All Joy and No Fun

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

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

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

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.

"All Joy" can be both amusing and demoralizing (my husband finally made me stop reading him the wives’ criticisms of their husbands), but ultimately, it’s an important book, much the way "The Feminine Mystique" was, because it offers parents a common language, an understanding that they’re not alone in their struggles, and an explanation of the cultural, political, and economic reasons for them.

Statistics on how much happier parents are in France and Scandinavian countries, nations with state-supported daycare, may not be surprising, but it’s important context for exhausted, economically stretched American parents. (Once upon a time, Congress passed a bipartisan bill funding universal daycare but Nixon vetoed it – and alas, it’s hard to see another coming anytime soon.) And though there’s not much parents can do about a teenager’s mood swings, understanding how technology has simultaneously increased children’s dependency and avenues for rebellion (as well as parents’ avenues for monitoring them) may make the whole experience slightly more manageable. 

Especially astute is Senior’s connection of soccer-mom culture to anxieties over global competition, in particular Anglo-American parents’ concern that their kids keep up with their Asian-American neighbors.

Senior also captures the transcendence that comes with raising children, painting a vivid picture of Sharon, a 67-year-old woman who is raising her three-year-old grandson, running joyfully through the fountains of a Minneapolis playground, or another mother, Jessie, slow-dancing with her toddler in her arms. Yet as Senior herself notes, “[m]eaning and joy have a way of slipping through the sieve of social science. The vocabulary for aggravation is large," and this is true of Senior’s book, too.  

This is not a criticism, necessarily, so much as a warning. As a relatively new mother, the book was more daunting than inspiring. The toughest chapters were "Marriage" – i.e., how babies hurt it – and "Adolescence," – i.e., why kids vacillate between being clingy and defiant – and how that, too, reeks havoc on a marriage. Super. I also found some parents frustrating, like the mom so averse to sleep-training that she hadn’t even read up on it, thereby insuring her baby was still waking her up three times a night.

But in the end, "All Joy" is not parenting advice so much as a critique of how American culture – from our lack of social structures to the sheer quantity of activities and homework kids grapple with – is driving parents slightly crazy. Told "homework is the new daily dinner," Senior reflects on the decline in volunteer work and public involvement of the last decades, and concludes, "Maybe dinner should be the new family dinner." It’s good advice.

Elizabeth Toohey teaches at Queensborough Community College (CUNY).

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