Why Raising Children Is So Hard

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You don’t really know what an experience is like, of course, until you have it yourself.  I remember thinking to myself when my wife and I first began discussing the idea of having children that this was especially true regarding parenthood.  In the past I’d been able to predict with reasonable accuracy a number of novel experiences based on previous similar experiences, but no experience I’d yet had seemed even close to the experience of having a child (sorry, owning a pet doesn’t come close).

The truth is that parenthood is both wonderful and awful at the same time.  What makes it wonderful are all the things people tell you.  What makes it awful, however, isn’t quite as intuitively clear.  Certainly the obvious things like tantrums, stubbornness, and lifestyle changes are difficult.  But they aren’t what I’ve found the most challenging.  For me, what makes child-rearing the most challenging are the following three things:

  1. Children follow their own schedule.  They find dust fascinating and want to play with it while you’re trying to get them to school.  They don’t want to sleep or eat (you’d think evolution would have thought to program that differently).  They want to read the same book, listen to the same song, and watch the same movie over and over and over again.  Having a child is like having one of your limbs suddenly develop a mind of its own with desires and interests that are different from yours.  You’re quite attached to it, however, so can’t—and don’t want to—get rid of it.  Yet living with it suddenly becomes an unexpected challenge—not so much because you must now work to manage something that previously obeyed your every whim (you can forgive that because, being a part of yourself, you love it), but because its new independence of mind becomes a constant reminder that any control we think we have in life is an illusion.
  2. We want to do everything for them.  This is sometimes because of #1 above:  children often move so slowly that impatience gets the best of us and we start putting on their shirts, their pants, and their shoes when they’re perfectly capable of doing it themselves.  But just as often, it’s because we want to spare them difficulty.  Our desire to do so, however, is clearly as misguided as it is understandable.  How, after all, did we learn to succeed at challenging tasks except by having the chance to fail at them?  By learning to tolerate our own frustration so that we could channel it into trying again?  In fact, I can think of few skills more important to learn—perseverance in the face of obstacles—to which parents represent more of an obstacle themselves.
  3. We want to spare them pain.  This one is what makes parenthood the most challenging for me.  I simply want my son never to be hurt, either physically or emotionally.  When he was born, I wasn’t surprised by how much I loved him almost immediately, but I was by the strength of the urge I felt to protect him.  Yet none of us are spared pain in life, and the sooner we learn how to survive it, the sooner we learn how to thrive in it.  Thus as parents, we must sometimes allow our children to be hurt.  Yet exactly when to hold back and when to leap in requires judgment, self-control, and constant vigilance.  It’s a bit like trying to lose weight:  you can’t abdicate responsibility for protecting your children any more than you can entirely stop eating.  You have to protect them from genuine threats but also allow them to experience what pain you think they can handle so that when you’re no longer around to make it better, they can make it better themselves.  But it makes you hurt yourself.  And it’s exhausting.

My main point here, then, is that nothing in life is only wonderful (or awful), even having children, something many tout, at least in the abstract, as the most wonderful experience to be had.  But our experiences never occur in the abstract and thinking of them as if they do, expecting them to be entirely black or entirely white, will only yield unrealistic expectations and thus predispose us to suffer through something that, in the end, really is wonderful.

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  • While I agree with all the points you make, Alex, the hardest part of being a parent for me has been the need to subjugate most of my personal desires and goals, or else pursue them while wrestling the ever-present demon of guilt. As a physician (who came of age under your great tutelage!) with children ages 3, 5, 7, and 12, I am perpetually amazed at how at the same time I can so fiercely love these consuming little beings while also resent their perpetual needs at the same time. Balancing the task of giving our kids what they need while nurturing our own spirit is something I’ve only started to gain insight to over the past year. To anyone who this speaks to, I invite you to read my posting “Good Enough is the New Perfect” at my blog http://www.karanancemd.posterous.com. Thank you again for bringing a very relevant issue to the floor, Alex! 🙂

    Kara: You and I are having identical experiences (though yours, I think, is more intense with three more children than I).


  • Thanks for another well written article, Alex! I think your last sentence nails it: life in general, is shades of gray and relative in nature at our daily transactional plane, so whenever we (our minds) expect absoluteness from it, we position ourselves for pain (regardless of whether the expectation is met or not). Let us say, our expectation is met momentarily, we build up on it and want the next expectation to be met as well (which obviously does not happen again and again… thus causing suffering in the end. If our expectation is not met, it leads to misery anyways.

  • Try standing up in court when they walk your kid out cuffed in an orange jumpsuit.

    Tony: Wow. No thank you.


  • Nice article for the parents of young children or of children who are on a good path, solid footing, etc. Not terribly realistic for parents of extremely difficult children/young adults in dire circumstances. At that point, compassion or parenting does take a different turn: self-survival and one learns the very difficult lesson that ties in with your point about children operating on their own frequencies: they simply don’t care about consequences. I saw a good friend bury her 26-y.o. child last week.

