July 25, 2014

The Happiness Project – “Lighten Up” on the Childfree

Cover of "The Happiness Project: Or, Why ...

Cover via Amazon

The NYTimes bestseller by Gretchen Rubin is a year-in-the-life exploration of a writer trying to live her life happier. What does that mean? Each month is broken into a theme: energy, love, play, etc. April’s theme is “Lighten Up” with a subtitle: Parenthood. Hmm. Maybe that means you don’t need to “lighten up” if you don’t have kids or you are already pretty enlightened?
Nope. Not according to the author. Rubin cites a study that says “child
care” is only slightly more pleasant than commuting, and one that says
marital satisfaction declines after the first child is born (picking up
again after they leave the nest). Then she disputes these findings, all
the while complaining about her kids and marital satisfaction mostly
relating to fights about her kids.

“Now as a parent myself, I realize how much the happiness of parents depends
on the happiness of their children and grandchildren.”

Really? But then again the kids did give Rubin a reason to write a bestseller.
We at WNK believe that by being childfree, everyday is a project in
happiness.

From the Happiness Project Blog:

Do your children make you happy? Some research says NO! I say YES!

Read the article here

Hey WNKers have you read The Happiness Project?

 

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Scary Mommy: Cards For New Moms

Scarey House page 1

Scarey House page 1 (Photo credit: the_toe_stubber)

Wow. This site is truly scary. Scary Mommy gets a TON of traffic and the posts and complaints alone could be used to dramatically increase the frequency of vasectomies. There may not be a need for WNK or preach to the choir childfree sites after all. Maybe we should just provide a single link to these angry moms and let them take the heat? The cards are possibly the least depressing and most amusing part of the otherwise scary….

Cards For New Moms.

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Barren in Iran

Leila (film)

Image via Wikipedia

I recently watched Leila, a mesmerizing Iranian film that debuted  by Persian film director Dariush Mehrjui. It chronicles the story of a young married couple (Leila and Reza) living in modern Teheran who can’t conceive a child.  More exactly, the couple learns that she, the wife cannot have a child. Trouble ensues.

In one of the earliest scenes the viewer meets the young man’s mother, who, while celebrating her daughter-in-law’s birthday announces that she can’t wait to meet the couple’s son (only they don’t have one).  This woman, so insistent that her only son have a child to carry on the family’s lineage (never mind her handful of daughters who might procreate) soon learns, that her wish won’t be possible.  The couple jumps through some fertility hoops to no avail, and the Reza consoles his wife by insisting to her that he really has had no interest in having children all along.  Leila seems to believe him, and they resolve to enjoy each others’ company without the distraction of children.

Then Reza’s mother intercedes.

Leila and Reza’s love is palpable. Their connection and mutual admiration seem strong. But their love and ties are harrowingly tested in a tug-of-war between their modern marriage and Islamic tradition, between their dreams and Reza’s mother’s dreams.  The film offers a glimpse into the complexities of living in contemporary Iran and the complexities of giving back to one’s parents.

Leila’s mother-in-law persistently, deceptively convinces her that Reza is desperate to have a child. She harasses Leila incessantly until Leila agrees to permit her husband to marry a second wife who can give him a child. Though adamantly opposed to the idea, Reza eventually yields to his mother’s desire and to the traditional Islamic expectations of him.

We watch the heart-wrenching process of selecting a new bride through Leila’s eyes. We witness and understand her anguish.  Ironically, it is Reza’s sisters and father who try to convince Leila to refuse the second marriage. (Ostensibly polygamy is legal in Iran provided previous wives agree.) Leila’s family is horrified when they discover Reza’s plan to remarry.

Leila’s doubt that Reza would be happy without a child and her decision to encourage a second marriage inevitably proves devastating to her union with Reza.  She signs her fate away to external factors and concludes: “God has not given me a child.  He has given me the gift of eternal patience and endurance.”  Her choices test the limits of that endurance (and the viewer’s).

