Feeling discontented? Read this advice from a mum of four
In this age of consumerism, Sarah Tennant offers up some strategies for contented parenting.
It’s common wisdom that having children reduces your attachment to material possessions, if only because those possessions literally lose their lustre after being repeatedly vomited on. In fact, child-free advocates frequently cite wanting to have nice things as a reason to forgo babies. “Oh, you want me to have a baby?” read a meme that popped up in my Pinterest feed the other day. “Sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of all the money in my pocket.”
This interested me, not only as a rare failure on the part of Pinterest’s algorithm – I have many babies and no money – but because of how cynically it encapsulated a certain view of the to-have-children-or-not debate. The idea is that at some point couples self-select into one of two groups: the happily irresponsible, self-actualising consumers whose glamorous dual careers fund endless vacations and cocktail nights; and the self-sacrificial parents who scrimp and save so Mum can stay home with the kids cooking beans and rice.
COUNTING THE COST
And in a sense, that’s true – few of us are so well-off that we can decide to have babies without our finances noticing. In 2016, Juno Investing reckoned that raising a child in New Zealand cost $13,920 a year. That’s a lot of weekend getaways (or approximately five family trips to the movies). All but the richest parents will find that children mean significant cutbacks in personal expenditure.
The idea is, of course, that parents prize more immaterial things: the pitter-patter of tiny feet, gummy smiles, sloppy toddler kisses and the like. And of course, we do (well, I sincerely hope so!)
But if anyone thinks that parenthood transforms previous giddy consumers into ascetic, otherworldly Buddhas who eschew material possessions, think again. The urge to keep up with the Joneses doesn’t dissipate upon having children – especially if the Joneses have a limited-edition baby carrier, a Bugaboo and a set of hand-dyed Montessori-endorsed play silks. In fact, I’d argue that becoming a parent can cause consumerism to morph into a form which, while arguably less self-centred than the pre-kids version, is far more soul-draining and guilt-inducing, while being just as expensive.
CONTENTMENT TRAP #1: Purchasing guilt
Buying things as a parent can be tricky because the stakes have never been higher. Ideally, everything your baby touched would be BPA-free, open-ended, Fair Trade and organic. And it certainly wouldn’t impose harmful gender stereotypes or arrive packaged in plastic. The pressure to give your baby only the best could lead to a kind of consumer orthorexia, an obsession with making ‘healthy’ purchasing choices for fear you will otherwise doom your child to ADHD, poor jaw development, nappy rash and a Disney Princess addiction.
CONTENTMENT TRAP #2: ‘Stuff’ matters
It’s one thing to have advertisers market their products to us. It’s far more insidious to deal with the discontent caused by our own friends marketing their lives to us.
I’m talking, of course, about that handy scapegoat social media. If comparison is the thief of joy, I’d say Facebook is pretty red-handed. We get to see every catered baby shower, pregnancy photoshoot, personalised ‘six months old’ onesie and trip to the zoo – edited of toddler tantrums and nappy blowouts, of course.
The kind of envy that this tends to generate isn’t always consumerism. It can be wishing that we had a big backyard so the toddler could play; envying our friend whose husband works from home; wishing we looked as put-together in our family photos. But it’s astonishing how often these things really do come down to stuff – the manicure, the cute ruffle-bottom onesie, the hardwood floors, even the fancy DSLR camera used to take
So how can we choose contentment? For some of us, it might be as simple as unfollowing ‘aspirational’ parenting bloggers and Instagrammers – the kind who get sent organic merino knits to review and have reading nooks in
TO BUY TO NOT TO BUY
Ironically, another strategy is to get rid of stuff! Marie Kondo-ing away clutter won’t make a state house look like an estate, but it might make your environment more pleasant to be in, instead of encouraging you to mentally escape to a fantasy world of huge attic playrooms and she-sheds. I tend to be much more envious of my friends’ large kitchens when my own small one is messy (which, to be fair, is often). On the other hand, judicious purchases can go a long way towards fostering contentment too. I’m the frugal type who will put up with a lot of inconvenience rather than fork out, but I’m slowly coming to realise this is a bad thing. After years of enduring a too-short $20 umbrella stroller I finally bought a decent model (second-hand) with storage space and decent-sized tyres. The difference is incredible. Outings are infinitely more convenient and enjoyable. Other I-should-have-bought-this-years-ago purchases include an exersaucer and a nice wooden train set. The moral of the story: deprivation is not contentment! If it would really bring you joy to have a super comfortable, expensive nursing bra or a baby wrap with all the bells and whistles, go for it!
THIS TOO SHALL PASS
Sometimes, it can be helpful to remember your current situation is temporary. Small children aren’t typically conducive to luxurious furnishings and romantic dinners out, but they aren’t small forever either. There’ll be time for luxury later. It’s perhaps impossible to fully absorb while in the fog of first-time parenting, but by baby number four I think I’ve finally internalised it. I took up pottery while pregnant but it’s on hiatus while the baby’s too small to leave for several hours. I miss it, but you know what? It’s okay. I have the rest of my life to do it. Realising this was a genuine watershed moment for me!
As in many parenting situations, like-minded friends are a blessing. If you’re intimidated by your friends’ spending or feel obliged to live up to a certain expensive parenting aesthetic or lifestyle, you might need to question your friendships. Talk to your friends about consumption, finances and discontent – it’s very possible you’ve all had similar thoughts. You might make an effort to find free activities for meet-ups, for instance picnics instead of cafes, or to institute a blanket no-presents-required policy for preschooler parties. Clothing swaps (among the adults) and hand-me-downs (for the kids) are also a wonderful way to share resources.
LISTEN TO THE KIDS
With all our striving to give our kids a better life, it’s easy to forget to pay attention to what our kids really want. In general – at least if we don’t let them watch TV commercials – what they want tends to be pretty simple. Tons of parental attention, time outside, resources to be creative and good food.
Many of the things that feel like good parenting to us – gorgeous toddler outfits, theme-park trips, extravagant birthday parties – can be downright irritating, overwhelming or just plain wasted on our kids!
And sometimes the things they actually want are so simple we hesitate to give them. Maybe all your three-year-old wants for his birthday is to ride on the bus. Well, why not? My son asked for “a whole packet of dates” in his Christmas stocking – and he got it.
As cheesy as it sounds, being intentional about cultivating contentment can really help. I’m talking about good old-fashioned counting your blessings. Our family has a tradition where each child says one thing he’s thankful for every day. It’s not a bad idea even for adults, especially if you can put a positive spin on situations that frustrate you. Living a long commute away from work? Maybe that allows you a bigger yard and a lemon tree. Not enough bedrooms? Maybe the kids are slowly getting better at sharing because of it. Only one car? You’re saving on a gym membership by walking the kids to kindy.
Ultimately, we’re parenting – and purchasing – at a weird time in history. Perhaps no previous generation has had as much pressure to consume goods, and yet not to consume them. Our relationship with purchases and our relationship with our children, our social groups and our planet is increasingly nuanced, interrelated and confusing. Kmart is fancy now. It’s no wonder we’re conflicted.
Sarah Tennant lives in Te Awamutu with her husband and four children. She is not jealous of her child-free friends’ designer handbags, but does experience travel envy.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 49 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW