Finally, someone has said it! The one thing no one ever admits about caring for small children is… it’s really, really hard. And the smaller your children are, the worse it is. You can end up questioning whether you should have had them at all.
Thankfully, film director Duncan Jones has taken it upon himself to say the unsayable, tweeting that he finds his own children, aged two and a half years old and nine months old respectively, “exhausting, frustrating and life-destabilizing”:
“They are rarely fun. Sure, smiles are great, hugs are lovely, but it’s HARD & not obviously a good choice in life.”
Jones goes on to confess that “of course he’d reconsider” whether parenthood was the right choice for him.
“It’s exhausting! It’s banal! It’s like looking after a dog you can’t housetrain!”
You tell them, Duncan! As you rightly point out, this is something you “never see anyone admit”.
Apart, that is, from mothers. We’ve been saying it since forever. Indeed, it’s such an excellent observation, it’s about time a man made it.
As Rachel Cusk wrote in 2001’s A Life’s Work, raising children is “isolating, frequently boring, relentlessly demanding and exhausting. It erodes your self-esteem and your membership of the adult world.” Or as Corinne Maier, author of 2009’s No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not To Have Children, puts it, “raising a child is 1 per cent happiness and 99 per cent worry”.
There are Mumsnet threads with titles such as Anyone else regret having children?, Anyone sometimes regret having a second child? and Has anyone (secretly) regretted having a third child?, the answer to all of which is “yes”. Clearly this is something which can be both personally painful and socially inconvenient to discuss, but discussed it is.
Women have long been busting myths regarding the “joy” of looking after babies and toddlers. In her second-wave feminist novel The Women’s Room, Marilyn French coined the term “shit and string beans” to sum up the drudgery of stay-at-home motherhood. Simone de Beauvoir compared bringing up children to “washing up saucepans”.
The alleged anti-maternalism of second-wave feminism spawned a 1980s backlash rooted in the idea that feminists had demonised one of life’s greatest joys. There is nothing new in pointing out that childcare can drive you to despair – at least not if you are female.
As someone who, like Jones, braved the Lego-strewn wastelands of having children less than two years apart, I wholeheartedly agree with him on just how dark those early days can be. (I also, in embarrassingly clichéd style, agree with all those telling him that it gets easier.) It is nonetheless difficult not to feel some irritation at his suggestion that such ideas are rarely expressed.
This simply isn’t true. They are rarely expressed by men, perhaps because men have not been immersed in the world of early years care to as great a degree as women; or because such men who have found childcare soul-destroying have long assumed this is because they are male. (In Misconceptions, Naomi Wolf tells the story of a woman whose husband believes she is “transfixed” by the same toddler games which bore him. She eventually has to tell him that she, too, does not find building a tower of blocks and knocking it down again for hours on end intellectually stimulating, not even with her pink, fluffy, feminine brain.)
Irritation aside, it is a sign of progress to see a man admitting he finds parenting hard not because of who he is, but because of what it is. It’s about time we moved beyond the idea that men just aren’t suited to looking after infants. The fact is, none of us are. And while this has long been a feminist issue, it is also more than that.
For all the groundwork feminists have put in, feminisms cannot be our sole medium for talking about the difficulties of caring for children. Patriarchy can, theoretically, be dismantled; toddlers will always be toddlers. Redistributing emotional labour and placing an economic value on the work of raising children will do many things, but it will not make mopping up toddler vomit or watching the same episode of Thomas the Tank Engine fifty times over any less grim.
We need both the political analysis offered by feminism, and a depoliticised honesty about what having children inevitably does to a person’s life. The idealisation of caring – for people of any age – has long been used to perpetuate inequality, on the basis that unconditional love can be relied upon to paper over all social and economic cracks. Simply saying “caring for others is necessary but crap” can be both a personal cri de coeur and a political act.
Just as it’s possible to love your children and feel despair at the practicalities of raising them, it’s possible to feel annoyed but also glad when an old observation is presented as new. If something is worth saying once, it is worth saying again – unless it starts with “why” and the person speaking is a toddler.