I won’t spoil the plot, because the film is worth watching. We never really know why Leila consents to her insipid mother-in-law’s wishes. Does she hope this will make her a better Muslim and wife? Does she simply wish to please her new family? Does she too desperately desire a child even if impossible through her own DNA? Or does her self sacrificing decision reveal unconditional love for her husband?  Perhaps all of these factors are in play, but the film is so compelling precisely because we never learn the answer.

Bad Parenting? Sue Your Parents!

Should mothers be sued for bad parenting?

We can all summon up moments when our parents went too far, or at least we were 100% certain at the time that they’d gone to far, in their parenting routines. Ah, the injustice!

As it turns out, two Illinois kids kept their resentment alive long enough to sue Kimberly Garrity for being a bad mother.

Garrity’s children, Steven Miner II, 23, and Kathryn Miner, 20, originally filed their suit against her two years ago, asking for more than $50,000 for emotional distress suffered during childhood due to Garrity’s alleged parental offenses, infractions such as sending her son a birthday card sans check, not dispatching care packages to him in college and insisting on a midnight curfew for her daughter during her high school’s homecoming. (TIME Healthland)

An Illinois appeals court dismissed the lawsuit, but Ms. Garrity who raised her children in a $1.5 million home outside Chicago is left to ponder her decision to conceive and raise two ungrateful.

Court records from Garrity said she was devastated at being publicly accused of “being an inadequate mother.” … In court papers, Garrity said she still loves her children, but she warned the public nature of the lawsuit would hurt them going forward. (CNN.com)

I guess the lesson to be learned here is not to spoil your fabulously rich kids rotten, because they’ll just grow up and sue for not spoiling them rotten enough. Kids these days. (Above the Law)

But reflection and regret are only half of Garrity’s reward. She also has the pleasure of paying for her legal representation.

“It would be laughable that these children of privilege would sue their mother for emotional distress, if the consequences were not so deadly serious for (Garrity),” Garrity’s attorney, Shelley Smith, wrote in court documents. “There is no insurance for this claim, so (Garrity) must pay her legal fees, while (the children) have their father for free.” (Today People)

Gawker weighed in with a curious twist:

What the judges seem to have overlooked is how their ruling now opens the floodgates to parents who wish to say no to their children, which will be more corrosive to our society in the long-run. (Gawker.com)

Not sure I follow this concern. Aren’t parents supposed say no? Sometime? Maybe even often? Or was I terribly mistreated? I can feel the emotional distress bubbling up across the years… Lawyer!

Related articles

Vicki Larson: Are Childless Couples Headed Toward Divorce?

Marriage and divorce rates in the US, 1990-200...

Image via Wikipedia

Vicki Larson: Are Childless Couples Headed Toward Divorce?.

“People assume children are the glue that holds a marriage together, which really isn’t true. Kids are huge stressors,” says Scott, head of the Childless by Choice Project whose documentary on childfree couples was just released. “Despite that, there is a strong motive to stay together. The childfree don’t have that motive so there’s no reason to stay together if it’s not working.”

This article is great, really layered and probing. It answers a lot of questions about who is “childfree”, why, and what the impact of such status on their marriage may be. However, there may be some confusion, or even unintended/inaccurate conclusions, as all couples without children are lumped into the “childfree” category, including couples frequently categorized as “childless” (those who want kids but cannot conceive) that “make up the bulk of the childfree” in this story.

As I read the article I wondered how many of the divorced couples were simply victims of a decision to marry too early. According to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed, the rate of divorce among people that marry before 25 is astounding. I also hoped for statistics comparing older married couples. How do those who CHOOSE not to have kids compare to couples with empty nests at the same age? When the decision  for parents to divorce can be made without complicating child rearing, like the childfree by choice, then who APPEARS to be more successful or happily married? (Not that remaining married is an accurate indicator of “success”) When I was in college, my parents finally divorced, and there was a rash of divorces among my friends’ parents as well.

