Thousands of books have examined the effects of parents on their children. Award-winning journalist Jennifer Senior now asks: what are the effects of children on their parents?
"All Joy and No Fun is an indispensable map for a journey that most of us take without one. Brilliant, funny, and brimming with insight, this is an important book that every parent should read, and then read again. Jennifer Senior is surely one of the best writers on the planet."-Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness
In All Joy and No Fun, award-winning journalist Jennifer Senior isolates and analyzes the many ways in which children reshape their parents' lives, whether it's their marriages, their jobs, their habits, their hobbies, their friendships, or their internal senses of self. She argues that changes in the last half century have radically altered the roles of today's mothers and fathers, making their mandates at once more complex and far less clear. Recruiting from a wide variety of sources-in history, sociology, economics, psychology, philosophy, and anthropology-she dissects both the timeless strains of parenting and the ones that are brand new, and then brings her research to life in the homes of ordinary parents around the country. The result is an unforgettable series of family portraits, starting with parents of young children and progressing to parents of teens. Through lively and accessible storytelling, Senior follows these mothers and fathers as they wrestle with some of parenthood's deepest vexations-and luxuriate in some of its finest rewards.
Meticulously researched yet imbued with emotional intelligence, All Joy and No Fun makes us reconsider some of our culture's most basic beliefs about parenthood, all while illuminating the profound ways children deepen and add purpose to our lives. By focusing on parenthood, rather than parenting, the book is original and essential reading for mothers and fathers of today-and tomorrow.
Jennifer Senior is a contributing editor at New York magazine, where she writes profiles and cover stories about politics, social science, and mental health. Her work has been anthologized four times in THE BEST AMERICAN POLITICAL WRITING, and she's been a frequent guest on NPR and numerous television programs, including Charlie Rose, The Chris Matthews Show, Morning Joe, Washington Journal, Anderson Cooper 360, GMA, and Today. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood is her first book. It spent six weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list, and appeared on the Washington Post, LA Times, Boston Globe, SF Chronicle, and Denver Post Best Seller lists as well. In March of 2014, she spoke both at TED's annual conference and at the Sydney Opera House. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and her son.
I read a snippet of this book in the Wall Street Journal and found myself floored by a simple observation that the reporter drew from psychological studies: mothers tend to feel more stressed out because they are constantly multi-tasking, even when they supposedly have free time. [DISCLAIMER: I realize I will be using many untenable generalizations in this review that don't fully take into account class, profession, region, cultural background, etc. Think of them as provisional descriptions that will be useful to some people who encounter this book, including me. I'm happy to say that Senior does a very good job describing the middle-class demographic that provides her study's focus. I don't have time to be as specific here.] Men often come home on the weekends and feel delighted by and entitled to their free time, while women are still spinning their wheels about all the day-to-day maintenance that has to take place, feeling that they are failing both in child-rearing and in professional tasks. This dynamic felt very familiar to me as a working mom who watches her also working husband genuinely unwind with a combination of awe and envy. How does he just do that?? Does he not feel like he has twenty other things to do?? (As a sidenote, I felt like reading snippets of this book to my husband helped me articulate feelings and thoughts that I had not had words for before, and in that sense, it was a wonderful communication tool as well.)
This book helped me put ambivalence about time management and "me" time into perspective as Senior describes the historical-cultural complications of contemporary parenthood. As the goals of child-rearing have become more inchoate, so too have the psychological demands on parents become more dislocating. Senior does an amazing job collating and interpreting psychological and sociological data, interweaving it with life narratives and interviews, *and* alluding to the philosophical and the experiential, without which any account of parenthood would be a shallow one indeed. Her prose is sharp and sterling; her approach both empathetic and undramatic. The structure of the book is strong and the chapter focuses rich: 1) the anxieties coming out of childrearing in the age of "economically useless and emotionally priceless" children 2) the complications of sharing emotional and logistical burdens within a marriage 3) the joys of the present-focused nature of early childhood 4) over-scheduled, high-achieving kids and the insanity of the schedule juggle 5) the experience of adolescence as a dramatic transition *for parents* rather than simply for their hormone-ridden children 6) joy and duty as distinguished from happiness and connected to deriving meaning from day to day life.
One of my friends who is contemplating having a child said that the articles she read about this book had her feeling discouraged, but as the mother of a toddler, I felt very moved and even relieved by this book. Rather than discouraging me, it let me off the hook for frustration and worry I had not-so-secretly felt guilty for. Because of that "sing it, sister!" dimension of reading other parents' stories and also because of the book's emphasis on "joy" as opposed to "happiness," it didn't seem of a piece with the constant barrage of dour articles complaining about parents' fatigue and unhappiness. Senior's book put particular sources of frustrations into helpful contexts. For example, in addressing professional parents, Senior looks to the theory of "flow" as a source of pleasure (completing tasks with a clear sense of rules and a desired outcome and losing your sense of yourself in the pleasure of the process), and she points out that while intellectual/informational/bureaucratic work can provide that flow, child-rearing on the ground doesn't often do that: the rules are unclear, the outcomes even more so, and the parent must constantly define the rules and cope with interruptions and curveballs.
This observation made me feel so much better about the fact that I often enjoy my hours of writing and teaching more than I enjoy my hours of supposedly quality time with my daughter. Instead of feeling like "Crap, my value system is a mess!" or "How can I not appreciate my beloved daughter enough?", I had a "Eureka! Of course!" moment reading that section about flow. Writing allows me to pursue a goal that I understand, and I can lose myself in that process. When I'm trying to stop my daughter from writing all over the walls or trying to eat a shoe, it's not as Zen a process. It's also hard to feel what the "win" was in that moment. (Word counts are easier to assess than the overall value of togetherness.)
This is not an advice book on parenting (thank God! there are enough of those in the world, most of them more damaging than helpful), but it actually has already had some impact on my experience of parenting. Ironically, once I begin to let go of the idea that I'm feeling things wrong, I am able to enjoy myself more. Also, I recognize that some of my sources of stress (multi-tasking, rule-setting, task-sharing) are shared by *many women* of my generation. I underlined more of this book than I left untouched. And the wonderful thing is that while Senior describes all of this anxiety and frustration, she also describes the beauty of duty, the limitation of "happiness" imagined as temporary excitation or total autonomy, and the life-changing wonder of having a child. This is a book that made me say "Aha! That's me!" and also made me well up with tears, feeling so fortunate to have this confusing, demanding, joyful experience of motherhood. I know I will turn back to this book many times in the coming years.
I heard Jennifer Senior on Fresh Air last week on my way home from work, and even though I was exhausted and needed to cook dinner, I couldn't pull myself away from the conversation. As a married 34 year old who still waffles about whether or not there are children in my future, I'm probably the ideal audience for this book and its messages about modern parenting.
I've never been the kind of person who just instinctively knew that she wanted to have kids one day. I mean sure, growing up in the south, I kind of assumed I would just get married and have children, but once I graduated from college and really started thinking about what I wanted in the future, I began to question the whole idea. I'm definitely not a maternal person. I hated babysitting when I was a kid. I find children somewhat tiresome and boring. I most definitely find them LOUD (I don't know why, but this in particular has always been worrisome to me). I don't look forward to playdates with other moms, to battling dysfunctional school systems, to worrying if I will pass on some of my less than stellar genes to a future child.
And of course, everyone has an opinion about it. "You'd be a good mom." "But it's so fun!" "You'll regret not having them." These statements just make the whole thing all the more confusing. I'd say that 80% of the time I'm pretty sure I don't want to have children....and yet. What to do about that other, nagging, persistent, late-night questioning 20%?
Honestly, listening to Senior on Fresh Air FREAKED ME OUT. I mean, I was convinced that I would pick up this book and make my final decision - nope, no kids, not now, not ever, I will keep rescuing dogs, thank you very much. And yet.
That's not quite what happened. First off, this book is a pretty quick, engrossing read. I finished it in one night, partly because I couldn't put it down. It confirmed much of what I assumed - that parenting really isn't much fun at all, that it can really put a damper on your marriage, your sex life, your career (especially if you're a woman). The chapters on toddlers and adolescents were downright terrifying.
