traumatic to be in a plane crash but if you're actually IN one, there are so many aspects to your experience that you couldn't really fully imagine. At least that's how becoming a new parent was for me.

I am in the camp that believes that you don't have to experience the EXACT SAME THING in order to understand what I'm going through (all our experiences are so individual anyway) however, there are some things that are more 'short-hand' to other parents. (I think this goes for all your other examples too, Swistle.)

I really don't do the smuggy thing and part of it is because I am such a late-comer to parenting that I've had my FILL of that and am keenly aware of it.

I also vowed to talk about something other than my kid's sleep, bathroom patterns, teething, outfits, etc. I always try to make sure to ask about the PERSON TO WHOM I'M TALKING.

Until I talk to my sister. And then we each talk about our respective child's sleep, bathroom habits, nap-time...blah blah.

the new girl said...

P.S. Wait. Did I just compare my entry into parenthood with a PLANE CRASH??

My bad.


CARRIE said...

Love the topic.

I like to wonder about what parenting was like 150 or 600 years ago. Did parents complain then like we do now? Does having birth control and parenting seemingly being a "choice" have something to do with it? Is our complaining and then "recovery" only because of how we are socialized (movies, books, tv, magazines making parenting a rose-colored experience?).

Does any of our complaining have to do with how isolated families are now...no living in villages with extended families so we talk about how hard it is since we can't witness other people experiencing how hard it is (and therefore understand that our experience is not unique)?

My brain is too addled by the rigors of mommying to do anything other than wonder and ask questions.

may said...

Excellent topic, excellent comments, and good points, Carrie. I was just talking to my husband the other night about how I'm with my (almost) 9 month old son ALL THE TIME (I stay home with him, am still mostly nursing, and don't pump... I've seriously been away from him for maybe 3 hours since he's been born - not counting sleep, of course). Anyway, I was wondering if this is healthy or unhealthy, and whether this is unusual compared to other moms nowadays or compared to most cultures throughout history when several generations helped raise kids together. The things we experience in our 3 person family seem new and epic and crazy, but if we were raising our son along with older generations of my family, we would know what is and is not normal (and I'd probably have more breaks!). Anyway, a bit unrelated, but it's definitely interesting to think about how our culture affects our parenting.

Swistle, I do think you're right. In our culture, complaining is our way of sharing about ourselves without seeming quite so "Look at ME!" - and like a lot of people have noted, you can be funny, which is the number one way of being accepted by peers. (Which is one of the reasons you have so many readers - A+.) I, too, HATE the smugness, and I don't want to be like that at all, so I try not to talk about my kid, but because he's still really little, everyone asks me questions about him! It can be really annoying when I'm in a gathering and like 8 people ask me what my kid is eating or if he's sleeping through the night or if he's crawling yet. It's like a contest, and they're making sure he measures up to some weird standard in their head. Man, that's annoying. Plus, I don't want to seem like he's all I talk about. But I can understand it because it gives people an "in" - they can share their stories, too. (I first noticed this when I was pregnant - "How are you feeling? Do you have morning sickness? Is it a girl or a boy? WELL, let me tell you MY story!")

On an even less related note (but hey, it's late, so what the heck), I've noticed that there are two differing views of children in our culture:
1. Children are amazing little bundles of joy and love and bunnies and rainbows, just as they are, and we must not squelch their wonderful little spirits. They must be worshiped! They must have everything their pure little hearts desire! We must only talk about our wonderful, delightful children! Adultland no longer exists!
... and
2. Children are a pain in the ass, and you're on crack if you want them. And what? Stay at home mom? Your life is a joke.

I think there needs to be more of a balance. Kids are wonderful, yes, but they aren't perfect as they are and need parents to train and guide them. Yes, they can be a pain in the ass, but training children is clearly an important (and difficult) job, and moms (...and I guess dads) should be respected for what they do.

