All Joy and No Fun

by Jennifer Senior

Clock Icon 2 hour read

Introduction

THERE’S THE PARENTING LIFE of our fantasies, and there’s the parenting life of our banal, on-the-ground realities. Right now, there’s little question which one Angelina Holder is living. Eli, her three-year-old son, has just announced he’s wet his shorts.

“Okay,” says Angie, barely looking up. She’s on a schedule, making Shake ’n Bake chicken parmesan for lunch. Her evening shift at the hospital starts at 3:00 P.M. “Go upstairs and change.”

Eli is standing on a chair in the kitchen, picking at blackberries. “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t.”

“I think you can. You’re a big boy.”

“I can’t.”

Angie unpeels the oven mitt from her hand. “What is Mommy doing?”

“Changing me.”

“No, I’m cooking. So we’re in a pickle.”

Eli starts to whimper. Angie stops what she’s doing. She looks annoyed, amused, and above all, baffled. There must be protocols for how to handle this kind of farcical exchange in parenting books, but she doesn’t have time for books right now. She’s got lunch to make, dishes to wash, and nursing scrubs to change into.

“Why can’t you change yourself?” she asks. “I want to hear this reasoning of yours.”

“I can’t.”

Angie stares at her son. I can see her making the rapid calculation all parents make at this point in a cage match with a child, trying to determine whether it pays to relent. Eli is indeed capable of changing his own clothes, and unlike most three-year-olds, he usually succeeds on his first try, with his shirt facing forward and one limb in each pant leg. She could, in theory, hold her ground.

“Maybe you can go upstairs and get me new clothes for you to change into,” she says, after mulling it over. “Maybe you can find me some green underwear. In your underwear bin?”

From an adult’s perspective, this deal has all the face-saving elements of a good compromise. It’s win-win. But Eli, being three, is not taking yes for an answer. Stalling, he wanders over to Angie’s knapsack. “I think Zay wants this,” he says, fishing out a granola bar. Zay, short for Xavier, is his younger brother.

“No, he doesn’t.” Angie is calm, but firm. She’s picked a lane, and she’s staying in it. “I need you to do what I ask you to. You’re not listening right now.”

Eli keeps sifting through the bag. Angie walks over and points him toward the stairs.

“I need help!” protests Eli.

“No, you don’t,” she answers. “I put all your clothes where they’re supposed to be. Go upstairs and get them.” A suspenseful couple of seconds tick by. Brinksmanship with a three-year-old. She looks conspiratorially at Zay. “Your brother’s being silly, isn’t he? What are we going to do with him?”

Eli huffs but capitulates, slowly making the climb to his room. A minute or so later, he appears at the top of the staircase, naked as a cupid, and tosses down a pair of clean green underwear.

“You did find your green underwear,” Angie exclaims. “Good job!”

She beams and pounces on it, as if it were a bridal bouquet.

BEFORE BECOMING A PARENT, Angie, it seems safe to say, would never have imagined that she’d be delighted to witness a preschooler throwing underwear down the stairs. She probably wouldn’t have imagined the elaborate negotiation that preceded this gesture either, or that this kind of negotiation—at once ridiculous and agitating—would become a regular part of her mornings and afternoons. Before this, Angie worked as a psychiatric nurse in the evenings and biked and painted in her off-hours; on weekends, she went hiking with her husband at Minnehaha Falls. Her life was just her life.

But the truth is, there’s little even the most organized people can do to prepare themselves for having children. They can buy all the books, observe friends and relations, review their own memories of childhood. But the distance between those proxy experiences and the real thing, ultimately, can be measured in light-years. Prospective parents have no clue what their children will be like; no clue what it will mean to have their hearts permanently annexed; no clue what it will feel like to second-guess so many seemingly simple decisions, or to be multitasking even while they’re brushing their teeth, or to have a ticker tape of concerns forever whipping through their heads. Becoming a parent is one of the most sudden and dramatic changes in adult life.

In 1968, a sociologist named Alice Rossi published a paper that explored the abruptness of this transformation at great length. She called it, simply, “Transition to Parenthood.” She noted that when it comes to having a child, there is no equivalent of courtship, which one does before marriage, or job training, which one does before, say, becoming a nurse. The baby simply appears, “fragile and mysterious” and “totally dependent.”

At the time, it was a radical observation. In Rossi’s day, scholars were mainly concerned with the effect of parents on their children. What Rossi thought to do was swing the telescope around and ask this question from the reverse perspective: What was the effect of parenthood on adults? How did having children affect their mothers’ and fathers’ lives? Forty-five years later, it’s a question we’re still trying to answer.

I FIRST STARTED THINKING about this question on the evening of January 3, 2008, when my son was born. But I didn’t really explore it until more than two years later, when I wrote a story for New York magazine that examined one of the more peculiar findings in the social sciences: that parents are no happier than nonparents, and in certain cases are considerably less happy.

This conclusion violates some of our deepest intuitions, but it stretches back nearly sixty years, even predating Rossi’s research. The first report came in 1957, a peak time for the veneration of the nuclear family. The paper was called “Parenthood as Crisis,” and in just four pages the author managed to destroy the prevailing orthodoxy, declaring that babies weaken marriages rather than save them. He quoted a representative mother: “We knew where babies came from, but we didn’t know what they were like [emphasis his].” He then listed the complaints of the mothers he surveyed:

Loss of sleep (especially during the early months); chronic “tiredness” or exhaustion; extensive confinement to the home and the resulting curtailment of their social contacts; giving up the satisfactions and the income of outside employment; additional washing and ironing; guilt at not being a “better” mother; the long hours and seven day (and night) week necessary in caring for an infant; decline in their housekeeping standards; worry over their appearance (increased weight after pregnancy, et cetera).

Fathers added more economic pressure, less sex, and “general disenchantment with the parental role” to the brew.

In 1975, another landmark paper showed that mothers presiding over an empty nest were not despairing, as conventional wisdom had always assumed, but happier than mothers who still had children at home; during the eighties, as women began their great rush into the workforce, sociologists generally concluded that while work was good for women’s well-being, children tended to negate its positive effects. Throughout the next two decades, a more detailed picture emerged, with studies showing that children tended to compromise the psychological health of mothers more than fathers, and of single parents more than married parents.

Meanwhile, psychologists and economists started to stumble across similar results, often when they weren’t looking for them. In 2004, five researchers, including the Nobel Prize–winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, did a study showing which activities gave 909 working women in Texas the most pleasure. Child care ranked sixteenth out of nineteen—behind preparing food, behind watching TV, behind napping, behind shopping, behind housework. In an ongoing study, Matthew Killingsworth, a researcher at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco, has found that children also rank low on the list of people whose company their parents enjoy. As he explained it to me in a phone conversation: “Interacting with your friends is better than interacting with your spouse, which is better than interacting with other relatives, which is better than interacting with acquaintances, which is better than interacting with parents, which is better than interacting with children. Who are on par with strangers.”

These findings are undeniably provocative. But the story they tell is incomplete. When researchers attempt to measure parents’ specific emotions, they get rather different—and much more nuanced—answers. Drawing from 1.7 million Gallup surveys collected between 2008 and 2012, researchers Angus Deaton and Arthur Stone found that parents with children at home age fifteen or younger experience more highs, as well as more lows, than those without children. (They’ve just submitted their results for publication.) And when researchers bother to ask questions of a more existential nature, they find that parents report greater feelings of meaning and reward—which to many parents is what the entire shebang is about.

Children strain our everyday lives, in other words, but also deepen them. “All joy and no fun” is how a friend with two young kids described it.

Some people have flippantly concluded that these studies can be boiled down to one grim little sentence: Children make you miserable. But I think it’s more accurate to call parenting, as the social scientist William Doherty does, “a high-cost/high-reward activity.” And if the costs are high, one of the reasons may be that parenthood today is very different from what parenthood once was.

SOME OF THE HARDEST parts of parenting never change—like sleep deprivation, which, according to researchers at Queen’s University in Ontario, can in some respects impair our judgment as much as being legally drunk. (There’s something wonderfully vindicating about this analogy.) These perennial difficulties are worth dissecting and will certainly play a role in this book. But I am also interested in what’s new and distinctive about modern parenting. There’s no denying that our lives as mothers and fathers have grown much more complex, and we still don’t have a new set of scripts to guide us through them. Normlessness is a very tricky thing. It almost guarantees some level of personal and cultural distress.

Obviously, there are hundreds of ways that the experience of parenting has changed in recent decades. But broadly speaking, I think three developments have complicated it more than most. The first is choice. Not all that long ago, mothers and fathers did not have the luxury of controlling how large their families were, or when each child arrived. Nor did they regard their children with the same reverence we modern parents do. Rather, they had children because it was customary, or because it was economically necessary, or because it was a moral obligation to family and community (often for all three reasons).

Today, however, adults often view children as one of life’s crowning achievements, and they approach child-rearing with the same bold sense of independence and individuality that they would any other ambitious life project, spacing children apart according to their own needs and raising them according to their individual child-rearing philosophies. Indeed, many adults don’t consider having children at all until they’ve deemed themselves good and ready: in 2008, 72 percent of college-educated women between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine had not yet had children.

Because so many of us are now avid volunteers for a project in which we were all once dutiful conscripts, we have heightened expectations of what children will do for us, regarding them as sources of existential fulfillment rather than as ordinary parts of our lives. It’s the scarcity principle at work: we assign greater value to that which is rare—and those things for which we have worked harder. (In 2010, over 61,500 kids resulted from assisted reproductive technology.) As the developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan has written, so much meticulous family planning “inevitably endows the infant with a significance considerably greater than prevailed when parents had a half-dozen children, some at inauspicious times.”

A popular but uncharitable way to interpret this change is to say that modern child-rearing has become a narcissistic undertaking. But there’s a slightly more sympathetic way to think about this change too: by postponing children, many modern parents are far more aware of the freedoms they’re giving up.

THERE’S A SECOND REASON our parenting experience has recently become more complicated: our work experience has gotten more complicated. We carry on with our day jobs long after we arrive home and kick off our shoes (the smart phone continues to ping; the home desktop continues to glow). Even more important, women’s saturation of the labor market—the majority of mothers now work—has dramatically rewritten the rules of domestic life. In 1975, 34 percent of women with children under the age of three were in the workforce. In 2010, that number jumped to 61 percent.

That women bring home the bacon, fry it up, serve it for breakfast, and use its greasy remains to make candles for their children’s science projects is hardly news. Yet how parenting responsibilities get sorted out under these conditions remains unresolved. Neither government nor private business has adapted to this reality, throwing the burden back onto individual families to cope. And while today’s fathers are more engaged with their children than fathers in any previous generation, they’re charting a blind course, navigating by trial and, just as critically, error. Many women can’t tell whether they’re supposed to be grateful for the help they’re getting or enraged by the help they’re failing to receive; many men, meanwhile, are struggling to adjust to the same work-life rope-a-dope as their wives, now that they too are expected to show up for Gymboree.

The result has been a lot of household aggravation. It’s no accident that today’s heirs to Erma Bombeck, the wicked satirist of domestic life who reigned in my mother’s generation, are just as likely to be men as women. It was a man who wrote Go the F**k to Sleep. It was a male comic, Louis C.K., who developed a grateful cult following of moms and dads. “When my kids were younger, I used to avoid them,” he said in a Father’s Day riff in 2011. “You want to know why your father spent so long on the toilet? Because he’s not sure he wants to be a father.

TO MY MIND, THOUGH, there is a third development that has altered our parenting experience above all others, and that is the wholesale transformation of the child’s role, both in the home and in society. Since the end of World War II, childhood has been completely redefined.

Today, we work hard to shield children from life’s hardships. But throughout most of our country’s history, we did not. Rather, kids worked. In the earliest days of our nation, they cared for their siblings or spent time in the fields; as the country industrialized, they worked in mines and textile mills, in factories and canneries, in street trades. Over time, reformers managed to outlaw child labor practices. Yet change was slow. It wasn’t until our soldiers returned from World War II that childhood, as we now know it, began. The family economy was no longer built on a system of reciprocity, with parents sheltering and feeding their children, and children, in return, kicking something back into the family till. The relationship became asymmetrical. Children stopped working, and parents worked twice as hard. Children went from being our employees to our bosses.

The way most historians describe this transformation is to say that the child went from “useful” to “protected.” But the sociologist Viviana Zelizer came up with a far more pungent phrase. She characterized the modern child as “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”

Today parents pour more capital—both emotional and literal—into their children than ever before, and they’re spending longer, more concentrated hours with their children than they did when the workday ended at five o’clock and the majority of women still stayed home. Yet parents don’t know what it is they’re supposed to do, precisely, in their new jobs. “Parenting” may have become its own activity (its own profession, so to speak), but its goals are far from clear. Children are no longer economic assets, so the only way to balance the books is to assume they are future assets, which requires an awful lot of investment, not to mention faith. Because children are now deemed emotionally precious, today’s parents are also charged with the psychological well-being of their sons and daughters, which on the face of it may seem like a laudable goal. But it’s a murky one, and not necessarily realistic: building confidence in children is not the same as teaching them to read or to change a tire on your car.

THIS BOOK ATTEMPTS TO look at the experience of parenthood systematically, piece by piece, stage by stage, in order to articulate—and in some cases quantify—what today’s parents find so challenging about their lives. To give but one example: that exasperating back-and-forth between Angie and Eli? Researchers have been examining that kind of exchange for more than forty years. In 1971, for instance, a trio from Harvard observed ninety mother-toddler pairs for five hours and found that on average, mothers gave a command, told their child no, or fielded a request (often “unreasonable” or “in a whining tone”) every three minutes. Their children, in turn, obeyed on average only 60 percent of the time. This is not exactly a formula for perfect mental health.

There’s a lot more research out there that helps to explain why modern parents feel as they do. What I’ve tried to do here is knit it all together, recruiting from a wide variety of sources. I’ve looked at surveys about sex and charts measuring sleep; books about attention and essays about distraction; histories of marriage and chronicles of childhood; and a wide range of inspired studies that document phenomena as varied as when teenagers fight most intensely with their parents (between eighth and tenth grade) and who feels the most work-life conflict (dads). I’ve then tried to show how all this material appears in the lives of real families, in their kitchens and bedrooms, during carpools and over homework hour, as they go about their daily business.

A FEW CAUTIONARY WORDS:

While it is my sincere hope that parents will read this book to better understand themselves—and, by extension, be easier on themselves—I make few promises about being able to provide any usable child-rearing advice. Tilt your head and stare long enough, and it’s possible you’ll make some out. But that is not my primary objective. This is not a book about children. It’s a book about parents. What to Expect When You’re Expecting may describe the changes that accompany pregnancy. But what changes should you expect when your children are three, or nine, or fifteen? What should you expect once your children are redirecting the course of your marriage, your job, your friendships, your aspirations, your internal sense of self?

One other crucial caveat: this book is about the middle class. Some of the families here may be struggling more than others, but all have to wrestle with difficult economic realities, whether they’re social workers or shift workers, doctors or installers of security systems. I spend little time in the precincts of the elite, because their concerns aren’t especially relatable (practically every child in this book goes to public school). But I also do not focus on the poor, because the concerns of poor parents as parents are impossible to view on their own. They are inextricable from the daily pressure to feed and house themselves and their children. As many have noted—perhaps most recently Judith Warner in Perfect Madness—poor parents deserve a different kind of book, and far more than one.

BECAUSE THE INDIVIDUAL STAGES of parenting don’t much look like one another (the pandemonium of the toddler years feels very different from the frustrations and anxieties generated by adolescents), I’ve organized this book in a chronological fashion. Chapters 1 and 2 focus on the two things that undergo the most radical transformations once a child is born: our sense of autonomy, which gets entirely upended, and our marriages, whose rites and bylaws are suddenly undone. Chapter 3, on the other hand, concentrates on the unique pleasures that very young children can bring. Chapter 4 is about the middle parenting years—elementary school mostly—when parents feel immense pressure to prepare their children for an increasingly competitive world, thereby turning afternoons and weekends into a long procession of extracurricular activities. And chapter 5 concentrates on the adolescent years, whose effects on parents are wildly underdiscussed. We now shelter and care for our children for so long that they live with us through their own biological metamorphosis into adulthood. Yet precious little has been written about this awkward arrangement, a gap in the literature that’s made doubly weird when one considers that parents, at this same moment, are going through significant life changes of their own, such as menopause and midcareer evaluations.

But my goal isn’t just to analyze the difficulties of parenthood. The “high rewards,” as William Doherty calls them, are worth analyzing too—they’re just incredibly hard to measure. Meaning and joy have a way of slipping through the sieve of social science. The vocabulary for aggravation is large. The vocabulary for transcendence is more elusive. So in chapter 6, my last, I look at what raising children means in the larger context of a life—what it is to feel joy, what it is to surrender ourselves to a larger set of obligations, and what it is, simply, to tell our stories, to remember, to form whole visions of ourselves. We’re all the sum of our experiences, and raising children plays an enormous part in making us who we are. For some of us, perhaps the largest part.

