By Kristen Levithan
Nearly four years ago, journalist Jennifer Senior wrote a piece for New York Magazine that examined “why parents are no happier than nonparents, and in certain cases are considerably less happy.” The article, called “All Joy and No Fun” and provocatively subtitled “Why parents hate parenting,” went viral, inviting comments from parents and the childless alike. In her new book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Senior picks up where her New York Magazine article left off and embarks on a quest to look at and knit together the findings of countless studies “in order to articulate—and in some cases quantify—what today’s parents find so challenging about their lives.” Unlike many parenting books whose focus is on children (or, at least, on how parents affect their children), Senior states from the outset that hers is “a book about parents” and an attempt—wholly successful—to show how children both strain and deepen our lives.
Senior’s book benefits from exceptionally clear, evocative writing throughout. (At one point, she deems parents “avid volunteers for a project in which we were all once dutiful conscripts.”) But its greatest strength and, I would argue, its most significant contribution to contemporary parenting literature is her decision to use the stories and experiences of middle class families to explicate relevant neuro- and social scientific research. (She focuses on the middle class, she explains, because the concerns of the elite are not “relatable” and those of “poor parents as parents are impossible to view on their own.”) Offering her readers a chance to identify with, say, a mom trying to edit photos for an afternoon deadline while the cries of her supposedly napping son blare through a baby monitor and her five-year-old daughter interrupts her repeatedly for help rewinding a movie, makes the countless studies she cites both more digestible and immediately more resonant.
Senior also makes the wise choice to deliver her findings systematically in stage-by-stage fashion. To explain the “bunker years” in which adults trade the autonomy of their child-free lives for the gear-laden, demanding days of parenting young children, Senior shares relevant findings through the stories of families she met through Early Childhood Family Education classes in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Senior elucidates studies on sleep deprivation, flow, and multitasking to show how they help explain why life with little kids often feels like “a long-running experiment in contained bedlam.” In an excellent chapter on marriage and the stresses parenting places upon it, Senior introduces us to Angie and Clint, a shift-working couple of two young sons, to reveal academic research on time-use, social isolation, child compliance, sex, and a fascinating concept called “unentitlement,” in which parents—especially mothers—prioritize family and household chores above their own needs. In the third chapter, Senior introduces the “simple gifts” parenting can bring and the science behind them as she follows Sharon, a 67-year-old raising her 3-year-old grandson alone. Sharon is also the lens through which Senior discusses research on the ways in which parenting children—who, Senior eloquently reminds us, “still have their hands on the world”—allow adults to reconnect to the pleasures of tangible, tactile pursuits; to ponder philosophical questions; and to embrace the chance to practice being our best selves.
Senior departs both the bunker years and Minnesota in her chapters on the later years of parenting. She devotes a jam-packed section to the “obdurate challenges of the middle parenting years” and, especially, the effects the overscheduling of kids has on their parents. For this stage, she heads off to suburban Houston, home of demographically diverse parents trying to help their kids balance schoolwork and demanding extracurricular activities (like the pervasive Tuesday night football practices) in an uncertain culture devoid of the folkways that helped parents navigate for generations before ours. In this chapter, Senior also looks at the shifting pressures on women over the last half-century from “keeping an immaculate house to being an irreproachable mom.” Senior’s chapter on adolescence is not for the faint of heart, chronicling as it does the experiences of several Brooklyn families who deal with everything from sons egging neighborhood houses and surfing Internet porn to daughters shoplifting and self-mutilating. Particularly fascinating in this section is Senior’s suggestion that, though “adolescence, more than any other phase of child-rearing, is when the paradoxes of modern childhood assert themselves most vividly,” its fraught reputation may be because we adults are at a loss when the children who’ve relied on us for so much somewhat suddenly, but quite naturally, begin to pull away, leaving our relationships with them and our partners, not to mention ourselves, up in the air.
If the rest of the book is superb, the final chapter of All Joy and No Fun is transcendent. Senior goes beyond the usual nonfiction tactic of revisiting her earlier arguments to discuss how, despite its trials, parenting gives us access to unparalleled joy, imbues our lives with meaning, and offers us the chance to redeem our past mistakes and leave a positive legacy. Explaining why it’s so much harder to quantify “how it feels to be a parent” rather than “how it feels to do the quotidian and often arduous task of parenting,” Senior leaves parents lucky enough to read her outstanding book with the distinct impression that, both in spite of and because of the sleepless nights, mind-numbing responsibilities, and heart-rending challenges, this parenting business is the most meaningful kind there is.
Kristen Levithan writes about motherhood, women’s history, and mother-writers for print and online publications. Currently at work on a non-fiction book about writers who were also mothers, Kristen lives in New England with her husband and three children and offers cultural commentary and musings on modern motherhood at her blog, Motherese.
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.