Parents of America: Yes, you’re a busy bunch. In fact, right this minute, you’re probably changing a diaper, driving car pool to taekwondo or trolling through your kid’s Facebook page before she comes home from play practice. But listen up. This is important. Grab a highlighter and a stiff drink while you’re at it. You’ll want both as you read Jennifer Senior’s book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.
Most parenting books examine the effects of parents on their children. Senior, a contributing editor at New York magazine, seeks to “swing the telescope around” and examine the effects of children on their parents. (Spoiler alert: It’s a sobering one. But that’s why you have the drink.)
Senior began thinking about the idea for the book in 2006 when she was assigned a story for New York on the burgeoning academic field of positive psychology, which analyzes what makes people happy. While reading Stumbling on Happiness by the social psychologist Dan Gilbert, Senior ran across a stray reference that mentioned that having kids doesn’t necessarily improve a person’s happiness. In fact, Gilbert wrote, parenthood compromises happiness.
“That just struck me as whackadoodle,” says Senior. “At that time, I wasn’t yet a mother, and all I wanted was a kid. I’d just started dating the guy that I eventually married, and I remember thinking, ‘There is no way that statement can be right—that makes no sense.’ ”
In 2008, Senior had a son. In 2010, she wrote an article for New York interrogating Gilbert’s theory. The piece went viral, garnering over 700 comments and over 34,000 likes on Facebook. Even though the topic had intrigued Senior on a personal level for years, neither she nor her editors at the magazine were prepared for such an overwhelming response. “It was mad. The funny thing is, I’ve worked much harder on other stories,” she says now. “I did a recent feature on John Boehner, and it only got about 100 likes on Facebook. I worked for months on that thing! Then this [parenting article] came from a fairly organic place, and it took off like a rocket.”
The article, of course, was a mere jumping-off point for the book, which digs deeply into the research of leading economists, historians, social scientists and psychologists to trace how society has dialed up the heat to make parenting the pressure cooker it is today. Senior parses out the inevitable, biologically induced challenges of being a parent (like being sleep-deprived) along with those that are more modern and more culturally mediated (like being hyperscheduled). Along the way, she offers up a parade of delightful cameos by less predictable parenting gurus such as Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, Margaret Mead and Christopher Hitchens. (Pitiable parents, writes Hitchens: “Their hearts are running around in someone else’s body.”)
The portrait Senior renders in All Joy and No Fun isn’t a pretty one—it’s one of parents in a frantic race to prepare their (increasingly coddled) children for a world they themselves can’t anticipate, while the middle class continues to narrow and wheeze, making the stakes for each child’s success that much higher.
All Joy and No Fun is animated by portraits of real parents telling their stories from the trenches. Readers will feel the exhaustion of a Minneapolis mother of three trying to keep her photography business afloat between Cheerios meals and toddler meltdowns. They will sense the anxiety (and competitiveness) of Houston parents at Cub Scout registration, attempting to add yet another activity to the scheduling labyrinths of their 7-year-old sons. (“He has Skype lessons for Indian classical music once a week…and voice lessons twice a week, and piano and soccer and language lessons on the weekend…”). Readers with young children will shudder at the stories of teenage terror shared by a group of Brooklyn moms over coffee, though readers with teens themselves will no doubt nod their heads in empathy. (When soon-to-be-parents fantasize about raising children, there must be an evolutionary reason their thoughts skip over the door-slamming, curfew-busting, Internet-porn–searching, shoplifting years of adolescence.)
Not all the stories in the book are horrifying; many make the heart soar. Senior takes pains to articulate the transcendent joy that comes with being a parent and has no shortage of fodder, even among the most frazzled families. But she is careful to draw a distinction between the meaningful role of “being a parent” and the increasingly bewildering job of “parenting.”
Initially, it felt awkward to gain access to the intimate domain of her subjects’ family lives, recalls Senior. “There was something very weird in the opening moments of being in those families’ homes.” But the writer was willing to do what it took to make subjects feel comfortable, whether that meant being a silent presence, “like the family dog,” or getting in on the action. One 3-year-old boy in Minnesota took a shine to Senior (who was homesick for her own 3-year-old boy back in New York), and in no time, they were playing Lego and dancing together. “I didn’t mind including myself if it made it easier,” says Senior. “So we very quickly had this game where Abe would wrap me in a blanket and pretend I was a hot dog.”
Asked why she felt it was important to bolster her data-driven research with the voices of regular parents, Senior says, “I think that in social science, research can only take you so far. A lot gets lost in the numbers.”
“It’s something I got a lot of push back on from the social scientists,” Senior continues. “I mean, Dan Gilbert has this argument with me a lot.” Senior will assert that a moment of transcendence between parent and child—an embrace, a dance—is hard to quantify on a scale of one to five. “Dan’s answer would be, ‘No, it’s a five,’ ” laughs Senior. “But some moments are so deep and so profound. I mean, a diet book will get a five on Amazon and so will War and Peace. Not all fives are the same thing. As long as you’re using instruments that have numbers, I believe you’re not going to get at that joy that almost makes your stomach hurt.”
And when you’ve got joy that makes your stomach hurt, who needs fun anyway?
Kirk Reed Forrester is a freelance writer based in Houston who loves books, movies, music, gardening and running. In her spare time, she takes care of her two young daughters.