Finding Happiness in Parenthood:
The Toughest, Most Fulfilling Job Ever
Picture two nine-year-old girls twirling a jump rope together. A third girl deftly leaps into the space vacated by the revolving cord and dodges it effortlessly as it skips by. The harmonious synchronization of bodies is amplified by the repetition of a simple, rap-like verse: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Jane with a baby carriage.” Although the girls pay little attention to the meaning of their words, they’re expressing a culturally dictated plan for their future. Love! Marriage! Parenthood! Even though in today’s world, the three don’t necessarily come in that order. Create the next generation and nurture it within the loving confines of the family. And in the process, enrich yourself, the parent, in the most unimaginable ways.
Separating and Individuating
The gradual psychological separation of children from their parents begins in infancy and at that time is a rather exclusive affair between infant and parent. The process of moving away and becoming more independent continues throughout early childhood. Take, for example, the toddler whose favorite word is “no” and who insists on feeding himself or herself, smearing as much as they may eat. During the elementary school years children spend much of the day with new adults and friends, have their own ideas about everything from clothes to sports teams, and begin to compare their parents with those of their friends. And if that’s not enough, here comes adolescence! During the years from twelve to twenty the psychological and physical separation from parents becomes boisterous, or worse, as the adolescent bursts out of the confines of the nuclear family to love and be loved by others.
The transition into adulthood is both exciting and anxiety-ridden. No longer as emotionally dependent on parents, the emerging young adult is alone, sheared of childhood attachments, but not yet involved with the same degree of intensity or depth with others. At first, this sense of freedom is joyous and liberating as each new experience brims over with the potential for excitement, adventure and pleasure. Consider the excitement of 21-year-old Jim, who had just finished his college final exams. He and a male friend (it could have easily been a female) were about to set out, like Lewis and Clark, to explore virgin territory. No pun intended. “I don’t know where we’re going. I don’t know when we’ll be back. And I don’t really care. It’s all new to me, and I’ve never met the girls who live out there.” Enjoy the moment, young man (or young woman) --the exhilaration, the freedom, the new you! For it is but a moment, a blink of the eye, before inexplicably, adventures lose their novelty. They even become tinged with loneliness and eventually are replaced with a desire for sustained closeness.
As the twenties tick away, this growing loneliness of young adulthood drives most young men and women to fill the void with relationships that plumb the depths of their being and reconnect them with the sense of total belonging they had experienced in early childhood. “I’m ready,” said 28-year-old Carol. “First I had to find out if I could take care of myself. I can, and I still enjoy looking at the hunks. That’s fun, but I want more—a husband, a home, kids, and permanence. My God, I’m getting old.”
Creating New Life—Awesome!
Father’s seed and Mother’s egg incubate inside the womb to produce the new life, which is their genetic extension. A decade or more in the future, the preprogrammed experience of puberty will make it possible for their child, now an adolescent, to repeat the cycle. (Hopefully, not too soon in adolescence!) Then, during the young adult years, men and women use their prime-of-life bodies to create new life, assume the parental role, and nurture the next generation.
Parenthood leads to fulfillment in adulthood, not only by confirming one’s sexuality and creating a new person to love, but also by providing a relationship within which the parent’s childhood, past, and adult present can be related and merged into a highly authentic sense of integrity. For example, by becoming involved parents, adults attempt to replicate the gratifying childhood experience of nurturance that they (hopefully) experienced when they were growing up. As they succeed, the god-like power to create new life is more fully realized and appreciated, both in regard to their own child, and, in retrospect, to their parents who were responsible for creating and raising them. The fusion of these two experiences provides a deep, fulfilling understanding of one of the most basic aspects of human existence, namely interdependence.
Further, as newly crowned King and Queen, benevolent rulers over a populace of one, young parents revel in the taste of total power over another human. Becoming royalty after a childhood of serfdom is a heady experience, which facilitates the reworking of the childhood feelings of having been passive and submissive. Then, just as the monarchs begin to settle in for a long reign, the active, increasingly presumptuous infant-become- toddler begins to rebel, chipping away at royal power and prerogative.
Young men and women often want to experience intimacy with their partner before becoming parents. In part, they long to recreate the loving relationship that they hopefully had with their own parents in childhood. Once the partners have become accustomed to the fact that they can’t be mother and father to each other, they continue the search for ideal closeness through parenthood. Together, they decide to take the next developmental step. When a pregnancy is planned, and it happens as planned, it is one of life’s greatest experiences. By consenting to have a child, the man psychologically assumes the role of a masculine protector. For him, his seed will no longer be wasted. For the prospective mother, her body will become an amazing vehicle for creating life.
