Do Dads Hate Parenting?

The recent New York Magazine article “All Joy, No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting,” sparked a firestorm of debate on the Web, and a lively conversation among Tell Me More’s regular parenting contributors last week. Today it’s the dads turn to weigh in. The story’s author, Jennifer Senior and host Michel Martin talk with daddy bloggers Keith Morton, Jason Sperber and Paul Fidalgo about the work-life parenting balance.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their commonsense parenting advice. Last week we dug into the topic of whether parents hate parenting. The conversation was so hot, we decided to add another chapter today.

The conversation of course was sparked by the article "All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting." That story written by Jennifer Senior for New York Magazine - explored the latest research on parental happiness and it explored the question of whether children can actually bring as much stress and conflict to people's lives as they bring joy.

Last week we heard from our moms about it, but today we thought it was appropriate to bring the dads into the conversation. So I'd like to welcome daddy bloggers Jason Sperber who blogs at Rice Daddies, Keith Morton who blogs at African-American Dad. Here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio is Paul Fidalgo who blogs at Bloc Raisonneur. And of course joining us once again is Jennifer Senior. Welcome dads and mom.

Mr. JASON SPERBER (Blogger, Rice Daddies): Thank you very much.

Ms. JENNIFER SENIOR (Writer, New York Magazine): Thanks of having us.

Mr. KEITH MORTON (Blogger, African-American Dad): Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Jennifer, let's just recap the latest research on the role that parenting brings, or what - how parenting changes our happiness level. Just if you'd recap for us what you found out in your research. And I'd particularly like to ask about dads.

Ms. SENIOR: Ah, interesting. Well, according to the research, they're generally not as unhappy as moms unless they're single, then everybody's miserable. But on balance, children either have no effect on your happiness or compromise it. So some of the more interesting data points that I liked were the Nobel Prize-winning economist Danny Kahneman surveyed 909 working women in Texas and had them reconstruct their days and how much they enjoyed the things in them. And unbeknownst to them, once they were done with their evaluating, they had ranked childcare 16 out of 19 potential activities.

Other things, you know, all kind of family study stuff shows that marriage really goes south. That particularly the first five years adolescence is very hard. There is lots of evidence that suggests that with each successive child your happiness levels go down and that noncustodial parents are actually the least happy parents are actually the least happy parents of them all. Single parents have it rough. Is that a good (unintelligible)?

MARTIN: That's interesting. Yeah, that is very good. Let's ask the dads how they respond to this research. And Keith, why don't you start?

Mr. MORTON: Well, I think I've been approximately as happy as I've always been. I do think that with fathers we have a different level of pressure. I know I feel, like, a certain level of pressure as the provider for the family. You know, my wife works part time and I work full time so most of my salary is used for providing.

MARTIN: Paul, you wrote about this. You wrote about how difficult you found it to leave your son to return to work after your paternity leave. Talk a little about that. And how's your happiness in general?

Mr. PAUL FIDALGO (Blogger, Bloc Raissoneur): Well, my happiness is doing just fine, actually. And I would say that I'm happier with my boy around. He's seven months old now. His name is Toby and he's our first kid. And it has actually been a major transformation. And I don't mean to be Pollyanna-ish about this, but it really was kind of like a gene turned on and there were new levels of happiness that I had not experienced before.

Now, that said, it's obviously exhausting. It's obviously a lot of work. It's obviously very stressful. But when I put him down at night for bed or when I'm leaving for work that day, I feel a big sense of loss that he's not there. So for me, while I completely am sympathetic to the feelings of the people mentioned in the article, I don't experience it in the same way that I think it was described there.

MARTIN: Jason, what about you?

Mr. SPERBER: Well, I think I'm the only stay-at-home parent in the group and I think that on the whole I am happier. One of the interesting things in the article was this distinction between moment to moment happiness and overall looking backward kind of happiness and also happiness versus fun. And, you know, I was reading some of the examples and I guess maybe I was just, you know, a boring kind of geek or something but, you know, when, before we had children at age 30, we weren't going out every night. We were doing for fun the kinds of things we still do now, you know, having people over to eat, talking about pop culture, what have you.

And so, as a stay-at-home parent, I can completely understand and know where people in the article and the studies are coming from about, you know, moment to moment experiences of unhappiness because, you know, youre never going to be happy all of the time. But overall, I know that being a stay-at-home father to a five-and-a-half-year-old and a one-and-a-half-year-old is the most amazing thing that I could be doing right now.

MARTIN: Jennifer, I was curious about whether the research speaks to this question of why it is that dads were happier than moms. Single parents I think a lot of people get, the pressure of being both the provider and the caretaker, not having another adult who has as much of a stake in your child's life as you do. But do you have any sense of why it is that the dads on the whole ranked higher in the happiness scale than the moms?

Ms. SENIOR: Yeah, I do. It's a little banal, unfortunately. I mean, I think its that they spend less time with the child still.

MARTIN: Doing the boring stuff - the chores.

