Zero Effect

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I am expecting my fourth child in October. I am amazed by this fact. So amazed that if it weren’t for my growing belly, I’d still have a hard time believing it. Yes, to those of you who have asked, I do know how this works, but I also have a basic grasp of statistics, and I am a 42-year-old woman who has had eight miscarriages. Between my age and the particular problem that caused my miscarriages, I have more than an 80% chance of miscarriage in the first trimester of a pregnancy. And yet here I am, by the grace of God, nearly four months pregnant.

I’m getting my head around being a mother of four. I am now mostly happy and grateful, but in the first trimester I was a mess. There was the constant worry about miscarriage, of course, and the nausea, exhaustion, and temporary hormonal insanity, but also worries about whether we could really handle four kids, in a small three-bedroom house, with no extended family nearby, and presumably the same amount of patience my husband and I have now, which is not quite enough to make it through each day without wanting to flee the house or hide in the bathroom. I did some math, and if all goes well, I will be dealing with a teenage girl, a toddler, and menopause all at the same time. Lord have mercy.

I sought out a friend with four young children and asked her if she was ok, like, really ok. Kind and thoughtful woman that she is, she consoled and encouraged me and sent me happy bits of news about large families. My favorite was “The Breeders’ Cup,” a Wall Street Journal essay by Bryan Caplan from 2010.

I read this article back then, when I was a mom of two, but it didn’t speak to me. Now it’s like manna from heaven. Basically, Caplan argues that children are a better deal than we’ve come to believe. They don’t contribute less economically now than they used to, they have only a tiny negative effect on your happiness, having them is a decision that almost no one regrets (while many people do regret not having them or not having more), and raising them doesn’t need to be so difficult and stressful as we make it out to be. Here’s the kicker: it turns out that most of our parenting efforts have zero long-term effect on our kids. Zero.

Here’s Caplan:

Parents try to instill healthy habits that last a lifetime. But the two best behavioral genetic studies of life expectancy—one of 6,000 Danish twins born between 1870 and 1900, the other of 9,000 Swedish twins born between 1886 and 1925—found zero effect of upbringing. Twin studies of height, weight and even teeth reach similar conclusions. This doesn’t mean that diet, exercise and tooth-brushing don’t matter—just that parental pressure to eat right, exercise and brush your teeth after meals fails to win children’s hearts and minds.

Parents also strive to turn their children into smart and happy adults, but behavioral geneticists find little or no evidence that their effort pays off. In research including hundreds of twins who were raised apart, identical twins turn out to be much more alike in intelligence and happiness than fraternal twins, but twins raised together are barely more alike than twins raised apart….

Parents use many tactics to influence their kids’ schooling and future income. Some we admire: reading to kids, helping them with homework, praising hard work. Others we resent: fancy tutors, legacy admissions, nepotism. According to the research, however, these tactics barely work. Dartmouth economist Bruce Sacerdote studied about 1,200 families that adopted disadvantaged Korean children. The families spanned a broad range; they only needed incomes 25% above the poverty level to be eligible to adopt. Nevertheless, family income and neighborhood income had zero effect on adoptees’ ultimate success in school and work….

Behavioral geneticists also find that the effect of upbringing on morals is quite superficial. Parents have a strong effect on which religion and political party their kids identify with, but little on their adult behavior or outlook.

In 2010, this seemed like bad news. When I had two kids, on really good days I could imagine that I was more or less in control, or at least that with the proper advice I could hope to regain control. Also, when I was working more and spending more time thinking about my work, I tended to bring a career mindset to raising children. I would read the right books, seek advice from wise mentors, do my very best, and progress toward goals. But of course motherhood isn’t a career. It’s a vocation, which means it’s not about me and my goals.

Not that mothers and fathers have no power, or that our sacrifices are worthless. Caplan again: “The most meaningful fruit of parenting… is simply appreciation—the way your children perceive and remember you. When 1,400 older Swedish twins were asked to describe their parents, identical twins’ answers were only slightly more similar than fraternal twins’, and twins raised together gave much more similar answers than twins raised apart. If you create a loving and harmonious home for your children, they’ll probably remember it for as long as they live.”