Chapter one
autonomy

I held the baby up to the light, squinted at the physician out of one bloodshot eye, and spoke starkly: “Tell me, Doctor. You’ve been in this business a long time.” I glanced meaningfully at the baby. “She’s ruining my life. She’s ruining my sleep, she’s ruining my health, she’s ruining my work, she’s ruining my relationship with my wife, and . . . and she’s ugly.” . . . Swallowing hard, I managed to compose myself for my one simple question: “Why do I like her?”

—Melvin Konner, The Tangled Wing (1982)

WHEN I FIRST I met Jessie Thompson, it was mid-March, a trying time for Minnesota parents. Everywhere else in the country, spring had sprung; here, it would be at least another month before the kids could be humanely disgorged into the yard. All week long, I attended Early Childhood Family Education classes in and around Minneapolis and St. Paul, listening to roughly 125 parents talk about their lives. And all week long, at some point or another, almost all would give the same report: their nerves were shot and so were their kids’ toys—the Play-Doh reduced to dry chips, the Legos scattered in a housewide diaspora. Everyone had the look of a passenger who’d been trapped far too long in coach and could not wait, for the love of everything that was holy, to deplane.

Minnesota’s Early Childhood Family Education program (or ECFE, as I’ll be referring to it from now on) is immensely popular and unique to the state, which is the reason I’ve come here. For a sliding-scale fee—and in some cases, no fee at all—any parent of a child who’s not yet in kindergarten can attend a weekly class. And they do, in great numbers: in 2010, nearly 90,000 moms and dads signed up for one. The themes of the classes vary, but what they all have in common is an opportunity for parents to confide, learn, and let off steam.

The first half of each class is straightforward, with parents and children interacting in a group facilitated by ECFE’s staff of early childhood education professionals. But the second half—that’s when things get interesting. The parents leave their kids in the hands of those same professionals and retreat to a room of their own, where for sixty blissful minutes they become grown-ups again. Coffee is consumed; hair is let down; notes are compared. A parent educator always guides the discussion.

I met Jessie in one of the smaller ECFE classes in South Minneapolis and instantly liked her. She was one of those curious women who seemed not to realize she was pretty, carrying herself in a slightly distracted way. Her contributions to the discussion, while often wry (“I blame Oprah”), also suggested that she wasn’t afraid of her darker, spikier feelings, and that she could even take a dispassionate view of them, as a lab researcher might of her rats. About midway through the class, for instance, she mentioned that she’d managed to get out of the house the previous evening to meet a girlfriend—a triumph, considering she had three kids under the age of six—“and I had this moment,” she said, “where I realized, This is how it feels when moms run away from their kids. I could see why moms get in their cars and just . . . keep driving.” She luxuriated for a few minutes in the high of being alone—just her on the open road, no children strapped into the car seats. “And then I had this actual fantasy for a few minutes,” she said. “What if I just keep driving?

She was not seriously entertaining this idea. Jessie was clearly a secure mother, which was why she was comfortable enough to confess this fleeting vision aloud. It was also clear, though, that she was dead-tired and not a little overwhelmed. She was trying to expand her new portrait photography business, based in the den of her home; she was living paycheck to paycheck; her youngest was just eight months old. She didn’t have the resources to put her children in ballet classes and soccer, much less something as luxurious as preschool. She couldn’t afford a babysitter for so much as one morning a week. Every trip to the grocery store involved loading all three kids in the car. “I just have these selfish bouts sometimes,” she said. “Like: I don’t want to change another diaper. I don’t want my kids hanging all over me 24/7. I want to have a phone conversation without being interrupted.

She was simply craving a few perks of her old life. But they were hard to come by with three small children in the house. Perhaps Erma Bombeck put it best more than thirty years ago when one of her characters declared: “I have not been alone in the bathroom since October.”

ONE DAY YOU ARE a paragon of self-determination, coming and going as you please; the next, you are a parent, laden with gear and unhooked from the rhythms of normal adult life. It’s not an accident that the early years of parenting often register in studies as the least happy ones. They’re the bunker years, short in the scheme of things but often endless-seeming in real time. The autonomy that parents once took for granted has curtly deserted them, a fact that came up again and again among ECFE parents.

One father who’d opted to stay home with his two kids told his group—all stay-at-home dads—about running into a former colleague who was heading to Cuba for work. “And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s great,’ ” he said, gnashing his teeth, making it clear that he in fact thought it was the least great thing he’d heard in a while. He added:

I see people who seem a lot more free, and they’re doing things I wish that I could do, but for the fact that I have my family. Of course, did I want a family? Yes, I did. And do I get a lot of joy out of my children? Yes, I do. But in the day-to-day, it’s sometimes hard to see. You rarely get a chance to do what you want, when you want.

Until fairly recently, what parents wanted was utterly beside the point. But we now live in an age when the map of our desires has gotten considerably larger, and we’ve been told it’s our right (obligation, in fact) to try to fulfill them. In an end-of-the-millennium essay, the historian J. M. Roberts wrote: “The 20th century has spread as never before the idea that human happiness is realizable on Earth.” That’s a wonderful thing, of course, but not always a realistic goal, and when reality falls short of expectations, we often blame ourselves. “Our lives become an elegy to needs unmet and desires sacrificed, to possibilities refused, to roads not taken,” writes the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in his 2012 collection of essays, Missing Out. “The myth of potential makes mourning and complaining feel like the realest things we ever do.” Even if our dreams were never realizable, even if they were false from the start, we regret not pursuing them. “We can’t imagine our lives,” writes Phillips, “without the unlived lives they contain.” And so we ask: What if I just keep driving?

Today’s adults have an added reason to be spooked by those unlived lives: they have more time to exploit their potential before their children come along. Using National Vital Statistics birth data from 2010, a report by the National Marriage Project recently calculated that the average age of a college-educated woman at first birth is now 30.3 years old. The report added that college-educated women “typically have their first child more than two years after marrying.” The consequence of this deferment is a heightened sense of contrast—before versus after. These parents now have an exquisite memory of what their lives were like before their children came along. They spent roughly a decade on their own, experimenting with different jobs, romantic partners, and living arrangements. That’s twice as long as many of them spent in college.

During my week attending ECFE classes, few people talked about this before-and-after with more honesty or descriptive power than Jessie. In her early twenties she had taught English in Germany, worked at a pub in England, and done a brief stint as a flight attendant for Delta; now she was spending her days in a 1,700-square-foot bungalow with one bathroom (a lovely bungalow, but still). In her late twenties she had decided she wanted a career in advertising, and she was well en route to one by the time her first child was born; now she was presiding over a new, family-friendlier business (so she assumed), her peaceful downtown office replaced by a boisterous niche across from the TV room. “I really, really struggle with this still,” she told her group. “It was just me and my husband until I was thirty-two.”

Having children enlarges our lives in loads of unimaginable ways. But it also disrupts our autonomy in ways we couldn’t have imagined, whether it’s in our work, our leisure, or the banal routines of our day-to-day lives. So that’s where this book begins: with a dissection of those reconfigured lives and an attempt to explain why they look and feel the way they do.

Purloined sleep

One of the advantages to arriving at a household at 8:00 A.M.—assuming you can get past the inherent weirdness of everyone still half-clad in pajamas and walking around with uncombed hair—is that you can read in the parents’ faces the story of both that morning and the evening before. When I visit Jessie in her South Minneapolis home a few months after our first meeting at ECFE, her husband, a civil engineer, is already long gone for work. But she’s here and she’s tired: it’s clear that she either woke up early or went to bed late. It turns out the answer is both.

“Before you got here, I was so depressed,” she confesses, shutting the door behind me. She’s wearing a striped purple-and-maroon tank top, her long hair wet and bunched in a ponytail. Bella, five, and Abe, four, are both padding about, merry and oblivious to their mother’s exhaustion, while the baby, William, is asleep upstairs. “The baby got up early,” she explains. “And the others were up early too, and then the baby threw up on one of his stuffed animals.” At roughly the same moment, Abe wet the bed, which meant the sheets had to be changed and he had to be bathed. Then William started spitting up juice in spectacular projectile fashion at breakfast. “This was at 7:37,” she says. “I know, because I was thinking, It’s way too early for everything to be falling apart.

Which explains why she was up early. Why she was up late the night before is another story. Nighttime is Jessie’s one opportunity for uninterrupted work, and she has an afternoon deadline today. Plus, she was fretting: she and her family will soon be decamping to the suburbs, in order to cut costs. The move should theoretically reduce her stress (“Half the taxes and half the price,” she tells me), but she doesn’t know a soul in her new community. Between her worries and her work, she didn’t climb into bed until 3:00 A.M.

On some mornings, Jessie admits, she’s so exhausted that the most she can do is set bowls of Cheerios and a cup of milk on the kitchen counter and then return to bed. “I do know a couple of moms who get enough sleep,” she says. “I always wonder how they do it. Because I sure don’t.”

OF ALL THE TORMENTS of new parents, sleeplessness is the most infamous. But most parents-to-be, no matter how much they’ve been warned, don’t fully grasp this idea until their first child comes along. Perhaps that’s because they think they know what sleep deprivation feels like. But there’s a profound difference between sustained sleep loss and the occasional bad night. David Dinges, one of the country’s foremost experts on partial sleep deprivation, says that the population seems to divide roughly in thirds when it comes to prolonged sleep loss: those who handle it fairly well, those who sort of fall apart, and those who respond catastrophically. The problem is, most prospective parents have no clue which type they are until their kids come along. (Personally, I was the third type—just two bad nights, and blam, I was halfway down the loonytown freeway to hysterical exhaustion.)

Whatever type you may be—and Dinges suspects it’s a fixed trait, evenly distributed between women and men—the emotional consequences of sleep loss are powerful enough to have earned their own analysis by Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues, the ones who looked at those 909 Texas women and found that they ranked time with their children lower than doing laundry. The women who’d had six hours of sleep or less were in a different league of unhappiness, almost, than those who’d had seven hours or more. The gap in their well-being was so extreme that it exceeded the gap between those who earned under $30,000 annually and those who earned over $90,000. (In newspapers and magazines, this finding is sometimes re-reported as “an hour extra of sleep is worth a $60,000 raise,” which isn’t exactly right, but close enough.)

A 2004 poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that parents of children two months old and younger slept, on average, just 6.2 hours during the night, and the numbers weren’t much better for parents of children ten years old and younger, with their reports averaging only 6.8 hours of sleep per night. Other studies aren’t quite so bleak: Hawley Montgomery-Downs, a neuroscientist who has done lots of work on this topic, recently found that parents of newborns average the same amount of sleep per night as nonparents—7.2 hours per night—with the crucial difference being that it’s noncontinuous.

No matter which study they’re consulting, though, most researchers agree that the sleep patterns of new parents are fragmented, unpredictable, and just plain rotten, failing to do the one thing we love most about sleep, which is to restore the body and mind. As I noted in the introduction, just a brief period of sleep deprivation compromises a person’s performance as much as consuming excess alcohol. “So you can imagine the effects of sleeping for four hours every night for three months,” says Michael H. Bonnet, a sleep researcher and clinical director of Kettering Medical Center in Dayton, Ohio. “We tend to think of it as a list of bad side effects: ‘Well, this happens and this happens and this happens.’ But it’s the comparison with the alcohol studies that really makes the point, because we have agreed, as a society, that driving while drunk is punishable.”

Bonnet adds that the sleep-deprived score higher on measures of irritability and lower on measures of inhibition too, which isn’t an especially useful combination for parents, who are trying to keep their cool. Psychologists in fact have a term for the slow, incremental erosion of our self-restraint: they call it “ego depletion.” In 2011 the psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and New York Times columnist John Tierney wrote a book on the subject called Willpower, whose central argument is that self-control, unfortunately, is not a bottomless resource. One of the most intriguing studies cited by the authors concluded, after following more than two hundred subjects throughout the day, that “the more willpower people expended, the more likely they became to yield to the next temptation that came along.”

For me, this finding raises a question: assuming that parents spend a great deal of time fighting off the urge to sleep—and the urge to sleep is one of the two most common urges that adults try to fight (the other being the urge to eat)—then what urges do parents later succumb to instead? The most obvious answer I can think of is the urge to yell, an upsetting thought—nothing makes a mother or father feel quite so awful as hollering at the most vulnerable people in their lives. Yet that’s what we do. Jessie confesses it’s what she does, in spite of her enviably mellow disposition. “I’ll yell,” she says, “and then I’ll feel bad that I yelled, and then I’ll feel mad at myself: Why didn’t I get enough sleep?

Five-year-old Bella wanders into the kitchen, where her mother and I have parked ourselves. Jessie cups her daughter’s face in her hands. “What’s up?”

“I’m hungry.”

“So what do you say?”

“May I have something to eat, please?”

“Yes.” Jessie flings open the fridge. Bella stares into it. Abe wanders over. The baby, William, is still down for his morning nap. “Abe, you want some yogurt?”

“Yeah.”

“Yes please, Mama,” Jessie corrects. “You’re the best, Mama.” She smiles and rolls her eyes. Too much to ask for, obviously, but a woman can dream. “Are you guys going to make apple pie?” Jessie’s not talking about apple pie in the traditional sense, but something the kids invented: yogurt topped with applesauce and Cheerios and cinnamon. They have “pie-eating” contests sometimes, to see who got the ratios just right.

“Yes!”

The kids head out to the dining room while we remain in the kitchen. All is quiet for a little while. But a few minutes later, as we walk through the dining room to Jessie’s office, we see Abe place a Play-Doh set onto a blob of yogurt. “Abe, no!” Jessie says, lunging quickly to avert a gloppy mess. Too late. “Everything off the table until I wipe it up, okay?” It’s the first time I’ve heard tension creep into her voice all morning. She’s so calm one almost forgets that life with small children is a long-running experiment in contained bedlam. She wipes the yogurt silhouette away, then stops for a brief second, staring at a constellation of Cheerios and crackers behind William’s high chair, which he’d obviously been tossing behind him earlier that morning. Should she even bother cleaning it up? The kids are about to embark on another grubby project anyway, rolling Play-Doh hot dogs all over the dining room table. “Later,” she decides, and continues into her office.

IN HIS 2005 COLLECTION of essays Going Sane, Adam Phillips makes a keen observation. “Babies may be sweet, babies may be beautiful, babies may be adored,” he writes, “but they have all the characteristics that are identified as mad when they are found too brazenly in adults.” He lists those characteristics: Babies are incontinent. They don’t speak our language. They require constant monitoring to prevent self-harm. “They seem to live the excessively wishful lives,” he notes, “of those who assume that they are the only person in the world.” The same is true, Phillips goes on to argue, of young children, who want so much and possess so little self-control. “The modern child,” he observes. “Too much desire; too little organization.” Children are pashas of excess.

If you’ve spent most of your adult life in the company of other adults—especially in the workplace, where social niceties are observed and rational discourse is generally the coin of the realm—it requires some adjusting to spend so much time in the company of people who feel more than think. (When I first read Phillips’s observations about the parallels between children and madmen, it so happened that my son, three at the time, was screaming from his room, “I. Don’t. Want. To. Wear. PANTS.”)

Yet children do not see themselves as excessive. “Children would be very surprised,” Phillips writes, “to discover just how mad we think they are.” The real danger, in his view, is that children can drive their parents crazy. The extravagance of children’s wishes, behaviors, and energies all become a threat to their parents’ well-ordered lives. “All the modern prescriptive childrearing literature,” he concludes, “is about how not to drive someone (the child) mad and how not to be driven mad (by the child).”

This insight helps clarify why parents so often feel powerless around their young children, even though they’re putatively in charge. To a preschooler, all rumpus room calisthenics—whether it’s bouncing from couch cushion to couch cushion, banging on tables, or heaving bowls of spaghetti onto the floor—feel normal. But to adults, the child looks as though he or she has suddenly slipped into one of Maurice Sendak’s wolf suits. The grown-up response is to put a stop to the child’s mischief, because that’s the adult’s job, and that’s what civilized living is all about. Yet parents intuit, on some level, that children are meant to make messes, to be noisy, to test boundaries. “All parents at some time feel overwhelmed by their children; feel that their children ask more of them than they can provide,” writes Phillips in another essay. “One of the most difficult things about being a parent is that you have to bear the fact that you have to frustrate your child.”