To completely overgeneralize and probably piss people off, I think lots of parents fall into the first category, while non-parents (who have chosen to be non-parents, that is) are often in the second. And people keep trying to prove the validity of their choice to have or not have children to everyone else, so they become more firmly entrenched in their camp - you know, like the smug super-annoying mom who is All About Her Children and Cannot IMAGINE Life Without Baby vs. the smug non-parent who always looks hot and skinny and gets weekly manicures and makes stay at home moms feel frumpy and behind the times.

I should probably never again comment when it's this late at night. My brain is officially fried, and I'm afraid to reread this in the morning.

may said...

Wow, I just saw how long that was and even I don't want to read it.

Saranne said...

Great topic! It was 10+ years of married life before our son was born and I heard many of the "oh you wouldn't understands." Especially from my sis-in-law, blech! I think that it comes down to respect. Respecting others enough to realize that just because they haven't experienced parenthood firsthand, they may still have valid input/advice/feelings. Also respecting your children enough to not share (kvetch about) their shortcomings. My mom would share embarassing and negative stories about my siblings and I when we were growing up and it made me feel undervalued and at times unloved. I want to show more love and respect for my children as well as my spouse by keeping the negatives more private.

Linda said...

Don't some of us just have an f-ed up sense of humor? After years of working in an emergency department and now a critical care unit, I cope by making inappropriate jokes. It's fun to joke about running away to work at a winery in Italy or to ask my husband, "Have you tried SHAKING her?" when he's comforting a crying baby.

We both know we're kidding, but maybe some of that inappropriateness leaks out around other people who just stare at us, aghast, and wonder why anyone would ever want to become parents.

Erin said...

I've wanted to comment on this post for a whole day. But my damn kids wouldn't leave me BE so I could get back on the internet. Parenting seriously gets in the way of my blogging.


Ok, so I think we're being a little hard on each other (and ourselves) here. I don't think there's anything complicated going on here. We all like a good story. We all like to feel understood.

Complaining from other parents doesn't annoy me. The parents who I look up to and value have a good mix of positive and negative; honesty & appreciation regarding their experiences.

Pann said...

(ok, sorry I haven't actually read through any of the comments.)

But I think a BIG part of any new parent's bitching-coupled-with-smugness is related to their own insecurity about parenthood.

There is much to process and digest about parenthood, and so much complaining is good to get out in the open. But yeah, they feel really weird complaining about something they probably love in some way.

"hardest job you'll ever love"

But feeling like they've betrayed their kids (by complaining) and alienated their childless friends (by going on and on and on about being a parent) they then find themselves saying dumb stuff out of all the insecurity that they feel (and don't even realize most of the time) plus, yes, you correctly point out the CONFLICT.

My advice? Childless couples: please don't take it personally. New parents are sleep-deprived, emotionally raw, confused people who have to navigate new waters on very little sleep. They might say dumb stuff. It's not about you, it's about them.

Honestly, most of the time that ANYONE's skin is crawling from someone else saying something dumb, it's probably THEM and not YOU. Insecurity is worth a whole SERIES of posts on Dumb Things People Say.



Kathryn said...

Ugh, this is something that has been bothering me quite a bit in the last few years, as my brother-in-law has had 3 kids and added another through marriage. His kids are generally sweet, and I do adore them, but whenever I express the slightest feelings of maybe being a little bit tired of dealing with children running through the house screeeeeching at the top of their lungs, etc., it suddenly turns into this very smug, "Oh, well, you're obviously just not ready to have kids."

Uh. No. I am obviously just a person who does not enjoy screeching, stampeding children. I don't mean to make it into a "Well, when I have kids, they won't behave that way" sort of thing, but I honestly feel like not liking screeching doesn't necessarily translate to not being ready to have kids. Hell, my mother never liked screeching or stampeding, and she did a perfectly fine job having kids.

Not that I even WANT kids at this point, but I just get so friggin' irritated by this smug attitude that there is something I am just not ready to understand yet about the wondrous joy that is an out of control child.

