- Apr 18, 2008
by Ann Landers
It was a simple enough letter. A young couple about to be married wrote to ask for guidance. They were undecided. They just couldn''t make up their minds whether or not to have a family.
"So many of our friends", the letter said, "seem to resent their children. They envy us our freedom to go and come as we please. Then there''s the matter of money. They say their kids keep them broke. One couple we know had their second child in January. Last week, she had her tubes tied and he had a vasectomy--just to make sure. All this makes me wonder, Ann Landers. Is parenthood worth the trouble? Jim and I are very much in love. Our relationship is beautiful. We don''t want anything to spoil it. All around us we see couples who were so much happier before they were tied down with a family. Will you please ask your readers the question: If you had it to do over again, would you have children?"
I printed that letter and the sky fell in. The word didn''t come from Chicken Little. It came straight from the gut of young parents and old parents, from Anchorage to San Antonio. I heard from Junior Leaguers and welfare mothers. The Boston Brahmins wrote and so did the hill people of Kentucky. I had struck an unprecedented number of raw nerves. The question unleashed an incredible torrent of confessions "things I could never tell anyone else..."
After five days of reading, counting, and sorting mail, a bleary-eyed staff of eight secretaries announced we had received over 10,000 responses, and--are you ready for this--70 percent of those who wrote said, "No. If I had it to do over again, I would not have children."
Twenty years of writing the Ann Landers column has made me positively shockproof. Or so I thought. But I was wrong. The results of that poll left me stunned, disturbed, and just plain flummoxed.
Could it be? Not only could it be, it is. The message came through loud and clear. Wake up and smell the coffee, Annie old girl. Your readers had blown the American Dream. Motherhood, which always rated right up there with apple pie, Old Glory and the U.S. Marines was due for a reassessment.
About 40 percent of those who wrote to say, "No. I would not have children if I had it to do over again," didn''t sign their names. On the other hand, nearly all the letter that said, "Yes. Our children have brought us great happiness," bore signatures. A number of those who expressed the latter view asked me to print their letters. Many said, "You can use my name if you want to."
Approximately 80 percent of the total response came from women. The average letter ran almost a page longer than the usual Landers letter. I was particularly moved by the intensity of feeling.
Dozens who wrote said, "I am weeping as I write this. It''s the first time I have ever put such thoughts about my children down on paper. It''s painful."
Many readers who expressed shame and guilt signed their names and addresses but asked me not to respond. A Miami woman P.S.''d, "My mother-in-law makes her home with us. Her eyesight for envelopes is very bad, but it''s perfect for what''s inside. If she found out I had written to you, I would never hear the end of it. Please don''t answer in any way, shape or form."
The "No" mail fell into four major categories.
Category One: Young parents who were deeply concerned about global hunger, overpopulation and the possibility that we might incinerate ourselves with nuclear weapons. A San Francisco father expressed his sentiments candidly: "The world is in lousy shape. We would feel guilty if we brought a child into this mess. Later, if we decide we want a family, we will adopt."
Category Two: Parents who stated frankly that their children had ruined their marriage. "Our happiest years were the ones before the babies came," wrote an Atlanta woman. "In those days, we had time for the theater, parties, rides in the country, weekend trips and best of all--each other." A wife who had signed her letter "Too Late For Tears in Tampa" wrote, "I was a successful, attractive, career woman before I had these kids. Now I''m an exhausted, shrieking, nervous wreck--too tired for sex, conversation or anything else." A Chicago mother of four enclosed her check-out tape from the supermarket. The total was $61. "This is what we spent on groceries last Thursday," she wrote. "The price of food is out of sight. My husband was laid off for six weeks last winter and we had to accept help from my folks. It was humiliating. We love our kids but they are so damned expensive. Actually they haven''t given us that much pleasure. We''d have to vote ''no''."
Category Three contained the most pathetic letters of all. They came from older parents whose children had grown up and left home. ''Manhattan Mom'' wrote with more rancor than self-pity. "I get a postcard from the Bahamas at Christmastime. On Mother''s Day, I get an azalea plant. In between, maybe two phone calls. I raised that boy alone. His father died of cancer when he was three. Some thanks I get."
A 63-year-old president of a large corporation in Cleveland apologized for writing in longhand "But," he went on, "I''m ashamed to dictate this letter to my secretary." He described the camping trips, the evening devoted to watching their sons play football. The sacrifices (not money, he emphasized) in terms of time spent with their children. "And now," he wrote sadly, "they are too busy for us, but they seem to have plenty of time for their in-laws. Thank God we don''t need anything from them, but it hurts not to be included in their lives. My wife and I talk about it to each other but no one else knows how we feel. It''s not the sort of thing you lay on your friends. When your column appeared, my wife read it out loud to me at the dinner table. We both voted ''no''."
The most bitter letters of all came from Category Four: parents of teenagers in trouble. "Where are the joys of parenthood" asked a Washington, D.C., mother. "We haven''t seen them. But we''ve seen a good deal of security guards who''ve caught our daughter shoplifting. We have also seen policemen who picked up our youngest son for selling drugs on the school grounds. We''ve seen some very depressing emergency rooms where the older boys were taken by an ambulance after totaling two cars and one motorcycle. My husband and I keep asking ourselves, ''What did we do wrong'' but I''m not sure anything could have saved our kids. The pressures to steal and do drugs are tremendous. Two other couples we know are having the same problems with their kids."