This is good news. In fact, it’s pretty close to The Good News. It’s basically 1 Corinthians 13:1, the parenting version: If I am a wise, patient, financially secure mom who guides my children patiently through creative craft projects and keeps the house immaculately clean and orderly and always disciplines positively using natural consequences and gives specific praise instead of saying horrifying things like “You are smart,” but our house isn’t a place of love and harmony, then I am just a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. In the long term, and not even in the very long term—say, by the time my kids are 25—everything but the love will fade away, but the love will remain always.

Or, from a different angle: You might say the wrong thing, live in the wrong neighborhood, be a poor housekeeper or a bad cook, never do a single craft project, or tell your kids they are smart, but if your home is full of love, you’re doing everything that matters. “Love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4).”

(To be clear: love can’t cover the mortal parenting sin—abuse—because abuse leaves a child incapable of believing that they are loved and lovable. But surely love covers the venial sins of parenting—the raising of voices, the false accusations, the flared tempers, the fast food dinners, the poorly chosen words—along with the limitations we have through no fault of our own.)

All of which means I can relax, accept my children for who they are, and love them, knowing that their future is in God’s hands and theirs, not mine. I can be still and delight in them, and delight in having another one.

Like so much of the Gospel, though, this is easier said than done. Children are hard work, no matter how you look at motherhood or fatherhood. Even if I manage to surrender anxiety about their future and stop trying to mold them in some sort of image, they still drive me to the edge. Dealing with children, especially between the hours of 5pm and 7pm, can be crazy-hard, and adding another to the mix—what are we thinking? I might not look at the socks scattered across the floor or hear the rude demands for help (why must they call me like I am a disobedient dog? “Mom, Mom, MOM!”) and think, “What will become of you if I don’t instill better habits?” but I do think, “I can’t take this! You must stop that NOW.” Anger and frustration remain.

But if I keep my powerless to do anything good and lasting apart from love in mind, maybe fear doesn’t remain. And that’s the important thing, because perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). The opposite is also true: when I am fearful and anxious about my children—who they are, their limits, their habits, their future—my fear temporarily drives out my love for them. My worst anger toward them, the poisonous, uncharitable kind, is always driven by fear and anxiety. There’s a big difference between “I can’t stand it when you do that,” and “What is wrong with you?!” Only the first is compatible with love.

Truth be told, I’m still a little fearful about the fourth child. But love will, over time, drive that fear away. And even if I end up locking myself in the bathroom at 5pm every day? Zero effect on them. Zero.

Just for kicks, I might even tell them they’re smart.

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Why I Lose It

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My two year old son is really cute, but sometimes he’s not so likeable. Lately he’s been engaging in the most nerve-trampling of childhood behaviors, the demand-and-reject. It goes like this: he yells for help, “Mom-EE! I need help!!” I go to him and find him, for instance, trying to open a full gallon of milk to pour into a small glass. I pick up the milk to open it. He then screams, “NOOO! Do it MYSELF!” and grabs the milk, the top of which is now slightly unscrewed, so that milk splashes all over the table. He glares at me while he unscrews the milk and pours it, perfectly, into his glass. He’ll show me.

The same sequence happens again and again throughout the day, more begging for help with various tasks followed by resentful rejection. What help does he need exactly? I don’t know, but I need help, big help. I am dangerously annoyed. Unlike this little tyrant (I am tempted to say this little S-O-B, but that makes me the B in question), I cannot do it myself.

In my efforts to keep from losing it, I’ve been paying attention to my thoughts. I’ve noticed something interesting. When I’m about to lose it, my thoughts are basically a big “no,” a rejection of the whole situation. I stop seeing his behavior as something to understand and either tolerate or work to correct. Instead, in that exact moment, I just want to push that behavior, and him, away. Inside, much like a toddler, I’m screaming “NOOO! You will NOT make my life this hard. OUT!” I have the same thoughts before losing it with my tween.