What I found most interesting was the real difference between men and women when it comes to parenting. While society is much, much harder on mothers than fathers, it seems that a lot of that difficulty is self-induced. For example, Senior profiles a couple, Angie and Clint, who work different shifts and take turns taking care of their two young boys. When the parents were asked about the split of their parenting duties, Clint said 50/50 - and Angie said 70/30. Angie PERCEIVES that her part is more difficult, and it is - but maybe it is because she CHOOSES it to be. Clint is fine with letting the boys watch a little tv for ten minutes while he puts away the dishes, whereas Angie feels like she needs to multi-task - putting away laundry while also entertaining the baby. Clint arranges his evenings and weekends so that he has free time away from the kids; Angie could do that, too, but she feels like she needs to be with her children every waking minute. Clint doesn't get up during the night with the kids, which Angie is rightfully perturbed by, but Clint states it's because he wants to train their boys using the cry it out method, which Angie won't hear anything about - so therefore, Angie ends up with the brunt of the night shift. Clint doesn't feel the same guilt about letting the boys cry for a week if it means that their lives will go back to normal more quickly.
I guess the thing is - how much of that is really Angie's fault? Is that pull toward 24-7 motherhood something that women can't biologically turn off? Can women train themselves to approach parenting more like the men in their lives? And if so, would their lives in turn feel a bit more like their own - that they haven't lost themselves entirely in the process of becoming a mother?
Again, I expected that once I finished this book, I would be convinced that I didn't want to have children. But even though Senior only devotes two chapters to the joys of parenthood, they were enough to leave me questioning, perhaps more than ever before, if I DO want kids. She talks about the way we expect happiness in our lives to be easy, and that maybe it's not so simple - that there is different between happiness and joy and that sometimes the building blocks on the way to joy aren't fun at all (think of training for a marathon, working on a thesis, adopting a dog) - but gosh, what joy those things bring, in a way that's different than the happiness I feel over buying a new pair of shoes or eating a fabulous meal or even taking a magical vacation. That kind of joy is something I would always wonder about, I think. It's that feeling that you've done something greater than yourself, perhaps, that makes parents feel such joy for their kids.
I would totally recommend this book for anyone questioning parenthood, and even for those who are currently in the throes of parenting - it might be nice to see that you're not alone in this, and that one day, you will look back on all the mundane, boring, disgusting parts - and you'll only be able to remember the joy.
Have you ever read a book that made you want to stand up and shout, "YES! THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT I WAS THINKING!"
This is one hundred percent that sort of book.
Jennifer Senior takes an unabashed and thoroughly researched look at all that parenting is--and isn't--for the parents of today, tackling everything from the early loss of autonomy when you first have a child, to the marital discord that often follows, to the conflict that rises as children pass from early years into adolescence and what parents are left with once they leave the roost. She also brings in the social and cultural connotations of parenting and how things have changed over time, where children once were essentially bred to carry on the family name and pass along property and utilized for their economic worth, to today where they are "economically worthless but emotionally priceless." This leaves parents beholden to creating a certain experience for their children to mold them into the young people they should be, putting them in all of the right activities and making sure their homework is top of the class. She touches on the loneliness moms often feel, how the division of labor between husbands and wives is always a sore spot with mothers feeling that they 'do more' in terms of child care, even though husbands of today are more involved than they were in the past, among other complexities of parenting and how the role itself has changed over time.
As a new mom, there have been so many instances where certain feelings about the institution of parenthood have felt 'wrong', made me feel guilty, or have seemed unfair to my wonderful son. After reading Senior's words, however, full of interviews with many, many parents in different circumstances, what I've come to learn is that some of the more unfulfilling aspects of parenthood are not only incredibly common, but have been shaped by our society as a whole. For instance, the fact that the US doesn't offer any guaranteed paid leave to new moms shows the emphasis we place on production and capitalism rather than the strength of the family unit. Moms are supposed to 'have it all' and be doing it all, but as moms can attest during this era of COVID, trying to effectively "work from home" while caring for children is not only difficult, but can be close to impossible. If the work/home life balance no longer exists, is your child OR your job getting the best of you? And where does that leave any time to explore who you are as a growing and ever-changing adult?
This book was eye-opening, well-researched, and emotionally intelligent all at once. Senior does not sugarcoat reality, but rather gives her reader a chance to reflect on who they are as parents, would-be parents, or perhaps just as adults in general. After exploring the trials and tribulations of parenthood throughout so much of the text, she ends with a hopeful message that focuses on the joy itself, and our collective reasons for having children in the first place: We do not care for them because we love them: we love them because we care for them.
This read very much like a review of literature with case studies to support the research. It almost felt like a thesis to me, but without proving any new point of view. It basically took 265 pages to say that parents are more unhappy with kids but the joy the kids provide them makes it worthwhile. I did find a few points interesting. This would have been better presented as a magazine article and not a book. It was "No Joy and No Fun" reading this book, and frankly a little depressing. But again, filled with research and obviously thought out. It just wasn't what I expected.
You have to wonder why, when you get married, everyone encourages you to have kids. While you might have an occasional enjoyable moment, you'll also be in for a world of hurt. Kids are hard. Raising them is a challenge where most of the rewards are delayed.
Senior does a good job at presenting data and explaining how it relates to your family situation. For instance, sleep deprivation. Not the I-didn't-sleep-well-last-night thing we've all experienced. The this-baby-has-kept-me-up-for-three-days-straight endurance contest all new parents are familiar with. It turns out some people can handle being sleep deprived and some can't. The ones who can't will see their personalities change drastically and soon be flirting with a mental health ward.
It isn't just that children are challenging, society conspires to make things difficult as well. We're not set up anymore in a way that children see an immediate purpose to their lives (i.e. farm chores). We've morphed to a state where children are emotionally precious but economically useless.
And then there are the teenage years... Senior suggests you adopt a dog. That way, someone will always be happy to see you when you get home from work.
A beautifully written, well-researched examination of modern parenthood. I can not recommend this book warmly enough to parents with kids still in the house. Would that all nonfiction were as fast-paced and meaningful as this!
There are so many things here that I want to remember in my life as a mother. My child is a toddler, and it's so hard to keep in mind that this intense, hands-on-all-the-time phase of parenting will be over before I know it. Senior writes of the 'experiencing self' vs the 'remembering self', and this notion is so freeing, liberating me from my constant parental guilt, when all in the world I want is for my child to go to sleep so I can have an hour of time to myself. My experiencing self is not having fun all day long - there are exquisitely beautiful, joyful moments, but there is also drudgery and boredom too. But my remembering self will look back upon these years with the utmost fondness, glossing over the tantrums and the messes, and glowingly focus on the constant hugs and kisses and "I love you, Mama" and fingerpainting and Lego-building and kicking a ball in the backyard. A great idea to keep in the back of my mind when I think I might go insane.
Anyway, I wish I could tell Jennifer Senior THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart - for making me feel less crazy and much less isolated.
I was all set to hate this book after hearing a couple of interviews with Jennifer Senior on Public radio. She sounded too sure that her way of looking at life was my way... And why not? A contributing editor at the New York Magazine and frequent guest on Chris Matthews and Charlie Rose....well educated... Well respected, why shouldn't she speak with authority. However, everything that she said seemed to put up some degree of separation between us... I mean, I might not be well respected or well educated... And the New York Magazine is definitely not waiting on any copy of mine, but I have spent the last 18 years being a parent... Parenting has been my home country and culture long enough to feel like I might be able to at least listen or read with some authority of my own. And somehow, hearing her talk on the radio had somewhat the same impact as wearing a wool sweater that looks nice but feels really itchy. I was excited to read her book. And then, I was going to be excited talk about why I hated it.
Only, I didn't hate it. I found it to be a pleasant read, well-documented and thought provoking. I enjoyed reading statistics and theories about parenting that gave insight into the real problems and predicaments that parents face now. I did not think the book was without its problems. It fails to adequately cover the real difficulties faced by single and divorced parents who compose a huge proportion of the overall "parent" population (this was touched on only briefly). It also fails to recognize but rather reinforces the devaluation of the full time stay-at-home parent. Parents who did stay at home with their children were always making "respectable" efforts to work from home or renter the workforce part time. The US census claims that at least one in five women are home with kids full time, and though some of them are from the poorest among us who cannot afford child care, some of them are from the middle and upper classes who have many options, and yet choose to be at home. Perhaps for the rest of America, the disappearance of this stay-at-home phenomena is a forgone conclusion... I also think that in presenting the "parents of past generations," Senior seemed to imply, through her own writing and through the choice of several primary sources, that the parents of the past centuries "valued" children less overall... And valued them less, specifically, for their intrinsic worth... Reducing kids to a kind of economic externality of the past and luxury of today.
