The New Parental Cult of Complaining
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because parents complain — but sometimes, just like their kids, a little too much.
Everyone knows parents like to complain. Get a few together for wine and mac ’n’ cheese, and it’s like a group therapy session, where we discuss how many nights in a row we didn’t sleep or the last time we actually saw a movie in a movie theater. Stuff that’s fascinating to mothers like me — and lethally boring to everyone else.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat addressed this phenomenon in his recent column on parental whining, which looked at how modern 30-something parents can be caught off-guard by the almost medieval responsibilities of taking care of a newborn. While he chalks it up to shell shock after years of baby-free brunches and weekend getaways, I think this paints an unfair picture of life before kids, when many people are working their asses off to get ahead in their careers.
He is on to something, though, when he describes the challenges of new parenthood as medieval, with “duties that seem impossibly absolute.” Most Americans work incredibly hard and have full and stressful lives — whether kids are in the picture or not.
But no matter how many sitters you have on speed dial, parenting remains one reality where you can’t separate the joyful moments (cuddling, playing, bedtime stories) from the not so joyful (diapers, ear infections, 3 a.m. feedings). It’s sort of the pre-baby equivalent of having to fix your own plumbing. If your sink is clogged, you call your guy — but when your baby barfs up mashed peas in the middle of the night, it’s you, all you.
And that means that one of the great perks of parenthood is, when you’re buzzed off half a beer and hanging out with other parents, you can slide into the warm bath of war stories: the morning you had an important meeting and realized your shirt was inside out (that’s hypothetical). The time the entire family got the stomach flu, or, as my husband euphemistically put it, William’s ”spa weekend,” because we put our son in the tub 27 times in a 48-hour period.
Here’s where it goes wrong, though: When you start complaining, endlessly and creatively, to your Facebook friends. And, even worse, in person, to your friends who don’t have kids.
I still go into a shame spiral thinking of the times I have done this. One brunch, in particular, stands out, where it was a mix of parents and nonparents, and the incredibly riveting subject of sleep came up.
Immediately, I started talking about the 11 months it took for our son to sleep through the night, the 31 consecutive nights of sleep training, the weekends starting at 5:30 a.m. I saw the looks on my friends’ faces, sort of like the one Vince Vaughn gets talking to the girl with the cigar in Swingers , and yet I. Could. Not. Stop.
Yes, this look:
Sure, I was coming off a week of ear infections and I had all of the self-control of a sleep-deprived KGB political prisoner. But when parents throw themselves a pity party, it’s not only dreadfully uninteresting to other people, but it can also be insensitive.
New moms and dads often forget that their childless friends, whom they envy for getting to do radical things like see a 7 p.m. movie, could be struggling with finding a partner or starting families of their own.
But this new cult of complaining can’t simply be explained away by saying that parents are simply more selfish than they were a generation ago. I think it’s because we are more alone than ever. The village has floated away, and caring for a newborn can feel isolating and overwhelming, chained to impossible standards that dismiss lifesaving devices like, say, William’s snug-a-bunny swing, as neglectful parenting. Or studies that tell us not read on our iPhones while nursing but instead stare lovingly into our babies’ eyes while breast-feeding eight times a day. (C’mon.)
Jennifer Senior addresses this is in her excellent new book, All Joy and No Fun. Ferociously researched and funny, it looks at the complexity of raising children today, when parents have less help from family and neighbors but are also much harder on themselves. It’s no surprise that Senior’s book is flying off the shelves. It’s a well-documented affirmation that we need to cut ourselves a break.
American parents are in the middle of a long-overdue, collective venting session. But dear moms and dads, among all the wails and travails, let’s remember: Having a kid is awesome. I wouldn’t trade a major blowout for a three-hour brunch in a million years. A little complaining is totally OK. We just have to remember — just as with Dora and Calliou and Berenstain Bears — to turn it off.