  • This essay wonderfully demonstrated that the questions we don’t ask underlie the ones we do. Even, maybe, that what makes the experience of parenthood wonderful and awful for each of us depends on how we answer the unstated question beneath that one—or if we make the attempt at all.

    It seems to me that the unstated question here might be “What is life for?” You can easily see that the range of answers to that question generates an equally broad range of answers to your question about parenthood. For me, what makes parenthood wonderful and awful is the responsibility to do the right thing it makes palpable—and inescapable—as well as the gift it is to be given the opportunity. I was not so much afraid to let my child be hurt as I was that I would misread what kind of a person my child was, what s/he needed to thrive, or that I might not be able to read what kind of a person s/he was at all. For after all, if you do not perceive the true essence of a person you can go very badly astray with the guidance, support, and even the kind of protection you provide.

    You certainly nailed the quality of difficulty attached to having a child by describing it as “like having one of your limbs suddenly develop a mind of its own with desires and interests that are different from yours.” I wonder if people who have many children feel the same effect multiplied or if the effect is qualitatively different.

    Thank you, as always, for creating this welcoming space for learning and exchange.

  • I don’t know the answers. I vacillate between hope and despair….I see my 33-year-old son as unable to take care of himself emotionally and spiritually which has resulted in drug abuse, jail, financial problems and now a herniated back disk… He keeps wanting what he doesn’t have, is resentful. He doesn’t seem to be able to be proactive in taking care of himself. He doesn’t capitalize on what he has (able to get along with many people, good looking, insightful into others) . He doesn’t seem to have the perseverance…I have guilt, resentment and despair….

    He definitely has some major unresolved emotional issues (father left when he was baby, family deaths early in his life). He’s been exposed to the programs AA, NA, but he can’t seem to get it… Is his brain chemistry defective? Is this his spiritual journey? I’ve supported him in all kinds of ways… I’ve tried to let him feel his pain, but all that seems to happen is that he gets in more difficulty and pain! The programs and my spirituality tell me it’s his journey and I guess that means my journey is to have to witness his suffering and be okay with it.

    Annie: I wish I had good answers for you. I did write something that you might find relevant, When Someone You Love Is Unhappy. I hope your son finds a way to a healthier, happier place.


  • Alex, #3—is that like giving them roots, then giving them wings?

    On the subject of giving up so much personally for your kids:

    For me, my career must allow me to enter into my kids’ lives, spending a LOT of time with them, reading and re-reading their books to them, passing on my values to them, watching in the wings, ready to jump in when they need the additional support . . .

    If my career is so demanding that I cannot do these things well, then, in the name of unconditional love, I take a step back from my career (or other “outside interest”).

    Children must naturally fly from the nest. They give themselves the platform by rebelling and acting entitled. That makes it easier for them to go and easier for us to let them go. We must be dispassionate about this.

    Here is a mystery: How is it that sometimes children learn generosity from generous parents; and sometimes children learn to be takers, not givers? I have long pondered this imponderable . . . and still no answer in sight.

  • You know, once a would-be parent reads this, they will think twice about it. Parenting comes so naturally and you take each day as it comes bringing new discoveries and joys with them. You start with a new perspective and you learn so much from them. I have three children and I lost one at early age. I have my ups and downs with them but I have become a better person because of various experiences with them, which taught me so much. Believe me don’t get too deep in How, Why and Which. Make good causes and see…

  • @ Geeta vora:

    You make one of the most important points in the “pros” column—that children become our greatest teachers, if we are open to it.

    Chris: So true, so valuable, and so hard as well. Another post in itself…


  • For me, as the mother of a 14 month old, I have found parenting thus far to be the ultimate in a “be here, now” exercise. As you say, so much of what they do is largely out of our control, for better or worse, but I would argue for better. If you consider them as a person/independent agent with their own active and valuable perspective on the world—at any age—instead of a just a ward to protect and maintain, it is amazing what they can teach you about yourself and your own experience.

    I’m 32 years old and, until age 30, was totally ambivalent about having children. Indeed, they seemed to be a drain on my own potential. For some reason (ah, biochemistry!), we went for it anyway. I have been truly floored about how much I have learned from my son about wonder, persistence, and living in the moment in a complex world that you don’t (and can never completely) understand.

    Instead of my son limiting me, I am forced to become MORE me. My personal time is limited, my time with my husband is limited, the energy I have to devote to work is limited, and all the detritus of daily life that truly doesn’t matter, if I am to manage, falls away—and there is an awful lot of that. I must prioritize and invest myself in the things that matter most. And because they matter, those activities are most rewarding.

    I could never have predicted this would be my experience. If you had approached me 5 years ago and told me I would feel this way, I would not have believed you.

    We are just at the start of our lives as parents. It will be hard, and it’s impossible to predict what will become of us. But that has always been true.

    Thanks for your posts, Alex. Very insightful and thought-provoking.

  • Becoming a parent was one the best things I have done and also one of the hardest. You cry, laugh and scream somethings in the span of minutes. It is an experience but when you see your child grow into adulthood (my son will soon be 21) and start becoming a productive, independent person…you know the struggle was not in vain. Thanks for the post.