Or, for example, the time when my husband dared suggest that maybe our 6-year old nephew should be wiping his own ass by now, instead of calling for his father to come do it. Again, we were told that we have a lot to learn before we can be parents. The hell?

Ugh, this is making me angry just thinking about it, and part of me wants to have a spite-child, just to show them that I can do it and be better at it than they are.

Swistle said...

Kathryn- Behavior aside, I don't like other people's kids. I clearly like having children, and yet other people's still make me tired and crabby. So that's dumb, what he's telling you about it meaning you're not ready.

desperate housewife said...

Commenting AGAIN to say that Kathryn's BIL sounds like a total Smug Married. You'll know when you're ready, and it has nothing to do with enjoying SCREECHING CHILDREN. Only people ON CRACK enjoy screeching children. Just because parents are used to it and can tolerate it to an extent in no ways means we are some special sort of people who are not annoyed by it. What crap.

Don Mills Diva said...

I really like your theory. It bugged me to no end before I had children but just the other day I had to stop myself from talking that way to a childless couple...it was almost instinctual...

Me said...

Because parenting is hard, and when you are with friends, you feel it's a safe place to share your hardships. Hopefully you can balance those complaints with fun, lovely stories, too, but if you can't, you suddenly realize that the childless person is horrifed and that remark about scaring them away from having children is a way to close the dark-humor of the situation. The fact is that life is much harder and much more complicated when you are raising a family. Couples that don't have kids *DON'T* get it. Maybe I have been guilty of smugness in the face of someone asking me why I never show up at happy hour, or if I've seen this movie or that, of why I always bail out on get-to-gethers... because I have a TODDLER. My life is on the backburner in many, many, ways. And that's a choice I made, and in most ways, I love that choice, but it's a set of sacrifices. And then with smugness I might say: WAIT TIL YOU HAVE CHILDREN.

Kali said...

For me, I think it is more a case of being a survivor. People who go through a traumatic experience are encouraged to talk about it to reduce the toxicity of it. Well, being scared shitless because your baby (infant or teenager) is screaming, obviously in pain, and there is nothing you can do because you have already been to the doctor, had the stitches, and the pain meds appropriate to her body size and age are not working yet...or it's an ear infection that has you up all night. This overwhelming feeling of helplessness definitely qualifies as a "traumatic event."

I love my children dearly and take great joy in pride in all they are and do. I still wanted (desperately!) 10 minutes of quiet so I could think through an entire sentence.

Great dialog here. Thanks!

Jen said...

there were a few commenters who have already said this but just to validate them...or myself...whatever.

sometimes i default to making jokes about barf or hair-pulling or whatnot because it's still hard for me to talk about being a mom. we tried for a long time to get pregnant and now that we have our girl, it's so overwhelming in that inexplicably good, makes-you-well-up, heart-exploding way.

i can't talk like that and be cool, you know?

especially with someone who doesn't have kids and isn't as enamored with the idea as i was/am - it just comes across as gushing and regardless of how much i might MEAN it, it sounds a little too stepford when i try to put it into words. so then i'm back to talking about the challenges of poop and milk spraying and so forth - because that's accessible.

i was also hypersensitive to the "you'll see" kind of smugness when we were trying to get pregnant. i always attributed it to my issues with fairness - as in getting pissed off when things "weren't fair" according to my rules - and the fact that many of the people who were smug didn't deserve kids in the first place. (oh i know - that's an awful thing to say. i have issues.)

anyway, getting my insides all tangled up THEN makes me extra-careful about what kind of spin i put on my experience now - all 8 months of it - because i never want to make someone else feel as less-than as i did then.

great topic - thanks for reading if you made it to the end of this comment. :)

Kathryn said...

Swistle and Desperate Housewife, thanks for understanding. Deep down I know you guys are right, but when I'm confronted with his smugness, I just turn into an angry, blathering idiot.

As an aside, my mother agrees with you, Swistle, and every time I complain about b-i-l's attitude, she reminds me that it's different when it's your own. (She might just be trying to get some grandkids out of me, though.)