Ms. SENIOR: Right. And so, in several of the interviews I did with women, they would say when the kids are finally asleep and I'm sitting and I'm alone, I realize how happy I am. Its like, when they're away. It was so interesting that their way of thinking about their happiness was kind of once everything had calmed down. Also, men report more work-life imbalance than women do. So this whole anxiety about going back to work does make sense because, you know, youre also missing out on some of the good times, too.

MARTIN: Well, I think that's worth noting, though. You said that we often talk about work-life balance in the context of women feeling they are pulled in all directions. But what you are saying is that men increasingly feel that, too. In, fact, in some ways Jennifer, youre saying that they may feel it even more keenly than women report?

Ms. SENIOR: Exactly. That kind of blew my doors off. I thought that it would be the women who would be making this complaint but it's actually men, because they're afraid of being these kind of two-dimensional figures in their kid's lives. They actually want more time but, you know, still for reasons that we all know, its hard to be able to look and say, you know, I need to leave the office at five today, right? You know, its just not the same ball game.

If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with dads about what they love and hate about parenting. Our guests are Jason Sperber, Keith Morton and Paul Fidalgo. They all blog about being dads, and they also blog about work-life balance and fatherhood and so on.

Also with us is Jennifer Senior, author of the recent New York Magazine story "All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting."

Keith, will you talk a little bit more about that? When you talk about the feeling the pull or feeling the pressure of being a provider, I'm sure that's something your dad would've said as well. I'm wondering if part of the issue for dads these days is that they feel the expectations are on both ends of the scale. Its not just enough to be a good provider. They also feel that they're expected to be or maybe they want to be, you know, present. Keith, does that sound familiar?

Mr. MORTON: That's sounds absolutely correct. The big piece for us is that you have to be the provider still, or at least on some level you feel like you have to be, and then in addition to that, there's also this nurture component that's kind of infiltrated the whole fatherhood experience.

I'm actually consciously moving away from feeling like I have to be a nurturer as well. Like my wife, the nurturer, and they have a certain mother-son bond, my wife and son, that I co-sign on and I love to see. But I feel like I can be free, especially now that's he's seven, to be the father, the male figure in the house. But that doesnt mean that I should throw away my other responsibilities as a parent. It just means that Im trying to move away from that dual role.

MARTIN: How come?

Mr. MORTON: It became hard, you know. My wife was doing a very good job and still is, so I figured I'd just leave that to her. And part of it also is that my jobs have gotten progressively harder since my son was born. So leaving at 5:00 is a great thing and it's a thing that happens on occasion but it often means that I'm going to be working this weekend, so that's kind of the tradeoff.

MARTIN: Can I ask this question? And I'm not being mean, I'm really not.

Mr. MORTON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But are you working later because you really feel you have to or is it because doing a lot of that caretaking stuff is boring?

Mr. MORTON: No.

MARTIN: I mean, you have more sense of satisfaction at the office. When you get something done it's done, as opposed to you built the Lego thing and then somebody knocks it down five minutes later. I mean, I'm just saying.

Mr. MORTON: That does happen more often than I would like, but I dont think that's the case at all. I just think that its hard to balance work and life. I mean, a lot of companies say that they want you to balance work and life but no one's really knows exactly what that looks like.

MARTIN: Paul, what do you think about that? You know, because happiness is such a moving target and what do you think?

Mr. FIDALGO: Well, you know, it's funny that he was mentioning that he was moving away from the nurture role and I feel like I'm having the opposite happen. I'm feeling like I want to have more of a caretaker, let me look after you moment by moment kind of instinct. Whereas, what I'm doing at work doesnt feel nearly as satisfying now as the project of Toby, you know, and watching him develop and grow and learn and whatnot. That suddenly feels like a far more interesting and satisfying project.

MARTIN: I've heard women say that. I mean, I've heard an editor I've worked with once said, anybody can edit this piece, whereas I'm the only mother this kid's going to have.

Mr. FIDALGO: Yeah. And, you know, talking about the fear of becoming a tangential character in your kid's life, you know, I feel like I have a rival for my kid's affections in the nanny that we leave him with during the day. You know, she's a wonderful, wonderful nanny, she takes excellent care of him but I get a little jealous.

MARTIN: Jason, what about you? So, we're excited that youre able to join us in part because you are the stay-at-home dad of the group and one of the things that stay-at-home moms report that they feel sometimes and husbands dont understand is that, you know, when youre at work you get those evaluations on paper, youre doing a great job. You get that kind of validation externally, whereas with kids, it could be five years before you get that kind of atta boy or that kind of validation and that some people will say that that's part of the difficulty of and that's where the happiness - you have to learn to look for it in other ways.

What's your take on that?

Mr. SPERBER: Well, let me give an anecdote. For a Father's Day present at summer school the kids had to write: My dad is the greatest because, and fill in the rest. And my five-and-a-half-year-old brought home the present and it said: My dad's the greatest because he takes care of me. And, you know, that just melted my heart because she knows, you know, what I'm doing...

