“The way we think about our lives affects how we live them.”
KJ Dell’Antonia wrote these words in a recent post on her New York Times’ Motherlode blog. She was responding to a reader’s comment questioning why our generation of parents seems to complain so much. The reader isn’t entirely wrong (nor is he or she entirely right), and I am just as guilty of kvetching about child-rearing as the next guy. KJ ends the post by asking her readers to share what they love about parenting, which elicited some lovely responses.
I had other questions in mind.
First, why do we parents whine so much about parenting? I have several hypotheses:
We’re not whining more, we’re just whining more publicly. For millennia, parents (especially mothers) could bemoan the challenges of parenting to their village. Over time, we stopped raising children in villages and started raising them in split-level ranches with air-conditioners. As we shut the windows, we also learned to shut our mouths in favor of maintaining an illusion of perfect parenting. Many of us dealt with our struggles alone, and in pain. Then came the Internet and, more specifically, the blogosphere, and all of a sudden we had a village again. But this time it includes every person on the planet with a computer and internet access.
Misery loves company. (Especially when you’re a writer.) The reality is that sordid stories sell. (Try saying that one five times fast.) Dooce, the original Mommy blogger, got famous by talking smack about the company she was working for. And then she threw religious community under the bus. And then how motherhood literally drove her crazy and she ended up on a psych unit. She was wildly successful, at one point earning around $40,000 a month from her blog. On the other hand, I can’t name one writer or blogger who has made a living (or even a pittance) by talking about how well balanced, happy, and calm her life is.
Nobody wants to feel alone. For all the public whining that’s happening these days, many mothers still feel isolated, disconnected, and inadequate. Even though we know on some level that nobody is perfect, we can’t stop comparing ourselves unfavorably to those happy Mamas who keep posting pictures of themselves sweaty and smiling at the end of their latest marathon, or their children’s perfectly balanced bento boxes. We like to know we’re not the only ones who feed our kids Mac N Cheese straight out of the box and didn’t make it to yoga even once this week.
Other people’s happiness tends to make us feel worse. This is closely related to #3. The problem with living in the information age is that we know way too much about every single possible way to raise children, and we tend to assume that every one else’s choices are a critique of our own. Instead of rejoicing in our fellow mother’s success, we (and yes, I include myself in this dynamic!) tend to feel insecure and even ashamed. The reality is that few of us want to read about how great someone else’s life is, unless, of course, they can tell a fairly sordid story about how they got there.
We tend to notice the negative. This is not unique to parents. This is human nature. Our brains are programmed to pay attention to what went wrong, what might go wrong, and what we should be doing better. This is a crucial evolutionary development; if we didn’t notice that the stick was actually a snake, we’d probably get bitten. If we didn’t remember (and remember and remember) that the saber-tooth tiger ate our Aunt Janet, we might be more likely to try to pet the fuzzy guy the next time he came around.
Parenting is really hard. Now, I know this sounds like a bit of circular logic, but it’s also true. The reality is that parenting has always been hard. Even before we had dishwashers and horseless carriages, there was influenza and scurvy to worry about. Now we have to figure out how to manage the temptations of technology (for both our children and ourselves), constantly changing gender roles, a culture of busy that we can’t seem to escape, and an unknown future that we’re all scrambling to prepare our children for.
The next question, of course, is what do we do about this? How do we stop the perpetual whining? Or do we even need to do?
The reality is that there are a few benefits to talking about the challenges of parenting: we strengthen our friendships, we feel less alone in our struggles, and we might even learn some ways to make things easier. Of course, there is a significant downside to the frequent complaining, as KJ Dell’Antonia so aptly noted: the way we think about our lives does, in fact, have a significant impact on how we live them.
This is where the neurobiology and mindfulness stuff gets interesting. As we have come to understand, neurons that fire together, wire together. The more often we think a certain way, the more likely we are to think a certain way. And if we spend a good amount of our time and mental energy thinking about how hard and irritating and exhausting parenting is, our brains will be more likely to go to that negative headspace more often.
This doesn’t mean that we need to turn into Polyanna Parents. It would, however, behoove us to start paying attention to the Negative Nancys running around in our brains, and start to make some distinctions between the complaining that is skillful—perhaps because it helps us feel more connected, less burdened, more empowered, or more engaged—and the whining that leaves us feeling exhausted, stuck, confused, and just plain worse. As we pay attention to the voices in our minds, we can choose which ones deserve a little more airtime, and which ones we need to let go of.