All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

dt.common.streams.StreamServer.clsAll Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood
Jennifer Senior
Published January 28, 2014
320 pages (of which 48 pages are notes and index)

Once you hit a certain age, you are officially considered old. This age is different, of course, in different contexts. If you’re going to see a movie at an AMC theater, that age is 60. According to the Social Security Administration, that age is now 67. At Wendy’s, that age is 55 (you get 10% off your entire order every day. You’re welcome, old people!). And, if you’re a woman having a baby, that age is 35.

If you’re at least 35 and pregnant (as I am now), you are dubbed “AMA”—a woman of “advanced maternal age.” This actually shows up on my medical records as a diagnosis: elderly primigravida (“a woman who becomes pregnant for the first time after the age of 34.”). This diagnosis means extra doctors’ appointments with specialists for at-risk pregnancies.

It also means that I haven’t jumped into this child-bearing thing lightly. For my husband and me, deciding to have a baby was a big deal. We weighed our pros and cons. We crossed some things off our bucket lists that would be a little more difficult to accomplish with kids in tow. We envisioned life twenty years from now with kids versus without them. And we did some research—we casually interviewed some friends, read some books, and keenly observed the young families with whom we came into contact.

Speaking from experience, I can tell you that the results of the research you do on parenting is generally very similar: Kids are so much fun! It’s so amazing to watch them grow and learn and become people! Having children gives you a sense of purpose and fulfillment! You’ve never experienced true love until you have a child! Or, as our neighbors put it: “We never thought we would have children, but now that we have them, we can’t imagine life without them. They’ve changed everything. Our lives are complete because of them.” Parenting is the world’s largest cult. And people want you to join. Immediately.

But, occasionally, you come across something that is a little more real. It’s a little more honest and in-your-face. It’s a little scarier. It’s a little less about the uniquely delicious smell of babies’ heads and more about their atrocious screaming fits. The uplifting parenting tome All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood is one such happy gem.

Oh, you think you can prepare for parenthood? Author Jennifer Senior laughs in your face on page 3:

[T]he truth is, there’s little even the most organized people can do to prepare themselves for having children. They can buy all the books, observe friends and relations, review their own memories of childhood. But the distance between those proxy experiences and the real thing, ultimately, can be measured in light-years. Prospective parents have no clue what their children will be like; no clue what it will mean to have their hearts permanently annexed; no clue what it will feel like to second-guess so many seemingly simple decisions, or to be multitasking even while they’re brushing their teeth, or to have a ticker tape of concerns forever whipping through their heads. Becoming a parent is one of the most sudden and dramatic changes in adult life.

And, to top it all off, she points out frequently that numerous studies over the past sixty years show that “parents are no happier than nonparents, and in certain cases are considerably less happy.” Parenthood is a “high-cost/high-reward activity” . . . and it’s clear that her focus is on the high-cost end of that equation.

Let’s be clear: this book is not a Happiest Baby on the Block or a What to Expect: The First Year. In other words, it is not  the kind of parenting book that offers advice or words of wisdom (“I make few promises about being able to provide any usable child-rearing advice”). Instead, this is a book about how children alter the lives of their parents . . . mostly in very negative ways (“What should you expect once your children are redirecting the course of your marriage, your job, your friendships, your aspirations, your internal sense of self?”).

The book tracks the particular woes and hardships inherent in various stages of parenting: the loss of parental autonomy that new parents suffer and the particular struggle of raising infants (parents suffering from sleep deprivation, babies being like tiny crazy people who are incontinent, don’t speak your language, and require constant monitoring to prevent harming themselves); the stress on marriage caused by children (according to a 1957 study, “83 percent of all new mothers and fathers were in ‘severe’ crisis'” and, in a 2009 study, researchers found that “roughly 90 percent of [couples] experienced a decline in marital satisfaction after the birth of their first child”); the stresses intrinsic to the “hyperparenting” attitude that is now the norm (the pressures of overscheduling, direction, and stimulation, which make satisfaction and happiness as parenting goals so much more difficult to achieve than they used to be); the nightmares of adolescence (teenagers “are the human equivalent of salt, intensifying whatever mix they’re in”; new arguments about kids’ independence; parental fears about moral/societal safety). All of these particular woes and hardships are backed up with anecdotes (she follows families around, interviews parents, sits in on parenting groups, etc.) and research. She lets you know over and over and over again: “Having kids sucks. It’s science.”