When they are successful in becoming parents-to-be, they enter a fascinating new psychological and physical realm. Pregnancy adds a new, extremely gratifying dimension to sexual identity by confirming the integrity of their bodies. Their bodies are whole and fully functioning. Both can reproduce, replicate themselves and continue for another generation the genetic link with near and distant ancestors. After the birth of their child, each adoring glance of this new version of themselves enhances the sense of sexual completeness and stimulates the desire to nurture, together, this fragile new being who so quickly becomes an indispensable part of their lives.
“The plumbing’s in good shape,” said a young father-to- be upon learning that his wife was pregnant. His pride and satisfaction were expressions of the realization of his sexual potential, the culmination of his manhood. The amazing ability to create life is gratifying in the extreme for the mother-to-be as well. As the pregnancy proceeds and she begins to revel in the thumping of life inside her, she, too, experiences a profound transformation. Increasingly, her thoughts and feelings are directed inward, toward the other, toward the self, toward the duality she has become. As father stands by, participating as best he can, he is flooded with a multitude of feelings—pride in his wife and himself, awe in the presence of the creation of life, and envy of the shadowy competitor for his wife’s affections whose most threatening act is the occasional thrusting of arms and legs from behind an impenetrable abdominal shield. And I must add, sooner or later during the pregnancy, unborn Eric or Jan, even before they are out of the womb, will begin to interfere with his sex life. Slowly, he comes to realize the limitations of his power and his sex. And, for the first time, he truly begins to appreciate the amazing capabilities of the female body.
When she breaks through the confines of the uterine world, bursting upon the scene, this product of the parents’ union becomes tangible, palpable, unbelievably soft and irresistible. Two becomes three; the dyadic existence of the parents is instantly shattered forever. As friends and family admire their work and their prowess -- we don’t give out cigars for nothing -- a dramatic shift occurs in both new parents. They have gone through a developmental progression from sexually immature children to sexually mature adults, from independent adolescent and carefree young adults to responsible parents. “You can have fun with a son, but you gotta be a father to a girl,” said Billy Bigelow in the musical, Carousel, as he slowly recognized his new role.
When a couple becomes parents, a family is created whose structure is identical to that of their childhood families. The circle is complete. The childhood role is reversed. The former children, now glorying in the robes of parenthood, minister to their creation. Meanwhile, their own parents, just outside the circle, watch, admire, and begin to revel in a most extraordinary new form of love, grandparenthood.
Thirty-five-year-old June waited until her career was well established before having children. During BC years (before Caroline), professional travails and ambitions consumed her waking hours. During the course of our therapeutic relationship, I watched in awe, as her daughter became the dominant force in her life. “I can’t believe how much I need her,” June said. “I go to work reluctantly, and I miss her desperately by mid-morning. My mother is worse than me. She calls every day and is talking about moving to California to be near Caroline, not me, you understand. I’d like that, but I’m afraid I’ll have to battle Mom to get my hands on the baby.”
Parenthood is power! It is domination and control over another who initially is relatively helpless, passive, and dependent, but by the second year of life frequently doesn’t comply with parental expectations. Stimulated by an intense sense of involvement with their child, parents response to the child’s surge toward autonomy with both loving and aggressive feelings. In healthy parents, the aggression is sublimated into consistent, tempered limit setting. In pathological circumstances, the result is child abuse. In a similar fashion, loving feelings are expressed through nurturing care or can be destructive in unbridled form in sexual over-stimulation.
The magnetic pull of the child reactivates polarities in the parents from their own childhoods. Memories of gratifying fusion with parents and painful separations from them, of the exercise of raw parental power and sensitively controlled parental responses, are re-experienced both consciously and unconsciously. As these polarities are repeatedly thrust upon Mom and Dad by their increasingly independent offspring, memories from childhood fuse with experiences as a parent and are reworked and mastered. The recognition, understanding, and enjoyment of this mutual process of developmental stimulation and enhancement—parent to child, child to parent—is one of adult life’s most intriguing, fulfilling experiences, a proven pathway to emotional health and maturity.