THERE ARE BIOLOGICAL UNDERPINNINGS that help explain why young children drive us crazy. Adults have a fully developed prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that sits just behind the forehead, while the prefrontal cortexes of young children are barely developed at all. The prefrontal cortex controls executive function, which allows us to organize our thoughts and (as a result) our actions. Without this ability, we cannot focus our attention. And this, in some ways, is one of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with little kids: their attention is unfocused (or suffers from what Phillips might call “too little organization”).

But again: children themselves do not perceive their attention as unfocused. In The Philosophical Baby, the psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik makes a distinction between a lantern and a spotlight: the spotlight illuminates just one thing while the lantern throws off a 360-degree glow. Adults have a spotlight consciousness. The consciousness of small children, on the other hand, is more like a lantern. By design, infants and preschoolers are highly distractible, like bugs with eyes all over their heads. And because the prefrontal cortex controls inhibitions as well as executive function, young children lack compunction about investigating every tangential object that captures their fancy. “Anyone who tries to persuade a three-year-old to get dressed for preschool will develop an appreciation of inhibition,” she writes. “It would be so much easier if they didn’t stop to explore every speck of dust on the floor.”

You don’t have to be especially clever to infer from this difference that adults might therefore find children a bit difficult to synchronize with their own agendas. A parent wants to put on a child’s shoes and go to preschool; the child might agree, but then again, she might not, deciding it is vastly more important at that moment to play with her socks. Perhaps the parent has time to indulge this fascination, perhaps the parent doesn’t. Either way, the parent must adapt, and that is hard: part of the reason we consider the world a comfortable place is because we can more or less predict the behavior of those in our lives. Small children send predictability out the window.

In addition to reason and focus and inhibition, the prefrontal cortex controls our ability to plan, to forecast, to ponder the future. But young children, whose prefrontal cortexes have barely begun to ripen, can’t conceive of a future, which means they spend their lives in the permanent present, a forever feeling of right now. At times, this is a desirable state of consciousness; indeed, for meditators, it’s the ultimate aspiration. But living in the permanent present is not a practical parenting strategy.

“Everybody would like to be in the present,” says Daniel Gilbert, a social psychologist at Harvard and author of the 2006 best-seller Stumbling on Happiness. “Certainly it’s true that there is an important role for being present in our lives. All the data say that. My own research says that.” The difference is that children, by definition, only live in the present, which means that you, as a parent, don’t get much of a chance. “Everyone is moving at the same speed toward the future,” he says. “But your children are moving at that same speed with their eyes closed. So you’re the ones who’ve got to steer.” He thinks about this for a moment. “You know, back in the early seventies, I hung out with a lot of people who wanted to live in the present. And it meant that no one paid the rent.”

In effect, parents and small children have two completely different temporal outlooks. Parents can project into the future; their young children, anchored in the present, have a much harder time of it. This difference can be a formula for heartbreak for a small child. Toddlers cannot appreciate, as an adult can, that when they’re told to put their blocks away, they’ll be able to resume playing with them at some later date. They do not care, when told they can’t have another bag of potato chips, that life is long and teeming with potato chips. They want them now, because now is where they live.

Yet somehow mothers and fathers believe that if only they could convey the logic of their decisions, their young children would understand it. That’s what their adult brains thrived on for all those years before their children came along: rational chitchat, in which motives were elucidated and careful analyses dutifully dispatched. But young children lead intensely emotional lives. Reasoned discussion does not have the same effect on them, and their brains are not yet optimized for it. “I do make the mistake of talking to my daughter sometimes like she’s an adult,” a woman named Kenya confessed to her ECFE group. “I expect her to understand. Like if I break things down enough, she’ll get it.”

The class instructor, Todd Kolod, nodded sympathetically. He’d heard it a thousand times before. It’s the “little adult” problem, he explained. We mistakenly believe our children will be persuaded by our ways of reasoning. “But your three-year-old,” he gently told her, “is never going to say, ‘Yes, you’re right. You have a point.’ ”

Flow

“You want a dance party?” Jessie asks. “A pillow fight? A sword fight?” William has awakened from his morning nap, so she’s taking a break from her work. One of the loveliest things about Jessie as a mother is that she seriously embraces play. She loves rocking out to music, loves art projects, loves clue games. (As in: “Something you pick.” Answer: “Booger.”) “Get off my boat!” she tells Abe, whose obsession of the moment is pirates. “Get on your own boat!” She picks up a light saber and jousts with one hand while cranking up the music on an iPod dock with the other. Then she picks up William, spins, and gives Abe a wicked look. “I’m stealing your boat! I’m going to take all your treasure!”

Abe bangs his light saber on the ground.

She looks mildly cross for a second. “Don’t do that. You’ll break it.” Then, back in character: “Less talk, more action!” She leans in with her light saber to attack Abe, then gives it to William to do the same. She puts William down and begins to tickle Abe, who likes it at first, but objects when she moves in to devour his belly.

“Don’t do that,” he tells her. Their rhythm, again, is disrupted.

“Don’t do that?” she says. “You know why I do that? Because I love you.” She turns him upside down.

“No!” he repeats.

She looks at him assessingly. “You were up too early, huh? Okay. No swinging.” She decides to change both songs and tactics, turning her son right side up and holding him in a koala hug as she finds a beautiful Spanish ballad. They start to slow-dance. It clicks. The music forms a cocoon around them, as if I’m not even there. Abe melts into his mother’s shoulder. She breathes him in.

NO GRAPH IN THE world can do full justice to these unexpected moments. They’re sweet little bursts of grace, and they leave sense-memories on the skin (the smell of the child’s shampoo, the smoothness of his arms). That’s why we’re here, leading this life, isn’t it? To know this kind of enchantment?

The question is why such moments, at least with small children, often feel so hard-won, so shatterable, and so fleeting, as if located between parentheses. After just a few minutes of this dreamy slow-dance with Abe, William does a face-plant and starts howling. Jessie sambas over and handles it with humor. This is the drill.

I’d like to propose a possible explanation for why these moments of grace are so rare: the early years of family life don’t offer up many activities that lend themselves to what psychologists call “flow.” Simply put, flow is a state of being in which we are so engrossed in the task at hand—so fortified by our own sense of agency, of mastery—that we lose all sense of our surroundings, as though time has stopped. Athletes commonly experience this feeling when they’re sinking every shot or completing every pass (“being in the zone,” they call it); artists commonly experience it too, when music or paint pours out of them as if they were mere spigots.

The paradoxical thing about flow is that it is often marked by an absence of feeling, experienced nonetheless as a form of undiluted bliss. That’s what makes flow one of the most beguiling and equal-opportunity parts of our emotional lives: no matter what kind of temperament we’ve been handed, even if it’s melancholic, almost all of us have the ability to lose ourselves in something we love and do well.

In order to experience this kind of magical engagement, though, circumstances need to align. This is where the work of the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a revelation. For decades, Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced as “cheeks sent me high”) has been thinking about flow, analyzing the conditions that make it possible, and looking in broad cultural terms at what gives us our deepest satisfactions. He has dissected the flow experiences of thousands of people. In 1983, he even codeveloped an innovative technique to measure it, by contacting study participants at random intervals and asking them to record not just what they were doing at that moment but how they felt about it. (Bored? Engaged? In control? Scared? Stressed? Exhilarated?) He called this tool the Experience Sampling Method, or ESM. It was an inspired contribution to his field. Researchers for the first time were making the distinction between how study participants felt in the moment and how they felt retrospectively.

Eventually, Csikszentmihalyi began to notice common patterns in flow experience. Most flow experiences occur, for example, during situations that are “goal-oriented and bounded by rules.” In fact, most activities that lend themselves to flow are designed to maximally engage our attention and expand our competence—like athletics or intense work. “They have rules that require the learning of skills,” he writes in Flow, his 1990 book on the subject. “They set up goals, they provide feedback, they make control possible.”

In theory, young children like rules. But they’re pretty spotty observers of them. Every parent has a story about a perfectly planned day—a trip to the zoo, a jaunt to the local ice cream joint—that devolved into something close to anarchy. Most of life with young children does not have a script, and if a parent attempts to write one, children may not be inclined to follow it. That’s what it means to look after people with immature prefrontal cortexes. Their neurocircuitry conspires against focus. Gopnik says it outright, midway through The Philosophical Baby: “This expansive lantern consciousness is almost the opposite of the distinctive adult happiness that comes with what psychologists call ‘flow.’ ” To be in flow, one must pay close and focused attention. Yet very young children are wired for discovery, for sweeping in lots of stimuli. And if they can’t be in flow, chances are you’ll have a hard time slipping into flow yourself—in the same way that athletes have a much harder time finding their groove if their teammates are distracted.

This subject came up repeatedly in ECFE classes. At one point, Annette Gagliardi, a veteran instructor, started to ask the parents in one of her seminars whether having a focused plan for the day made them happier. One mother cut her off. “Only if the plan goes well. If there are meltdowns, it’s What was I thinking?

“Which is why I have very low expectations,” said another. “You shoot for the bare minimum and are excited by anything else.”

A clear plan isn’t the only requirement for flow. Csikszentmihalyi also noticed that we enjoy ourselves most when we’re positioned “at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with [our] capacity to act.” Yet parents of young children often describe the sensation of lurching back and forth between those two poles—boredom and anxiety—rather than being able to comfortably settle somewhere in the middle. “To the extent that we are not maximally happy when we’re with our young children,” says Daniel Gilbert, the social psychologist, “it could be that they’re demanding things of us we find difficult to give. But it could also be that they’re not demanding that much.

Consider what happens at the end of Jessie’s impromptu dance party. Once William begins to wail, she has a hard time figuring out how, precisely, to console him. She tries rocking him, she tries giving him Cheerios; at one point, she even tries picking him up, while Abe is still on her shoulder. But the only thing that seems to work, in the end, is the simplest repeated act: tossing a pair of pants from the laundry basket over his head and yanking them off. “Where’s William?” she asks. Whoosh. “There he is!” Another toss. “Where’s William?” Whoosh. “There he is!” It’s boring, sure, and there’s certainly no flow. But it works.

Boredom can be an awkward topic for parents. It feels like a betrayal to admit that time spent with one’s children isn’t always stimulating. But even Benjamin Spock, the cuddly pediatrician who dominated the child-rearing advice market for the second half of the twentieth century, talked about it. “The fact is,” he once wrote, “setting aside a chunk of time to be devoted exclusively to companionship with children is a somewhat boring prospect to a lot of good parents.” Boredom also came up in the ECFE classes I attended, including Jessie’s, with the instructor herself confessing that she found it dull to play “My Little Pony” when her daughter was small. “That was the most negative emotion I experienced as a father,” recalls Gilbert. “Boredom. Throwing the ball back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. The endless repetition, the can-you-do-it-again, the can-you-read-the-same-story-one-more-time. There were times I just thought, Give me a gun.

In Flow, Csikszentmihalyi explains that most flow experiences happen apart from everyday life rather than in the midst of it. But raising children is everyday life. In Csikszentmihalyi’s view, people have more control in specialized settings, even dangerous ones; hang-gliders, deep-sea divers, or race car drivers, writes Csikszentmihalyi, still “report flow experiences in which a heightened sense of control plays an important part,” because they feel the possibility of success. Above all, people report experiences of flow while they’re working. It sounds counterintuitive, but not if one considers how propitious work conditions are to flow: work provides rules, clear-cut goals, and immediate feedback.

After finishing Flow, the reader comes away with the unmistakable impression that most people find themselves in flow when they’re alone. Csikszentmihalyi talks about fishing, cycling, and rock climbing; about solving equations, playing music, and writing poems. As a rule, the experiences he describes do not involve much social interaction, least of all with children.

I was so struck by Flow’s negative implications for parents that I decided I wanted to speak to Csikszentmihalyi, just to make sure I wasn’t misreading him. And eventually I did, at a conference in Philadelphia where he was one of the marquee speakers. As we sat down to chat, the first thing I asked was why he talked so little about family life in Flow. He devotes only ten pages to it. “Let me tell you a couple of things that may be relevant to you,” he said. And then he told a personal story. When Csikszentmihalyi first developed the Experience Sampling Method, one of the first people he tried it out on was himself. “And at the end of the week,” he said, “I looked at my responses, and one thing that suddenly was very strange to me was that every time I was with my two sons, my moods were always very, very negative.” His sons weren’t toddlers at that point either. They were older. “And I said, ‘This doesn’t make any sense to me, because I’m very proud of them, and we have a good relationship.’ ” But then he started to look at what, specifically, he was doing with his sons that made his feelings so negative. “And what was I doing?” he asked. “I was saying, ‘It’s time to get up, or you will be late for school.’ Or, ‘You haven’t put away your cereal dish from breakfast.’ ” He was nagging, in other words, and nagging is not a flow activity. “I realized,” he said, “that being a parent consists, in large part, of correcting the growth pattern of a person who is not necessarily ready to live in a civilized society.”

I asked if, in that same data set, he had any numbers about flow in family life. None were in his book. He said he did. “They were low. Family life is organized in a way that flow is very difficult to achieve, because we assume that family life is supposed to relax us and to make us happy. But instead of being happy, people get bored.” Or enervated, as he’d said before, when talking about disciplining his sons. And because children are constantly changing, the “rules” of handling them change too, which can further confound a family’s ability to flow. “And then we get into these spirals of conflict and so forth,” he continued. “That’s why I’m saying it’s easier to get into flow at work. Work is more structured. It’s structured more like a game. It has clear goals, you get feedback, you know what has to be done, there are limits.” He thought about this. “Partly, the lack of structure in family life, which seems to give people freedom, is actually a kind of an impediment.”

Divided attention

It’s early afternoon, William is down for his second nap, and Jessie is sitting in front of her computer, staring at an image from her most recent photo shoot. It’s pretty wonderful—a woman pulling two kids in a red wagon—but Jessie’s not pleased with it, and this client is scheduled to come by tomorrow evening. Jessie is determined to get her portfolio right.

Bella walks in. “Mom, I need help.”

Jessie is still staring at the screen. “What’s going on?”

“I want to do Roku.”

“You can’t do Roku right now. Watch a movie.”

“I need you.

She sighs, gets up from her desk, and walks into the TV room, just opposite her office. “Bella, you need to change the channel. Here.” She punches a button.

Flow is hard enough to achieve if your sole task is trying to care for your kids. But it’s even harder if you’re trying to care for your children and work at the same time. Today, that’s what many of us are doing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly one-quarter of employed men and women work from home at least some of the time. Even those who work exclusively outside the home now find that the border between their living room and their workplace has dissolved. Once upon a time, only doctors had to live with after-hours disruptions. Now, many professionals walk around with the impression that everything they do is urgent. Emergencies are regular occurrences; late-night texts in all caps go with the territory. The portability and accessibility of our work has created the impression that we should always be available. It’s as if we’re all leading lives of anti-flow, of chronic interruptions and ceaseless multitasking.

This subject, too, surfaced and resurfaced in ECFE classes. Responding to the beckoning smart phone and the siren call of email—these turned out to be huge and surprisingly shameful refrains among parents, as if their children were the disruptions, rather than the other way around. One father summed up his feelings in two sentences: “There are days I’m able to put work behind me and just be with my son, and it feels awesome. But then there are days when all I’m thinking is, If I can get this kid taken care of, I can get back on the computer, and it feels terrible.”

Parents attempting to work out of their homes brought up this topic the most. Jessie talked at length about her divided attention—how difficult she found it, both emotionally and intellectually, to toggle between her portrait business and her children’s needs. She knew she wanted to stay at home. Her own mother had died just two years before Bella came along, and the black abruptness of it crystallized, in her mind, the importance of being around as a parent. But she also came from a long line of female breadwinners, “women with master’s degrees and women who ran companies.” Anyway, she liked her work. It gave her a sense of independence and pride. But she couldn’t figure out how to manage the rhythms and demands of both her family and her work at the same time, especially after William, her third, was born. “I think back to yesterday,” she told her class, “and I knew what the good parent should do. I knew I should stop.” She’d been editing a photo shoot, just as she is doing today, and William had started to cry. “I knew that if I gave him the bottle and I held him and I kissed him, it would be all right,” she continued. “But I had this deadline over my head, and for some reason I couldn’t let it go. So I’m emailing the parent, and I’m trying to work . . . all while feeling bad about myself and this choice. I’m not even sure why I made it. No one benefited in the end.” You could see the confusion in her face.

Neurologically speaking, though, there are reasons we develop a confused sense of priorities when we’re in front of our computer screens. For one thing, email comes at unpredictable intervals, which, as B. F. Skinner famously showed with rats seeking pellets, is the most seductive and habit-forming reward pattern to the mammalian brain. (Think about it: would slot machines be half as thrilling if you knew when, and how often, you were going to get three cherries?) Jessie would later say as much to me when I asked her why she was “obsessed”—her word—with her email: “It’s like fishing. You just never know what you’re going to get.”