That being said, as a parent of children who are now almost full grown, I thought that what she said about the difficulties and duress of every stage of childhood and family development was very to true to my own experience. Her resolution of the question, why do we do choose to be parents if it is so hard? was one which dug deeply not just into the hard question for modern parents, but the meaning and purpose modern life itself. Why do it? With all that we do to free ourselves and make our lives easier, why do we sign up for challenges of children? Because the most difficult things in life also bring the most joy and lasting happiness.
So in the end, I did not hate the book at all. I rather liked it. What I thought would be a coldly analytical treatise on parenting turned out to be just the opposite. A complicated story told with compassion and grace. I did not agree with all the conclusions Senior came to in her book, but I agreed with many, including when she says of the best-of-times-worst-of-times quality of parenting: This is what parents do, what all of us do, in fact, when we are at our unrivaled best. We bind ourselves to those that need us most, and through caring for them, grow to love them, grow to delight in them, grow to marvel at who they are."
First off, I literally couldn't put this book down. There were about forty-two other things I should've or could've been doing, but I chose to read this book instead.
SO much of this resonated with me. Thank you Jennifer Senior! She voiced so accurately and vividly all of the things that are still not socially acceptable to discuss, such as how kids actually add CONFLICT to a marriage, instead of adding strength, as is the commonly accepted belief. People are "allowed" to moan and groan about their jobs, but they can't publicly voice their worries/concerns/gripes of parenthood. Strangers are quick to say, "Well, you CHOSE to have kids, so don't whine about it." But, people CHOSE their jobs as well.
Modern-day parenting is exhausting, overwhelming, and isolating. Jennifer discusses at length about how lonely parents feel. There is a struggle to be the perfect parent with the perfect child. The concept of "parenting" is relatively new--- a post WWII invention. The family dynamic has been turned on its head-- with the children acting as the "boss" (bosses?) of the family. Children now expect to be entertained. They have way more stuff (toys, gadgets, etc) than any previous generation ever did. They don't handle being "bored" as well as previous generations of children who actually had real responsibilities. One mom mentioned how boredom was not tolerated when she was a child: she'd be told to clean her room (or some other constructive task). Tangentially , in the show Mad Men, "old-fashioned" mom Betty tells her daughter "only boring people get bored!" Ha ha ha. What a great line. In some ways, we'd be better off approaching parenthood like our grandparents' generation did.
There are no clear-cut goals for parents now as there were in the past. Historically, parents taught their kids how to be a good (insert specific trade here -- farmer, blacksmith, printer). Teaching a specific craft / trade (for men) and for women-- learning how to cook, sew, and do all the household chores was the extent of the parental role. Nowadays, parents have a less concrete and more amorphous goal -- they want their kids to be well-adjusted and happy (and hopefully self-sufficient).
She doesn't say it outright, but Jennifer illustrates how it is much more difficult to be a mother. Mothers, despite the majority working outside the home, STILL do most of the childcare. They sign their kids up for all the activities, shuttle their kids about, plan and make the meals, clean the house, act as counselor and nurse and an arbiter of seemingly endless sibling rivalry, and the enforcer of rules ("the family nag").
When a man needs "me time", he gets it. A woman, on the other hand, feels tremendous burden of guilt, and will NOT take time for herself. And then, the woman gets resentful when she feels (and rightly so) that she is "doing more." The difference here is that men will TAKE WHAT THEY CONSIDER TO BE A RIGHT to free time. Whereas women (generally speaking) will take on the role of martyr, and will attempt to "do it all"... ( This difference in men/women was covered extensively in Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. Women will NOT ask for help, because women feel that they shouldnt have to ASK for it. It should be volunteered. However, men are not like that. When they want help, they specifically ask for it. And if they dont want help, they won't. For women-- "Love means not having to ask for help." The main thing to be learned from this is: Women have to specifically ask for help from their husbands / partners if they want help.)
* * *
The #1 frightening claim in the entire book is: "the worst part" (or hardest part) of parenting is yet to come: adolescence. I was repeatedly told by many well-meaning parents that the first year with twins is THE worst. I thought I was over-the-hump!
* * *
The smallest chapter of the book is the final one "Joy." It made me inwardly chuckle because the other chapters detailing the trials and tribulations were so horrifying and loooong chapters, and the chapter on JOY was so comparatively small. If you've seen the movie What to Expect When You're Expecting there's this part towards the middle of the movie where one of the dads explains what parenthood is like: "It's awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, then something amazing happens that makes it all worth it, and then it's awful, awful, awful, awful, awful." I could be bungling the quote (it has been a while since I've seen the movie, but you get the gist of it.) Jennifer Senior, essentially, gets to the same point-- parenthood is truly miserable when you are experiencing the day-to-day, but there are high points sprinkled here and there, and overall, parenthood brings joy (not happiness, an important distinction). And someday, you'll look back on the rough growing up years with teary-eyed fondness, forgetting how bone-tired you were and remembering only the sweet moments.
In a nutshell, the misery of being a parent is preferable to the carefree existence of a non-parent.
“Siddhartha began to understand that it was not happiness and peace that had come to him with his son but, rather, sorrow and worry. But he loved him and preferred the sorrow and worry of love to the happiness and peace he had known without the boy. ” — Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
* * *
There is one major issue I wish Jennifer Senior had taken more time to discuss: mothers cannot win no matter which path they take--regarding the choice to have a career or not. If a woman chooses to have a time-intensive career, she is seen as a self-absorbed mom who doesn't put her kids first, even if she does. If a woman stays home, the woman is seen as an unproductive (read:"lazy") member of society--a leech. And women who work from home or who work only part-time jobs are villainized just like the others. Western society (heck , EVERY society) expects so much more women than they do from men. If a man just sticks around , he is already considered a great dad. A man can have the powerful vibrant career AND the family. Society doesn't expect him to give up anything. If a man becomes a stay at home dad , he is instantly seen as a selfless superhero.
I liked that Jennifer mentioned that no matter what choice a woman made, the woman is compelled to justify her decision in the context of what's best for the child(ren). If she works, she says it's for the child(ren) so that they have a strong role model and extra money for activities and an improved life. If she stays home, she says it's also for the child(ren)'s benefit. The working mom would rather not admit that she works because staying home means the kids would drive HER insane. And the SAHM would rather not admit that she stays home because they can't afford a babysitter or daycare. Essentially, Jennifer Senior suggests (in a roundabout way) that we should OWN our decisions, whatever they may be. Don't feel like you have to explain your choice(s) to anyone-- you don't owe others an explanation.
* * *
Whew! Hoooooo wheeee! I went a wee bit overboard and veered off-topic, but yes, I do fully recommend this book. Especially if you're a mom. Dads, I dunno how much you'll like it. You get slammed a bit--- but you deserve it? For taking all those god damn breaks?!
You needn’t be a parent to find this book fascinating (the same goes for French Children Don’t Throw Food by Pamela Druckerman). This is an absorbing sociological study of how modernity has changed parenting. Senior (a contributing editor at New York Magazine) pinpoints three main shifts:
• The element of choice means children are now not just expected but wanted, sometimes even desperately fought for (with IVF, etc.). • Work life is more complicated and intrusive than ever. • The role of children has been completely overhauled; where once they were a vital part of the family work force, they are now prized and pampered, “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”
What this means is that parenthood is now not just something that happens to everyone, but, rather, a lifestyle choice. And with this choice come certain expectations; I like how Senior puts it here: “Because so many of us are now avid volunteers for a project in which we were all once dutiful conscripts, we have heightened expectations of what children will do for us, regarding them as sources of existential fulfillment rather than as ordinary parts of our lives.”
But in the real world, here’s what children actually bring:
• Loss of autonomy. The first few years, especially, are “short in the scheme of things but often endless-seeming in real time.” Long-term sleep deprivation leads to irritability and loss of self-control; while “life with small children is a long-running experiment in contained bedlam.” • No opportunities for flow, which Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi has identified as essential to productive and fulfilling lives. There are just too many distractions. • Marital strife. Here’s a shocking statistic: 83% of marriages with young children are in crisis. Even when partners agree on an equal distribution of child care, women inevitably do more of it (especially during the night) and are more stressed. This can only lead to resentment. Men seem to be much better at carving out ‘me time’; they don’t always feel they have to be immersed in their child’s world. • Expense. A child born in 2010 to an American middle-class family was estimated to cost $295,560 to raise – and that excludes college tuition.
