All Joy and No Fun

all fun and no joy cover

By Anne Weisberg

There is a scene near the beginning of Boyhood, a beautifully rendered movie of family life in the 21st century, that perfectly illustrates what Jennifer Senior calls the “paradox of modern parenthood” in her new book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.

In the scene, Olivia, the divorced mother of two, is cuddled up with her two kids in bed reading Harry Potter out loud to them, and they are all giggling at the ghost in the toilet. She has cancelled on her boyfriend, obstensibly because her sitter cancelled on her, but you feel that Olivia would rather be reading Harry Potter with her kids than going out. After the kids are asleep, the boyfriend comes back and they get into an argument, during which Olivia says (and I am paraphrasing): “Don’t you think I want a night out? I haven’t been to a movie in so long … but I am a parent, and I have responsibilities.” So we learn that Olivia both relishes being home with her kids reading Harry Potter under the covers and resents the constraints being a parent places on her.

In All Joy and No Fun, Jennifer Senior weaves together stories and science to paint a vivid picture of the struggle that parents, grandparents and anyone trying to raise kids these days (adults whom I will refer to as parents) face, and why it is worth it. To be clear, this is not a parenting book – it is not about how to raise children. This is a book about parents – what it is like to be a parent today. It is in part a history book. As Senior explains, after World War II, “the family economy was no longer built on a system of reciprocity, with parents sheltering and feeding their children, and children, in return, kicking something back into the family till … Children stopped working and parents worked twice as hard.”

To understand how parenting is playing out in middle America – both geographically and socioeconomically – Senior vividly recounts the lives of 125 parents enrolled in Minnesota’s Early Childhood Education program. This program, unique to that state, is for parents of pre-kindergarten age children to learn from experts and from each other about parenting. According to Senior, 90,000 parents signed up in 2010. These real-life scenes of temper tantrums, of juggling caring for a sick kid with finishing a presentation due tomorrow, of switching careers so you can drive your kid to soccer practice, are supplemented with research from an impressively wide range of disciplines – from neuroscience to sociology to psychology to behavioral economics.

In one example of the lengths to which Senior goes to understand the scientific underpinning of the paradox of modern parenthood, she tracks down Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who coined the term “flow,” and asks him why parents don’t feel it. (Flow is that heightened sense of engagement when you feel that anything is possible.) As he explains, “because children are constantly changing, the ‘rules’ of handling them change too, which can further confound a family’s ability to flow.”

What Senior finds is that parents are working twice as hard partly because of the 24/7 nature of work; partly because of the economic squeeze of the middle class in the U.S. exacerbated by the lack of high quality, affordable child care; and partly because of escalating pressure to make sure your kid has every advantage known to man. As she says, this behavior is a “reasonable and deeply internalized reaction to a shrinking economic pie,” made all the more complex by changing gender roles that leave women and men feeling that they are never living up to expectations.

Senior’s chapter on marriage is a critical yet generous portrayal of how married parents struggle to understand how to craft roles that work for themselves and their families. Not surprisingly, our collective ambivalence about changing gender norms permeate the whole book – because when we talk about parenting in our society, we are still really talking about two different things: mothering and fathering. This can be seen in one particularly astute observation about the fact that most kids are no longer allowed to walk or bike to school, despite the fact that “between 1992 and 2011, reports of child sexual abuse fell by 63 percent.” She posits that “[i]t’s also possible that this anxiety about child safety is yet another manifestation of our culture’s ambivalence towards women in the workplace” since now there are “fewer eyes on the street.”

While Senior has few answers – appropriately so – for how to navigate this new terrain, she does have some profound insights about why, for many parents, children are “emotionally priceless.” As she explains, it is through their relationship with their children that parents construct their “remembered selves,” a concept based in psychology that says the way we remember the past deeply influences how we make decisions or plan for the future, and perhaps most importantly, how we judge our lives. As Dr. Csikszentmihalyi explained to Senior, “If you ask mothers to recall their greatest flow moments, the ones they’re most likely to report are ones involving their kids, especially things like reading books to them.”

As the mother of three grown children (the youngest just celebrated her 21st birthday), reading All Joy and No Fun was like therapy, because it both illuminated my experience and made me face my choices. And, ultimately, I totally agree with Senior – I wouldn’t trade being a parent for anything in the world.


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