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What if…Oprah had kids?

Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), The Bath Oil on canv...

Image via Wikipedia

I admit that sometimes I think, ‘What if I had kids?’  Would I be a better teacher? Or a better person? Would I write better children’s books? How different would my life be now?

What if certain childfree female role models throughout history had had kids? Would their lives have had the same focus?

What if Oprah Winfrey had kids? Would she have felt the need to educate hundreds of African girls?

What if Mary Cassatt had kids? Would she still have created countless paintings and pastels of mothers and children?

What if Condoleezza Rice had kids? Would she have felt differently about sending other people’s children into war?

What if Florence Nightingale had kids? Would she have been the “lady with the lamp” running from patient to patient night after night?

What if Sally Ride had kids? Would she have been the first American woman astronaut?

Do you need to be a mother to have empathy? To better understand children or humanity?

Do you ever wonder ‘What if I had kids?’

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Kids Suck?: Deadpan and Deadspin Daddies are FUNNY

This one is for the football fans and any parents or childfree readers that appreciate the role comedy can play in lightening a mood or dissolving taboos.

Louis C.K. says “Kids Suck”

and Deadspin.com‘s Drew Magary suggests “It’s Okay To Love Your TV More Than Your Children”

“Let’s just get this out of the way: Of course I love the television more than my own children. That TV cost a mere $700. I spend that much on diapers every fucking year. It has a functional mute button, which means I do not have to hear it if I don’t want to. The people who appear on the TV set are far more articulate than my 1-year-old, and thus more interesting to listen to (unless the people in question are Chris Berman and Steve Young). The TV takes up less space and doesn’t leave toys and bits of cake all over the goddamn place.”

They might be kidding or just pandering, but from my seat, it is clear that they make us laugh by shining a light on things that everyone thinks (sometimes?), but few are saying. That and just plain good story telling. And even if you aren’t laughing after reading and watching, maybe you’ll agree that these daddies are helping future parents and those who may one day choose not to breed by sharing their thoughts, experiences, honesty and hyperbole. We know having kids aint easy, and what better way to give us all permission to say so than through comedy? The only question is, are these things mommies can get away with saying. (If you know of any moms that are, please share them with us.)

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A Peter Pan Complex

Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, she writes that the term matrimony comes from the Latin word for mother. She explains that while she is childfree by choice, many women throughout history have chosen the same path, or maybe nature has allowed for it to be so.  Gilbert notes that, at any given time in history at least 10% of women are childless worldwide. And during the Great Depression, in America, the number was up to 23%. Today the number hovers close to 50%.

Does nature know something that we’ve all but ignored? Does it really take a village to raise a child? Gilbert wonders if maybe there are extra women around to be “sparents” – “spare parents” to help out.

Savvy Auntie by Melanie Notkin

The popularity of author and blogger Melanie Notkin suggests the answer is a resounding yes. SavvyAuntie.com celebrates the childfree women who lend a hand. It is, “the first community for cool aunts, great aunts, godmothers and all women who love kids.” I am a proud member of this auntie brigade, with three gorgeous godkiddies. Savvy Auntie instructs kid-free aunts on everything childfriendly, from the perfect birthday present to how to save for a niece’s education. A review from Kirkus says it best: “A chic guide for new and experienced aunts that establishes their valuable family role. Challenging the cultural stigma associated with childless women, Notkin creates a distinctive voice that draws attention to the value of an aunt’s role in families…Communal childrearing at its finest.”

Of course the stories of the famously heartbroken and lonely “old-maid” aunties persist, and are part of our literary history. But Gilbert writes that these are merely creatures of myth, “recent studies of nursing homes comparing happiness levels of elderly childless women against happiness levels of women who did have children show no pattern of special misery or joy in one group or the other.”