So much for the negatives. Children also bring what Senior calls “simple gifts.” Adults can once again experience: life outside of time, unconditional love, uninhibited play (a kind of controlled ‘madness’), engagement with the physical world (not just the life of the mind), and the setting free of the imagination to explore all of life’s possibilities.
I was intrigued to learn that the verb “to parent” only came into being in the 1970s, along with the linguistic shift from “housewife” to “stay-at-home mom.” Nowadays kids play indoors and in social isolation; they are also much more likely to be only children, which means that they tend to rope in their parents as playmates. This might be nice in some ways, but it also means they are not learning to cope with boredom on their own.
The chapter on parenting teenagers was least interesting to me, though I still learned a few interesting facts. For instance, the term “adolescence” has only existed since about 1904, while “teenager” originated in 1941. Senior argues that parents today are just pit crew for teenagers; they stop into the family home, refuel, and head back out into their high-octane lives. New media mean they are constantly available and live by a more fluid schedule (so parents never know precisely what they are up to at any one moment).
In the course of the book, Senior attends ECFE (Early Childhood Family Education) classes in Minneapolis, and makes home visits to families there, in Houston and in her native Brooklyn. (My one criticism might be that she spends a bit too much time with the Minnesota bunch.) Her most frequent references are to philosopher Adam Phillips (author of Missing Out) and psychology professor Alison Gopnik. She also seems particularly indebted to Steven Mintz’s Huck’s Raft, a social history of American childhood.
At the last, Senior wants to reintroduce the notion of duty. Parenting is both high-cost and high-reward. She quotes the Bhagavad Gita, in which the god Krishna tells Arjuna to “set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward.” In her conclusion she also draws on the helpful distinction made by Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman between the experiencing and the remembering selves. The experiencing self admits that the actual day-to-day work of parenting might not be very fun, while the remembering self looks back (even temporarily) on the whole shebang and decides that it has been worth it. The possibilities for redemption, or for leaving a legacy, can, it seems, outweigh any amount of drudgery.
Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson wrote that true maturity “is the acceptance of one’s one and only life cycle and of the people who have become significant to it as something that had to be and that, by necessity, permitted of no substitutions.” Whether my life cycle will include children or not still feels very much a mystery to me, though before the decade is out I’m sure I’ll look back and feel that, either way, the decision was inevitable.
Much food for thought here, even for a non-parent.
I'm expecting my first child in January, a daughter, and like any expectant first-time parent I've been becoming increasingly concerned with how I will manage this sea change in my life. My wife has been busy reading every parenting philosophy book under the sun, getting lots of starkly conflicting advice about how to produce the best possible human being. Meanwhile I have always had a pretty laisse faire attitude to parenting: I think the kid's future is mostly written in her DNA and her peer group; that she'll succeed or fail largely in spite of any optimization we might attempt; and I view our main job as keeping her alive long enough to realize that future. I'm much more concerned, somewhat selfishly, about how the transition to parenthood will affect me, my wife, and our relationship. Tellingly, of the handful of parenting books my wife has read since she became pregnant, not a single one does more than briefly touch upon how children affect their parents. As far as modern parenting philosophy is concerned, it's not just that the parents' feelings matter less than the children's -- the parents don't even rate mentioning.
All Joy and No Fun attempts to fill in this vast chasm in popular thought about raising children, and does a pretty decent job. Caveat: I don't yet know, personally, what it's like to be a parent, and as I am reminded fiercely by friends who already have kids, this renders my opinions invalid. However, even a clumsy attempt at the topic would have been a good start, and I found the author's approach, drawing on sociological research as well as case studies, interviews, and a century of literature on the topic of raising children, to be very enlightening. She states in the introduction that her book isn't intended as parenting advice, but it's difficult not to read between the lines a bit here and there.
For example, when you ask youngish children about their parents, only 15% say that they wish their mothers and fathers spent more time with them. In contrast, a full third said they wished their mother wasn't as stressed out. If these two data points don't comprise a ringing denouncement of hyper-involved parenting, I'm not sure what would. In my view, if there is parenting advice to be had in this book (and I think the author's slant bleeds through more than she might think), it would be to leave the kids alone so that you can enjoy your own life. We'll return to that sentiment in a bit.
Senior divides the book into six sections, broken down by life stage of the children and which area of the parents' lives they're currently ruining. And ruin it they do! Sadly, all the sociological evidence indicates that having children is intensely stressful, both to the individual parents and to their relationship. Parents consistently report lower rates of happiness and well-being on various metrics than their childless counterparts, and the age of their children is the best predictor of this decrease, with things being especially bad around the age of three. Some of the reasons for the decline are obvious, such as sleep debt, decreased free time, decreased couple time, and strained finances. Others are more subtle, such as the children themselves directly creating arguments and conflict. Each family seems to have a slightly different story, but some broad repeated themes are clear.
First, parenthood is subjectively harder for mothers. This is true regardless of whether a mother works outside the home, but is especially true of working moms, and even more true of single moms. The main cause in this discrepancy seems to be (I'm editorializing a bit here, but not a lot) that mothers, more than fathers, seem unwilling to set boundaries with their children to make time for themselves. As a result, even when couples attempt to split domestic labor 50-50, and even when they empirically succeed in this division (verified by sociological studies) for all domestic chores except child care, mothers still spend almost twice as much time as fathers actively taking care of their children. The author seems to suggest that this has everything to do with the attitudes the two genders bring to the task. Men, more than women, are able to view parenting as a job with discrete boundaries and goals, whereas for mothers, enough is never enough: mothers can't seem to give themselves permission to use their free time for any activity other than more parenting, and the paroxysms of guilt are especially pronounced in working mothers, who already feel like they abandon their kids every time they leave for their job. This imbalance in turn breeds resentment of fathers by mothers, even fathers who are very engaged (and light years ahead of their gender roles from a generation or two ago). Mothers, having set the bar impossibly high for themselves, get upset when their partners fail to clear it as well, and by an even greater margin.
Second, relative to other cultures and previous moments in history, American middle-class parents are involved in their children's lives to an astonishing degree. You can see this reflected in the language we use to talk about the tasks surrounding child care. Wives who didn't work outside the home a generation ago were called "housewives" and later "home makers," reflecting the fact that the primary product of their domestic labors was the living space: they made a nice place for the family to live. Today wives in the same situation are called "stay-at-home moms": the focus of their labor is their children. Also notice the shift in title from "wife" to "home" to "mom," showing the gradual change in these women's primary obligations. Similarly, the verb "to parent" didn't appear in print until after World War II. Parents today (mothers and fathers, but especially mothers) not only spend more time with their children than in decades past, but the nature of time spent has changed dramatically as well. Childcare has shifted from a mostly supervisory and care-taking role to one of active engagement, where parents and children both expect that parents will entertain and cultivate their children on a near constant basis. This is true throughout early childhood, until the school years, when the focus shifts somewhat to structured activities outside the home, which again are attended at record-shattering levels by middle-class children. This phenomenon, the so-called "overscheduled child," has been reported on periodically over the last several decades. But interestingly, these analyses tend to focus exclusively on what effect this arrangement might have on the children -- the parents are completely erased from the equation. But parents are affected, profoundly so: relative to their peers from the 70s, parents today spend significantly less time alone and as a couple, and report lower levels of happiness at all times. There's an obvious comparison to be made to French mothers thanks to the wildly popular Bringing up Bebe, one of the leading texts in the cultural backlash to parental hyper-involvement. French mothers spend less time with their children (thanks largely to state-sponsored daycare) and report higher levels of happiness for it.
Finally, the author devotes some time speculating to the broad historical and economic reasons that brought American parents to the current state of affairs. Childhood as a concept is a modern invention dating to about the Civil War, and adolescence even more modern, not existing before World War II. Today you hear the first rumblings of "emerging adulthood," which extends the concept of people as mostly-useless non-adults even farther out, into the mid-twenties. It's easy to forget that not long ago in our shared history, children had economic value first on the farm and then in factories from a young age, and teenage boys often contributed more to the family till than their aging fathers. Today, to employ a quote the author trots out several times, children are "economically worthless but emotionally priceless." This shift in attitudes toward young people as being in need of extended protection and shelter from the world of adults, as well as economic trends that resulted in a frankly obscene level of education to secure a middle-class life, together can mostly explain today's unprecedentedly high level of parental investment.
