We Are Not Lemmings. Are We?

About 2/3 of my mother's family, eight years ago
About 2/3 of my mother’s family, eight years ago, before all my cousins started having kids. Note: some of the kids in the picture ARE my cousins.

Can I just say how annoying I find the American obsession with poll-taking? They’ve become so institutionalized, we have come to regard polls as truth: not a reflection of people’s opinions, but a representation of reality.

For instance, last week I ran across an article about a survey in which parents identified their own stress level. The conclusion? The most stressful number of kids is three. This was not a scientific study–just a survey.

There are so many problems with this survey. A friend blogged a whole bunch of them last week, and did a fabulous job, but I have others.

1. This is completely useless “information.” How does it help anyone to know that people with three children self-identify as more stressed than parents of other numbers?

2. It undercuts anyone who is not in the “most stressful” category. Obviously they should just chill, because their life isn’t as bad as they think.

3. Because we are lemmings, we will use useless information like this to “help” us make important decisions on family size. Obviously we should quit at two children, because if we have a third our life is over. We are doomed to be a bundle of stress all the time. (Yeah, I know. You think other people’s opinions don’t influence you, but be honest. When you see a poll that relates to some decision you’re contemplating, course it weighs into the decision!)

4. There is stress in all stages of family-building.

Those who don’t have kids yet are stressing because they are trying to have them, or trying not to have them, and worrying about whether their decision is the right one: is this the right time? What if I put it off too long? Why can’t I get pregnant NOW?

In short: stress.

When you have one child, you’re obsessively worried about said child. You have to do everything right, and you know for sure if you screw up, your kid’s entire future will be shot, permanently and irretrievably lost. You worry about whether you’re reading the right number of minutes, teaching enough signs and attending the right enrichment programs. Why? Because you’ve never done this before, and it’s a big responsibility!

In short: stress.

When you have two kids, you have to split yourself in two for the first time. All that energy you devoted to one now has to make do for two. There’s guilt, because the older child took a hit in Mommy (or Daddy) attention.

In short: stress.

When you have three children,  you are always outnumbered. At least one of the older kids is virtually guaranteed to be going through some really hard stage while you’re also dealing with the time-intensive baby stage.

In short: stress.

When you have four or more, all the above applies, although you’re used to it. But you get so busy helping older kids with homework and driving them to activities that the youngest gets a paltry shadow of the intensive parent interaction that child #1 got. Kids bicker: there’s the “he’s touching me” “she’s watching me play” bit, the minding everyone’s business but their own, the every time you turn around the thing you just put away is out again, and there isn’t enough of you to go around and you know it’s your own fault that the house is a mess because you’re not willing to take the time to make the kids clean up themselves but for Heaven’s sake, it’s just easier to do it yourself most of the time, because you know what battles ensue in getting kids to do it!

In short: stress.

The point is, it doesn’t matter whether you have no kids or twenty, you’re going to be stressed, because that’s what human beings do to ourselves. Asking people to identify their own stress level, with no further breakdown of situation, is nonsense. Certain stages are more stressful than others, and sometimes it’s a shift in type rather than intensity. All these people have kids of different ages, and a different spread between their kids.

Besides, each person’s unique life circumstances play into the stress dynamic. Your mood on a given day affects how you answer those questions, for crying out loud–to say nothing of job stress, house hunting, kids’ projects, health, whether your kids are having trouble in school or sailing through–even whether toilet training is going well or poorly on the day they asked. To reduce all that complexity to a simple, bald statement like “three is the most stressful number of children”…that’s just a load of crap.

Opinion polls tell you nothing about reality. They tell you only people’s perception of it. I just wish we’d all keep that in mind, instead of running over the cliff of public opinion like a bunch of lemmings.

(Note: yes, I know lemmings don’t actually follow each other over cliffs. It’s a figure of speech.)