Elizabeth Duffy, blogging for Aleteia, recently described a situation that caused her to lose it. She came home from a party with other Catholic families irritated that her husband hadn’t joined her, as had all the other husbands, and she lost her temper. She ponders why: “What is it that instigates violence in my heart? What is it that causes me to lash out at the people I love? It is when I take issue with the reality God has designed for me, when I imagine that somehow the family in which he placed me, and the particular salvific pathway each of us currently walk, is a big, raging mistake.”

Yes, exactly. In some moments it does feel like a big, raging mistake. How could it be this difficult? Why isn’t my home neat and pretty like I imagine other people’s homes are, especially this time of year? Why is it always such a mess, and why is someone always whining? Can we not even clean up the freaking socks? This can’t be right! Something is wrong with these people! NOOO!

I’ve been thinking often of Mary lately, and particularly today, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In the past, I’ve been a little skeptical of pious talk about how everything depended on Mary’s saying “yes.” An angel appeared to her, told her she was especially favored by God, and asked her do something that would change everything, forever. That’s a big, exciting question, full of promise and possibility. I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of thing I love to say yes to. It’s not the big yes that bothers me so much as the thousands of little ones, the yes to cleaning yet more stickiness off of the floor, the yes to endless bedtime routines, the yes to messy art projects, the yes to wrangling a toddler through Mass.

Lately I’ve been reminded, though, that Mary didn’t just say yes once; she kept saying yes, over and over again. She said yes to the very real social and physical dangers of pregnancy before marriage, yes to the possibility of Joseph abandoning her, yes to traveling for days to Bethlehem on a donkey while nine months pregnant, yes to giving birth in a stable, yes to fleeing to Egypt, yes to her son having a mission that took him away from her, and worst of all, yes to witnessing his death on the cross. Even when it must have been hard to see what was happening as part of God’s plan—the son of God, born in poverty and obscurity? The Messiah having to flee like a refugee? The Savior murdered on the cross like the lowest of criminals?—there she is, pondering in her heart, wondering, and saying yes.

I can be grateful that the things I have to say yes to aren’t nearly so hard as what Mary dealt with, but then again, they also feel infinitely less important. Can the mundane irritants of daily life really be part of God’s plan for my salvation? Well, yes, they can. Who am I to think that God must always deal with me in grand gestures and deep epiphanies? God has a destination in mind for me that is beyond my imagining, and if I can’t imagine the destination, surely I can’t map the way there myself. When I say no to the most trying parts of my day, I’m thinking of my own destination, the one at which I’ll arrive via a level, pleasant, and well-ordered road that I travel with polite and clean companions. Wherever that place is, that’s not where He is taking me and He isn’t the way there.

No matter how hard I try or how hard I pray, I am still going to get angry, because children drive you to that, they just do. But, if I can remember that God is present in and loving me through these horrid interactions, they might not seem so chaotic, meaningless, and threatening. They might not feel like something I have to push away to safeguard my orderly, meaningful world. After all, there really is no such thing as my world and my order. The only lasting order is God’s order, and the only way to have that is to love.

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My Poor Daughter

My daughter and I in 2007 at my graduation

According to a recent study out of the Harvard Business School, I’m impoverishing my daughter by raising her myself.

The study’s authors found that women whose moms worked outside the home are more likely to be employed than women whose moms stayed home, and in the United States, they earn 23% more. According to the study’s co-author, Kathleen McGinn, “These women earn more money in the jobs that they do hold. And those women who do work are significantly more likely to hold supervisory responsibility in their jobs. So they earn more money and they’re more powerful at work.”

Oh no. Looks like I’m putting my daughter on the fast train to loser-ville. How could I be so selfish?

Actually, I’m not at all bothered by this study, which tells us something kind of obvious that we should be glad to hear: our daughters emulate us. If I work, my daughter will think that’s normal. If I don’t, she’ll think that’s normal. She will be more comfortable making the same sacrifices I do, whether those are the sacrifices necessary to earn tenure or the sacrifices necessary to be home with her.