For the record, I do plan to read parenting books that focus on the children instead of the parents (i.e. all the rest of them). And I plan to be a dedicated, involved father in the life of my daughter. But I also hold the somewhat heretical view that my own personal happiness, the happiness of my wife, and the quality of our relationship with each other is vitally important -- at least as important as the child's happiness -- not only for our own sake but also for our children's. Some dip in personal happiness associated with having children seems to be unavoidable, for example when dealing with sleep debt while caring for a young child. But this book offers a modern, data-driven guide to what attitudes and practices are the most likely to make one miserable, and offers suggestions for a way around the worst of it, even if you do have to read between the lines to see it.
Since my husband and I heard of this book a few months ago the phrase "all joy and no fun" has pretty much become the motto of our parenthood experience. We've got four kids and we're grateful for them, but fun isn't the first word that comes to mind most of the time.
This book is very interesting and quite a few things struck me while thinking about it.
- I am a religious person and personally view raising children as a fundamental purpose and duty of my life on earth. Reading this book I felt grateful for this perspective I have on parenting and children. I do it because I believe God requires my best efforts to birth and raise up the next generation. I don't do it because it is the most fun or fashionable or even necessarily the most fulfilling thing, or even because it matches my interests or talents. I do it because I feel called and duty bound to do it. It has taken me awhile to come to peace with this. Much of the rhetoric around motherhood in my church talks about womens' natural gifts and naturally nurturing spirits; I had extremely high expectations for how deeply satisfying and natural motherhood would be. The reality was a real shock and it took me years to reconcile my actual experience to my expectations. It was when I focused on the duty and responsibility that I felt that I was ok with everything. I do it because it is important, not because it is fun or natural to me.
- Please, please, please, let me never live in the exurbs of Texas. The insane extracurricular schedules of those poor children and parents, zipping around to their eight million activities just made me want to die. A degree of business is inevitable, I know, but give it a rest. Several years ago I compiled all the home videos of my family growing up. Many of them were of my piano concerts, tennis matches, school plays, and basketball games. My family (read: MOTHER) drove me around a LOT to all my activities. I was struck by the profound mediocrity of all my performances, and felt this immediate freedom that I did not need to kill myself driving all over creation to get my kids so every single stinking activity for them to be mediocre and putz around. The feeling has remained with me. My kids do stuff, but their hobbies are their responsibilities. If one of them truly is passionate about something and shows remarkable talent we will consider how much of a sacrifice our family is willing to make to help them pursue it, but they'll have some convincing to do.
- I really liked the distinction in the last chapter between lived and remembered experience. I am actually very bad at lived experiences. I feel stressed and bugged and hassled way more than most experiences warrant. But I am really good at remembered experiences. There are times in my life I've been so frustrated that I've kicked a hole in a wall, but when I think back on that time I remember all these lovely things. During college I was an exhausted ball of crying stress a lot of the time, but it has this warm fuzzy glow to it. Same with remembering experiences with my kids.
- The section on toddlers and preschoolers was interesting and reassuring as I've got a three year old, and it is rough. I don't recall the numbers for how many times on average mothers tell their preschoolers "no" every minute, but it is a LOT. It also made me think how unrepresentative the average is for most preschoolers. I've had four. My first was incredibly challenging and strong willed and defiant; I felt defeated and frustrated pretty much all the time. My next two were a breeze and I congratulated myself on how improved my perspective and parenting skills were. Then I had my fourth and feel defeated and frustrated pretty much all the time and realize that my skills haven't actually improved all that much. (My perspective is better, though). So I just wanted to throw that out to any parent who might be reading this very long rambling review: if you have a difficult preschooler, it's probably just that you have a difficult preschooler and you are not doing anything wrong and be easy on yourself. If you've got a compliant, sweet little preschooler, enjoy it but don't take too much credit.
- The author pretty much completely ignored stay at home mothers that are not working part time or from home. The mothers at home with their kids all either still worked out of the home at times when their husband was home with them, or were working from home while tending their children. Both of those situations created a lot of stress and frustration, and both are not the same as a mother staying home with the sole responsibility to care for her children. I understand that many families simply do not have that option, but many families make financial decisions to make it work, and it can ease much of the stress that Senior finds so endemic to parenting. It was a strange omission.
Disclaimer: I am writing this review to the cries from the baby who moved into the apartment next door (I'm assuming it lives there with its parents, though I have yet to see or hear proof of their existence on the other side of my living room wall). So you'll excuse me if I'm a little biased in my review. I now automatically equate reading about parental happiness with the gut-wrenching sounds of a very sad baby (why must it always be so sad?!).
I wanted to read this book to reaffirm to myself that children were not for me. I also appreciated the idea of reading a sociological and somewhat methodological analysis on the effect children have on their parent's happiness (Note: the book is highly sociological in its perspective, not so much on the methodology). I was pleased to read in the vast majority of the book that as it turns out, raising children is not all fun and games. Despite what my friends would have me believe on Facebook, babies are not always sitting quietly in their booster seats, curled up angelically in a fruit bowl sleeping, rolling around playfully on the floor, or interacting nicely with their siblings. In fact, it would seem to be nearly the exact opposite, and that my happiness and mental stability will suffer dearly from the day-in-day-out reality of trying to keep my child happy, healthy, and not sitting in its own poop.
After reading Chapters 1 and 2, I sat back and looked at my husband while Neighbor Baby cried loudly, and I thought to myself how lucky I was to not have to deal with the horror of a newborn. Crying aside, there are diapers to change, sleep deprivation, loneliness, alienation, and resentment between couples. The husband comes home from a long day at work, tired, and annoyed that the house is a mess, and he says, "What exactly have you been doing all day? The laundry? Going to Target?" And the wife is all like, "Are you kidding me? This thing has pooped 400 times, and it won't stop crying, there are Cheerios in my ear, and if I don't talk to another adult in about 5 seconds, Imma lose it." And so it goes for another 4 years.
Then there is a breather, it seems. And this is when I started to question my life choices. I happened to read Chapter 3 over a couple of snow days when Neighbor Baby was abnormally quiet. And I thought to myself, "Well, it wouldn't be so bad to have a little kid to make cookies with, or do an art project with, or take to the movies to see Frozen, since my husband refuses to go with me." I also started feeling a little like this at the end of my summer vacation. As it turned out, I didn't want a child, I was just bored. Being bored is no reason to have a child.
And then we hit adolescence. And if you thought having babies was hard, having teenagers is even harder. No one has a baby thinking that they will eventually turn into a teenager. But they do. And reading those chapters was enough to make me realize that unless someone can assure me that my kid will be just like Rory and that I can be just like Lorelai, I do not want one of them.
But the joy. The joy is what got me in the end. As a sociologist and a high school teacher, I can vouch for the idea that even though the day-to-day reality of people's lives can be difficult, and that it's much easier to quantify the fights, the number of sleepless nights, and the money spent on child care (btw, America, you need to get on the subsidized childcare train), it is nearly impossible to explain quantitatively or qualitatively the overarching existence of joy and happiness that comes from helping another person become independent, compassionate, and a productive member of society.
The only real thing that I take issue with are the case studies that Senior used to flesh out her arguments. I felt that while the families that she interviewed were interesting and had a lot to contribute, that they weren't necessarily representative of the larger population. It would have been nice to get more perspective through additional interviews and data.
For those of you who are already parents and are thinking about reading this book - do it. It will validate everything that you are likely thinking and going through. For those of you who are like me, simply curious about the relationship between kids and parental happiness - do it. I don't think I've come any closer to deciding whether or not there is an on-purpose child in my future after reading this, but I have come away with some interesting thoughts and perspectives on parenting that I wouldn't have come to on my own.
There's been a lot of hype lately about studies that show how parents are unhappier than non-parents. I've been really surprised by those findings because my life as a parent is so fulfilling, and while there is tedium and drudgery in some of the day to day, there's a lot of joy and meaning that I wouldn't trade for anything in the world. And I don't know any parents who want their old lives back. This book tackles modern parenthood and comes to the same conclusion. It explores why modern parenthood is so difficult (isolating, careening towards uncertain futures, etc.) but it's also transcendental in ways that sociology can't measure. Having kids is well worth it and this book is a great read.