The Revolutionaries in Our Midst
Healthy toddlers are revolutionaries who attack parental power and prerogatives with impunity. The toddler’s relentless drive for autonomy and independence as characterized by the use of the word “no,” temper tantrums and refusal to eat any food he or she doesn’t like, continually challenges parental authority. This process of erosion continues throughout childhood and adolescence, concurrent with the parents’ young and middle adult years. As you read about this seemingly painful process, remember that the goal of parenthood is to produce a healthy late adolescent who is capable of becoming autonomous and creating a successful, independent life as an adult. This inescapable decline in authority and power prepares the parents for the painful development task of accepting the realization that all living things age and are eventually replaced by the young. This essential core concept of adult maturity and wisdom is, in part, an outgrowth of parental experience with the child’s drive toward autonomy and competence. These accomplishments gradually reduce the need for parenting and eventually make it entirely unnecessary.
Parent to Parent—Parity at Last!
Parenthood transforms the relationship with one’s own parents. The act of procreation not only confers parental authority but also entitles the new parent to the power, which was once the exclusive province of Mom and Dad. Parity at last! As the new parents raise their child, comparisons abound between their child rearing style and how their parents raised them. In my many years of experience as a child and adult psychiatrist, I have been continually impressed by both the feelings of confidence and self-criticism, which arise from such comparisons. “I’ll never get divorced like they did,” said a young father, still attempting to master the experience of growing up in a shattered family. “My mother did a much better job than I am,” said a young professional woman. “She never lost her temper. I do all the time. She also spent a lot more time with me than I do with my daughter.” On the other hand, such comparisons may reinforce the sense of connectedness and continuity between the generations as both define themselves in their new roles as parent and grandparent, particularly if the grandparents are actively involved in the lives of the younger generations.
Last, but not least, new parents derive a sense of satisfaction for giving their parents the priceless gift of grandparenthood, one of life’s greatest pleasures. As the source of so great a treasure, the young adults gain status and prestige for having provided their parents with a genetic continuity, which is vital to their late life development. This reversal of generational roles foreshadows the day in the future when the older generation may depend in part or completely on their children for support and sustenance.
Husband and Wife, Mother and Father—Increasingly Indivisible
They began as lovers, best friends, soul mates and eventually husband and wife. Now they have become parents, Mother and Father, caretakers of the young, the link between generations. As they work together, gradually over the years, their identities shift from lover to parent, their relationship cemented in this interlocking role in an increasingly indivisible way.
Thirty-one-year-old Tom entered therapy for work-related problems. But it soon became apparent that he had significant difficulty with intimacy. He constantly belittled his wife and resisted her desire to have children because he wasn’t sure he would remain in the marriage. As he worked on his conflicted feelings about his mother, his attitude toward his wife began to soften. Soon she was pregnant. As the pregnancy proceeded, Tom was amazed at the powerful feelings of protective tenderness toward his wife that repeatedly washed over him. When his daughter was born, he was once again surprised by his admiration for his wife’s ability to mother. “She’s wonderful with the baby. These two are my whole life now. What would I do without them? Remember when I used to talk about leaving her? We’re bound together forever now by our baby, and I love it.” If only this was the response of all fathers.
Prior to the advent of children, spouses are sometimes viewed somewhat narcissistically-- there for the exclusive gratification of one’s wants and desires. That illusion is shattered by the unmistakable love of your spouse for this awesome creature that you helped to create. As Sharon and Bill discussed their five-year-old daughter, Jennifer, with me, Sharon complained about Bill’s behavior. “He comes home in the evening and makes a bee line for Jennifer. I don’t get as much as a glance, let alone a kiss. He acts like a starry-eyed schoolboy. I’m invisible at the dinner table. She’s no better. All day it’s ‘Mommy, Mommy’ but once he’s home, I’m about as important as her brother.” Bill sheepishly rationalized that he got home late and only had an hour or two to spend with Jennifer before she went to bed. He would have time later in the evening for Sharon. “That’s what you think,” said the twice-rejected outsider.
Children light up their parent’s lives during their babyhood and toddler years. Then, like a wave quietly receding after spectacularly smashing on the shore, during the elementary school years, they begin to march away, out of the home, into a world full of new relationships, ideas, and excitement. As they do, parents experience the bittersweet loss of physical and psychological intimacy that they relished during the first five or six years of their child’s life. No longer needed to regulate eating, dressing, or bowel and bladder control, they lose domination of and access to their child’s body. “Stay out”, said seven-year-old John. “I can take my own bath.” Walled in by an increasingly powerful conscience, Johnny or Suzie’s minds are no longer an open book. They share fewer and fewer thoughts and feelings. Adding insult to injury, this caricature of a suddenly self-sufficient individual prefers to spend increasing amounts of time away from home -- at school, with peers, even with their friends’ parents.