Last week she told me, without any prompting, as if she had been pondering the issue, “You know, I want to have a career when I’m older, but when you have kids, one parent needs stay home with them, so I’ll do that for a while. It’s important.”

Did I react to this by saying, “No, no, no, then you’ll make less money, dear! You’ll have less power. You won’t be as famous or as honored. What if you never get hired again after you quit? And have you thought about how you’d be making it harder for other women to succeed?”

No. Truth be told, I would love for my daughter to stay home with her children, even if it means she makes less money when she does return to work. That’s how happy I am with my choice.

I realize that I am privileged to have had the choice not to work full time. It’s a blessing to have had a decision to make, but it was also agony. Deciding to forgo a prestigious full-time job was the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make. For years I went back and forth, imagining what my life would be like if I took one path or the other, asking friends for advice, and agonizing.

I didn’t want “balance.” I wanted the weight of my life to be squarely on the side of my family. I wanted to be firmly for them, not balanced precariously between work and family. Part-time work sounded perfect, but I was ambivalent about the possibility of a demanding full-time tenure track job, as desirable and prestigious as the work was. Back then, the choice was all or nothing. I did take a full time, tenure-track job that I loved, but ultimately I chose to stay at home.

While I was agonizing, I’d scour the internet looking for wisdom. Most of what I found was along the lines of “What are you thinking, fool? Get to work. You’re too important to take care of messy, little, dependent, barely verbal people all day.” That was the gist of Linda Hirshman’s insultingly-titled book, Get to Work … And Get a Life, Before It’s Too Late, which came out just in time to chime in to my internal debate. From Hirshman (or rather from reviews of Hirshman—I didn’t have time to read outside of work then) I gathered that being a full-time mom is a life of meaningless, pointless tedium compared to all that I could achieve for me and for the cause of gender equality if, like her, I became a professor. She also cautioned me not to bother looking for meaningful volunteer or part-time work. The best I could hope for would be stuffing envelopes for a good cause. I didn’t fully buy all this, but it got to me. It made me feel foolish, short-sighted, and selfish for even thinking of opting out. With the power of hindsight, I now know her advice was crap. Ahhh, hindsight.

When I was searching the internet for wisdom, there were words I longed to hear. In the wake of the Harvard study, I thought I’d write them now, just so that they’re out there to counterbalance the fear-mongering and guilt trips.

To the mom facing a decision to work or not: I don’t know what God is calling you to do. It could be to have a career and be a mom. But if devoting the bulk of your days to your family is what God is calling you to do, listen to Him. He can be trusted. Give your life to Him and in the end, not a single talent or skill you have will be wasted. If you live for Him, you do not need to live in fear of boredom or purposelessness. The life He has planned for you will take everything you have to give. His plans for you are guaranteed to be better than any plans you could make for yourself. Harder, maybe, and less glamorous, but more meaningful, more loving, and more fulfilling. Go for it.

Or to borrow from Linda Hirshman: Say yes to God … and live the life He has planned for you, before it’s too late.

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Perfectly Planned Summers

Summer camps are my worst financial temptations. I don’t tend to have much difficulty denying my children things, but denying them experiences pains me. I am happy to say “We can’t afford that” about toys, jewelry, clothing, cars, electronics, or houses, but saying that about a worthwhile experience makes me feel poor like nothing else does. Where I live, I am surrounded by tantalizing, fascinating week-long experiences. The school year plods along slowly, the expected knowledge gradually accumulating in the expected ways, but the summer, oh, the summer can soar. Those ten weeks sit there waiting to be designed, filled with experiences that will lead to new passions, capabilities, and confidence. Every year I struggle not to treat the summer like a shopping cart to fill with purchased experiences, and nearly every year I fail. Of course my son needs Lego camp, sports camp, and adventure camp. Of course my daughter needs programming camps, horse camp, and overnight camp. And then of course we need to go camping, along with our usual vacations with extended family. There’ll be hiking, at least one amusement park trip, and maybe some mountain biking thrown in. And here we are, over-scheduled again. I find myself actually wanting to go to the grocery store with all of them, wanting to have them home, bored and a little whiny, casting about for something to do (“No! Not that. What can I do besides reading and math?”). All these precious summer experiences are indeed enriching and valuable, but why must I fill nearly the whole summer with one experience after another? Can I not just let them be? Why don’t I buy less camp for my children and give to those who can’t afford any camps, so that they too might be enriched by new experiences? I realize I have fallen prey to selfishness, but am I also becoming that dreadful thing, a helicopter parent?

