A while back, I found myself chatting at a cocktail party with a much older man, a very distinguished and well-known attorney. He had had children late in life, so I asked him how he was enjoying fatherhood. He gave a long rueful sigh and said, "Well, you know it's a lot better now that they are 7 and 8 and can have an actual conversation. When they were smaller, it was just tedious being around them. All you do is roll the ball, roll the ball, roll the ball." I laughed out loud because anyone who has spent an afternoon trying to entertain a very young child knows that it can be incredibly boring and repetitive. I was also surprised by his candor.
Of course, you would rarely catch a mother making such an admission. And the mother is more likely to be spending larger chunks of her time rolling the ball, rolling the ball, rolling the ball. Now Helen Kirwan-Taylor of the Daily Mail has written an editorial entitled, "Sorry, but my children bore me to death!" (Thank you to the sharp-eyed reader who forwarded this to me.)
I think she is a little over the top in her expressions of a complete lack of interest in her children's activities (she makes it sound as though she is never interested in her kids), but she makes a number of important points:
I know this is one of the last taboos of modern society. To admit that you, a mother of the new millennium, don't find your offspring thoroughly fascinating and enjoyable at all times is a state of affairs very few women are prepared to admit. We feel ashamed, and unfit to be mothers . . . The trouble for a mother like me is that not being completely and utterly enthralled with, dedicated to and obsessed with one's children is a secret guarded, if not until death, then until someone else confesses first . . .
Psychotherapist Kati St Clair has listened to the frustrations of scores of mothers. 'Women now feel great pressure to enjoy their children at all times,' she says. 'The truth is, a lot of it is plain tedium. It's very unlikely that a mother doesn't love her child, but it can be very dull. Still, it takes a brave woman to admit that.'
I am not a mother, but I am concerned about the way motherhood is portrayed in our culture as the ultimate in joy and fulfillment. I believe that having a child can be a joyful and fulfilling experience -- but we ignore the downside at our peril, or at least at the peril of all those mothers out there who experience the downside and have no socially or morally sanctioned way of admitting that there is a downside.
I think kids are great. I have thoroughly enjoyed watching my niece and nephew grow up from earliest toddlerhood into the bright and engaging teenagers they are today. I was glad to reap the rewards of spending quite a few days playing endlessly repetitive games with my toddler niece -- but I only did it in small doses. I also got to pat myself on the back for spending my time doing a Good Thing and I got to bask in my niece's resulting hero-worship of me. But I have no hang-ups about admitting that a lot of my time with her when she was very young was mind-numbingly boring. But if you're the mother, and it's your kid, that's a lot harder to admit. You're supposed to find the experience of rolling the ball, rolling the ball, rolling the ball rapturously worthwhile as though it is the highest possible human calling. And that's gotta be a heavy load to carry.