More to the point, our nervous systems can become dysregulated when we sit in front of a screen. This, at least, is the theory of Linda Stone, formerly a researcher and senior executive at Microsoft Corporation. She notes that we often hold our breath or breathe shallowly when we’re working at our computers. She calls this phenomenon “email apnea” or “screen apnea.” “The result,” writes Stone in an email, “is a stress response. We become more agitated and impulsive than we’d ordinarily be.”

One could still make the case that smart phones and living room WiFi have been a boon to today’s middle-class parents, because they allow mothers and fathers the flexibility to work from home. The difficulty, in the words of Dalton Conley, an NYU sociologist, is that they allow “many professionals with children to work from home all the time.” The result, he writes in his book Elsewhere USA, is that “work becomes the engine and the person the caboose, despite all this so-called freedom and efficiency.” A wired home lulls us into the belief that maintaining our old work habits while caring for our children is still possible.

The problems with this arrangement are obvious. As Jessie observed, trying to do two things at once doesn’t work so well. Humans may pride themselves on their ability to swing from one task to another and then back again, but task-switching isn’t really a specialty of our species, as reams of studies have shown. According to Mary Czerwinski, another attention expert at Microsoft Corporation, we don’t process information as thoroughly when we task-switch, which means that information doesn’t sink into our long-term memories as deeply or spur us toward our most intelligent choices and associations. We also lose time whenever we switch tasks, because it takes a while to intellectually relax into a project and build a head of steam.

And that’s just at the office. It’s likely that our work suffers even more acutely when we’re attempting to do it from home. Disruptions at the office—say, an email from a colleague inquiring about a memo—usually generate little emotional heat. Disruptions from children, on the other hand, often generate plenty of it, and strong emotions aren’t easy to subdue. “There’s a warm-up period,” explains David E. Meyer, an expert on multitasking at the University of Michigan. “And then there’s a calming-down period that happens subsequently. And both take extra time away from getting a task done. The hormones that happen after an emotion linger in the bloodstream for hours, sometimes days.” Especially if the emotion is a negative one. “If the interlude involves anger or sadness,” he says, “or the kinds of emotions Buddhists refer to as ‘destructive,’ they’re going to have a much more negative impact on something you were doing that was emotionally neutral.”

So imagine your child is having a meltdown while you’re working. Or he’s hungry, or skins his knee, or is fighting with his sister. We physically experience these disruptions differently. “This is over and above the stuff that happens when you switch between two different windows that are neutral in nature,” says Meyer. “This is emotional task-switching. I don’t know if anyone’s ever used that term, but it has an additional layer to it.”

The result, almost no matter where you cut this deck, is guilt. Guilt over neglecting the children. Guilt over neglecting work. Working parents feel plenty of guilt as it is. But in the wired age, to paraphrase Dalton Conley, parents are able to feel that guilt all the time. There’s always something they’re neglecting.

I am now watching this conflict unspool in real time in Jessie’s home office. About thirty minutes after she’s helped Bella set up the movie, Bella walks back in. “Mom? It’s not doing that brrrrrrrrrrrrrrr—” She rolls her r’s, attempting to imitate the sound of a whirring videotape. They still use a VCR.

“It’s not rewinding?”

“No, it’s not rewinding, and I want to watch Barney again.”

Jessie gets up from her desk and goes to the family room with Bella, giving her a brief tutorial on how to rewind the tape. Then, for a third time, she returns to her office and tries to focus on her work, adjusting the light on an image that won’t cooperate. She still hates it. “I’m afraid this looks over-Photoshopped.”

Bella comes back through the door, this time with tears in her eyes. “It’s still not working!”

Jessie looks intently at her daughter. “Is it worth crying over?” Her daughter, wearing a denim skirt with two hearts on the rear pockets, seems to consider this question. “Take a breath. A breath, please. Okay? Calm down.” Jessie walks into the TV room. “See this?” She points to the VCR and then looks at Bella. “This button makes it go back to the beginning. And then you press Play.”

She goes back to her office a fourth time and takes her seat. She has not spent more than thirty consecutive minutes in front of her computer since she started, and her husband won’t be home until dinner. “Sometimes I notice that when the kids are really overwhelming me, work is a big release,” she says. “But at this moment, I’m not trying to get away. I have a real deadline.” She looks up. “I think I hear a baby.” She does. William’s awake. “Crap. I haven’t gotten enough done.” She fiddles with an image onscreen. “This job is very mental,” she says. “When I’m doing a shoot, I’m thinking about light and background and wardrobe and props. When I’m editing, I’m trying to make the pictures look magical without looking over-Photoshopped.” But then she gets lost in what she’s doing, and the kids start to beckon. Like now. A few minutes go by. “See?” she looks up at me, waiting for me to notice what she’s noticing. I give her a look indicating that I don’t. “I keep telling myself, I just want to edit this set I have open in Photoshop, and then I’ll get William.” She points upstairs. It’s dead quiet. What she’s noticed is an absence. We were both so absorbed in the photographs that we didn’t realize William had stopped crying.

Missing out?

Jessie could defer her professional dreams until her children are older. It’s a trade-off plenty of women make. She could forgo the money, forgo the satisfaction. In so doing, she could at least find relief in consolidating her time and energy into one main project—her kids—and focus on that alone, rather than feel dogged all the time by a sense of guilt.

Or Jessie could make a different choice: she could scale up her business and get out of the house entirely. If she’s going to contribute to the family economy and realize her full professional capabilities, she may as well go all out, right? Then, during work hours, she’s doing work. Not rewinding Barney, not mopping yogurt off the dining room table. Of course, it’s a costly proposition and may simply not be feasible: she’d have to take out a loan to make her business bigger. But it would afford her a better chance to experience flow. She’d be a photographer at work and a mother at home. Sure, the smart phone would still chirp and the inbox would still brim. But at least she’d have a formal division in place.

Jessie has instead chosen the hardest path. She’s trying to do both, improvising all day long as she juggles her dual responsibilities, never knowing when her kids will require attention or when a work deadline will crop up.

It’s a heady question, how women balance these concerns. Recently, the question has found its way back to the center of a contentious and very emotional debate. If you’re Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and author of Lean In, you believe that women should stop getting in their own way as they pursue their professional dreams—they should speak up, assert themselves, defend their right to dominate the boardroom and proudly wear the pants. If you’re Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former top State Department official who wrote a much-discussed story about work-life balance for The Atlantic in June 2012, you believe that the world, as it is currently structured, cannot accommodate the needs of women who are ambitious in both their professions and their home lives—social and economic change is required.

There’s truth to both arguments. They’re hardly mutually exclusive. Yet this question tends to get framed, rather tiresomely, as one of how and whether women can “have it all,” when the fact of the matter is that most women—and men, for that matter—are simply trying to keep body and soul together. The phrase “having it all” has little to do with what women want. If anything, it’s a reflection of a widespread and misplaced cultural belief, shared by men and women alike: that we, as middle-class Americans, have been given infinite promise, and it’s our obligation to exploit every ounce of it. “Having it all” is the phrase of a culture that, as Adam Phillips implies in Missing Out, is tyrannized by the idea of its own potential.

JUST A FEW GENERATIONS ago, most people didn’t wake up in the morning and fret about whether or not they were living their lives to the fullest. Freedom has always been built into the American experiment, of course, but the freedom to take off and go rock-climbing for the afternoon, or to study engineering, or even to sneak in ten minutes for ourselves in the morning to read the paper—these kinds of freedoms were not, until very recently, built into our private universes of anticipation. It’s important to remember that. If most of us don’t know what to do with our abundant choices and the pressures we feel to make the most of them, it may simply be because they’re so new.

The sociologist Andrew Cherlin makes this quite clear in his very readable 2009 book The Marriage-Go-Round. In the New England colonies, he notes, individual family members hardly expected time to themselves to pursue their own interests. There were too many children running around to allow anyone much peace and quiet (families in Plymouth averaged seven or eight kids each), and the architecture of the typical Puritan home conspired against solitary endeavors, with most activities concentrated in one main room. “Personal privacy,” he writes, “one of the taken-for-granted aspects of modern individualism, was in short supply.” From the moment of birth, people were enmeshed in a complex web of obligations and formal roles, and throughout their lives, they were expected to follow scripts that helped fulfill them.

It wasn’t until industrialization—and by extension, urbanization—that people began to have more control over their fates. For the first time, droves of young men left the orbit of their homes to find work in the factories of the expanding cities, meaning that they got to choose both their vocations and their wives. Women, too, gained a bit more control over their lives as the twentieth century progressed. People are often surprised to hear this, assuming that women had no agency at all until the late 1960s, with the blooming of the women’s movement. But in The Way We Never Were, the historian Stephanie Coontz shows that women worked outside the home steadily, and in increasing numbers, throughout the twentieth century. The 1950s, putatively the golden age of the family, were the real anomaly: the median age of women at first marriage fell to twenty (in 1940, it was twenty-three); birth rates increased (the number of women with three or more children doubled over twenty years); and women started dropping out of college at a much faster rate than men.

But by the 1960s, the college dropout rate between the sexes had evened out again, better positioning women for more opportunities in the workplace. The 1960s also brought the Pill, which gave women unprecedented freedom to plan their families (and choose their husbands, for that matter, by allowing them to avoid marriages forced by unwanted pregnancies). Then came the more liberal divorce laws of the 1970s, allowing women the economic freedom to leave marriages that made them unhappy.

The culmination of all these developments was a culture abundant in choice, with middle-class American men and women at liberty to chart the course of their lives in all sorts of ways that historically had been unthinkable. And the liberalization of the 1970s was nothing compared to today’s emphasis on self-realization. “Regardless of their educational level, Americans face a situation in which lifestyle choices, which were limited and optional a half century ago, are now mandatory,” writes Cherlin. “You must [emphasis his] choose, again and again. The result is an ongoing self-appraisal of how your personal life is going, like having a continual readout of your emotional heart rate.”

Few of us would want to reverse the historical advance that gave us our newfound freedoms. They’re the hard-won products of economic prosperity, technological progress, and the expansion of women’s rights. My mother had to marry at twenty in order to get out of her parents’ house and into a world of her own. The triumph of the women of her generation was to rewrite this rule—“get un-married and be free,” as Claire Dederer puts it in her beautiful memoir, Poser—which made it possible for their daughters to rent apartments, settle into careers, marry later, and even leave those marriages if they didn’t work out.

But these gains in freedom for both men and women often seem like a triumph of subtraction rather than addition. Over time, writes Coontz, Americans have come to define liberty “negatively, as lack of dependence, the right not to be obligated to others. Independence came to mean immunity from social claims on one’s wealth or time.”

If this is how you conceive of liberty—as freedom from obligation—then the transition to parenthood is a dizzying shock. Most Americans are free to choose or change spouses, and the middle class has at least a modicum of freedom to choose or change careers. But we can never choose or change our children. They are the last binding obligation in a culture that asks for almost no other permanent commitments at all.

Which leads back to Jessie’s fantasy of getting in the car, pulling onto the highway, and continuing to drive. She can’t, naturally, and never would. That itinerary exists only in her mind. No matter how perfect our circumstances, most of us, as Adam Phillips observed, “learn to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like.” The hard part is to make peace with that misty zone and to recognize that no life—no life worth living anyway—is free of constraints.

Chapter two
Marriage

My wife’s anger toward me seemed barely contained. “You only think about yourself,” she would tell me. “I never thought I’d have to raise a family alone.”

—Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (2006)

JESSIE THOMPSON’S ECFE CLASS was small and intense. Angelina Holder’s, on the other hand, was big and raucous. The women spoke with the ease of those who’d already heard each other’s life stories and conflicts (as in: “You saw what I was like a couple months ago—I didn’t want to be married anymore”). By turns, they encouraged and cut one another off, hoping to build on what previous speakers had said. The energy and goodwill of this group was partly a fluke, I’m sure, but also a by-product of living in the suburbs: these women described more social isolation than their peers who lived in denser areas, and they seemed more grateful to have a regularly scheduled social outlet.

This particular ECFE class included a lawyer, a police dispatcher, a women’s basketball coach, a computer scientist, and a Kohl’s part-time employee. Just over half of the women had temporarily given up their jobs to care full-time for their infants and toddlers; the others worked part-time, trying to balance work and home, which in almost every retelling was like trying to stand on top of a bowling ball.

At twenty-nine, Angie, whom you met in the introduction, was one of the youngest women in the group. She was also one of the few whose husband, Clint, sometimes attended the class, though it met during the day. “Can I go first?” she asked. “These last two weeks have been the worst two weeks of my life. “Eli”—short for Elijah, her older child, three years old—“had the stomach flu, and he hasn’t been sleeping, and I’ve had the brunt of everything. I’m the one getting up with the kids, getting them ready, still working, not sleeping, housecleaning.” Her voice quavered a little. “Me and my husband, the relationship is just horrible now. He doesn’t understand I’m at my breaking point. Yesterday he had this little stomachache, but I had to do everything still. And I was like, really?” Her voice broke. “I mean, okay, you have a stomachache. But who cares?”

She started to cry. “And I’m a nurse!”

It was a deliberate punch line, designed to alleviate her self-consciousness, and it worked. Several women burst out laughing. She joined them and briskly wiped away her tears. “He thinks that just because he works five days a week, from five in the morning until two, and because he takes out the garbage—”

“He takes out the garbage?” interrupted one of the women. “Awesome!”

“—or because he does the snow removal or takes care of the water softener,” she continued, “that I should take care of the kids more than he does.”

“And does he say, ‘Oh, it’s because they’re begging for Mommy anyway?’ ” asked another woman. “Because my husband says, ‘They won’t let me help,’ and I’m like, If you’ll take the time to do it. . . .”

“My husband has the ‘I make the money, you should do everything else’ complex,” said yet another. “He’s like, ‘I’ve worked all day,’ and I’m like, Gee, I wonder what I’ve done.

“Just, the resentment builds up,” said Angie. “And then I’ll talk to him about it, and he’s like, ‘Well, you need to do this and this and this, and then maybe I’ll feel better, and I’ll take more responsibility for the kids.’ ”

“Does he know it’s not a barter system?” asked a fourth.

“We go back and forth on what we both need,” Angie explained. “And then it’s okay for a few days. But then we’re right back where we started.”

“You,” declared yet another woman, “have to have a ‘Come to Jesus’ with him.”

With that, the matter was settled. The judgment was definitive, coming from her. She was the police dispatcher.

NEXT TO THE ABRUPT modification of our personal habits, perhaps the most dramatic consequence of having children is the change in our marriages. It can hardly be an accident that the first famous paper to challenge the conventional wisdom about the psychological benefits of having children, E. E. LeMasters’s 1957 “Parenthood as Crisis,” looked at couples rather than mothers or fathers individually.

LeMasters found that 83 percent of all new mothers and fathers were in “severe” crisis. If that figure sounds excessive, that’s because it probably is: no one since has posited anything quite so dire. But contemporary research on the transition to parenthood still yields some pretty sobering results. In 2009, four researchers analyzed the data of 132 couples from a larger study and found that roughly 90 percent of them experienced a decline in marital satisfaction after the birth of their first child—though the change, to be fair, had mainly “a small to medium negative effect” on their functioning. In 2003, three researchers reviewed nearly 100 surveys examining the correlation between children and marital satisfaction and found that “only 38% of women with infants [had] higher than average marital satisfaction, compared with 62% of childless women.” In When Partners Become Parents, published in 1992, the pioneering husband-and-wife team of Carolyn and Philip Cowan reported that nearly one-quarter of the 100 or so couples in their longitudinal survey indicated that their marriage was “in some distress” when their child hit the eighteen-month mark. “Couples in our study who felt upbeat,” they wrote, “were decidedly a minority.”

The Institute for American Values points out that one is more likely to be happy raising children as part of a couple than raising them alone, and that’s true. It’s also true that most marriages tend to decline over time, children or not. But pretty much all research suggests that, on average, the marital satisfaction curve bends noticeably the moment a child is born. Some studies say that parenthood merely hastens a decline already in progress, while others say that parenthood exaggerates it. Still others suggest that levels of marital satisfaction are a function of how old the couple’s children are, with the early years being an especially challenging time, followed by a period of some relief during the elementary school years, followed by another plunge during the slings and arrows of adolescence.

Yet there’s surprisingly little discussion about any of these theories in mainstream parenting books, other than cloying bromides (schedule date nights!). In social science, on the other hand, a couple’s transition to parenthood is one of the rare subjects that elicits intimate details from researchers themselves. Virtually everywhere else, When Partners Become Parents is an academic work, a book-length exposition of years of rigorous interviews and data collection. But its opening pages are intensely personal. The Cowans describe meeting as teenagers, marrying young, and having three children in quick succession. “By the time our children were in elementary school,” they wrote, “there was no avoiding the issue: Our relationship was very strained.” A number of friends, they noticed, were struggling too:

As we listened to the pain and disenchantment that other husbands and wives described in their relationships and struggled to make sense of our own, we began to hear a common refrain. We were experiencing distress now in our relationships as couples, but almost all of us could trace the beginning of our difficulties back to those early years of becoming a family.