  • Hi Alex,
    I have a few comments to make re this but I suggest that you try and see a sketch by the wonderful Michael McIntyre a very funny English comedian about being a parent…….verrrrrry funny. Had us crying as it is sooooo true to life!

  • Thanks for another good one.

    Of course all parents want the best for the children. But why then do so many parents repeat the worst things their own parents did to them, as in, “you can’t have a car because I didn’t get a car and I’m still annoyed about it,” “you have to clean the bathroom because my dad made me clean the bathroom and I hated it.” Twenty years out, still miffed at what was perceived as ill treatment, treatment that led to estrangement and resentment and hard feelings, parents repeat the same things with their own children, creating a new generation with a chip on its shoulder. Always a mystery.

  • I choose not to be parent for many personal and global views as I saw right through it all, though I’ve been teacher for over 19 years. Although I had a wonderful upbringing with proper discipline, parameters, much love and nurturing, I find that many people have children for the wrong reasons ending up in divorce, split homes inconsistent parenting…and more mistakes being made; my opinion as an educated professional in the instruction and organization of having many parents’ children under my realm for 9.5 months of every year. I myself serve as “step mother” to 2 kids (9 and 11) from husband’s previous marriage. The difficulty I have is that they are not my children and I want to influence them in what I think is better than they are being raised…I find mostly that I must remain quiet and watch it all take place. I try my best to be positive and instill in them respect, good morals and discipline. Probably the hardest part is that their mother is a pretentious woman and does not acknowledge my presence in a positive manner in the lives of this 2 kids. That creates this unbearable resentment within me as I am only accustomed to wonderful relationships with everyone, I have no enemies….It has been 5 years now and am at a loss with their mother, I often feel bad for my husband as he loves his kids even though he never wanted them (no one did with this woman…he was her 4th husband, she is 8 years older then he is) she is very controlling, never allows us to have nice family times when the kids are with us during their weekly visits of 2 days…she is always calling, either to berate the 11 yr-old son about a poor grade or homework, or to check in to make sure their father is reading to 9 yr-old daughter at promptly 7 p.m. every night. I know I can’t change her, but I resent how she has ruined circumstances time and again. The only peace we had was when she moved out of the country with the 2 kids for 1 year and I remember my husband saying how at peace and happy he felt… and that he was happy we were together and had a good thing going…well I haven’t heard that since she returned a year ago now…at this time I am trying my best to accept her as she is and let it all go to get past this resentment. I believe people need to look deeply into their inner selves, listen well to the inner voice that says yes or no to children as too many end up as puppets in divorce. Another insight from the other side. I do give great compliments to parents who make it through the trials and tribulations in the aftermath of children. I am glad I found your website, Alex, as it has offered me great insight into many topics. Thank you.

  • Great topic. I love your post and all of the comments, Alex. Everyone has their own challenges. My experience is that kids teach you lots of things, but not necessarily things you wanted to learn (such as the lesson I blogged about in “On Being a Role Model”). And to think that I took on parenting thinking that I was going to be the teacher. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  • Having children is a journey for which there is no instruction manual. Some parents are better than others; some children thrive despite their parents and some because of them. No one knows what really causes our children to develop the way they do….nature, nurture….there are so many variables. As parents, we want to do our best; we struggle with our own needs and wants versus their needs and wants; we struggle with guilt over things we wish we had done differently or better. In the end, what is the reason we have children? Having raised two children, I can say that the hardest part isn’t raising them (although it seems that way at the time); the hardest part is letting them go. You miss them more than you’d ever believe possible. It is like you have lost a limb and suddenly adjusting without it is hard. Your major role as a parent for the last 18 or 20 years comes rather abruptly to an end. They are now in charge of their own lives and we hope they have learned their lessons well, but we can no longer control their choices. The consolation is knowing, as your children leave their home full of excitement of being on their own (and without even looking back), that you have done your job of raising successful, independent, young people of whom you can be proud. Yes it can feel like a great loss as it is painful to see them leave and our hearts want them back, but what is more full filling than a job well done??

  • What a good post for me to read this evening after putting the children to bed… or making sure the children have stayed in bed in the case of the eldest who is now a teenager. There’s certainly nothing black or white about parenting! Thank you.

  • I think the hardest part about being a parent is watching your kids struggle at something. Your heart just breaks. And know matter how much you work with them or practice with them, they still struggle. You want life to be easy for your kids. You want the best for them. You want them to be happy. Watching my children endure their struggles has sucked the joy from my life.

  • I agree with this post, and while it’s amazingly gratifying to be a parent, it’s also one of the toughest job I have. Thankfully, I somehow encountered a book that has and continues to ease my mind. While books can’t explain everything about parenting sometimes it helps and this one did for me. It’s called The Parenting Survival Guide and everyone should check it out for the best practical tips and advice on parenting and get their free book. https://parentingsurvivalguide.net/