(Soundbite of Jason's daughter)

Mr. SPERBER: ...and why I'm doing it. And I think another thing that's interesting is my wife and I, we dont do the whole equally shared parenting thing as much as we'd like, but we do it as much as we can. And, you know, we try to share responsibilities and duties and make sure that each of us has enough time with the kids, with each other, by ourselves.

And so, you know, I know that we're lucky to be in the situation we're in wherein that I was, you know, able to leave my job when it was no longer working for me and that my wife, who is a family physician, was able to go to 80 percent time instead of full-time and is able to come home four days out of the week at 3:00 instead of 5:00 and have that extra time with the girls and with all of us.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. Do you feel that she understands what youre doing in a way that - I mean, I'm not being mean, I'm really not, but that many women who work at home feel that perhaps, their partners do not understand what it takes to being the primary parent at home, staying home. And so you feel your wife does get it?

Mr. SPERBER: I think she does. Yeah, I think she does.

MARTIN: She does get it, okay. Finally, before I let you all go, I do want to ask if you think, lets see, Jason, you have two girls. But Keith, you have a son and Paul you have a son, and I am really curious, and I know its really early in the game, how you think your sons will answer this question. Paul, what do you think about that?

Mr. FIDALGO: I think Toby will, if I continue to be the way I am, will see me as maybe an over-doting dad, one who is looking a little too carefully and maybe checking in a bit too much. And so that might be something that I have to check down the road. I know my wife, who is by the way, just a wonderful, wonderful caretaker in her own right, worries that I get a little bit too emotionally involved in, you know, his day to day moods and whatnot. So that's probably what Toby will remember, which I - which, you know, if that's what it's going to be I can live with that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: We'll check back with you in 10 years and see what's going on with that.

Mr. FIDALGO: Yeah. Well, we'll see if I'm still doting when he's 10 and he's, you know, able to, you know, beat me up. We'll see what happens.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Keith, what about you? What do you think about your son? What do you -how do you think he'll answer this question?

Mr. MORTON: Honestly, I think he's going say my dad is awesome. My dad rocks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORTON: He is the one. I mean, when my son was Paul's son's age, I was exactly the same way and then as he got older it just starts to shift a little bit. He's becoming a lot more of a guy and, you know, he doesnt want me to behave like that, either around him or his friends. So, you know, I started to shift because he needs me to shift.

He's starting to, you know, figure out who he is and I think that he's going to be able to recognize that I have put out some effort to kind of grow with him and give him what he needs at the stages of his life that he's at.

MARTIN: Now Jason, you dont have a son, you have two girls. But I am curious given what youve heard about all this conversation around happiness and how not ecstatic a number of married women feel or women who are mothers feel in general about - they may find joy but they dont feel happy on a day to day basis. I'm wondering what you think - how you think your girls will answer that question.

Mr. SPERBER: I think that, you know, I hope that when they are able to look back on their experience with both me and their mother raising them that they're going to be able to see that we tried to provide the best family environment that we could, where they could grow and learn and be happy and figure out who they are.

(Soundbite of Jason's daughter)

Mr. SPERBER: And that when they go out into the world looking to find their own families and build their own families and lives that, you know, we will be a model to build on, rather than something to react against or run away from.

MARTIN: Well, that's very helpful and I appreciate that. That's very comforting.

And Jennifer, final thought from you, if we could. I know that most of the research you talked about didnt give that kind of intergenerational perspective. But just based on all the research youve done I'm wondering if you think that that might be true. I'm just wondering what you see based on all the reporting you do.

Ms. SENIOR: Yeah, its a great question because it does all feel - it feels improvised. You know, it all just feels like Bebop. It would be terrific if I think these responsibilities could be more equitably distributed and people could feel like there was more room for negotiation. I do sense that that is one of the reason that people actually dont like parenting sometimes is that they feel that the rules are unclear.

At the same time, I do think that the effects of, you know, delaying having a child are - you can't just reverse how that feels simply by like having shared parenting duties. I'm very moved by this data that says it's really hard to get used to having your independence challenged in that way when you have been independent for so long.

MARTIN: To be continued. Jennifer Senior is a writer for New York Magazine. You'll find a link to her article Why Parents Hate Parenting, at our website. Just go to npr.org and click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE. She joined us once again from WNYC in New York.

We were also joined by Jason Sperber who blogs at Rice Daddies. He joined from Bakersfield, California. Keith Morton blogs at African-American Dad. He joined us from our bureau in New York. And Paul Fidalgo joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. He blogs at Bloc Raisonneur.

And I thank you all so much for speaking to us. And good luck on that big journey. Everybody, good luck. Hang in there.

Mr. FIDALGO: Thank you very much.

Ms. SENIOR: Thank you.

Mr. MORTON: Thanks.

Mr. SPERBER: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And we should mention, that was Jason's little girl who was joining us for the last conversation. That was the other voice you heard - should have given her credit.

That's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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