Before they become parents, the partners in a couple often think of children as matrimonial enhancers, imagining that introducing them into their relationship will strengthen it and give it reasons to endure. And couples with children are, in point of fact, much less apt to divorce, at least while their children are young. But they’re also much more prone to conflict. The Cowans note in their book that 92 percent of their sample couples reported more disagreements after their baby was born. (This pattern isn’t confined to heterosexual relationships either: a 2006 paper reported that lesbian couples also showed increases in conflict once their children were born.) In 2009, an elegantly designed study by a trio of psychology professors showed that children generate more arguments than any other subject—more than money, more than work, more than in-laws, more than annoying personal habits, communication styles, leisure activities, commitment issues, bothersome friends, sex. In another study, the same researchers found that parents also argue more intensely in front of their children, with fathers showing more hostility, mothers showing more sadness, and the fights themselves resolving with less grace.

E. Mark Cummings, one of the authors, suspects that the reason for such open conflict is fairly straightforward: “When parents are really angry, they don’t have the self-control to go behind closed doors.” And maybe it’s as simple as that. But I have another theory, one that’s born less of quantitative analysis than of personal experience and interviews with strangers: I suspect that parents argue more aggressively in front of their children because children are a mute, ever-present reminder of life’s stakes. A fight about a husband’s lack of professional initiative or a wife’s harsh tone with her daughter is no longer just a fight about work habits or disciplinary styles. It’s a fight about the future—about what kind of role models they are, about what kind of people they aspire to be, about who and what they want their children to become. Do you want your son to see a father who finds the world an intimidating place and doesn’t have the gumption to ask for a raise? If your daughter turns into a screamer when she grows up, from whom do you think she’ll have learned it?

Whatever the explanation, we know there are many potential reasons for relationship conflict after the birth of a child. Increased financial tensions. A totally realigned social and sex life. The sense that the couple is struggling in this thing—this huge thing—alone. This chapter looks at all of these issues, but the one I’d like to start with is seemingly banal, yet nearly universal: the division of household labor. When a child comes along, the workload at home explodes exponentially, and the rules regarding who does what and how often get thrown into tense disarray. These rules are much harder to sort through than most couples realize, in part because there are so few norms about them in a culture where most women now work, but also because they stir up deep feelings that are about so much more than simple attitudes toward chores.

Women’s work

The morning I show up at Angie’s home in Rosemount, Minnesota, she too is exhausted, just as Jessie was, but not because she worked the evening before. Angie spent the night alternately struggling with an ailing back and a crying one-year-old, and she had little luck soothing either one. The one-year-old in question, Xavier (“Zay”), is in her arms as she opens the door (“he’d cry if I put him down”), and Eli, her three-year-old, is eating dinosaur oatmeal on the back deck. We walk outside to join him. He’s a serious young man, thoughtful and focused and sporting an awfully spiffy crew cut. Angie rubs his head and tells him to hurry up. A few minutes later, the four of us pile into the car and head to Little Explorers, a local summer program that meets twice a week.

As was the case with Jessie, I haven’t seen Angie since her ECFE class a few months ago. And like Jessie, Angie talks about the challenges of her life candidly and without self-pity. But that’s not the reason I’m here. I’m here because Angie and her husband, Clint, both do shift work, and shift work considerably aggravates the challenges of keeping a marriage intact while raising small children. It makes each parent feel like a single parent, with each tending separately to the kids and then heading off to a job without any help from the other. The arrangement is a formula for exhaustion, and it creates a scarcity economy on days off, pitting spouses against one another over who gets the easier assignments on the to-do list and who gets the spare hour for a bike ride or a nap. Each parent is convinced that he or she has had the more difficult week. “We’re in the same family with two different lives, two different views, two different opinions,” Angie tells me. “What I think is the situation and the hard parts, he doesn’t always.” And vice versa.

What’s interesting is that many couples with young children say they’re leading separate lives, even if their schedules are synchronized: they each take different children in the mornings and evenings; on weekends, they split carpooling and chores. The difference is that it’s structurally predetermined in Angie and Clint’s case. In their situation, many couples can see the same crude outlines of their own, but magnified to the power of ten. “Right now our life is such fragile chaos,” says Angie. “If there’s something a bit over the norm—Zay not sleeping at night, the dog getting sick, my back going out—it throws everything out of whack.”

At the time of my visit, Angie was working every other night as a psychiatric nurse, leaving home at 2:30 in the afternoon and returning home around midnight. Clint, meanwhile, worked five days a week as the morning manager of the Avis and Budget locations at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport. Every day, he rose at 4:00 A.M. and every day, he returned home at roughly 2:15 P.M. Several times a week—like today—Clint and Angie cross paths for only fifteen minutes.

Angie and I drive Eli to camp. As we’re getting into the car, I ask Angie how things have been since her ECFE class a few months earlier, when she seemed so distraught. “Last night, Clint and I got in a bit of an argument, actually,” she answers. Her blue eyes are surprisingly alert for a woman who slept only two hours the previous night. “I asked him for help with the dog,” she explains, “and he was like, ‘Don’t look at me!’ ”

The puppy, Echo, was her idea. She thought the kids would love to have a dog, and she was right. The trouble is, Clint thought house-training a new dog was crazy at this stage in their lives, and he was right too. “So I said, ‘Well, then you can get up at night with the kids,’ ” says Angie. And he did, for a while. “But then the baby had a screaming fit at 3:00 A.M.,” says Angie, “and that was me.”

Why not Clint?

“I felt bad!” she says. “He didn’t wake up, and the baby was screaming. But then I had a back spasm, and I started crying. . . .” So Clint climbed out of bed and got Angie an ice pack. “Tonight,” she declares, “he’s going to get up with that kid the entire time.”

All this haggling, of course, makes one wonder: did she and Clint discuss how they were going to divide up their responsibilities before the children were born?

“Yeah!” she exclaims, without hesitation. “And he was like, ‘Fifty-fifty! I want to do everything!’ ” I hear no bitterness in her voice. Just frustration. “It’s just that he’s still very selfish with his time. Whereas I’m like, ‘Kids first.’ ”

WHEN ARLIE RUSSELL HOCHSCHILD’S The Second Shift was published in 1989, it made a startling argument: if one combined their paid and unpaid labor, employed women of the 1960s and ’70s worked a full month extra—of twenty-four-hour days—over the course of a year. That’s not true today. Women are doing far less housework than they used to, and men are doing more; fathers also do more child care; and mothers put more hours into the workforce, in greater numbers. (In 2010, 50 percent of mothers of three- to five-year-olds worked full-time.) As Hochschild noted in an updated introduction to her book—and as Hanna Rosin’s 2012 The End of Men made persuasively clear—men’s economic fortunes have fallen relative to those of women during the last few decades, based on declines in manufacturing jobs. Ideas about who ought to do what in the marital economy have also evolved. In 2000, nearly one-third of all married women reported that their husbands did more than half the housework, versus 22 percent in 1980. Over the same twenty-year span, the number of husbands who did no housework at all dropped by nearly half.

In fact, according to the American Time Use Survey—the gold standard in time measurement—men and women today work roughly the same number of hours per week, though men work more paid hours and women more unpaid hours. This updated calculation led Time magazine to wonder, in a 2011 cover story called “Chore Wars,” if women were protesting too much about their load.

The reason Hochschild’s book became famous, however, probably had little to do with a mathematical equation. Above all else, her book was a series of novelistic portraits of marriages and the tensions embedded in them, as each couple struggled to find a new equilibrium in a culture that offered few guides. Certainly there were examples of egregiously lopsided labor divisions (like that of Nancy Holt, who consoled herself with the declaration, “I do the upstairs, Evan does the downstairs,” when “the downstairs” meant the garage, the car, and the dog while “the upstairs” meant everything else). But what made The Second Shift so powerful was its analysis of the myths and delusions that couples needed to keep their marriages together. Hochschild could see that repeated—and often touchy, and sometimes failed—attempts to recalibrate the workload had terribly messy emotional consequences. “When couples struggle,” she writes, “it is seldom simply over who does what. Far more often, it is over the giving and receiving of gratitude.” Toward the end of the book, she elaborates:

The deeper problem such women face is that they cannot afford the luxury of unambivalent love for their husbands. Like Nancy Holt, many women carry into their marriage the distasteful and unwieldy burden of resenting their husbands. Like some hazardous waste produced by a harmful system, this powerful resentment is hard to dispose of.

And this resentment still persists in marriages to this day, albeit in subtler and different forms. The Cowans, who have been studying the effects of children on marriage for over thirty-five years, say their research shows that the division of family labor is the largest source of postpartum conflict. In Alone Together, a 2007 compendium of all sorts of intriguing marriage data, Paul Amato and his colleagues cite a study that shows “household division of labor being a key source of contention between spouses.” (Mothers of children ages zero to four, they add, report the most acute feelings of unfairness.)

But perhaps the most intriguing tidbit about domestic fairness comes from a massive UCLA project in which researchers spent more than a week inside the homes of thirty-two middle-class, dual-earner families, collecting 1,540 hours of video footage. The result was a mother lode of data about families and their habits, and it generated dozens of studies. In one of them, the researchers took saliva samples from almost all of the participating parents, hoping to measure their levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. The researchers found that the more time fathers spent in leisure activities while they were at home, the greater their drop in cortisol at the end of the day, which came as no surprise; what did come as a surprise was that this effect wasn’t nearly as pronounced in mothers.

So what, you might ask, did have a pronounced effect in mothers? Simple: Seeing their husbands do work around the house.

OUR CONTEMPORARY DIVISION OF labor may be getting more equal overall, but it’s still unequal for plenty of mothers. As the Time story noted, mothers of children under six still work five more hours per week than fathers of children under six. That’s not a small difference. In many cases, that time is devoted to nocturnal caregiving, which, as we saw in chapter 1, can be devastating to the body and mind. In 2011, Sarah A. Burgard, a sociologist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, analyzed data collected from tens of thousands of parents. In dual-earner couples, she found, women were three times more likely than men to report interrupted sleep if they had a child at home under the age of one, and stay-at-home mothers were six times as likely to get up with their children as stay-at-home dads.

Funny: I once sat on a panel with Adam Mansbach, author of Go the F**k to Sleep. About halfway through the discussion, he freely conceded that it was his partner who put his child to bed most nights. That said so much, this casual admission: he may have written a best-selling book about the tyranny of toddlers at bedtime, but in his house it was mainly Mom’s problem.

But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that a husband and wife do work the same number of hours. That is not, in and of itself, an indicator of fairness. In the context of marriage, fairness is not just about absolute equality. It’s about the perception of equality. “Parents’ satisfaction with the division of the child-care tasks,” note the Cowans in When Partners Become Parents, “was even more highly correlated with their own and their spouses’ well-being than was the fathers’ actual amount of involvement [emphasis mine].” What a couple deems a fair compromise in any situation is not necessarily how an outsider would adjudicate it. They determine fairness based on a combination of what they need, what they think is reasonable, and what they think is possible.

But that’s also where things can get awfully complicated. Men and women may, on average, work roughly the same number of hours each day, once all kinds of labor are taken into account. But women, on average, still devote nearly twice as much time to “family care”—housework, child care, shopping, chauffeuring—as men. So during the weekends, say, when both mothers and fathers are home together, it doesn’t look to the mothers like their husbands are evenly sharing the load. It looks like their husbands are doing a lot less. (Indeed, in another analysis of those 1,540 hours of video data, researchers found that a father in a room by himself was the “person-space configuration observed most frequently.”)

There are some women who’ll cheerfully say that if their partners are working more paid hours during the week, they’ve earned their extra rest over the weekend. But for many mothers, it’s not that simple. Paid work, both literally and figuratively, is generally assigned a higher value by the world at large, which has all sorts of unquantifiable psychological rewards. Perhaps just as important, not all work is created equal: an hour spent on one kind of task is not necessarily the equivalent of an hour spent on another task.

Take child care. It creates far more stress in women than housework. (As one woman in an ECFE group put it: “The dishes don’t talk back to you.”) About two-thirds of the way through Alone Together, the researchers actually quantify this distinction, noting that if a married mother believes that child care is unfairly divided in the house, this injustice is more likely to affect her marital happiness than a perceived imbalance in, say, vacuuming, by a full standard deviation. Data also make clear that a larger proportion of a mother’s child care burden is consumed with “routine” tasks (toothbrushing, feeding) than is a father’s, who is more apt to get involved in “interactive” activities, like games of catch. There are differences in the kinds of child care that parents do, in short, even if it’s all labeled “child care” by researchers attempting to quantify it. (Ask any parent which type of child care they prefer.)

It is, of course, the nature of practically all humans to overestimate how much work they do in any given situation, rather than underestimate it. But when it comes to child care, the women’s estimates do seem more accurate. In Alone Together, the authors note that fathers guessed that they did, on average, about 42 percent of the child care in their families, based on a large national survey conducted in 2000. Mothers, by contrast, put their husbands’ efforts at 32 percent. The actual number that year was 35 percent, and it remains roughly the same today.

These distinctions may explain why women remain so vexed about the family economy, even if they’re no longer getting gypped in absolute terms. “I’m pretty sure Clint thinks he does 50 percent of the work when we’re home together,” says Angie as we’re driving along in the car, “but not necessarily the child care. And that’s what makes me most stressed.”

Deadlines and divided time

It’s later in the morning. Eli is still at Little Explorers, and Angie is folding laundry on the landing at the top of the stairs. Zay starts to fuss in his crib. Angie pops up to check on him, then returns. “I never get time to put laundry away,” she says. “I try. But usually we’re just moving it from the clean basket to the dirty basket.” Zay is crying now. “Yes, yes, yessssss, I hear you!” She jumps up and goes into his room. “Shhhhhhhhh.”

Her efforts to mollify him aren’t successful. A few moments later, she brings him out and puts him next to her. She resumes folding for a third time, integrating her efforts with peek-a-boo games, just as Jessie had done. She tosses a blanket over his head. “Where’s Zay?” Fold. Toss. “Where’s Zay?” Fold. Toss. “Where’s Zay? . . .”

This is another thing that quantitative studies of American time use cannot show you: for the majority of mothers, time is fractured and subdivided, as if streaming through a prism; for the majority of fathers, it moves in an unbent line. When fathers attend to personal matters, they attend to personal matters, and when they do child care, they do child care. But mothers more often attend to personal matters while not only caring for their children but possibly fielding a call from their boss. In 2000, just 42 percent of married fathers reported multitasking “most of the time”; for married mothers, that number was 67 percent. In 2011, two sociologists provided an even more granular analysis. They found that mothers, on average, spend ten extra hours per week multitasking than fathers, “and that these additional hours are mainly related to time spent on housework and childcare.” (When fathers spend time at home, on the other hand, they reduce their odds of multitasking by over 30 percent.) The upshot, the authors write, is that “multitasking likely takes a heavier toll on mothers’ well-being than on fathers’ well-being.”

Being compelled to divide and subdivide your time doesn’t just compromise your productivity (as we saw in the last chapter) and lead to garden-variety discombobulation. It also creates a feeling of urgency—a sense that no matter how tranquil the moment, no matter how unpressured the circumstances, there’s always a pot somewhere that’s about to boil over. As it is, most mothers assume a disproportionate number of deadline-oriented, time-pressured domestic tasks (Dress kids, brush their teeth, drop them off at school; pick them up, take them to piano lessons at 3:00, soccer practice at 4:00, and get dinner on the table by 6:00.) In 2006, the sociologists Marybeth Mattingly and Liana Sayer published a paper noting that women are more likely than men to feel “always rushed,” and that married mothers are 2.2 times more likely to feel “sometimes or always rushed” than single women without children. (Free time does nothing to ease mothers’ feelings of enervation either—it in fact makes things worse.) Fathers, meanwhile, feel no more rushed than men without children. Here’s Kenya again, from ECFE:

I feel a huge pressure around five o’clock. I’ve got to finish what I didn’t do. I’ve got to plan dinner. I’ve got to keep my daughter happy, I’ve got to put her to bed. . . . I thought, without working, I’d be like, Oh, I’ll have all this time. But I feel all this pressure around five. Whereas when my husband comes home, there’s nothing he has to do.

