Rebecca's Reviews > All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior
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bookshelves: read-via-netgalley, uncategorizable, parenting-or-not

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.
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Reading Progress

January 28, 2014 – Shelved
January 28, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
April 23, 2014 – Started Reading
April 29, 2014 – Shelved as: read-via-netgalley
April 29, 2014 – Shelved as: uncategorizable
April 29, 2014 – Finished Reading
July 25, 2017 – Shelved as: parenting-or-not

Comments Showing 1-1 of 1 (1 new)

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message 1: by Elyse (new) - added it

Elyse  Walters I got value from your review and my kids are older than you -- lol
Excellent- you wonderful
Lovely Rebecca.
I'm going to purchase this book...
This topic still interest me - thanks!!!
Every sentence you wrote was informative!!! Thanks - I adore you!!!! And admire your reviews!!


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