I just finished reading this book, and I am honestly surprised that the book has made such a splash. It is difficult to find a profound thesis or argument. Was the author trying to say that parents are not always as satisfied as non-parents? That parents are over-scheduled? That generation gaps exist? These are not new ideas in the American public.
The book is more of a survey of some parents' reactions to child development, peppered with statistics and secondary source references. The writing lacks a clear direction. It was difficult to determine why the author selected the cases that she did. They were neither exceptional nor compelling.
I would not invest in this book - the articles about the book are more interesting than the book itself.
(3.5) Parenting is tough on parents, insanely tough on mothers in particular, feels painful at the time but is most meaningful part of most parents’ lives (especially in hindsight)
Sounds about right. Not a huge bunch to take from this, but a lot rang true and might be worth remembering some of the studies’ results. Would be cool if teenagers were required to read in school. :)
Long section devoted to effects on marriages and how inequity in responsibility-sharing between mothers and fathers takes heavy toll on mothers. Some of this was pretty eye-opening. I'll bet many mothers nod and "Yep!" through that section. Might've been nice if there was any "so-what" to this book: some good things to do to try to remedy and make the most of it? Otherwise, the short version of the book is: "It's really tough. It'll hurt. You'll cry. But eventually their childhood will be over and then you'll really miss it"
I started this book with my defenses up. I was expecting to have to defend parenthood as being much more meaningful and important than my personal "happiness", that life is not some continuous existential experience whose only goal is to be "happy" every moment. I was pleasantly surprised with the direction the author took and found it to be supportive of my view of modern parenthood. The book certainly does focus quite a bit on how hard parenting can be and how it most definitely can affect our personal happiness, but I found myself getting teary eyed on several occasions, with many of the parents stories and experiences touching very close to home for me. I remember grappling with many of those feelings when I had 4 very young children at home. The author gave quite a bit of attention to the fact that most sociological studies on happiness would make the whole idea of parenthood baffling, leaving one to wonder why anyone would ever become a parent. She often points out that these studies don't account for the fierce and deep biological love we have for our children, and how that drives much of what we do, and the fulfillment and joy it can bring. All of which is very different than happiness as we know it.
I found the section on teens to be fascinating. It gave me a lot to think about. Many of the families she interviewed had teens who were ridiculously over-scheduled and pushed to excel in an attempt to ensure their acceptance to elite universities. Most of these people were obviously in the upper-middle class and had the resources to do these things. But I found myself wondering if I would be the same way if I had the resources they do. I grew up in an upper-middle class family, and while my parents placed a lot of emphasis on education, I feel like they focused just as much, if not more, on raising well-rounded, kind people who looked beyond themselves as the center of the world. I attended a state university, as did my 5 other siblings, and we are all successful adults who contribute to our communities in productive and meaningful ways. I have a brother who went on to medical school at Virginia Tech, a sister who attended graduate school at UCLA, and another sister who attended graduate school at American University. I realize that times have changed and the world our teens are living in now is drastically different that the world I lived in as a teen. But still, do those basic philosophies of parenting change that much with it? I don't think they do. We don't need to push and push our teens to be the absolute best at everything (grades, sports, etc), at the expense of everything else that doesn't directly contribute to this final goal. They can be successful in life even if they don't go to the most elite universities in the country. I don't know what the balance is. The point of all this rambling is that it caused me to consider what my own parenting philosophies are, and how I will apply that to raising teens, which is just around the corner. Yikes!
I loved the last chapter of the book. It really brought everything together. While I didn't agree with all the author's views, heavy state support for parents being one, I really appreciated the way she illustrated the baffling paradox of parenting. It can bring you the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It can cause your heart to swell to overflowing with unexplainable, unconditional love, and it can break your heart more profoundly than anything else. But parenting gives our lives meaning, it gives us something to focus on that is so much bigger and more important than our own personal happiness. It causes us to examine our own souls, and often causes us to find our souls selfish and lacking. It teaches us more about ourselves than any search for personal happiness ever could. The message I took from the books is that parenting brings us joy, which is so different and more important than fleeting happiness.
hmmm. i am of two minds about this book. on the one hand, i zipped through it in about two days, it really captured my attention, i related to a lot of it (mostly about having little kids, obviously, since i have but one child right now & she's a toddler), & i really liked the book at the time. my partner read it too & on valentine's day, we convened a two-person book club after our daughter went to sleep so we could discuss it. which brings me to the other hand.
we both liked the book, but we had very little to discuss. the book didn't really tell me anything i hadn't already read or didn't already know just from being a parent myself. i mean, what were the big revelations in the book?
* parenting is a real pain in the ass sometimes. but it also has its transcendent moments of joy. -- no kidding. wrangling a kid is a ton of work. it's only 1 in the afternoon & already today i've had to take at least five random pieces of paper away from ramona because she was eating them (where does she even FIND them?), i'm washing my third load of laundry, i had to stop the cat from biting ramona's head during a diaper change, & i had to move at the speed of light to prevent ramona from dumping an entire cup of coffee over her head. but my heart always melts when she looks up at me & says, "mama."
* parenting does not lend itself to "flow". -- also, no kidding. i can totally lose myself in a sewing project or a book, but after the first five minutes, every additional minute spent pretending to let ramona feed me her fake food or building block towers for her to knock down feels like a lifetime.
* mothers tend to do more multi-tasking, which is stressful & exhausting. -- yeah. i stay at home with ramona & sometimes feel jealous of the way my partner can so willingly abandon whatever he's doing when he's home in order to read ramona a story or give her a piggyback ride. i sometimes have to force myself to stop what i'm doing to spend some time with her & it makes me feel like a shitty mom. but during our two-person book club, he explained that he gets forty hours a week outside the house to work uninterrupted, so it's easier to focus just on her when he's at home. as where ALL my time is multi-tasking time. even now, i am writing this while she naps so i'm not doing computer stuff while she's awake & wanting to hang out, & also so she's not tempted to "play" with my computer (which she does by banging on it & trying to bite it).
* the illusion of equality matters more to the satisfaction in a relationship than actual parity in tasks. -- i could have told you this. jared & i split baby care & household chores fairly evenly (for example, i watch the baby while he's at work, but he does extra baby care on weekends to give me a break; i do all the laundry & he does all the cooking; etc). but if he falls down on one thing i ask him to do, i start feeling like cinderella. a very wrathful cinderella. i can't even tell you how many arguments we've had about whether or not pizza boxes go in the recycling. (they don't, but jared can't seem to remember that.)
blah blah blah. the chapter on adolescence was especially interesting/terrifying, since that is completely uncharted territory for us. i mean, i'm an adult woman & teens kind of scare me. i can't believe i'm going to be living with one in twelve years.
i don't know. i'm glad this book exists & i'm glad i read it. i might ask if my playgroup wants to read it & have a little discussion about it. maybe we will have more to talk about than jared & i did.
I bet that, once upon a time, you were a fun person. I bet you liked to relax and have a good time with your friends. I bet you never got straight As (if you were like most of us) -- and I bet you even spent time by yourself drooling over the TV or the Atari/Nintendo/Whatever. I bet your favorite memories of childhood are the little ones...eating bowls of ice cream out on the porch during the summer time while you watched the fireflies; walking down the concourse of the mall with your pack of friends, checking out the competition and window shopping; spending a lost hour or two reading a book, shooting some hoops in the driveway or laying on your bed with the headphones on jamming to your favorites. I bet if you could have looked into a crystal ball and viewed your grim and worry lined face haranguing your own kid to constantly 'hurry up! practice is in ten minutes' or 'you know you need to practice violin 45 minute a day!" ; or "I want you to take that test again. This time I'm getting you a tutor." -- You would vow to never reproduce.
So what the hell happened?
