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Under Pressure

Review of “All Joy and No Fun,” by Jennifer Senior

All Joy and No Fun, by Jennifer Senior.

Parenthood as we know it — predicated on the unconditional exaltation of our children — is no more than 70 years old, and it has gone through radical readjustments over the past two generations. As children went from helping on the farm to being the focus of relentless cosseting, they shifted “from being our employees to our bosses,” Jennifer Senior observes in her trenchant and engrossing first book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Senior, a contributing editor at New York magazine, examines what it means to be a parent, through interviews with a handful of families who are neither typical nor extraordinary. These are snapshots, not longitudinal documentaries, but in the way of good snapshots, they tell more than one might notice at first glance, and they allow for cautious universalizing. She supplements these vignettes with extremely impressive research, weaving in insights from philosophy, psychology and an occasionally overwhelming mélange of social science reports.

Senior quotes the sociologist Viviana A. Zelizer, who describes today’s children as “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.” Senior explains: “Every debate we have had about the role of parents — whether they should be laissez-faire or interventionist ‘Tiger Moms,’ attachment-oriented or partial to the rigors of tough love — can be traced back to the paring down of mothers’ and fathers’ traditional roles.” We’re confused about what child rearing requires, we know only what it doesn’t: “teaching kids mathematics and geography and literature (schools do that); providing them with medical treatment (pediatricians); sewing them dresses and trousers (factories abroad, whose wares are then distributed by Old Navy); growing them food (factory farms, whose goods are then distributed by supermarkets); giving them vocational training (two-year colleges, classes, videos).” What parents can agree on, whatever their approach, is that it’s “for the child’s sake, and the child’s alone. Parents no longer raise children for the family’s sake or that of the broader world.”

Raising children is terribly hard work, often thankless and mind-numbing, and yet the most rapturous experience available to adults. Senior begins with the supposition that parents are both happier and more miserable than nonparents, that child rearing dictates a wider emotional range than people have generally known before it. She tackles the problem of ambivalence, demonstrating that most parenting stresses its participants to their limits, no matter how much they love their children. Salted with insights and epigrams, the book is argued with bracing honesty and flashes of authentic wisdom.

“If you’ve spent most of your adult life in the company of other adults . . . it requires some adjusting to spend so much time in the company of people who feel more than think,” she writes. Children upstage all the other components of their parents’ lives, and good parenting involves both helicoptering and disengagement. One woman Senior interviewed drew the distinction between her mother’s status as a housewife and her own as a stay-at-home mom; the change in nomenclature suggests new societal priorities, as women are under less pressure about running the household and more pressure about motherhood. That reflects and occasions the evolution of childhood.

Children alter the adult relationships into which they obtrude. Indeed, Senior says, they provoke a couple’s most frequent arguments — “more than money, more than work, more than in-laws, more than annoying personal habits, communication styles, leisure activities, commitment issues, bothersome friends, sex.” Mothers are frequently overwhelmed by their attempts to excel both at their paid jobs and at child care. In 1965, when most American women didn’t work outside the home, mothers nonetheless spent almost four fewer hours a week than today’s mothers do providing child care. Fathers, on the other hand, spend three times as many hours with their children now as they did then, but do better at keeping some downtime reserved for themselves; they do not judge themselves the way mothers do, and experience few of the pressures that make women feel so guilty about being away from home during the workday.

Taking care of — and indeed loving — one’s children changes as they reach adolescence. Senior notes that parents often do homework with their children; “homework,” she writes aphoristically, “is the new family dinner.” It is the locus around which affection is played out. Parents struggle through their children’s teenage years both because of their changed relationship with their children and because of their changed relationship to themselves. It is not easy to have much of your purpose shattered by your child’s independence. This loss can throw parents back on their own inner lives, and self-examination can be painful. “The mere presence of adolescents in the house, still brimming with potential, their futures still an unclaimed colony . . . sets off a fantastical reverie of what-ifs,” Senior writes.

If there is a downside to this excellent book, it is that Senior’s tone is sometimes too breezy and often rushed, which can make All Joy and No Fun feel like a succession of smart magazine articles. Its episodes seem self-contained, not always in full discourse with one another, and some cry out to be expanded. Her lightness belies the seriousness of the questions her book asks. But her substantive insights redeem that briskness over and over again.

Raising modern, indulged children for their own sake can be challenging. In the end, Senior writes, “Mothering and fathering aren’t just things we do. Being a mother or being a father is who we are.” Her most striking observations reveal this existential complexity. “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. ‘Being a parent’ is much more difficult for social science to anatomize.” Social science is especially inadequate to describe the nature of this particular joy, but Senior deploys a novelist’s sensibility in giving evidence of that privileged euphoria, insisting that it is not merely coincident with all the tedious things parents must do, but actually an outgrowth of them. “Freedom in our culture has evolved to mean freedom from obligations,” she observes. “But what on earth does that freedom even mean if we don’t have something to give it up for?”

Senior draws on the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between the “experiencing self” that exists in the present moment and the “remembering self” that constructs a life’s narrative. “Our experiencing selves tell researchers that we prefer doing the dishes — or napping, or shopping, or answering emails — to spending time with our kids. . . . But our remembering selves tell researchers that no one — and nothing — provides us with so much joy as our children. It may not be the happiness we live day to day, but it’s the happiness we think about, the happiness we summon and remember, the stuff that makes up our life-tales.” She talks about parents’ pride in their children, not only in their accomplishments but even in their basic development as human beings, their growth into kindness and generosity. “Kids may complicate our lives,” she writes. “But they also make them simpler. Children’s needs are so overwhelming, and their dependence on us so absolute, that it’s impossible to misread our moral obligation to them. . . . We bind ourselves to those who need us most, and through caring for them, grow to love them, grow to delight in them, grow to marvel at who they are.”

All Joy and No Fun inspired me to think differently about my own experience as a parent. Over and over again, I find myself bored by what I’m doing with my children: How many times can we read Angelina Ballerina, or watch a “Bob the Builder” video? And yet I remind myself that such intimate shared moments, snuggling close, provide the ultimate meaning of life. I have never quite sorted out the conundrum of how I could be distracted into thinking about something as tiresome as email when I was with my beloved kids. If I lost all my emails, I’d manage, and if I lost my children, I’d never recover; yet still I sometimes find it hard to stay in the moment with them. Senior demonstrates that there is no contradiction in this seeming paradox; she understands that tolerating our children is the cornerstone of loving them.