Parents with traumatic problems that involve police and hospitals are definitely in the minority. What about the majority?
Why are they sorry they had children?
Many, I believe, are disappointed because their children failed to live up to their parents? secret expectations. Every mother wants her daughter to be beautiful and popular, especially if she wasn''t. When the daughter turns out to be neither, the mother feels let down.
Dad, who didn''t make the high school football team and couldn''t get into Harvard, nurtures the secret hope that his son will succeed where he failed. Nothing is ever said, of course, but the nonverbal communication is at work and Junior gets the message. Getting the message is easy, but doing what Dad wants isn''t. So Dad is disappointed and Junior feels inadequate and rejected.
Too many parents have a grossly unrealistic approach to parenthood. Everybody loves a cute little baby but nobody wants an 11-year-old who socks a teacher, a 14-year-old who steals money from his grandmother''s purse, or a 16-year-old who is hooked on drugs.
The disenchantment often sets in early. When a young couple has to miss ''the party of the year'' because the sitter didn''t show up, they can''t help resenting the child who kept them home. Add to this, walking the floor with a colicky baby, no more romantic vacations, and a bill from the orthodontist for $3,000. They ask themselves, "Who needed this"?
Are there some invisible components to help explain that staggering 70-percent negative response? Some missing pieces to the puzzle? I see one, for sure. The person who is against something rather than for it is much more readily inclined to take pen in hand and express his anxiety, rage, or disappointment. People who are contented are rarely motivated to write and tell me how happy they are. Anger, hostility and resentment are often the fuel that moves people to action.
Am I saying that many parents who voted ''No'' are disappointed, resentful, and angry? Indeed I am. They feel ripped off. ''Heartbroken In Long Island'' wrote, "God knows we did our best. My husband and I even took some night-school classes to learn how to be better parents. We followed the book, did all the ''right'' things, but two out of three of our children turned out bad. I don''t believe we failed them. They failed us."
If it is true that a large percentage of the parents in this country are sorry they had children, why don''t we hear more from them? Because such an admission goes against the grain of what we have been taught is human nature. Parents are supposed to love their children no matter what. To speak disparagingly of one''s offspring is socially hazardous.
Trouble with a husband, on the other hand, is a common topic over teacups, luncheon tables, bridge hands and telephones. By the same token, a battle with the little woman is discussed candidly at bars and clubs--wherever men meet. Plain talk about marital problems is a national sport, because everyone knows no marriage is perfect. But parents who have trouble with their children are inclined to keep their mouths shut--unless their troubles have been in the newspapers, or the parents happen to be in the company of other parents who they know are having trouble with their children.
Common misery can make strange bedfellows. A striking example of this was described in a letter from a couple of ''No'' voters who had to appear in court when their son was arrested for selling speed. Two other sets of parents whose sons were involved in the same ring also turned up in the judge''s chambers.
"We didn''t have one thing in common with those people except our children''s arrest," wrote one of the mothers from Detroit. "They were definitely from the other side of the tracks. But when you have the same kind of trouble, you become brothers and sisters under the skin."
If I had polled my readers 20 years ago about their feelings toward their children, would the response have been the same? I believe not. While it is true that children have rebelled against their parents from time immemorial (rebellion is a normal symptom of growing up and achieving independence), never in the history of our country have the rebellious young managed to generate so much bitterness and alienation.
Our children have far more effective weapons to use against us than we had when we were rebelling. They have ready access to smoking lounges in high schools, communes that feature kooky, far-out religions, and college campuses that permit students to live with members of the opposite sex. (You can like it or lump it, folks, because the colleges say they are not responsible for the morals of the students. But don''t forget to send in that tuition check.)
Yes, the game has changed and so have the rules. More radical switches have taken place in our society in the last 20 years than in the previous 200. Parenthood was never easy, but it is far more difficult than ever before.
Today''s parents find themselves ill-equipped to deal with the steady barrage of violence (not to mention garbage) on TV--the electronic baby-sitter. Our children are bombarded with magazine ads for pornographic ''literature'' and ''art'' that would shatter a glass eye at 40 paces. We have the Pill, pit, LSD, booze for 18-year-olds, and skin flicks featuring kinky sex with close-ups of everything two people--and sometimes three or four--can possibly do together.
Our young people have no heroes. They have seen their country lose a war for the first time in its history. They have heard their President say, "I am not a crook", and resign rather than face impeachment. They have seen their Vice President plead no contest to a charge of tax fraud and leave office in disgrace.
Polls show the average American has equal regard for politicians and used-car salesmen.
God may be in His heaven, but all is not right with the world.
It is no cinch to produce well-balanced, emotionally healthy children in an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety and at a time when the values of an earlier era--the work ethic, discipline, firm guidelines and reward for excellence--are rejected as ''old fashioned''. Granted, these past 20 years have been extremely difficult for both parents and children. My heart aches for all who are caught in the switches of this transition period.
Still I am boggled by that 70 percent. No way could I have responded ''No'' to that question. My daughter, Margo, has been a joy to me--not the perfect child, mind you, but our problems have been few and of no great significance. It would be utterly impossible to imagine what my life would have been like without her.
But Margo is now 36 years old and she has three children of her own, one a teenager. Would I be so joyous about parenthood if Margo were 15? I doubt it.