On the flip side, the joys that she mentions are few and far between. And they’re things that assume that, pre-kids, your life was pretty joyless (more on that below):

[W]ith small kids around, they were given license to forget the gray-flannel-suit imperatives of their lives and just do what small kids do. One talked about going to the Minneapolis zoo, where he hadn’t been in over fifteen years; another reveled in “watching the kids run around outside, eyeballs shining, just all teeth” (an unconscious echo, I later realized, of the refrain from Where the Wild Things Are: “. . . and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes . . .”). Then there was the dad who put it most succinctly: “I like that I can act like an idiot out in public.” 

In other words, the book would be more aptly titled A Tiny Glimmer of Joy and Absolutely No Fun.

Rating: 2.5/5

Bottom line #1: If you’re on the fence about parenting and are looking for a dose of unpleasant reality, look no further.

There are lots and lots of resources about unconditional love and how incomplete life is without kids. Your friends can tell you how special their child’s first smile made them feel. There aren’t, however, a lot of resources that will unabashedly tell you that parenting really sucks. It sucks for you as an individual, and it sucks for you as a member of a couple. This book does just that. With gusto.

You want anecdotes from miserable mothers and fathers? This book has them! You want terrifying statistics about how unhappy you and your spouse will be after having kids? Check and check!

There’s a lot more “no fun” in this book than there is “all joy.” This book is great for balancing out all of the eye-rollingly sentimental stories that you will read about the joys of parenting.

Interestingly and tellingly, the last chapter, “Joy,” is the one with which Senior struggles the most. It is the least cohesive, the least anecdotal, the least interesting. Which brings me to . . .

Bottom line #2: I kind of feel sorry for the author. And, for that matter, for her kids.

When I was about halfway through this book, my husband asked, “Are you learning how much we’re going to hate having a child? Or how much we’re going to love having a child?”

“I’m learning how crazy people are,” I responded.

If you were to rely on this book to form an opinion of parents (and, well, people in general), you would assume they are all stressed, critical, miserable beings. It’s not the prettiest picture. The book relies heavily on a lot of generalizations about adults: mainly, that, without children, they are joyless, unhappy automatons. Senior assumes that adults need small children to remind them how to experience life in a less stressful, worried way (Children help by “transporting mothers and fathers back to feelings and sensations they haven’t had since they themselves were young.”):

The dirty secret about adulthood is the sameness of it, its tireless adherence to routines and customs and norms. Small children may intensify this sense of repetition and rigidity by virtue of the new routines they establish. But they liberate their parents from their ruts too.

All of us crave liberation from those ruts. More to the point, all of us crave liberation from our adult selves, at least from time to time. I’m not just talking about the selves with public roles to play and daily obligations to meet. (We can find relief from those people simply by going on vacation, or for that matter, by pouring ourselves a stiff drink.) I’m talking about the selves who live too much in their heads rather than their bodies; who are burdened with too much knowledge about how the world works rather than excited by how it could work or should; who are afraid of being judged and not being loved. Most adults do not live in a world of forgiveness and unconditional love. Unless, that is, they have small children.

Senior presumes, sadly, that most childless adults live lives devoid of wonder or spontaneity or joy . . . and only children can bring those things into their lives. My opinion: if you’re relying on kids to bring joy and wonder and spontaneity and happiness to your life, methinks that’s a bit too heavy a burden to place on your tykes.

The hype:

  • an Amazon Best Book of the Month for February 2014

For a different perspective: You can check out this article from The Atlantic last year that proclaims that parents actually are happier than non-parents (or, at least, less progressively unhappy).

Who should read it: If you’re in an especially low parenting place, and you’re looking for someone to validate your feelings of inadequacy or unhappiness or frustration, then this is the book for you. Or, if, as I mentioned above, you’re looking for something to balance out all the overly gushy, sentimental stories you’ve heard about parenting, then this will do just that. But, if you’re looking for something that celebrates both the joys and pains of parenthood, you should probably look elsewhere.

One final note: Thank you, Erin, for loaning this book to me! Sorry it took me so long to read it!!

Want to read along with me? A review of this book is coming soon:

  • The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for April 2015 and an Indie Next List pick for April 2015)
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4 thoughts on “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

  1. Best antidote for this book: a weekend with Harvey. How’s this weekend work for you? 🙂

    • Sounds DELIGHTFUL. I’m all in. I hope he’s practicing all the Fall Out Boy songs that he sings in my dreams. I’m expecting a joyous serenade upon arrival. CAN’T WAIT TO SEE YOU BOTH!!!

  2. I’m only 12 weeks into this parenthood thing but that description of babies is spot on! The weird thing – and what’s hard to understand until you’re in it – is how differently things are weighted when it comes to your child. You wouldn’t think a few smiles would completely cancel out getting pooped on but it does.

    • Congratulations on your new addition!!! I can totally imagine that the baby smiles bring tons of happiness and joy . . . but I have my doubts that the author of this book feels the same way.

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