Perhaps several works of fiction wouldn’t even exist without the help of aunties. Childless aunties helped raise and influence notable artists including: Coco Chanel, Virginia Woolf, Truman Capote, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

From Gilbert we also learn that J.M. Barrie’s inspiration for the spirit of his forever, youthful fictional character, Peter Pan, was found “in the faces of many women who have no children.” That would be me. And I only hope my own role as a Peter Pan makes me a valuable auntie and an excellent “sparent”…

I'm flying!

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Kiddie (Free) Lit

Ever wonder...

Doing my best Andy Rooney impersonation:

Did you ever notice how almost every book for women these days is about weddings and babies? I remember when women couldn’t even have books.

OK enough with the old man voice. I’ve been noticing a recurring theme with many of my steamy beach reads that is not so sexy – the main characters can’t decide if they should have kids or NOT! The stories are not the fun and tempting reads that the back cover teases. These fence-sitting literary couples struggle to find themselves and survive debt, betrayal and various inane obstacles only to come together and live happily ever after. Then they go and ruin things by making baby plans.

The two chick-lit novels below include the “Should we? Or shouldn’t we?” theme:
Baby Proof by Emily Giffen

Fans love her sorbet colored titles on marriage and the great void that happens next. In this story, Ben, the husband who vowed he’d live a childfree life suddenly wakes up one day and – yikes — changes his mind. Now what?
Nanny Returns by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

Four million readers loved The Nanny Diaries but when Nanny returned more people went meh? Not so much. Nan is back and fate has her crossing paths with her former charges, but can she handle a little cutie pie of her own? And will it tear her against-all-odds relationship apart?

A friend of mine mentioned that the childfree conundrum makes an appearance in Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. (A pre-Oprah Book Club copy is sitting on my shelf.) Franzen would likely freak out if he discovered his name on the same page as “beach read” or “chick lit” or “books for women”. Which brings me back to Andy Rooney…

Did you ever notice that people without kids have way too much time to read books?

Family Planning in African Poverty (part one)

“No women meetings in village,” the chief asserts to me.  I translate here his broken West African French.

“Male village elders must be there.”  He concludes.

I am running a development program in a rural village in Cote d’Ivoire, five hours north of the Abidjan capital.

“What if only the female elders were there and report back to you and the other male elders after?”  I muster my sweetest smile.  I know he is partial to and fascinated by my western ways, but baffled by them as well.

“As you like it,” he concedes.  “But babies good”  He asserts, confidently.

“Oh, yes, we just want to space the babies, so that the men can get more rest.”  I flash another straight toothed white American smile at him.  He nods in surrender.

I have won this battle and it is an important one.  My colleague and I are initiating a family planning program in thirty six villages (eighteen of which we regularly visit).  It is part of a larger health care and small business program that we are operating.  Living and working in this West African community, we notice fairly quickly, the problems with the spread of AIDS and the proliferation of unintended pregnancies.

Since we are both women, we decide to initiate a woman-to-woman program to educate the local women on the merits of birth control for family planning and disease prevention, but, like most projects in rural villages, change doesn’t come easily.  The men in charge are nervous about western schemes to limit African populations and to empower women.

We are tinkering with loaded dynamite.  If the all-woman meeting is not a resounding success by the locals’ standards, then all our development initiatives will be regarded with suspicion, particularly ones that relate directly with women.

I was twenty three at that time and had so much to learn, which, living in the middle of an African jungle, I sure enough did.  Before leaving for Africa, I feared that I wouldn’t have enough knowledge to share with the people in my program, but having recently exited college — birth control  — now that I knew about.  I hoped I could empower the women to take control of their reproductive freedom as I had.

The meeting took place, and thanks to some enterprising kids on bicycles, bribed with an invitation to a home made American dinner at our place, word of the unprecedented woman only meeting spread across the community like the rainy season mud.  They came in droves.  Some walked over thirty miles, some caught rides in the back of passing trucks, mopeds or motorcycles and on top of buses.

We are astounded. We scramble to make room for all of the attendees.  The village female elders sit with us at a front table displaying posters about AIDS and breast-feeding amongst an assortment of condoms and tubes of contraceptive foam.