In her book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, Julia Lythcott-Haims talks about the damage being done by helicopter parenting. As a student dean at Stanford, she often deals with young adults who are unable to make decisions on their own, articulate and pursue their own interests, or manage stress and disappointment. As a professor, I met many college students that fit this description, coming to office hours crying over B’s (“This has never happened to me before! It can’t be right!) and speaking about their lives as if they have been scripted by someone else (“Well, I guess the plan for me is to go to law school…”).

I don’t think I’m really a helicopter parent. I encourage my seven and ten year old children to roam our little corner of our neighborhood without me, biking and exploring with friends. My seven year old has a pocket knife, and I let him whittle spears without standing over him. They do their own school work. I review it, but I don’t correct it or do it for them. (At least now—this was a learning process for me, I admit. I confess, my husband and I once made an FDR puppet for a second grade project. It sits on the shelf now, its wire-rimmed glasses and pantyhose-covered carved foam head accusing me. We even made polio crutches for it.) I let them follow their own interests, which do not need to include playing an instrument or even participating in group sports. I have brought forgotten lunches or books to school once or twice, true, but I know enough to be glad when my children get the opportunity to learn to cope with small failures and disappointments. I do my best to resist the urge to fix things for them when they can do so themselves. Still, I do struggle with some of the things that Lythcott-Haims talks about. It’s hard not to step in to prevent failures or manage feelings. It’s hard not to feel responsible for my children’s happiness. As she explains, and the recent movie Inside Out tells it, we burden our children with a responsibility beyond their control when we tell them, “I just want you to be happy.” They can’t make themselves happy, and neither can we. Along the way, they will likely experience happiness and success, but also sadness and failure. Better to try as best I can to teach them to be faithful and responsible than to go about anxiously forcing their happiness and success.

So much of the helicopter-parenting phenomenon is about anxiety and fear. It’s understandable. The middle class is shrinking. A comfortable living is no longer guaranteed. It’s harder to get into elite colleges, to land that first job, and to buy a house. Maybe opportunity isn’t really shrinking, but it is becoming less reliable. We cannot be assured beyond the shadow of a doubt that if they just follow the rules and graduate, our children will get a decent job and settle into middle class life. Increasingly, good parenting takes strong faith. We’ve lost faith that the economy will automatically provide, so if we aren’t going to parent out of fear and anxiety, we have to have faith that God will.

I have to keep reminding myself: I don’t parent alone. My children aren’t fully mine or my husband’s. They have a Father in heaven who has plans for them that I can’t fathom or control. The world isn’t as dangerous as all the horrifying news stories lead me to believe. I can trust in God’s care and provision for them.

I love how Lythcott-Haims talks about treating kids as wildflowers to be nourished rather than bonsai trees to be cultivated. I’ve always disliked the art of bonsai. I identify with the tree and imagine its justified resentment: Let me just grow, darn it! Why shrink me to your size and force me to follow your own contorted designs for my future? Allow me to grow into what I am made to be, which is something beautiful that gives glory to my creator, not to you. Your job is to make sure I get what God justly provides, water and sunlight, some space to sink my roots in deep and reach my branches high, occasional guidance when I’m young so that I use my energy to grow properly toward the light, and maybe some fertilizer here and there. But I’m not your pet, so put down the little shears and back off, woman.

Quality summer camps and other such experiences are fertilizer, not shears. I suppose it’s not my kids that I am treating like bonsai trees, but their time. Every free week is so precious. It’s hard to let time grow wild, but I long for the creativity and unexpected pleasures that can come from that wild time. Last summer they got so bored that they made a miniature village out of water balloons, a tea set, and fake food. It was a beautiful thing. The summer memories I treasure most aren’t the proud smiles about learning to code or paddle board, but the shared creations that come out of their own free play, on the other side of whiny boredom. Next year, as I plan the summer, I’ll remind myself to leave much of it unplanned. I’ll put the shears down.