But perhaps the hardest and most elusive quantity for a time-use survey to measure is the psychic energy that mothers pour into parenting—the internal soundtrack of anxieties that hums in their heads all day long, whether they’re with their children or not. That’s one of Mattingly and Sayer’s more subtle hypotheses: perhaps mothers feel rushed because the sensitive and logistically intensive parts of raising kids—making child care arrangements, scheduling doctor’s visits, dealing with teachers, organizing family leisure hours, coordinating play dates and summer plans—fall disproportionately to them. Angie certainly says as much. “When I’m at work,” she tells me, “I’m still only 50 percent nurse, probably. You know? Even if I’m dressing a wound or whatever it may be, I’m always thinking, ‘Is Clint going to remember to put sunscreen on ’em?

What happens when she’s out alone with Clint?

“It’s still the kids on my brain,” she says. “Even our date nights, when I’m supposed to be 100 percent wife.”

It’s interesting that Angie attempts to quantify this feeling in a ratio. Some years ago, when Carolyn Cowan was driving home from a meeting with a group of parents, it occurred to her that she ought to ask them to devise a pie chart of their identities. What percentage of themselves did they see as a spouse, as a parent, as a worker, as a person of faith, as a hobbyist?

Women, on average, assigned a significantly larger proportion of their self-image to their mother identity than the men did to their father identity. Even women who worked full-time considered themselves more mother than worker by about 50 percent. This finding didn’t surprise Cowan and her husband—nor were they surprised, years later, when they came across a similiar study showing that mothers who carry the child in lesbian couples give over more mental real estate to their maternal identity than their partners.

What did surprise the Cowans, however, was what this visualization exercise portended for the hundred or so couples in their sample: the greater the disparity between how a mother and father sliced up the pie when their child was six months old, the more dissatisfied they were in their marriage one year later.

This finding suggests an even larger context to all these fights about the distribution of family labor. How much does each member of the couple psychologically inhabit his or her parenting role? If each parent prioritizes this role differently, their arguments take on a whole new dimension: How could you not care about this as much as I do? What kind of parent are you anyway? Doesn’t family and family time matter to you? Does this not mean the same to you as it does to me?

Social Isolation

It’s worth noting that children would almost certainly be easier on marriages if couples didn’t rely so much on one another for social support. But unfortunately, they do. What this means, all too often, is that parents can feel awfully alone, especially moms.

In 2009, a specialty consulting firm surveyed over 1,300 mothers and found that 80 percent of them believed they didn’t have enough friends and 58 percent of them felt lonely (with mothers of children under five reporting the most loneliness of all). In 1997, the American Sociological Review published a paper showing that women’s social networks—and the frequency of their contact with the people in those networks—shrink in the early years of child-rearing, with the nadir occurring when their youngest child is three. (The expansion thereafter, the authors say, likely has something to do with the new connections mothers make once their children reach school age.) And the most popular form of Meetup in the country, by a substantial margin, is mothers’ groups. “That really surprised me,” Kathryn Fink, the company’s community development specialist, told me in a phone conversation. “Before I worked at Meetup, I assumed that if you chose to be a stay-at-home mom, you could rely on your preexisting social network.”

Fink isn’t the only one who finds it surprising that new mothers pine for connection. So do many new mothers themselves. The conventional wisdom about children is that they bring together not just couples but extended families, social networks, entire communities. There’s some evidence suggesting that this is true—eventually. Sociologists who have examined the complex circuitry of American social life have noticed that people with children know their neighbors better than those without children do; they also participate in more civic organizations and form new ties through their children’s activities and friends. But these are not necessarily their most intimate or emotionally sustaining ties. In his landmark book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam explains this distinction by noting the difference between “machers” and “schmoozers”: machers are community muckity-mucks, people who make things happen through formal involvements in civic organizations; schmoozers are social butterflies and informal hanger-outers, people with active social lives whose “engagement is less organized and purposeful.” If you’re young and unmarried and renting, odds are that you’re a schmoozer. Once you marry and buy a home, you may continue some elements of your schmoozing life, but you’re also more likely to reapportion some of those energies to macherdom.

And children seal the deal. Once women and men become mothers and fathers, their purposeful socializing—through churches or synagogues or mosques, through PTAs, through neighborhood watch groups—goes up, up, up. But informal socializing with friends goes down, according to Putnam. So does socializing associated with leisure interests. “Holding other demographic features constant,” he writes, “marriage and children are negatively correlated with membership in sports, political, and cultural groups [emphasis his].”

In the early days of infancy, motherhood can be especially isolating, with mother and child forming a closed loop. Modern social scientists aren’t the only ones who have noticed. Dr. Benjamin Spock talked about it over half a century ago. “Women who have worked for a number of years and loved not only the job but the companionship,” he wrote in Problems of Parents, “often find children quite limited company.” He added: “The woman who chafes at the monotony of child rearing (and I’m assuming that most mothers do at times) is really beset from two directions: the separation from adult companions, and being bottled up with the continual demands of the children. I don’t think Nature ever intended the association to be quite so exclusive.”

The subject of isolation came up a lot in ECFE classes, especially from mothers of newborns and toddlers who had dropped out of the workforce. The women in Angie’s class discussed it at length:

SARA: I didn’t think I’d feel as alone as I have at times. I feel like it’s just me and the boys.

KRISTIN: Me neither. My mom probably gets annoyed, because I call her more than I should. I feel like that’s my connection.

ANGELA: Yeah, and I sort of thought, Well, I’m not around people most of the day anyway, I’m stuck in a cube. How can it be that different? But it is different, because when I was at work, I could stand up and talk to adults.

The real surprise to me, however, was the testimony of stay-at-home fathers. Almost to a man, the stay-at-home dads I met in Minnesota described how challenging it was to find a network of compatriots in their brave new role. “The first year, I was incredibly isolated,” a father told his group in a fairly representative moment. “I felt weird about hanging out with other moms. I didn’t feel like I could approach them in the same way. I mean, if my wife were staying at home, she could have. But me . . .”

So what did he do?

“I was really, reaaaaaally nice to other dads I met at the park.”

THERE’S A LARGER BACKDROP to this loneliness. Today’s parents are starting families at a time when their social networks in the real world appear to be shrinking and their community ties, stretching thin. Yes, mothers and fathers may have many friends on Facebook, and Facebook is an invaluable resource for them in all sorts of ways, whether it’s crowd-sourcing questions about relieving colic or simply posting a comment that helps unspool a thread of sympathy (like Angie’s post of October 2011: “I should be sleeping”).

But our non-virtual ties are another matter. In 2006, a survey in the American Sociological Review famously reported that the average number of people with whom Americans could “discuss important matters” dropped from three to two between 1985 and 2004, and that the number of Americans who felt they had no confidants at all had more than doubled, from 10 to 24.6 percent. The far better-known chronicle of American solitude, though, is Bowling Alone, in which Putnam manages to document the decline of almost every measurable form of civic participation in the waning decades of the last century. When the book came out in 2000, critics complained that Putnam had focused too much on obsolescent activities (card-playing, Elks club meetings) and given short shrift to new forms of social capital, like Internet groups. (Facebook hadn’t even been invented back then.) It didn’t matter. The book still resonated with politicians and laypeople alike, and if my conversations with parents are any indication, Putnam’s findings and themes still resonate deeply with families today, in spite of their vast virtual networks.

Take our dwindling neighborhood ties: during the last quarter of the twentieth century, according to Putnam, the number of times married Americans spent a social evening with their neighbors fell from roughly thirty times per year to twenty, and subsequent studies have shown that this number continued to drop through 2008. “When I first moved to our block,” Annette Gagliardi, the veteran ECFE instructor, told one of her classes, “I didn’t know anyone, and my mom was several towns away. So the older women on the block pulled me in. They were the ones I called in the middle of the night and said, ‘My child has a fever.’ ” There’s no substitute, she said, for that kind of embodied contact with fellow parents. “Yes, I can text someone,” Gagliardi said. “Or yes, I can look online at a parenting website. But that’s not the same as someone racing over to my house and teaching me how to put a butterfly bandage on my daughter’s wound.”

Our relative estrangement from our neighbors is partially an outgrowth of a positive development: more women are in the workforce. With more women heading off to the office in the morning, more houses inevitably sit empty during the afternoon. But our diminishing neighborhood ties cannot be explained by social progress alone. It can be explained by sprawl, which pushes our houses farther and farther apart. It can be explained by anxieties about crime—kidnappings in particular—which have all but obliterated the once-standard practice of sending children out into the yard or the street. Putnam, like his colleagues studying time use, also describes a sensation of “pervasive busyness” among Americans today, a sense that we are chronically and forever feeling rushed.

The net result has been the death of the “pop-in,” to recruit a term of Jerry Seinfeld’s, whereby the Kramers and Elaines of the world show up unexpectedly at your doorstep bearing gossip and harmless, unhurried conversation. In the mid- to late seventies, the average American entertained friends at home fourteen to fifteen times per year, according to Bowling Alone; by the late nineties, that number had split nearly in half, to eight.

ANGELA: When I was growing up, my mother was surrounded by people home alone with their kids. Every afternoon someone was going to call or we were going to visit someone. My mom would load us all into the car. I mean, maybe my mom was just a social person, but—

SARA: No, it was the same in my house: every Sunday we’d load in the station wagon and just go visit someone. And now you feel like you’re intruding, because everyone’s so busy.

Without the pop-in, without the vibrant presence of neighbors, without life in the cul-de-sacs and the streets, the pressure reverts back to the nuclear family—and more specifically, to the marriage or partnership—to provide what friends, neighbors, and other families once did: games, diversions, imaginative play. And parents have lost some of the fellowship provided by other adults.

Of course, raising children would be easier on marriages if we still lived in extended-family groupings. But as Stephanie Coontz notes in The Way We Never Were, “extended families have never been the norm in America.” (The highest percentage of people living in extended families on record was just 20 percent, and that was between 1850 and 1885.) What is true, though, is that college-educated Americans tend to live farther away from their parents than those who have only completed high school. In marriages where both partners finished college, the odds are just 18 percent that they live within thirty miles of both their mothers. (Among the high school–educated, the odds increase to 50 percent.) Education clearly results in mobility, which almost by definition weakens family ties.

Weakened family ties have all sorts of consequences for parents. They affect, for instance, women’s workforce attachment: married women with kids in elementary school or younger are 4 to 10 percent more likely to work if they live near their mothers or mothers-in-law. The social lives of parents are also affected: without the most reliable, most psychologically reassuring, and (above all) most affordable form of babysitting—namely, grandparents—a simple evening out with one’s spouse is a much harder sell.

“I do have an aunt who lives just fifteen minutes away,” Angie tells me, when I ask whether she has a network of caretakers to rely on. But that’s it. Everyone else is far away or in poor health. Angie and Clint are part of the so-called sandwich generation, the generation inconveniently squeezed between aging parents and young children, meaning they face caretaking stresses no matter which direction they crane their necks. As Americans live longer and women defer childbearing into their thirties, this generation is only expected to grow.

Disobeying orders

It’s lunchtime, and Eli is sitting in front of a plate of Angie’s chicken parmesan. He is not, however, eating it. He is instead contemplating his polar bear mug.

“What do polar bears eat?” he asks.

“Fish,” Angie replies.

“What else?”

“I don’t know. Would you eat, please?”

He doesn’t. Angie looks at him. “You’re not eating again until dinner. If you don’t eat, you won’t have a snack.”

Eli tries picking off a small piece with his fingers.

“Please use your fork. Is that a polar bear bite?”

“I’m eating like Zay,” he answers. Zay gets to eat with his fingers.

“If you eat like Zay,” says Angie, “that’d be great. Zay’s eating.

Eli has an idea. “Watch this, Mama!” He tips his plate toward his mouth and some spaghetti slides in.

“Eli, use your fork.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because I just did it this way.”

Angie stands up, shrugs, and moves on to other things. “As long as you get food into you.”

ALL PARENTS FIND THEMSELVES in absurdist loops of non-argument with their children. At their most benign, these disputes are merely annoying; at their worst, they’re outright maddening. It’s not surprising that the parenting section of bookshops is filled with guides to coaxing obedience from children. What is surprising, though, is how little of them cite the behavioral research on this subject. If you dive into it, you’ll discover that all American parents, even well-adjusted ones, spend a staggering amount of time each day trying to get their toddlers and preschoolers to do the right thing—as often as twenty-four times an hour, according to some studies—and that toddlers and preschoolers, even well-adjusted ones, spend a staggering amount of time resisting these efforts.

It may seem strange to bring up studies about child compliance in a chapter about marriage. But not if you consider one very salient fact: almost all of these efforts to get children to comply are made by mothers, not by fathers, and this asymmetrical dynamic can add a low-frequency hum of resentment to a relationship, because Mom gets the job of family nag. She didn’t seek this job either. It’s a simple matter of numbers: if mothers spend more time with their children than fathers do, they’re bound to issue more commands. (Put your shoes on. Are you going to pick that up, or are you waiting for the house elf to get it? Where on earth did you find that, and whatever it is, please take it out of your mouth.) Even more insidiously, compliance requests tend to be about time-sensitive matters. (Put on your coat, we have to leave. Brush your teeth, it’s getting late.) And mothers feel quite rushed as it is.

The first time I came across data about compliance requests from mothers and noncompliance in children was in a 1980 paper titled “Mothers: The Unacknowledged Victims.” The name pretty much says it all. The author’s first conclusion was that, during the preschool phase, “rearing normal children provides the mother with high rates of aversive events,” which happened as frequently as once every three minutes, according to his review of the literature.

But this study was hardly the only one. There was the 1971 study from Harvard that I mentioned in the introduction, which found mothers correcting or redirecting their toddlers every three minutes, and their toddlers listening only 60 percent of the time. Three years later, researchers from Emory and the University of Georgia found that psychologically healthy kindergartners from higher-income homes listened to their mothers only 55 percent of the time, and children from lower-income homes, 68 percent. (The mothers of lower-income children consistently issued more orders.) And these studies are dotted throughout the social science archives, all the way to the present day. In one of the more recent papers I peeked at—from 2009, this was—mothers and toddlers were averaging a conflict every two and a half minutes.

There are limits to how seriously one should take these kinds of studies, of course. In the words of Urie Bronfenbrenner, who helped found Head Start: “Much of contemporary developmental psychology is the science of the strange behavior of children in strange situations with strange adults for the briefest possible periods of time.” But they were a delight to discover nonetheless. Who knew that my son’s dissident behaviors—and my responses—were so commonplace?

Pamela Druckerman, author of the 2012 best-seller Bringing Up Bébé, would argue that American mothers frequently lock horns with their children because they don’t know how to discipline them with the same firmness that the French bring to the task. No doubt there’s some truth to this observation. How children behave is always culturally mediated. But what interests me is that mothers give most of the orders, and this compliance literature makes it clear that giving those orders is taxing and stressful. In the all-mom ECFE groups, the subject came up all the time. In a class just before Angie’s, two women had this exchange:

KATY: I have night classes, so I have a list for my husband before I leave—be sure you give our son a bath, be sure you put him in his jammies. And I’ll come home four hours later, and they’ve both fallen asleep on the floor, all clothed, and there’s a movie playing and a bag of chips.

COURTNEY: Same here. I think my husband thinks of parenting as play, and I see it as work.

KATY: Or watching the two of them grocery shopping—that’s awful. Whatever my son wants, my husband gets it for him.

The next day, in a different class:

CHRISSY: My husband will give the kids peanut butter and jelly and yogurt and be like, “Woohoo! Dinner!” And I’m racing to put out the vegetables, saying, “Uh, guys, you have to eat these too.”

KENYA: I know! I don’t know why my husband winds up being the fun guy. I come home, and my daughter tells me, “Daddy lets me have pop.”

At that point, the instructor, Todd Kolod, felt compelled to intervene.

“May I just speak up on behalf of dads?”

The women smiled. Sure.

“I think they need the chance to make mistakes,” he said. “They’ll say that they’ll try to help with laundry, and then, once, they’ll ruin some item they were supposed to hand-wash, and they’re cut off from doing the laundry forever.”

The women agreed he might have a point.

And he did. All relationships benefit from generosity. (Nor do kids stop growing if they’re fed peanut butter and jelly for dinner.) But the women had a point too. What they were responding to, really, was Daniel Gilbert’s observation from chapter 1. “Everyone is moving at the same speed toward the future. But your children are moving at that same speed with their eyes closed. So you’re the ones who’ve got to steer.” Typically, it’s the mothers who takes the wheel.

It’s exhausting to be the family compass and conscience. It means the stuff of everyday life becomes a source of tension; it means you’re the designated family prig. I don’t know why he’s the fun guy. When Kenya said this, she didn’t sound angry. She sounded sad.

Here lies yet another explanation for the happiness gap between mothers and fathers. It’s not necessarily the quantity of time mothers spend with their children that’s the problem. It’s how they spend it.

Who’s having sex?