This was an historic moment, for our program, for the village, and for the women who dared to come that day.  For one hour we spoke to the women about the importance of spacing their children.  I had never spoken French in front of a crowd before but my roommate assured me that my skills were sufficient enough for the task.

“Children are a gift from God,” I begin in my best assimilation of West African French.  The opening scores rounds of approving head bobbing from a largely Christian crowd, though the northern and foreign Muslim woman seem to agree as well.

“Your ancestors practiced child spacing because the men had multiple wives.  The men would let the new mothers rest and care for the baby for a while before they would partner with them again.”  Again, more nods, especially from the elders.

We continue with a talk about the physical, economic and emotional merits of spacing children, and the importance of preventing diseases like AIDS hotly on the rise in their communities thanks to improved roads and visiting prostitutes from the city.

The most popular part of the meeting is the frank talk about the contraceptive devices.  Many questions ensue, and waves of giggles emerge when we passe around the condoms.  When we encourage them to open the packages and blow the condoms into balloons the fun really begins.  The laughter that erupts unsettles the village chief who peeks into the meeting.  I motioned to him that all is well and the women elders shoo him away.  I suppose no one had ever seen women having that much fun before.  The women’s laughter was a favorite topic for some time to come.

The meeting succeeded, and we achieved our goal: the women felt comfortable enough to talk about birth control and to ultimately handle the paraphernalia without too much embarrassment.  That was real progress for the community.  We started a door-to-door woman-to-woman birth control program (modeled after the Avon cosmetic concept except that the women selling goods were trained volunteers) and it worked.  While the men were in the fields, the women could comfortably and privately have all their questions answered and discreetly purchase contraceptives.

The meeting was favorably reported in the Abidjan newspaper which hopefully gave the idea to other communities in the country and I gave all the credit to the male village chiefs and local government officials (who had signed off on the event, but did nothing, of course but show up in the villages to show off their fancy western cars and gold jewelry).  I had quickly learned what it took to get things done in that community, and giving credit to local officials was a great way to succeed in important work.

What I couldn’t do that day is tell those women that they don’t even need to have a child if they don’t want them.  That was a message not to be told.  In a region where childless women were suspected of having a curse cast on them by some improper action on her behalf, how could a woman have any true reproductive rights?  When working in the developing world, though, you take the small victories where you can.

In a community where the mentally ill were chained to trees in the center of villages, where very few marriages existed, where young women were encouraged to be sexually active as soon as they reached puberty, where the concept of “love” and “romance” were silly western concepts that evoked confusion when witnessed in foreign films, and where women often conceded that they didn’t think they had  the right to refuse any man who made a sexual advance at them, or the right to ask him to wear protection, how much of a difference could we really make?

By introducing the idea to the women that they could control the spacing of their children, I’d like to think that we empowered the women in a small way.  By teaching them about the dangers of AIDS, hopefully we averted some senseless deaths.   But where a woman doesn’t feel that she had the right to say no to a sexually interested man, how empowered can these women really be?  It was heart-braking in many ways to witness their plight.

The women we saw the most, the neighbors who frequented our porch, the ones who sold us food and goods in the market, the ones who volunteered in our health care program and received small business grants, spoke at length with us, watched us and learned from us and hopefully were the better for it.  I certainly learned a great deal from them.  However, the end of the 1986 film “The Mission” comes to my mind where Jeremy Irons, an 18 century Jesuit Priest, wonders if the indigenous peoples in South America that they came to “save” wouldn’t have been better off if they, the missionaries, had never come at all.

How does a foreigner work with a vastly different culture not accidentally, sometimes, change it for the worse?  Development workers ponder this often.  Was it helpful for the women of an African village to witness the freedoms that upwardly mobile feminist women from America take for granted – freedoms that they may never gain?  I’ll never know.

Upcoming Posts:

  • Friday April 1st: Family Planning in African Poverty (part two)