All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

In “All Joy and No Fun,” Jennifer Senior joins Ayelet Waldman (“Bad Mother”) and Elizabeth Badinter (“The Conflict”) in ruminating on modern parenthood from the parent’s perspective rather than offering advice for better rearing the child. In many of the phenomena she describes I recognize myself at various stages of childhood and motherhood:

  • “[J]ust a brief period of sleep deprivation compromises a person’s performance as much as consuming excess alcohol. . . . [T]he sleep-deprived score higher on measures of irritability and lower on measures of inhibition too which isn’t an especially useful combination for parents, who are trying to keep their cool.”
  • “‘All parents at some time feel overwhelmed by their children; feel that their children ask more of them than they can provide.’”
  • “A parent wants to put on a child’s shoes and go to preschool; the child might agree, but then again, she might not, deciding it is vastly more important at that moment to play with her socks. Perhaps the parent has time to indulge this fascination, perhaps the parent doesn’t. Either way, the parent must adapt, and that is hard . . . .”
  • “I’d like to propose a possible explanation for why these moments of grace are so rare: the early years of family life don’t offer up many activities that lend themselves to what psychologists call ‘flow.’” (The details of this theory are very interesting and deeply resonate with me; the “flow” idea could very well be the most valuable aspect of the book for this stay-at-home mom.)
  • “If this is how you conceive of liberty – as freedom from obligation – then the transition to parenthood is a dizzying shock. . . . [W]e can never choose or change our children. They are the last binding obligation in a culture that asks for almost no other permanent commitments at all.”
  • “‘When couples struggle . . . it is seldom simply over who does what. Far more often, it is over the giving and receiving of gratitude.’”
  • “There are differences in the kinds of child care that parents do . . . . [M]ost mothers assume a disproportionate number of deadline-oriented, time-pressured domestic tasks. . . . [A]lmost all . . . efforts to get children to comply are made by mothers, not by fathers, and this asymmetrical dynamic can add a low-frequency hum of resentment to a relationship, because Mom gets the job of family nag.”
  • “One [parent] – usually the mother – is more alive to the emotional undercurrents of the household.”
  • “Clint always manages to claim free chunks of time for himself that she never manages to locate for herself. . . . It isn’t only Clint who is protective of his free time, . . . Angie protects his free time too.” (Describing a concept dubbed maternal “unentitlement.”)
  • “[D]oes the state have a moral imperative to help out mothers and fathers?”
  • “What Cam has given her, many years later, is another chance to be her best self. That’s what children can do in the end: give us that shot, even if we so frequently and disastrously fall short of the mark.”
  • “‘The useful labor of the nineteenth century child . . . was replaced by educational work for the useless child.’ Homework replaced actual work. Which had value, certainly. But not to the family.”
  • “‘In old static cultures,’ Mead writes, ‘one can find a standard of behavior . . . but in America, there is no such fixed standard – there are only this year’s babies.’”
  • “She pointed out that her mother called herself a housewife. She, on the other hand, called herself a stay-at-home mom. The change in nomenclature reflects the shift in cultural emphasis: the pressures on women have gone from keeping an immaculate house to being an irreproachable mom.”
  • “[T]oys before the twentieth century were primarily social in nature – jump ropes, marbles, kites, balls. ‘Modern manufactured toys,’ on the other hand, ‘implied a solitariness that was not a part of childhood before the twentieth century.’ . . . ‘[O]ne defining feature of young people’s lives today is that they spend more time alone than their predecessors’ . . . . Isolation results in a lot of extra work for parents.”
  • “[S]ince the moment ‘parenting’ became a popular verb . . . there has been an . . . emphasis on child-rearing as a high-performance, perfectible pursuit.”
  • “How it feels to be a parent and how it feels to do the quotidian and often arduous task of parenting are two very separate things.”
  • “‘Joy is connection,’ simple as that. Joy is very different from the kind of pleasure one gets from pursuing excitement or satisfying a drive. Those pleasures tend to be intense and ephemeral.”

There certainly is value in identifying problematic behaviors and patterns, and Senior should pat herself on the back for having done just that (especially since she manages it without the judgment or alarmism of other writers who describe “intensive parenting”).

Unfortunately, Senior’s fairly upbeat conclusion – “[this is] what choosing parenthood does: gives strength and structural integrity to one’s life through meaningful tension” (in other words, modern parenting is often no fun, but it’s simultaneously joyful because it produces significant human connection) – falls flat. Yes, parenthood is like any other job worth doing: there are parts of it that are hard and sucky; but it should be more fun, and there are ways to make parents’ lives better in terms of minute-to-minute enjoyment. Senior hints around a few (for example, more childcare support from the government would help combat “maternal unentitlement” and give parents more opportunity to engage in “flow” activities), but she doesn’t leave us with much help. She diagnoses a syndrome but has very little to say in the way of treatment.

(As almost a “nit,” I also take issue with Senior’s focus on parents who work part time and work from home in the “autonomy” chapter; parents who don’t do paid labor or do it full time are at least as badly impacted by the phenomenon she describes. Similarly, the following quote drove me crazy: “Jessie has instead chosen the hardest path. She’s trying to do both [work and childcare], improvising all day long as she juggles her dual responsibilities . . . .” If this week’s blog-flogging of Gwyneth Paltrow teaches us anything, it’s that one ought be wary of calling a single maternal experience the “hardest.”)

Don’t get me wrong, “All Joy and No Fun” is worth reading as a well-written, even-handed reflection of modern middle class parenting. I just wish it were paired with a practicum entitled “All the Joy and More Fun Too” – or at least a call to action along those lines.

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