As mercilessly unsentimental as it is to say this, children would have less of an impact on marriage if the institution itself weren’t so heavily burdened by romantic expectations—which, as we saw in chapter 1, are relatively new. Before the late eighteenth century, marriage was a public institution, inseparable from raising families and binding individuals to the broader community. But sometime around the late eighteenth century, as Jane Austen was completing her first draft of Pride and Prejudice, a different idea began to take shape: marriage was for love. Today, 94 percent of singles in their twenties believe that spouses should be soul mates “first and foremost,” according to a 2001 Gallup poll, while just 16 percent believe that children are the primary objective of marriage.

This redefined notion of marriage—as a sheltered loop of mutual fulfillment rather than a public institution for the commonweal—generated an inspired term from the sociologists David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. They called it a “SuperRelationship,” which they defined as “an intensely private spiritualized union, combining sexual fidelity, romantic love, emotional intimacy and togetherness.”

If most of us begin our marriages with these expectations, is it any wonder that we experience children as a disruption?

Lots of couples genuinely enjoy their coupledom. Unlike the literature about raising children, many studies about marriage suggest that the institution makes people happier and more optimistic (though it’s possible that happier people get married in the first place). Studies also suggest that married people are healthier.

So what, precisely, gets compromised when a child enters the picture?

Well, time alone together, famously (hence those endless exhortations to schedule date nights). Estimates vary as to how much a couple’s time together declines, but the most commonly cited study says it drops by two-thirds once a child is born. The nature of this time together changes dramatically too. Social scientist and St. Paul couples therapist William Doherty, who is also an adviser to ECFE, likes to tell the story of a beautiful couple, marvelous country-Western dancers both, who came to his office for counseling one day. They’d met as young adults at a dance in Oklahoma; when they were dating, they’d go out dancing all the time, and other couples would inevitably form a circle around them, just to watch them spin. At some point Doherty casually asked them when they’d last gone out dancing. Their answer? Their wedding reception, twelve years earlier.

Almost everyone seems to agree that a couple’s sex life also changes after children come along, though it’s surprisingly difficult to find strong data supporting this hypothesis. A few studies do manage, however, to confirm the suspicion that this is true, either indirectly or by design. A paper from 1981, for instance, looked at 119 first-time mothers and found that 20 percent were having sex less than once a week at their child’s first birthday, while only 6 percent were having sex that infrequently in the three months prior to conception. (Then again, they may have been actively trying to get pregnant during those three months—and hence, having more sex.) Another small study, conducted slightly later, found that a child, along with “jobs, commuting, housework . . . conspires to reduce the degree of sexual interaction” in the early years of marriage, “while almost nothing leads to increasing it.”

In 1995, a much larger study concluded that the presence of young children—specifically four years of age or less—has an even more substantial impact on a couple’s sexual frequency than pregnancy itself (and only slightly less significant an impact than poor health). Having five- to eighteen-year-olds at home, on the other hand, slightly increases sexual frequency. (Though here’s a question: if the authors had analyzed just the parents of adolescents, would they have come to the same conclusion? Because teenagers can pose a true circadian dilemma, springing alive in the wee hours like so many vampire bats. It makes the prospect of nighttime congress particularly dicey.) And here is my favorite detail from that study: “Respondents with low and high educational attainment levels reported less frequent marital sex. This curvilinear relationship is taken into account in all analyses.” Make of that what you will.

But it’s very hard—almost impossible—to find concrete numbers about the frequency of marital sex once babies enter the picture. In an evening ECFE class of working fathers, the instructor, Todd Kolod, surprised everyone by asking the question outright: how much sex is it realistic for a dad with young children to expect? Everyone paused for a moment, trying to gauge whether they should answer this question seriously or punt with a joke.

FATHER #1: Whenever you can talk her into it.

FATHER #2: Can we put it this way? What’s realistic about going out to the movies? It’s like once . . . a year.

TODD: We don’t really know what’s realistic, do we? That’s part of the problem. But really, seriously: what do you think?

FATHER #3: Some of our friends, they started out crazy. One friend, for years, I called him “nine times.” And now, I’ll talk to the same guy, and he’ll be like . . . nothing.

FATHER #2: Okay, let’s make it more uncomfortable: how many times do we masturbate a day?

FATHER #4: Ha-hey, speak for yourself. . . .

But numbers may be beside the point. If you really speak to men and women about this, both alone and in groups, they’ll tell you that sure, they miss their old erotic selves, those people who once could only be coaxed from bed in order to pee or eat. But in many cases, those selves were fading away even before the baby came along. (There’s evidence that the most precipitous drop in sexual frequency occurs just after the “honeymoon” year of marriage—a sobering thought.) What most couples really seem to miss is that sense of closeness and aliveness that sex brings. “I don’t think I had ridiculous expectations about intimacy,” a father told me. “And maybe it’s easier for guys, in a way, because we can look at a woman and say, ‘She doesn’t look exhausted and wiped out. She looks like she’s back to her old self.’ ” Whereas his wife’s attitude was I am exhausted. Can’t you let me sleep without making me feel guilt for denying you something? It took him a while to realize this. “Honestly, sex itself wasn’t even what was driving it for me,” he said. “It was our lack of connection. And the less connected I felt, the more I felt like I was going to snap.”

“I think it’s about mastering the art of the quickie,” Angie tells me. “It’s like, ‘Okay! The kids are sleeping! And I’ve got to go to work!’ ” She makes a chop-chop with her hands, then smiles. “We try for at least once a week, if not more. If it gets any longer than that, we just don’t feel . . .” (and then that word again) “ . . . connected.

Yet that connection comes at a price, just as ignoring it comes at a price. “In our erotic lives we abandon our children,” writes Adam Phillips, the British psychoanalyst, in Side Effects, “and in our familial lives we abandon our desire.” When faced with this unsavory dilemma, observes Phillips, “most people feel far worse about betraying their children than about betraying their partner.”

Another woman from ECFE:

“It’s funny: my husband has been asking me for quickies lately—it’s been a couple weeks. And I was like, I cannot give to another person. And he is the one, unfortunately, that has to make the sacrifice. He’s the one I can say no to. But I probably should give in, because it’s good for us.

When forced to choose between her husband and her kids, she chose the kids.

But here’s some news that ought to reassure this mom and all others who have opted to remain in the workforce—as well as dads, for that matter, who put in very long hours: A 2001 study in the Journal of Sex Research, which looked at a sample of 261 women with four-year-olds, concluded that “there were no differences between homemakers and women employed part, full, or high full time for several measures of sexual functioning. Neither were there differences between husbands employed full and high full time.” (High full-time, in their estimation, was fifty-plus hours per week.) Rather, the authors found, what played the most powerful role in determining the quality of a couple’s sex life was a deceptively simple idea: the importance of the marriage to each partner’s identity. The more central each one found it, the more satisfied he or she was. Believing in marriage, at least if you’re in one, turns out to be the most powerful aphrodisiac of all.

Men’s work

It’s 2:35 P.M., and Clint, a sweet-faced fellow with a barrel chest and a serious disposition, walks quietly through the door, a carabiner of keys tinkling on his belt. He radiates dependability and patience, a quiet belief in hard work; like Angie, he looks tired—he’s been up, remember, since four—but manages to move with the speed and energy of someone who’s had a full night’s sleep. He’s wearing shirtsleeves, a tie, and black pants, which he’ll swap out in about ten minutes for a charcoal-colored soccer T-shirt and cargo shorts. Angie has just changed into her scrubs. He scoops up a child in each arm, impassively receives an update about each, and kisses his wife hello and good-bye. They all hug for a moment. Then Angie is out the door, and Clint whisks Xavier into the Bumbo baby seat on the kitchen counter. He pulls out some strawberries from the fridge, begins to cut them, and gives a few to the baby and Eli.

“Can I have a surprise snack?” asks Eli.

“You can have strawberries,” says Clint.

“Maybe that can be my surprise snack.”

“Then it’s not a surprise.”

He is warm as he says this, but very focused. Later on, I will look in my notes and see that I have written and underlined in all capital letters: THIS MAN IS ALL BUSINESS. Not rejecting or disengaged, it should be said, but certainly possessed of a very different style from his wife. When Angie was making lunch only a couple of hours earlier, she left a cheerful mess as she went, often getting pulled away by the boys at just the moments when she’d intended to tidy up. Whereas Clint is immaculate and methodical as he goes. He’s so brisk and efficient about washing dishes that it looks like he never dirtied them in the first place.

He opens the fridge and stares into it. “I’m going to think about getting your dinner soon. What did you have for lunch—?”

“Cheese chicken and spaghetti. It was really good, but I didn’t like the chicken.”

“Why not?”

“It was kind of spicy. I liked the spaghetti.”

Clint closes the fridge and goes to get dog food. The baby is quiet, watching and nibbling on strawberries and cereal puffs. Eli goes downstairs to watch the end of an Elmo potty-training video. Clint starts unloading the dishwasher. When he finishes, he takes Zay out of the Bumbo and joins Eli, who’s struggling downstairs with a Lego ice-cream truck. Clint relieves him. “Here, let me help ya . . . you put this thing on the back of it.” As he assembles the truck Clint plumps with life, like a diabetic who’s finally been handed a sucking candy. “I’m biased about Legos,” he says, noticing me noticing him and reading my thoughts. “They’re what I played with when I was little.” He lines up a few animals on a Lego platform for Zay.

This old-school play goes on for a lovely while. Clint explains that he always coordinates a group activity before dinner, so that the kids don’t zone out in front of the television; he describes his preference for toys you can build with over chiming plastic geegaws. Play gives him obvious pleasure. But then he glances over at Zay and looks at his phone. “I’m checking the time,” he explains. “Trying to figure out when to plan dinner, before The Meltdown.”

Eli points to a bus he made out of an egg carton. “Want to make another one with me, Daddy?”

Clint chuckles and gets up. “How ’bout we make dinner first, okay?” His eyes are already on the kitchen. There’s dinner to be made, a meltdown to be averted, a nighttime routine to be rallied through. He’s on a schedule now. He’s all business again.

WATCHING CLINT GO ABOUT his afternoon and evening routine, it is hard not to notice the stylistic differences between him and his wife—and the different responses the children have to each of them. Zay, for one, could hardly tolerate being put on the ground by Angie that morning. The second she tried it, he bawled. She could have taken a stand, sure, and left him there to tough it out; Clint would say, albeit gently, that Angie has had a hand in creating this predicament, because she allows herself to be manipulated by Zay’s distress. (“Zay’s not expecting me to pick him up the moment he whimpers,” Clint notes.) But to leave Zay to cry would only compound Angie’s terrible sense that she’s not doing all she can do for him, and she feels bad enough going off to work three or four nights a week—the second the kids catch sight of her in her scrubs, they start to cling. So while she’s at home, she doesn’t put Zay on the ground or in the Bumbo. Instead, she works one-armed and lopsided, straining her back and making the awkward progress of a contestant in an egg toss.

“What I think are the hurdles, Clint often doesn’t,” Angie told me, not long before she left. “He thinks I cause some of the worry unnecessarily. I think the worst is when he feels helpless.” By “helpless,” Angie doesn’t mean that Clint himself feels overwhelmed. She means that Clint thinks she’s overwhelmed and there’s nothing he can do to soothe her. “When he thinks I can’t do something he thinks is simple,” she explains.

But of course Angie can do simple things. What’s really happening in the moments when Angie seems overwhelmed is that she’s fracturing her time. (Toss. “Where’s Zay?” Fold. Toss. “Where’s Zay?” Fold. . . .) Whereas Clint, both by habit and temperament, is quite clearly the kind of fellow who optimizes his time and probably was doing so even before the kids were born. Parenthood has simply completed his transformation into an efficiency-seeking Scud missile. He acknowledges as much. “Whereas Angie may view something from the feeling aspect, or the enriching aspect—‘The kids have to go to the park! They have to spend time doing something different!’—I’m looking at it more from a time-efficiency point of view,” he says.

This time-efficiency point of view can be mistaken for a kind of Vulcan-ness. But that’s not what it is. It’s really the difference between method acting and more classical techniques for getting into a role. Angie approaches parenting intuitively, from the inside out, while Clint approaches it from the outside in. “She just knows what needs to get done,” says Clint. “Whereas I stumble across it.” He thinks about this. “I mean, it’s not like if the baby has a poopy diaper, I say, ‘Here, you do it!’ ” He mimes handing off a soiled baby in revulsion. “It’s that, if she sees it happen and I don’t see it at the same time, she gets upset.” He thinks some more. “She’s so in tune with the baby monitor, she’ll wake up seconds before they do.”

I hear this a lot from parents. One—usually the mother—is more alive to the emotional undercurrents of the household. (In A Home at the End of the World, Michael Cunningham writes: “She knows something is up. Her nerves run through the house.”) The result is that the more-intuitive parent—in this case Angie—sometimes feels like the other parent is not doing his or her fair share, while the other parent—in this case Clint—feels like the intuitive parent is excessively emotional. When really, what may be going on is that the couple is experiencing time differently, because each person is paying attention to different things. When Angie hears the baby monitor or sees that Zay’s diaper needs a change, she jumps. Those are time-sensitive tasks, and she’s the first responder in the house. Which makes her feel, to use her word, “overwhelmed.”

Clint acknowledges this difference. “The way that I come at it is not in real time, for lack of a better term,” he says. “I look at the whole picture. I say, if I’m doing 100 percent of the snow removal, the yard work, the maintenance, the dishes, and the meals, you’ll have to pick up more slack on the kids’ end.” He adds that Angie doesn’t always appreciate the less time-sensitive contributions he routinely makes. “Maybe she doesn’t care about that stuff as much until the dishwasher breaks,” he says (which it recently did). “Then I’m the one to figure out how to fix it, because she wants those dishes washed.”

Yet he’s also very attuned to the strain that comes from the moment-to-moment handling of the kids. “That real-time sense that she’s doing more? I probably fail to validate that as much as I should,” he concedes. He brings up that time in the spring when I first met Angie, and he and the kids were all under the weather. He knew she was exhausted. He knew the kids were sick. He regrets not having jumped in to help. “It was, Right here, right now, the kids are sick, I want a break,” he says. He gets it.

At the beginning of each interview with Angie and Clint, I asked them to give a rough breakdown of their household division of labor. And their estimations, for the most part, were remarkably similar: Clint does almost all the cooking. Angie does almost all the night duty, because Clint rises for work at 4:00 A.M. Clint does a little more cleaning; Angie a little more laundry. Angie gets a bit more of the groceries and does the lion’s share of shopping for the kids, the doctor’s appointments, the extracurricular activities. Clint does the outdoor and household maintenance and 100 percent of the bookkeeping. They each made these same assessments, independently of one another.

The only area over which they disagreed was the one that mattered to Angie the most: child care. She estimated that she does 70 percent, and not because she spends more time at home. She said she did more child care even when Clint was around. “If we’re just having a home day,” she told me, “I do more of the diapers. If Eli’s outside, I’m checking and making sure he’s okay. I’m keeping the TV off, I’m engaging.” Most important, Clint always manages to claim free chunks of time for himself that she never manages to locate for herself. “He can spend two or three hours in front of the computer on the weekend, doing his hobbies,” she said. “But recently, I wanted to try this ninety-day boot camp workout, and I couldn’t find the hour each day to do it.”

Clint answered differently. He said they divide the child care fifty-fifty. “It’s push-pull,” he said. “If she has a bad day, I do more of it, and if she has to work three shifts in a row, I have to do more of it.”

Fifty-fifty and seventy-thirty is a big difference—especially given how little daylight there is between Angie and Clint over everything else. Why, given how sensitive and attuned they are to one another, should this be?

BEFORE PROCEEDING ANY FURTHER, I should pause here to note that this conversation Clint and Angie are having about who does what—this conversation that all couples have about who does what—happens at the expense of a more important conversation: does the state have an obligation or moral imperative to help out mothers and fathers? In America we wind up having these arguments privately because our politics allows little room for us to have them publicly. One hates to invoke Sweden at this moment—it really is the most predictable cliché—but some of the happiest parents on the globe are, in fact, in Scandinavia and the other northern European countries with large social safety nets.

In 2012, the sociologist Robin Simon and two of her colleagues measured the difference in happiness levels between parents and nonparents in twenty-two industrialized nations. The country with the greatest gap, by far, was the United States. As a rule, in fact, this difference tended to be larger in countries with less generous welfare benefits and smaller—or inverted entirely—in countries that offer the most support to families.

Arnstein Aassve, a demography professor in Milan, detected a similar pattern in 2013. After examining parental well-being levels across twenty-eight European nations, he and his colleagues concluded that “in general, the happiness that people derive from parenthood is positively associated with availability of childcare.” This was especially true in places where child care is available for children between the ages of one and three (France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Scandinavia). In those parts of the world, mothers are consistently happier than nonmothers.