As marching away proceeds, parents, particularly with a child of the same sex, continue to rework aspects of their own childhood past. Victor reveled in his son’s all-star status on his Little League team. Every cheer soothed his painful memories of an unsuccessful athletic past and allowed him to master aspects of this childhood trauma. “I’ve finally come to terms with who I was as a kid,” said Sally. “It wasn’t all pretty, and I wish a lot of it had been different. Every time I watch Judy succeed at something, I can’t help but make comparisons between how calm and wonderful her life is and how different mine was as a child. But my life is great now. Still, I think about the differences between my past and her present every day.” As the need for limit setting and parental guidance grows, a disquieting parental realization occurs. “I’m become just like my Father.” or “Did I really say that? My Mom used to say that to me all the time!” It’s another reminder that, as your kid is marching away, you’re marching toward midlife, the same age your parents were when they said such things to you.
Bursting Out of the Cocoon
Bursting out in all directions, physically mature adolescents demand increasing power and control over their lives. This sometimes rude awakening forces parents to mourn for the lost, malleable child and accept the presence of this physically and sexually mature, often obnoxious “stranger” in their midst who is constantly planning to replace them with others who are better able to gratify their erupting sexual and emotional needs. Eighth grader Jim was smitten with the best-looking girl in the class. At first, Mom and Dad thought it was cute when he said they were going steady -- his first crush, that kind of thing. But when Thanksgiving rolled around and the pair was still together and obviously more than friends, Mom and Dad became a little uncomfortable. Their Thanksgiving tradition was to host a huge family dinner with aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. Jim had always loved Thanksgiving weekend. But family bonding and the world as Mom and Dad knew it was changed forever when Jim, directed more by his erupting lower head than his upper one, asked if he could spend Thanksgiving weekend with Carol’s family. They were going to Las Vegas to celebrate Thanksgiving, and he was invited to go! “I REALLY want to go Dad!”
Family Transformations: Letting Go
Youthful vigor and the unchallenged control over young children go hand in hand. But so do the middle-aged awareness of physical decline and the inevitable loss of control of adolescent and young adult offspring. For many, the gradual shift in the balance of power between them is symbolized by a single event, seared in memory, undoubtedly embellished over time. Most parents and children can recall a “moment of truth.” The term is a reference to the climactic moment in a bullfight when the matador kills the bull by plunging his sword between the bull’s shoulder blades. For parent and child the moment may be physical or psychological. Although neither acknowledged it in words, father John and son Tom both knew when Tom “playfully” pinned his father against the wall—and held him there—that the moment had come. Sarah’s parent knew when she decided to live with her boyfriend despite their strong disapproval of premarital sex. “I’m going to, and you can’t stop me.”
Each developmental transition brings with it the prospect of change, sometimes of seismic proportions, and a re-ordering of relationships. The cultural anthropologist, David Guttman, after studying various cultures across the globe, eloquently described such a transformation. When the last child leaves home, relieved of the “chronic emergency of parenthood”, men tend to express qualities of nurturance and tenderness that were once relatively alien within themselves but valued in their spouse. By the same token, empty-nest mothers adopt some of the ascendant, competitive qualities more characteristic of fathers. As each becomes as the other used to be, the couple moves toward what Guttman calls the normal androgyny of later life. This so-called contra-sexual transition is, like fatherhood and motherhood, a quasi-universal event. As such, it usually precedes a developmental advance. Indeed, after some period of mental dislocation, most men and women do accommodate to the changes in themselves and their spouses and gradually direct the energies liberated by the post-parental reversal into new activities. They do not at the same time lose their identities as men or women. The result is often an expanded sense of self.
As sons and daughters traverse their twenties and thirties, the flat abs, tucked in tummies and flat bottoms of youth begin to fade and are gradually replaced by belly fat and sagging breasts and behinds. In addition, the “kids” are likely living independently, involved sexually and emotional with others, and relating to Mom and Dad primarily through birthday cards, weekend phone calls or occasional visits. The presence of these circumstances pushes the healthy parent-child relationship toward equality. But it is not, in and of itself, evidence that either parent or child has achieved the acceptance of equality.
Twenty-five-year-old Ron complained bitterly in his therapy that his mother, almost sixty, continued to treat him like a child despite the fact that he was self-supporting and lived three thousand miles away. Indeed she did. On a recent visit home to attend a family wedding, Ron proudly modeled the expensive new slacks and sports jacket he had purchased for the occasion. With a grimace, his mother dismissed them as “inappropriate” for the occasion. As the verbal fireworks that followed grew louder, Ron’s dad stepped between the combatants, as he always did, and encouraged his son’s compliance, which was always forthcoming. Ron easily recognized his mother’s inappropriate need to control and infantilize him but was unaware of his own ambivalent wish to remain dependent. During two years of psychotherapy, he recognized and accepted the fact that his parents had no control over him, which he did not give them. At first, his refusal to argue or agree produced furious maternal responses. But these were eventually replaced by a begrudging acceptance of a more equal relationship.
