What are Parents Really Juggling? This Emotional Life - PBS

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    Thomas Bradbury, Ph.D.

Thomas Bradbury, Ph.D.'s Bio

Dr. Bradbury studies how intimate relationships develop and change.

What are Parents Really Juggling?


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A parent’s love for a child surely is one of nature’s great treasures.  Our very sense of who we are is transformed irrevocably when we become parents, and the deep affection we feel for our children provides them with the security and confidence they need to thrive at all stages of life.  So great is this treasure and so strong are these feelings that the vast majority of parents routinely and willingly make all manner of sacrifices for their children.

And therein lies a problem:  Paradoxically, parents’ day-to-day experiences of parenthood are often fraught with frustration.  Something IS sacrificed, and parenthood is not without real costs.  Parents unquestionably revel in times of great delight, yet these times are leavened with, and even overwhelmed by, tension, disputes, worry, and even outright anger.  These difficult emotions must somehow co-exist with the feelings of pride, devotion, and love that virtually all parents cherish.

Psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and colleagues illustrated these daily costs of parenting by using what they call the “Day Reconstruction Method” with about 1000 employed women.  This DRM asks respondents to report on the sequence of events that occurred the previous day – quick breakfast, get kids ready for school, drop kids off at school, commute to work, meeting with client, or whatever the events might be – to then estimate the times when transitions between events occurred, and to report on a dozen or so positive and negative emotions experienced in each of these activities using a 6-point scale.

Aggregated over all of the women (average age:  38; average household income: $54,700), here is the emotional signature of some of the various daily activities.  The most positive emotions occurred during Intimate relations (at 5.10 out of 6), followed by Prayer and meditation (4.35), Watching TV (4.19), Preparing food (3.93), Taking care of children (3.86), Computer/ email/internet (3.81), Housework (3.73), Working (3.62), Commuting (least positive at 3.45).

And what generates the most negative emotions?  Working, at .97 (out of 6), Taking care of children (.91), Commuting (.89), On the telephone (.85), Computer/email/internet (.80), and Shopping (.74).

Many parents will not be surprised to see that, when it comes to the experience of positive emotions in the flow of daily life, children rank below preparing food and just above working on the computer and doing housework.  And within the set of events generating negative emotions, children rank high on the list, producing feelings that fall between those experienced during work and commuting. 

(Many parents will also see that these events do not happen independently of one another; sometimes taking care of children happens while we are shopping AND on the telephone, after all, making all of these tasks more trying.)

Other studies round out this picture. Parenthood tends to make people more distressed than happy, for example, and women on average become happier in their marriages when children leave the home. 

The interesting point here is not that the immediate emotional experiences associated with children are similar to those produced by meal preparation (on the positive side) and commuting (on the negative side).  The interesting point is that we tend to have these emotions while also holding more general feelings of great love and pride for our children.  All of us parents manage to hold globally positive beliefs about our children, and to gain meaning and a sense of purpose from this relationship, while undertaking a slew of childcare activities that test our patience and, sometimes, our sanity.  This is what we as parents juggle.    

Knowing about these two distinct streams of emotional experience, what is a smart parent to do?  Here are three practical implications.

First, recognize that you have a kind of a firewall inside of you that allows you keep the globally positive and the specific negative experiences separate.  Maintain this firewall by not allowing your  momentary frustrations to engulf the more encompassing feelings of affection that you have for your child.  This is not the same as saying “Don’t get frustrated.”  Instead the point is to keep those feelings of frustration contained in your mind, so your feelings of love and affection are not compromised or eroded. 

Second, build up the globally positive feelings, even if this only means taking a moment every day to reflect on how your children enrich your life. Find a way to take pride in what you have been able to accomplish as a parent.  (In fact, this might brighten up your less-than-pleasant commute …)  Expanding upon these positive feelings may not be easy -- you may have a special needs child, for example, or your child may be going through a difficult developmental period, or you may not be happy with yourself as a parent – but in this situations it is all the more essential that you see that spark or smile that makes your child so special. 

This brings us to a third suggestion:  reach out.  If you have a partner or spouse, recognize that juggling these two streams of emotion is part of his or her daily experience.  Help him or her to achieve this, for example, by actively reflecting on how your children are changing and growing, on one hand, or by finding ways to lighten the load that all those frustrations can create.  Initiate this conversation with your partner, and do the chores that need to be done.  (This tends to be a more important recommendation for men, who tend to do less of the daily chores and childcare, on average.)  Doing so can only tilt the balance of emotion in the right direction, for you and your partner.  If you are a single parent, or if your spouse is deployed or otherwise unavailable, find someone – a family member, another parent – with whom you can discuss both your joys and frustrations.

Finally, find times -- when you are saying goodnight to your child, when she is strapped in to the car seat or in the grocery cart, or when you are giving him a bath – to tell your child how important he or she is to you, or how proud you are of him or her.  Create the moments now that you want your child to remember in those difficult moments that he or she may well encounter as a parent in the future.