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All Joy and No Fun

Journalist Jennifer Senior asks: Is American culture driving parents slightly crazy?

By Elizabeth TooheyContributor / February 5, 2014

All Joy and No Fun, by Jennifer Senior, HarperCollins, 320 pp.

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Philip Larkin, in an oft-quoted poem, declares, “They [mess] you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do.”

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The effect of parents on children has long been a subject for sociologists and novelists (see Jonathan Franzen’s "The Corrections" for Larkin’s lines as 500-page fiction) but the less frequently raised question is, what effect do children have on parents? This query fuels Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, a study of parenting for middle-class Americans today.

The end of World War II heralded a transformation of children’s role in the family from asset to investment. The recent technological revolution and spillage of work-life into the home shifted the picture of family life even further. Senior – whose book deal stemmed from a New York Magazine cover story with the provocative caption, “I Love My Children. I Hate My Life” – notes that the trend of bearing children after 30 contributed still more to parents’ tendency to protect and “cultivate” them as well as to parents’ difficulty relinquishing their own freedom.

Organized loosely around various stages of childhood, Senior’s book offers case studies from Minneapolis, Brooklyn, and the suburbs of Houston. Interwoven with parents’ complaints and confessions is material from an array of studies on children and, aptly, happiness. Senior draws heavily from Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s "Flow," with good effect, to get at why sustained joy is so rare in the early years of parenting – “why such moments … often feel so hard-won, so shatterable, and so fleeting, as if located between parentheses.” 

Along the way we get to know Angie and her husband Clint, who is surreptitiously sleep-training their baby Zay; Lan, whose son Ben fell in love with figure-skating and whose gentleness and moderation undercut the Tiger-Mom stereotype; and Steve, a self-avowed Tiger-Dad of sports (he’s not Asian, but African-American) who delayed his political ambitions to focus on his family.

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