Couples imagining the joys of parenting tend to think of those quintessential Hallmark moments—babies cracking their first gummy smiles, hand-made crafts scrawled with “I luv Mommy,” excited kids arranging cookies for Santa Claus. Few look forward to well-known parenting horrors like the 2 am shift with a colicky infant, potty training an obstinate three-year-old, or caring for a child racked with stomach flu. Yet, in my experience at least, these parenting rites-of-passage tend to end up seeming like part of the good stuff—at least in retrospect.
Thirty-four-year old mother of two, Katy Landrum, recently created a minor social media firestorm with her provocatively-titled article, “I Paid Someone to Sleep Train My Infant While I Went On Vacation,” for Redbook. She explains:
When our son was born, my husband reminded me that early sleep training would benefit everyone in our family. As a self-employed realtor who works full time, I regularly receive inquiries from clients looking to buy and sell homes, and I knew that in order to properly function, sleep was a necessity. Our daughter is now two and a half and she’s still a great sleeper, so I knew we needed to do it again. Our wonderful night nurse referred us to her friend Deb, a seasoned sleep trainer with nearly a decade of experience helping babies achieve peaceful slumbers. At $30 an hour, bringing a professional in to manage the process seemed like a no-brainer. It’s so painful for me to listen to my babies cry, and I knew I didn’t have the strength to do it again.
So, I booked myself and my husband a little getaway in Ojai. I didn’t want to be in earshot of Bo’s weeping. Treating ourselves to a restful retreat meant we could try to enjoy ourselves instead of dwelling on what was taking place at home. After a couple of cocktails, an afternoon of sun, and a few intimate minutes with my breast pump (I dumped the contents), I settled into a Swedish massage at the spa.
I sympathize with Landrum: Sleep deprivation is a serious situation and one that smart parents don’t allow to linger for too long. Allowing a baby to cry instead of immediately receiving comfort so he or she can learn how to go back to sleep naturally is a legitimate way to encourage healthier sleep habits. I disagree with many of Landrum’s critics who imply that there is something inherently wrong with employing an expert to take on a parenting job.
Yet before outsourcing what sound like unpleasant aspects of parenting, parents should do the full cost-benefit analysis and not overlook the big upsides to these experiences. Yes, consoling an inconsolable child or hearing a baby cry through the door are painful experiences, but they tend to be coupled with profoundly gratifying moments—seeing your baby sleeping peacefully, having your sick child gratefully hold your hand, seeing the pride of the newly potty-trained youngster.
Landrum had already sleep trained her first child and said she didn’t want to suffer through it again. She describes sharing a bottle of wine with her friend when she made the decision, and tearfully listening to her baby’s own tears and struggling through the process, which took days. It sounds like a vivid memory. Is it really one that she wishes she’d missed?
Sit with any group of mothers and you’ll often end up hearing them exchange parenting battle stories, usually with lots of laughter and obvious pleasure. That’s no surprise: People tend to value experiences and accomplishments that they’ve had to invest in and sacrifice for. The pride of being a Marine in part stems from having endured the grueling training program; surviving fraternity hazing builds a feeling of camaraderie among those who shared the experience. Having invested so much, people’s psyches find ways to help us see our investments as good ones.
This may explain the counter-intuitive results of some of Europe’s social programs. Their governments invest heavily in helping parents and making raising children less taxing. Throughout most of the EU, once the lengthy, government-mandated paid leave following the birth of a child is over, parents are expected to drop their one-year-olds off to spend the bulk of their day in a heavily-subsidized, government-provided daycare center. Why are birth rates so stubbornly low when parenting has been made so much easier? Perhaps that’s exactly why. Eliminating the intense demands of parenting has also robbed parents of some of the glue that makes the whole experience seem worthwhile (and likens the experience to a demanding yet prestigious club that not everyone has the grit to enter).
Clearly, many parents embrace suffering as a virtue and needlessly compete for who has it worse. That’s silly, and parents ought to try to make the experience of parenting more joyful and to continue enjoying their lives as individuals even while raising their kids. Yet, we as parents also shouldn’t discount the selfish satisfaction derived from living through the sleepless nights and messy moments that, ironically, often end up among our fondest memories.