In retrospect, it was incredibly self indulgent. With basically no external control over my schedule, I could pop in to the lab in the morning, do a little work, go to my classes, then have a healthy lunch at my leisure while I read headlines. By 1 pm, I would get bored with my research, drop everything, and go for a ride.
I'd ride and ride, typically 25-40 miles a day. I almost never rode for less than an hour, and almost always rode for about 2 hours. Then I'd go home, eat something, take a shower, and go get a little more lab work done. When convenient for me, I'd go on a date with my future-wife, Mrs. TAE.
At night, I'd lay in bed in a near coma, I was so healthy. My resting heart rate dropped into the mid-30's, and I'd relax and take two breaths a minute, just for fun. I went from 158 pudgy pounds to a lean and mean 145 in semester. Life was good. Or at least, good for my ego and my sense of self-worth.
Then life came along. I got married and had a daughter. You can fill in the rest here. The 13 pounds I lost became 20 pounds put back on. The indulgent, daily, 2-hour afternoon rides became 30 minute crammed workouts in the evening after the baby was asleep...maybe three times a week. Jennifer Senior has an interesting article in the New Yorker about the depressing concept of raising kids, and exactly how parents are coping:
I think this is fairly accurate. And having seen Babies myself, I can attest that the Namibian women do seem very calm, happy, and pleased with their kids. But the footage of the Namibian women did not include instances of the baby screaming in pain, sick, angry, tired, or any of the emotions that all children experience. Instead we saw the little Namibian boy exploring, playing, and cuddling with his mama and her peers.
Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity. As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed. (The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child’s value in five ruthless words: “Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”) Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses.
"Did you see Babies?” asks Lois Nachamie, a couples counselor who for years has run parenting workshops and support groups on the Upper West Side. She’s referring to the recent documentary that compares the lives of four newborns—one in Japan, one in Namibia, one in Mongolia, and one in the United States (San Francisco). “I don’t mean to idealize the lives of the Namibian women,” she says. “But it was hard not to notice how calm they were. They were beading their children’s ankles and decorating them with sienna, clearly enjoying just sitting and playing with them, and we’re here often thinking of all of this stuff as labor.”
Senior goes on later in this fantastic piece to talk about how kids are "all joy and no fun." But the last page is where the message hits home. Although parents do report less happiness than their childless peers, across the board, they also report a strong sense of reward in what they are doing, which is more or less absent in singles.
And even more importantly, later in life when the kids have grown up and moved away, parents profess a very strong sense of satisfaction with their lives for having made it through parenting. They profess no unhappiness caused by their grandchildren, but instead a strong level of happiness caused by them. That happiness, obviously, is impossible without first putting up with your damn kids.
The point here is that parenting is a long-term investment in your own emotional well-being. A twelve-year-old could find instant happiness playing Xbox. Or they could find a different kind of happiness in the struggles of building a treehouse with Dad. The Xbox controller could not possibly give them splinters, and he won't accidentally hammer their thumb while playing it. But after quitting the Xbox, the happiness fades in seconds, almost like an addiction. The emotional satisfaction of building the treehouse, however, is a lasting one.
In this sense, parenting, like monogamy, is something that you realize you are investing in. Sure kids might have used to be an asset, as Senior suggests. But the concept that they are no longer an asset isn't true. Is your 401k an asset? Do you pour money into it? Money that you could instead spend at the casino, or on a new hot tub for your house? Do you forgo vacations and instead put that cash into your retirement account?
Then, when you have ripened, and retire, do you look back and wish you had spent that money on whimsical wastes? Or do you enjoy the fruit of your labors?
And what's really funny is that parenting has become so hypocritical. We all say "you can't spoil your kids or they'll be unhappy" and child psychologists preach and preach that providing boundaries and limiting the things your kids have actually makes them more responsible, and more happy. But then we bitch when we as parents are given limits. We complain that we are unhappy because we don't get everything we want, right this instant.
Perhaps parenting has not become harder because the pressures of society to raise superkids has increased, but instead parenting has become harder because society is creating people who are rapidly losing the ability to be patient and think long-term. Parenting is much harder if you only think about yourself all the time.