The relationship between access to child care and parental well-being is sometimes deceptive. We cannot necessarily assume that one is the cause of the other. Countries with more generous welfare benefits tend to score well on all sorts of social indices: their corruption levels are lower, their gender-parity levels are higher, they tend to offer affordable health care and higher education. To the extent that parents’ psychological strains are financial—and many of them are—countries that provide these amenities go a long way toward relieving stress on couples and single parents alike. “These countries,” Aassve tells me, “are scoring on a whole range of categories that make people feel optimistic or safe about raising children.”

In the opening pages of her 2005 book Perfect Madness, Judith Warner writes about what it was like to receive such improbable benefits when she lived in Paris during her early child-rearing years:

My elder daughter, from the time she was eighteen months of age, attended excellent part-time preschools where she painted and played with modeling clay and ate cookies and napped for about $150 per month—the top end of the fee scale. She could have started public school at age three, and could have opted to stay until 5 P.M. daily. My friends who were covered by the French social security system (which I did not pay into) had even greater benefits: at least four months of paid maternity leave, the right to stop working for up to three years and have jobs held for them.

Meanwhile, a report from Child Care Aware of America notes that in 2011 it cost more for families to put two children in day care than it did for them to pay their rent—in all fifty states.

It’s worth imagining how different Angie and Clint’s lives might be if they were assured access to the same affordable child care arrangements, and if they both knew they could leave their jobs for a year or three without fear of losing their place in the workforce. At the moment, such luxuries are unthinkable to Americans.

Yet they appear to confer true psychological benefits. In a 2010 study, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and four of his colleagues compared the moment-to-moment well-being of women in Columbus, Ohio, to that of women in Rennes, a small city in France. Although the researchers found many similarities between their two samples, the French and American women differed in one very significant way: the French enjoyed caring for their children a good deal more, and they spent a good deal less time doing it. In his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman speculates that this may be the case because French women have greater access to child care and “spend less of the afternoon driving children to various activities.”

“Me time”

Clint is in the kitchen. His mission: dinner. He puts Zay in the Bumbo, and Eli climbs up on the counter next to his brother. “What do you want to eat?” Clint asks. “I can grill some chicken, or we can have some shrimp. . . .” He pulls out a box from the freezer and shows it to Eli.

“I just want to make toast.”

“Toast is a breakfast food. It’s not for dinner.”

“I don’t like anything.”

“This is why you need a nap,” Clint tells Eli, picking him up. Eli holds his father’s face and, for the first time ever, notices his stubble. “What’s that?”

“Hair. I forgot to shave this morning.”

“Why are you wearing it?”

“It just grows. On boys. Right there.” He points to his chin. “Are you avoiding my dinner question? Are you going to eat my dinner? If you do, maybe you can watch one more show.” Eli seems content with this plan. In the meantime, Clint sends him downstairs to clean up his toys.

I ask if this is his usual routine—kitchen prep work first, then some playtime with the boys, then dinner. It has a comfortable rhythm to it, and it’s awfully efficient.

“Pretty much,” he says. He puts away a last glass from the dishwasher. “That way,” he adds, with a mild smile, “later on, I can get in some me time.”

ME TIME. SUCH A simple phrase, and yet it reveals a universe of difference between Angie and Clint, and possibly between most mothers and fathers. The majority of parents feel like they don’t have enough time for themselves, but mothers are especially burdened by this feeling.

One can easily see this pattern with Angie and Clint. Clint gets home after a long day, and his goal, quite reasonably, is to get the kids situated and to map out the rest of the evening, in the hope of creating a modest stretch of leisure later on. If that means doing mundane housework while the kids are still awake, rather than in bed, so be it. “Whenever the kids are doing something where I don’t have to interact with them,” he says, “I use the time to do daily chores.”

Something where I don’t have to interact with them is another telltale phrase. It’s not the sort of phrase that would spring to mind for most middle-class mothers, particularly if they’re in the workforce. Painfully aware of the time they’re not spending with their kids, working mothers are more likely to say that they should always be interacting with their children once their heels are off. If they’re not working . . . well, why are they at home, if not to interact with their children?

Yet Clint is perfectly comfortable leaving his children to their own devices every now and then, and no rational jury of his peers would declare him unloving on account of it. They would simply say he’s protective of his time.

Angie, however, has no such attitude toward her time. Earlier in the morning, as she put Zay down for a nap, I asked if she, too, wanted to try to nap. She swatted the idea away with her hand. “It’s not worth it. I’ll only get an hour, and I need like twenty, and there’s so much to be done here. . . .”

The Cowans have a word for this feeling. They call it “unentitlement.” I thought of it a lot as I watched and listened to Angie. Clint must notice it too. As he’s making dinner, I ask him why he thinks he has more free time than Angie does. “Maybe for the same reason she buys more of the kid stuff,” he answers, after mulling it over. “When she has money, she feels guilty if it goes to her, but if it goes to the kids, it’s good. It’s the same with time.”

This guilt plays out in all sorts of contexts. But the most striking, by far, is the night shift. The next day, when I come to visit at 8:25 A.M., Clint, who has the day off, tells me that his evening duty went very well and that the kids slept until 7:30. It is only when Angie comes downstairs a few minutes later, showered, lovely, and wearing a cheerful Yoo-Hoo T-shirt, that the picture shifts: Zay, she reports, was up five times. Clint handled the first four episodes. But she got the fifth, which included a bottle, at 3:00 A.M.

“I don’t think you realize,” she tells Clint as we all head outside to the patio, “how many times I’ve been getting out of bed for the last three years.”

“Sure I do.”

She takes a seat and looks at him skeptically. “Even though you’ve been sleeping through it.”

“Yup.”

“How? Based on how much I complain about it?”

“No. It’s not just based on how much you complain. I absolutely know how much you deal with at night, but—whether or not you’ll like to hear this answer—it’s because you wanted it that way.”

Angie gives him a sheepish look. “Because of the whole cry-it-out method that I don’t want to do.”

“Yah.”

Angie says nothing.

“After two years, you let me do it with this one”—Clint points to Eli—“and it was done in two weeks. But you didn’t want to do it with this one.” He gestures at Zay. “You had your method, and I let you have your method, but that method entails getting up very, very frequently. I didn’t want to be a part of that, just like you didn’t want to be part of cry-it-out.”

He waits. Angie is silent. Then she makes a face. “I just don’t think that you have the same response that I do to him crying. I get that internal anxiety, that physical pain, that guilt. . . .”

“I understand, it’s a motherly link. You’ve explained that.”

“So I could not be anywhere near it or hear it. Honestly, I would have to set up a cot downstairs in the office, because emotionally, I can’t deal with it. . . .”

“Okay. But I think it’s more like, you want me to endure the stuff that you’ve endured, rather than getting it done.”

Angie doesn’t get angry when he says this. She appears to take it quite seriously. But she’s not convinced. “So last night, after the fifth time, would you have just let him cry it out?”

“No. If you were paying attention, I was increasing the amount of time I waited between each time I went in, which is how cry-it-out works.”

Again, she looks at him skeptically. “Was it working?”

“Yes! I mean, I didn’t have a stopwatch or anything, but yes!”

“So how come, when I started asking you questions about it, you didn’t tell me what you were doing?”

“Because,” says Clint, “you don’t want me to do the cry-it-out method!” He looks guiltily at his toes. “At least this way you perceived it as me being really lazy and not wanting to get up. I can combat that.”

It was easier, in other words, for Clint to leave Angie with the impression that he was a bum than to confess he was covertly sleep-training their child.

There was probably some passive aggression in that choice. But Clint also knew the process would fill Angie with anxiety and self-reproach, and the one thing Angie did not need in her life, clearly, was more anxiety and self-reproach. So he tried to sleep-train Zay on the sly, and then felt guilty the next day because he couldn’t come clean about it. Thinking he would be judged for it, he made the executive decision that it would be better to be deemed lazy than unfeeling. But he isn’t unfeeling.

“The way I approach this type of thing,” says Clint, “is the same way I run the house. If I have $2,000, and I need to spend $1,500 on the mortgage and $400 of it on utilities, the $100 left over is going to me so that I can maintain my sanity level. And if I have two hours, it’s the same thing. I get ten minutes, regardless.”

“And I don’t take that.”

Clint shrugs. “If I don’t take that ten minutes, the quality level of all the rest of it is going to go downhill really quick.”

Zay is starting to fuss. Angie lets him for a second. She’s thinking about this. “But lately I’ve been doing more for myself.”

“Not as much as you could.”

“I think the want is there,” she says, “but the guilt holds me back. Like I love to go to Barnes & Noble, I love to go to movies, to be by myself. You know? And yet I don’t take that. . . .”

At this point, I ask her a question: if she said, “Hey, Clint, I need an hour to go to Barnes & Noble or it’s just possible that I’ll go crazy . . .”

“He would say, ‘Fine, go.’ ”

And if she said, “I really need you to take care of the kids 50 percent of the time in general?”

“I think he’d encourage me to do that too,” she says, but Clint’s not even here to hear her. He’s gone inside with Zay.

CERTAINLY, IN SOME COUPLES, men don’t do their fair share and would never even consider it, no matter how badly their circumstances require it and how far the culture has moved along. But even before meeting him, I knew Clint wasn’t a slacker. In part it was because I knew the long hours he worked, both in the office and at home. In larger part, however, it was because Angie had said so herself, during her ECFE class, after she’d exorcised some of her frustration: “I mean, you’ve all met him! He’s not a bad guy!”

But the world does not make it easy for working parents. And because of that, says Philip Cowan, “you often get all these attributions about what one person will and won’t do.” He and his wife hear litanies of them. “But if you have both the husband and wife in the same room,” he says, “and attempt to get both sides, what gets fleshed out is how complex this is.”

The thing Clint won’t do, according to Angie, is the night shift. But if you ask Clint, he reframes the night-shift dispute in terms of something Angie won’t do: sleep-train their children. More generally, he says she won’t take any number of small and reasonable measures to give herself a break. “It’s hard,” he says, “to make Angie want things for herself.”

This feeling is common. To me, it suggests that Hochschild’s observation—that power struggles over who does what in a relationship aren’t just about fairness but about the “giving and receiving of gratitude”—has an added layer today: guilt. Like many women, Angie feels resentment because her husband is not doing enough. But she also believes that she is not doing enough, and can never do enough, and that she should be doing everything all the time.

“If I were to say, ‘Okay, I’ll give you a break and take care of the kids 100 percent, but it’s going to be my way,’ ” Clint confesses to her at one point, “I’m afraid you’ll be calling the shots from the couch.”

“Well,” asks Angie, “what are you considering your way? Is your way turning on the TV and letting them do whatever, or is it taking them somewhere?”

“It’s all those things,” replies Clint. “If I needed to do the housework and get everything cleaned and do the dishes and make dinner and all that, there’s going to be some TV time involved. I’d occupy them while you took your break. I’d keep them safe and engaged. But I wouldn’t necessarily entertain them.”

This may be the reason Clint believes he does 50 percent of the child care. He counts it as child care if he’s doing one thing and the kids are doing another, so long as they’re safe. Whereas Angie feels obliged to immerse herself completely in their world.

And Angie herself is complicit, to some degree, in this increase in her workload. Before leaving for the hospital, she fretted about the relative state of disorder she’d left for Clint. “He’s going to come home to a crabby baby and a kid who hasn’t napped,” she said, her face bunched in a frown. “I try to get them both to be napping when he comes home so that he can have some free time to go to his office or go onto the computer.”

It isn’t only Clint who is protective of his free time, in other words. Angie protects his free time too.

“Sometimes I just assume you should know I’m stressed out,” Angie says to him at one point. “You should see me running around, or how I’m acting. And you don’t. And then I get irritated.”

“And that’s the part that I get irritated with,” says Clint. “All you had to do was ask. You could have just told me.

He is right. But asking is easier said than done. Angie experiences home as a video game, a never-ending quest to ward off flying debris. She’s starting at a much higher level of stress. If you’re feeling that stress, it’s hard to believe that others aren’t experiencing the same situation in the exact same way.

Clint may also fail to jump in and offer his time because he has mixed feelings about giving it up. The day before, for example, when Clint walked through the door, he was a bit miffed to discover that the kids weren’t napping. “They should be sleeping right now,” he told me after Angie had gone, looking slightly defeated. That pressure Angie feels to give Clint his free time is not imagined.

Though he may be unaware of it, Clint is exploiting Angie’s guilt, or at the very least recognizes he benefits from it. On their mutual days off, he admits, “I’m more quick to say, ‘I want to do something.’ Whereas she’s less quick to do that.” But if he knows he’s more aggressive about claiming his leisure time, and he knows that Angie is perpetually exhausted, why doesn’t he yield some of his leisure time to his wife?

This is a strange moment for fatherdom. There’s increasing pressure for men to be actively involved in the affairs of the home, but there’s no precise standard for how much involvement is enough. In his parenting memoir Home Game, Michael Lewis shrewdly notes that all it takes for a couple to start fighting, really, is for them to go out to dinner with another couple whose domestic division of labor is slightly different from their own. “In these putatively private matters, people constantly reference public standards,” he writes. “They don’t care if they’re getting a raw deal so long as everyone is getting the same deal.” The problem with modern parenting, he says, is that “there are no standards and it’s possible that there never again will be.”

Going into fatherhood, men know they’re supposed to engage. But once they’re in the thick of it, many are caught off-guard, just as their wives are, by the all-consuming nature of the job. And if the standard is to do as much as their wives do . . . Lord, that bar is as high as a bird’s nest. Women spend more intensive time with their children today than they have in the last fifty years.

Pamela Druckerman’s solution to these excesses is to emulate the French. In Bringing Up Bébé, she marvels at how French parents, mothers especially, resist what William Doherty calls (in his own book about marriage) “consumer parenting,” that insidious style of American child-rearing that makes it possible for a kid to lay claim to a mother’s or father’s attention twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The French, she argues, have no qualms about firmly asserting their leisure prerogatives and protecting their adult needs (like peace and quiet, for instance, or uninterrupted conversation with other adults).

That’s a constructive message. But since few American women have French mothers sitting around their homes, ready to show them the way, they may do better to take their cues from a model that’s more readily available: the good fathers they know. Who may in fact be their own husbands. Because odds are, these men have something valuable to teach.

Here’s why: unencumbered by outsized cultural expectations about what does or doesn’t constitute good parenting, and free from cultural judgments over their participation in the workforce, good fathers tend to judge themselves less harshly, bring less anguished perfectionism to parenting their children (“Sit in this Bumbo while I unload the dishwasher, would ya?”), and—at least while their kids are young—more aggressively protect their free time. None of this means they love their children any less than their wives do. None of this means they care any less about their children’s fates.

Mothers may not, of course, be fully able to follow their husbands’ examples. If women make more forceful claims on their husbands’ free time, their husbands could well push back. This is also, admittedly, a private solution to something that in a civilized world would be a public problem, as Judith Warner argues so fiercely in Perfect Madness. It would be far better if the government kicked in the support that parents needed. But considering that the last Republican presidential primary was briefly derailed by a debate over the legitimacy of birth control—birth control!—our politics hardly seem inclined in this direction. At least not yet.

For now, talking helps, especially early on. In their work, the Cowans found that the couples who had hashed out divisions of labor during pregnancy rather than after the baby came along fared much better than those who had never discussed it at all. In fact, the men who had gone through specific interventions to clarify these divisions were actually unhappy that they weren’t doing more.

But redistributing the load is only one challenge. Another is redefining attitudes. That’s what captivates me about Clint. He’s so . . . forgiving of himself. Self-scrutiny and insecurity know no gender, obviously; plenty of fathers say they’re terrified they’re screwing things up. But I somehow think that their anguish is not the same. When I first spoke to Angie, she told me that she normally found home much harder than work—and her work involves schizophrenic and psychotic inpatients, often in the midst of violent outbreaks. Whereas Clint, who works at a desk, says he finds work more challenging. “I had to learn how to be a manager,” he says. “I’m held to someone else’s standard. Whereas here at home, I am the standard. I feel like I do it the way it should be done.”

There are a lot of hardships that this pioneering generation of involved fathers has to endure. But comparing themselves to an unattainable ideal—whether it’s Donna Reed in Hilldale or the “Tiger Mom” of a best-selling book—is not one of them. I am the standard. “Personally,” says Clint, “I think having my parents separate when I was seven was the best thing that ever happened to me.” Clint saw little of his father after that. “I didn’t have anyone saying to me, ‘This is how good you need to be.’ ”

Angie, meanwhile, says she never knows if she’s doing things the way they ought to be done. When asked if she’s a good mother, her answer is one word: “Sometimes.”

She’s wrong. Angie’s a great mother. If she could just say, “I am the standard,” maybe she would breathe.

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