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Judge Not, Lest Your Kids Humiliate You

I think it’s time to quit taking my toddler to his play gym classes, because I’m thinking it won’t be too long before they kick him out. Towards the end of class, when he’s already good and bored with the equipment (and we’re both sick to death of being told to quack like a duck), they bring out a parachute. Something about that parachute brings out the crazy in that kid. He gets a gleam in his eye, and it’s on. Standing in a circle, the moms lift up the parachute, and the kids go under it. And then, before I can let go of the chute and lunge for him, he runs as fast as he can smack into another little toddler, who goes down like a bowling pin. It looks bad. The mothers glance at me in horror: what are you raising, woman?

I know that look. I used to give mothers that look. Long ago, when I was a mother of one girl, I used to distrust mothers of boys. They seemed to put up with way too much physical violence from their little brutes. After they bowled over my precious little girl, apologies weren’t enough. I wanted to see the child disciplined immediately, and perhaps hear from his poor mom an explanation of her strategy for his ongoing behavior modification.

I also used to judge mothers of screechers, the little ones who emit those ear-rattling high-pitched yelps at the dinner table. Wincing in pain, I’d think, “Why on Earth haven’t you put a stop to this? Are your ears made differently than mine, or have you totally given up?”

And guess what I have now? Yep, a screecher. I am noticing a pattern.

It’s amazing how quickly we mothers judge each other. Perhaps we have so few kids these days that we get confused and think that children’s personalities are their parents’ doing. If we had more kids, the sheer diversity of their personalities, abilities, and “challenges” would demonstrate to us how very little control we have over these things, but with just one, two, or three, we get the wrong idea. We think our calm one is calm because we made him so, our hard-working one because of our helpful example, the empathetic one because we did such a good job teaching her to love others; or, on the flip side, our anxious one is anxious because we did or said something wrong, that clumsy kid is bad at sports because his parents don’t care, or the violent toddler is that way at gym class because his mom somehow accidentally taught him it’s ok to knock down your babies for a kick.

Maybe we like the illusion of control. Reproductive technology has encouraged us to treat children as a consumer choice. We choose when to have them and how many. We are either choosing not to have them or (using that slightly TMI phrase) “trying” to have them. And, having planned them, we start thinking of them as our projects, little reflections of our values and ourselves. (Every now and then, my doctor asks me if I am planning to have more children. She looks at me like I am addled when I respond that I’m not planning to have more, but I am open to having more. It’s as if she doesn’t know where babies come from. Vacations we have to plan. They never just arrive in the natural course of things. Babies aren’t like vacations in this way, or in any other way for that matter.)

Of course we do judge, as we should. We judge other parents to decide whether or not to send our children over to their house for play dates and sleepovers. We judge other children to help our children form good friendships. If I were the other parents at my toddler’s gym class, I wouldn’t be eager to set up play dates with my kid, and that is totally understandable. It’s true that I have some work to do with my child before I can trust him to play with another kid peacefully without me hovering over him. He has no business being around a parachute for the time being.

What I’ve learned from my violent, screeching boy, is to judge but not condemn. There’s the calm, reasoned judgment of “that kid has a hitting problem,” and then there is condemnation: “that’s a bad kid,” or “that’s a bad mom.” There’s the unchristian writing of condemning stories in our head: “Oh, she is one of those moms, the kind that [fill in the blank.]” We must stop praying like the Pharisee, “God, I thank you that we are not like those other families.”

When I start thinking that way, it’s pretty much guaranteed that my children will come to the rescue by humiliating me in public. How great is that? Thank God for their occasional misbehavior, because if they never misbehaved, I’d surely give myself the credit rather than God. I’d become prideful. By humbling me, they bring me closer to God and closer to other parents. We are all in this together. God have mercy on us.

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