I am the parent of a kid on the cusp of middle school and I have been guaranteed by legions that the next 6 or 7 years are going to suck. Apparently, I will have to push, bully, shame and mortify my child into advanced everything...a myriad of extra curriculars and 2.5 minutes of down time a day or else MY CHILD WON'T SUCCEED IN TODAY'S CUT THROAT WORLD! I will have to hire an entourage of coaches, mentors, music instructors, tutors and shrinks to make sure the kid doesn't end up a meth head who refuses to ever leave my couch. If I let her out of my sight for, like, TWO MINUTES(!) she will promptly get knocked up by a loser. This is why I need to 'occupy her time' and 'make sure she is well rounded' and 'push her to be the best she can be' and 'do my job as a parent' and I need to do this 110 percent of the bloody time or I HAVE FAILED IN THE SINGULAR MISSION OF MY LIFE. FAILED. UNTO THE GENERATIONS THAT COME AFTER ME SAYETH THE LORD...
OH. My. God. -- This is enough to make my hardened old self deranged and hooked on pills. Imagine what that truckload of psychic anxiety is going to do to my puberty ridden child?
So modern parenting is riddled with constant paranoia and fear. Modern parenting is a state where every time you sit down and relax with a cup of tea and an old episode of Golden Girls for 20 minutes you understand, deeply, that you are not ENRICHING your child. You are modelling crap mid 20th century TV viewing for chrissake. You suck. Every time your kid has a friend over and you just give them juice boxes and cookies out of a box and then tell them to 'go have fun!' -- you get a 'C'. Where is the fresh squeezed organic juice? Where are the home baked cookies? Where are the expensive and elaborate craft projects you were supposed to spend hours perusing at Michael's before the play date so that your child's guest can take home a warm and memorable token of your awesomeness as a parent. WHY did you ever think you could use the time to make dinner, wipe out the bathtub or, god forbid, write a book review?
Because the uber parents are ruining it for the rest of us and we are psychologically terrorized into following their balls-to-the-walls death march to college; for if we don't, their little genius is going to trump our little slacker in the now dystopic game of life.
But will that happen? Is this truly written in stone? Certainly parenting has not ALWAYS been like this. Hells, I'm not quite fifty and I remember an extremely different pace and tone to my childhood than to the one my kid and her friends are experiencing. My mom and dad, born in the mid 1930s, had an even more exotic childhood. They were piss poor. They walked 5 miles a day without thinking about it. They used out houses or else lived in grim inner city apartments. They supervised themselves all day while their parents worked. They played with pieces of glass on the road when they were preschoolers and had almost no 'toys'. My grandparents' generation didn't get past 8th grade (and those were the fortunate ones). They lived truly Dickensian lives that would be absolutely unrecognizeable to my own daughter.
All Joy and No Fun talks a lot about all the stages of modern parenting...from infancy through the storms of adolescence. I found one of the most helpful aspects of the book to be the reminder that our ways of parenting shift with the sands of economics and social mores. We might feel, at the moment, that there is only one way to do it right. However some perspective tells us that parenting is a more flexible state than it may appear to be on casual inspection.
Basically parents today are exhausted and over extended...just like most parents have been for centuries. But, contrary to the old method of raising large broods of children primarily to help with the house and farm work or to go out at a young age and earn money for the family, modern parents are raising children who do not work or earn anything except grades and awards. We no longer treat our children as miniature adults. (At least we no longer send them to factories or fields 12 hours a day. We do, however, introduce them to the modern 'rat race' equivalent -- often when they are still in diapers.) Today's children are expected to seek (outrageously expensive and out-of-reach) higher education and their brutal academic schedules preclude the tradition of the 'after school job', which was a teen standard in my era. Parents support their 'children' well into their 20s or beyond as the kids pursue undergrad and graduate degrees. Then they matriculate out into a lean and mean jobs landscape, often rebounding home, once again, to take up residence in their childhood bedrooms. (Of course I speak here only of middle class families and children. The working class and the poverty class would only dream of our first world problems. The author is quick to make this clarification at the beginning of the book Our separation of Haves and Have Nots has not been this stark in a century.)
No wonder parents are stressed. There is really no end in sight. Since many of us are having kids later in life, I can only hope that my kid gets her first apartment sometime before my husband and I check into the nursing home. This fosters an atmosphere of All Joy and No Fun. The exquisite joys of parenting remain: the first words, the first steps, the first day of school, countless sticky fingers and wet kisses, and -- yes, of course -- hours of family moments strewn across the years. But fun? When you are running your home like a command barracks, working long hours yourself, and also coordinating your offspring's byzantine social and 'enrichment' calendar. Not so much.
I guess parenting is not really supposed to be 'fun'. It is a very serious undertaking because our children become our world...our deepest love is reserved for them. Nobody wants to screw that up! Yet we do. And, perhaps we always have. Today we have more books...more blogs...more specialists...and more harbingers of doom than ever before. It seems we know too much. And the fun feels more and more elusive.
In my case, I try to fight it. I try to draw the line at outside activities eating up our entire life. I try not to push too hard. I tell my kid I look at her effort grade more than I look at her letter grade. I purposely plan summers where we do almost nothing but go to the pool and eat lunch on the porch and play board games on the days when it rains. I tell myself I can because I am 'old' -- because I was raised at a different time than the bulk of my parenting peers...and because I have always been 'weird'. But really it is because I still want to have as much FUN as I can responsibly squeeze in to our lives. -- Last year I lost my mom and dad 3 weeks apart. I was reminded how short a life can be. And I know that my most cherished memories of my mom and dad were all the little bits of 'nothing' that we enjoyed together over the years: the inside jokes, the silly games we made up, the lame TV shows we lampooned as we sat around the old set sharing snacks. Do I blame them for not forcing me to be a more 'accomplished' person? I guess I do not. I am a content person and that is enough for me.
All Joy and No Fun reminded me that, although I can probably not in all conscience, return to the slow paced world of my childhood, it is not a bad idea to try to recapture as much of that feeling as I can for my own child.
I got three main things out of this book. A friend put my thoughts about this book into her own review, so I'll start with that.
1. Parenting has always sucked major donkey balls, but our generation is more miserable than previous generations because we have some goofy idea that parenting isn't supposed to suck.
2. You know how, at the end of a family vacation, one parent says, "I'm never going anywhere with you people ever again!" and then three months later, they're planning the next family getaway? Like they don't realize that the actual experience of the vacation is different than the experience of remembering the vacation? Well, it turns out that's a real phenomenon. I wasn't just imagining it; family vacations are for making memories, because the actual experience is mostly worse than a weeklong trip to the dentist sans laughing gas. Plus, I am never going anywhere with my husband and daughter ever again!
3. You don't love your kids because they are precious gifts from your favorite deity; you love them because you care for them. The act of caring creates the joy of being a parent.
I gave this book 5 stars because I feel it gave me permission to admit that being a parent is mostly hard, unrewarding, unfun work.
I'd recommend this book coupled with a viewing of The Princess Bride, to remind us all that life was never intended to be fair, but amidst all the crap (literal crap--we're talking about parenting here), there is still a lot of beauty. If you can get your kids to sit down and shut up long enough to watch The Princess Bride with you, even better. If you read the book with them, bonus points for you.
I've said it elsewhere in reviews: I have a rule that if i am in tears at the end of a book, it gets five stars. I certainly didn't expect a book like this to make me cry. I'm a new mom so maybe I can blame it on hormones, but I think it's more a testament to how the author drew me in and got me invested in these families, especially the one composed of a grandmother and her grandson--I just kept thinking of my own mom raising some of her grandchildren. I also got choked up at the end of the acknowledgments because of how the author dedicated this book to her son...that's how you know I am a sap; motherhood has hit me hard ;)
All that aside, I really enjoyed her technique of combining extensive research with reporting on actual families at different points in parenthood. Of course I identified strongly with the chapter on infancy...and I'm a bit nervous about adolescence. Apparently that phase of development is as disruptive to couple-dom as the days of newborn infants. I wish I had the ability to offer some more key takeaways but I'm just too tired....
I couldn't put this book down. As a working mom with two boys, I related to the sentiments expressed by all of the parents chronicled within the book and could feel the kids' greasy hands and the moms' well worn sweats, the writing was that good. And of course I fell in love with Sharon. But as a researcher, what I loved most about All Joy and No Fun was how steeped it was in truth and supporting, sometimes conflicting, research. I felt as if I was on an intellectual pursuit yet enjoying an utterly relatable journey. Thank you for this gift. I hope everyone I know reads it. I plan to make sure they do. 5+ stars. Best book of the year.