Wiser parents not only passively accept their young adult children’s wishes for independence and autonomy but also facilitate moves in that direction whenever possible. The motivation for such behavior is not entirely altruistic. Losing the battle, but winning the war, results in the attainment of an important position in the new family constellation, which is rising in the midlife sky.
Those New In-Laws (or Outlaws)
Mother-in-law jokes are not merely the wicked expression of sick humor; they are also reflections of a universal developmental conflict. As both generations struggle to separate and individuate from each other, the daunting task for the parents can be stated simply: gracefully give up the primary position of importance to your child to another. Then accept the interloper (unless he or she is severely deranged or criminal) and work to cultivate his or her friendship. Do this because it is the best way to continue to occupy a central, albeit less important, position in your child’s life and to form a new relationship with a hopefully interesting and enriching young adult who will control the doors of access to those miraculous extensions of yourself—grandchildren!
Because the spouse and the parent of the same sex love the same person, a triangle is created. Two is company; three is a crowd. Sharon had been in therapy with me for a couple of years as she worked through her son and daughter leaving home for college. When son Tim went to college, he immediately hooked up with a girl, and they remained together through the four years. Tim brought Shannon home on occasion and Sharon thought she was “OK, but I’m sure she’s a passing fancy.” Well, she wasn’t. When Tim announced that he and Shannon were taking jobs together two thousand miles away, Sharon erupted and confronted her son. How could he do such a thing when he had the opportunity for a good job closer to home? And what was so special about Shannon anyway? Some Moms take a long time to get it. I wasn’t very popular, either, as I tried to explain to Sharon that Tim was moving on, and his relationship with Shannon seemed serious. She might consider changing her approach, swallow her pride and hurt feelings, and try to embrace her likely daughter-in-law. As I write this, the last chapter in this extremely common saga hasn’t been written; but I’m betting that Sharon will do what’s best for all of them.
As she sank deeper and deeper into the mist of senility, eighty-six-year-old Lana ranted about her mother-in-law, dead over thirty years. Forced by tradition and economic necessity, she had begun married life in her mother-in-law’s home. With an incredible degree of raging anger, Lana said that she never forgot or forgave the real and imagined slights and criticisms, which she had endured over sixty years ago.
For other more fortunate individuals, the outcome of this triangle is joyous and lives are enriched by multi-generational love and caring -- a meshing of roles which result in fulfillment for all three adults who are involved. But even under the best of circumstances, the meshing of the new roles may produce tensions. For instance, the failure of young parents to recognize that their parents have other interests than themselves and their children can be a source of conflict between the generations. Some grandparents prefer intimacy at a relative distance rather than becoming regular babysitters.
For those who married relatively young and succeeded in launching their children without serious impediments, the later midlife years can be a time of freedom, pleasure and intimacy. For those who marry later or begin second families, the middle years are swept away by the challenging but fulfilling task of child rearing. For them, Guttman’s “chronic emergency of parenthood” stretches out into the foreseeable future, skewing the timetables for change suggested in this chapter but answering the question of what to do with the golden years. As one fifty-five-year-old new father put it, “I know what I’m going to be doing at seventy. I’ll be driving car pools, worrying about my daughter’s virginity and saving for college tuition. Can you believe it?” Yes, I can. It beats a rocking chair any day. He forgot to mention that his daughter would eventually be embarrassed by the fact that her father was so much older than her girlfriends’ fathers.
In their mid-fifties, Jean and Joel, still mourning the death of her mother, the last of their parents to die, were enjoying their bittersweet freedom as they planned for a much-needed vacation. With all their children married and living away and their parents dead, they were free, for the first time in their adult lives, of significant responsibility for others. They loved it, but it was a bit lonely at times.
I’ve described what it means to be a parent at many points throughout the lifecycle. I didn’t promise you a rose garden, and I did say in the title that being a parent is one of the toughest jobs in the world. I’ve had the great fortune to raise three children of my own, now on the verge of becoming empty nesters themselves, with Jean, my wonderful wife of 51 years. But in addition, in my fifty years as a practicing adult and child psychiatrist I’ve helped to raise many more children—and their parents. I also said in the book title that being a parent is one of the most fulfilling jobs in the world. It has been for me as a father and therapist, and I hope it is or will be for you, too.