The takeaways from this book are not new or profound: although parenting is extremely challenging, it’s worth it. The day-to-day is often mundane or chaotic, but the bigger picture is meaningful. Our “remembering mind” later has a good impression of raising children, even if our “experiencing mind” struggles with it in the moment. Overall, parenting is a high cost, high reward endeavor. It’s the synthesis of research and the case studies that make this a worthwhile read.
Some of the challenges of parenting analyzed in this book include: lost autonomy, lost sleep, strain on marriage, inability to get in the flow, isolation (especially since today’s fear of kidnapping keeps kids off the street & modern busyness has brought the death of the “pop-in” [casual drop-by visit]). The way shift work may leave partners feeling “alone together.” The stress of being a single parent. The particular struggle of Moms (who could take lessons from fathers, who often feel less guilt, less anguished perfectionism, and guard their personal time better).
• Overscheduling & “Concerted cultivation.” Hyper-parenting due to uncertainty about what the future holds for our children, what we’re preparing them for... The role of globalization and panic that has parents overzealously arranging activities, with the problematic psychology of an arms race. Even more than the time and money, parents invest emotional energy & involvement.
• The status of women... there’s been a nomenclature change from housewife to stay-at-home-mom, but in either case, they face “the problem that has no name” (restlessness, ambivalence). Women tried/try to combat it by becoming an expert: in the ‘50s by using specialized cleaning products, and today by being in the know about teaching methods, educational toys, etc.
However, young children bring us joy by: * Breaking us out of adult ruts with their uninhibited play & spontaneity * Encouraging a “shop class as soul craft” lifestyle: playing and creating with *things* (paint, instruments, blocks, dolls) vs. consuming media on devices * Posing philosophical questions (“what is water?”) * Loving & adoring us. And giving us a chance to be our best selves, as we love generously even when our children are difficult.
Other quotes & ideas I liked: “But I am telling only half the truth, maybe only a quarter of it. The rest of the truth is that I was unable to bear loving my children so much. Loving left me weak, skinless. Ideally, I would have liked Catherine and Margaret sewn to my armpits, secured to me. Or better yet kicking and turning in my stomach, where I could keep them safe forever.” - Mary Cantwell “When I was young”
“Joy and woe are woven fine.” William Blake
“Foreboding joy” - a term coined by Brene Brown that refers to the idea of loss inherent in having the joy of attachment and connection.
“We don’t care for our children because we love them, we love them because we care for them.” - Alison Gopnik
“Children are a reason to get up in the morning... earthly reasons to keep going.”
3.5 stars. I think this book (compared to some similar books) gave a pretty well rounded picture of parenthood. I appreciated that the discussion didn’t end at the baby/toddler phase which is what most people talk about when considering the decision of whether or not to have kids. The author also discusses adolescence and how this phase comes with its own difficulties. One disappointment is that the author talks about the joy and meaning that parenthood can bring - which is great! - but fails to acknowledge that the expectation of joy and fulfillment is a lot to put on a child! I don’t think it’s a good idea to have a child for the sole purpose of finding meaning and fulfillment in your life, and I wish the author explored more of that nuance.
Well-reported, well-researched, and intellectually curious about the philosophy parenthood, this book is basically catnip for me.
Jen Senior applies adept reading of studies about childhood and parenthood (and its effects on marriage) and synthesizes it all with some anecdotal evidence from real couples, mostly in Minnesota. The reason for this, I suspect, is because Minnesota is a state with a firm commitment to early childhood education. She meets parents at ECFE, a program that I remember attending when I was a kid.
But she doesn't do this to dispense advice or offer parents a guidebook. Instead what she does is try to get at a very difficult thing about entering parenthood: Why do we do it even though it sometimes makes us miserable?
The answers are not easy. She looks at many stages of childhood — from the challenging nature of toddlerhood to the emotional distress of raising teenagers — and how it affects parents as humans. This shouldn't be revelatory. In many ways, it is not. But when you look at the heap of books for parents, it is certainly unusual.
I'm a new parent, and I often find myself in the complicated identity changes that come with the role. I am still the same person I was, but this experience has totally changed me. I'm also forced to re-evaluate all those things I thought I would "never" do on a near-daily basis. I'm looking at you, chapter four, which details the frenzied pace at which parents shove their children into enrichment programs and after-school activities.
Senior's book, in many ways, takes that identity crisis seriously. She doesn't offer solutions, but she does offer diagnosis. She points to the fact that, even though women are doing less housework, they are still doing more parenting.
It's also not just about parenting; it's about the placement of identity. Terrifyingly, she points to one study that shows more marriages are doomed when there's a greater difference in how highly the two partners place parenthood in their ranking of identities (women almost always rank motherhood higher than men rank fatherhood).
All this is to say that this book, though it certainly isn't comprehensive — she's open from the get-go that this book applies to middle class, mostly partnered parents — it does a great job of helping me think in a rational ways about some of the hard parts of parenting. The last chapter, touchingly, talks about the ways in which children bring true meaning to our lives in a way that isn't always happy, but it is joyful. Spoiler, I guess.
Anyway, I am perhaps biased because I am the target audience for this book, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I decided to start this book while on deadline, thinking it was the kind of book where I would have no problem reading a chapter at a time in between work. Ha! I finished it in less than 24 hours and was completely engrossed.
This is a study of modern parenting, and I'm guessing the main audience for the book is parents -- there's nothing there that is particularly proven or airtight, so what made the book so compelling for me was how well it corresponded to my own experiences and those of most of my friends. The chapter on adolescence, on the other hand, was the slowest part of the book for me, and I'm guessing that's because I don't have adolescent children yet - I found myself skeptical of a lot of her statements and claims, which wasn't true when I was reading the other chapters. (And I suspect might not have been true if my kids were teenagers).
This is a sociology study, not a how-to-guide; even so, I think most parents will find it helpful, both in the "I'm not alone" sense, and because understanding something can help you tackle it better. Also, despite its focus on the problems of parenthood, the author takes care to make it clear that sociology has its limits; "Meaning and joy have a way of slipping through the sieve of social science. The vocabulary for aggravation is large. The vocabulary for transcendence is more elusive."
Some reviews have described this book as depressing, but really, if you're a parent, the depressing parts are nothing you didn't already know, though you might know it a bit more starkly now (toddlers obey commands only 60% of the time? Well, it's nice to put a percentage to it). For me, this book was equal parts humorous, comforting, fascinating, and -- especially in the last chapter -- full of joy.
The best and most beautiful thing I’ve read all year. I sobbed through long sections of it, highlighted almost all of it, and will probably return to it many times over. Completely different from what I was expecting. It reminded me a great deal of Suzanne Clothier’s BONES WOULD RAIN FROM THE SKY, a book I thought was going to be about dog training that instead turned out to be one of the most moving meditations I’ve ever read on what it means to care for other living creatures. I loved this book so much.
It's like Jennifer Senior went through the entire Parenting Section of a vast library and presented snippets from each of the books. But I'm not necessarily interested in the snippets or books that she selected, nor am I that interested in the particular families that she chose to interview for this book. I for one don't need scientific research to tell me that playing with toddlers is boring, or that children have short attention spans. I didn't find this book enlightening or entertaining.
"The lack of structure in family life, which seems to give people freedom, is actually a kind of an impediment." The author should have included a family in this book that does rely on structure, for some variety at least. Or a family that chose to sleep-train their babies instead of all the sleep deprived parents she chose to quote. I hated that the one parent she singled out as being "all business, an efficiency-seeking scud missile" was male.
I did like this quote she gave from Adolescence by Laurence Steinberg: "...the hormonal changes of puberty have only a modest direct effect on adolescent behavior; rebellion during adolescence is atypical, not normal; and few adolescents experience a tumultuous identity crisis." I wish she had gone into other cultures which do not abide adolescent misbehavior. But I guess I just wish I had read a different book.
First off, what I liked most about this book is that the author has such a pleasing, balanced voice. She clearly has no ax to grind and she comes across as a curious observer. The book is a nice mix of social science study stats and interviews with real parents. Lots of great points that had me nodding my head and thinking, Yes, exactly! Esp. the tedium of spending days and nights with little children and how we look back on those days with warm memories but when you are living them, they are really, really tough and boring, too. I loved the section on adolescents and seeing ourselves in their struggles and choices. It was eye-opening to think about your kids that way: once they are capable of making their own choices, it makes you think about and re-examine the choices that you have made in your life. Good stuff here. Definitely worth a read for any parent--regardless of your child's age.