All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood
Jennifer Senior (Twitter)
Audiobook read by the author
Ecco (January 2014), Hardcover (ISBN 0062072226 / 9780062072221)
Nonfiction: Sociology, 320 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Harper Audio, January 2014, ISBN 9780062308634; Audible ASIN B00H8QSIFS)
Jennifer Senior’s provocatively-titled New York magazine article from July 2010, “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting” contained much of what makes up the introduction to her 2014 book, which reframes the proposition of “all joy and no fun” with the more encompassing, less incendiary subtitle “The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.” The shift is subtle but significant, reflecting a focus on the state of having children rather than the actions of raising them. Senior’s goal is to examine, through research and personal stories, how the various stages of raising children profoundly affect the lives of parents.
Senior frequently points out that most of what she discusses in All Joy and No Fun is primarily relevant to middle-class families. While the middle class in the early 21st century may be a shrinking demographic, it remains the one for which the experience of family life has changed the most notably over the past hundred years, and it’s also the one most likely, for various reasons, to analyze and question how those changes are affecting them. Being in a position where one gets to make choices about work and lifestyle and bringing up a family means you’re also in a position to second-guess and feel conflicted about those choices:
“A few generations ago, people weren’t stopping to contemplate whether having a child would make them happy. Having children was simply what you did. And we are lucky, today, to have choices about these matters. But the abundance of choices—whether to have kids, when, how many—may be one of the reasons parents are less happy…When people wait to have children, they’re also bringing different sensibilities to the enterprise. They’ve spent their adult lives as professionals, believing there’s a right way and a wrong way of doing things; now they’re applying the same logic to the family-expansion business, and they’re surrounded by a marketplace that only affirms and reinforces this idea.”
The chapter on “concerted cultivation”–the educational and extracurricular race that comprises many families’ weekly calendars–seems to speak to this pretty directly, and is probably the section that best captures many of the beliefs and practices (and stereotypes) of modern middle-class family life. However, I was most intrigued by two sections of the book that get into areas that are less often discussed in the context of parenthood: marriage and adolescence.
The ways in which children affect and reshape the relationship between their parents are many and mixed, and they aren’t always a big part of the social conversation about family, because they’re not entirely comfortable to consider. (That said, awareness of those effects may be part of why some couples decide to be “child-free.”)
The reasons we see less conversation among, and about, parents with adolescents may include the variety of experience–there are fewer commonalities and more complexity among teens than among babies and toddlers, and that extends to those living with and raising them–and concerns about autonomy. Regarding that last point, Senior discloses that the “Adolescence” chapter is the only one in which she uses pseudonyms in the personal stories she recounts, but the stories matter more than the names associated with them. Since this is the phase of parenthood I’m closest to right now–my stepson, the youngest of the three kids my husband and I have between us, is just starting high school this year–this chapter had the highest “click” factor for me, including some discussion about connections between having teenagers at home and parental “midlife crisis” behavior that I really wish I’d been aware of about fifteen years ago.
While my years of actively parenting are winding down, I’ve spent just about my entire adult life as a parent (that’s what happens when you have a baby at 20). The norms of parenting have changed in many ways during my time as a parent, although some have changed less than I might have expected–there are still daily debates over working vs. at-home mothers and breastfeeding vs. bottles. That said, it’s the fact that we have choices that allows these debates to happen. However, these debates are about the practices and practicalities of parenting and seldom touch on the experience and context of parenthood. It’s the focus on the latter that makes All Joy and No Fun valuable and important reading. It’s insightful and thought-provoking, and would be an excellent choice for parents who have the time to be in book clubs. The author reads the audiobook herself, and her delivery makes the research approachable, the personal stories more relatable, and reinforces the book’s nonjudgmental tone. Modern parenthood may feel like all joy and no fun sometimes, but Jennifer Senior finds some hope in there too.
Thousands of books have examined the effects of parents on their children. But almost none have thought to ask: What are the effects of children on their parents?
In All Joy and No Fun, award-winning journalist Jennifer Senior tries to tackle this question, isolating and analyzing the many ways in which children reshape their parents’ lives, whether it’s their marriages, their jobs, their habits, their hobbies, their friendships, or their internal senses of self. She argues that changes in the last half century have radically altered the roles of today’s mothers and fathers, making their mandates at once more complex and far less clear. Recruiting from a wide variety of sources—in history, sociology, economics, psychology, philosophy, and anthropology—she dissects both the timeless strains of parenting and the ones that are brand new, and then brings her research to life in the homes of ordinary parents around the country. The result is an unforgettable series of family portraits, starting with parents of young children and progressing to parents of teens. Through lively and accessible storytelling, Senior follows these mothers and fathers as they wrestle with some of parenthood’s deepest vexations—and luxuriate in some of its finest rewards.
Meticulously researched yet imbued with emotional intelligence, All Joy and No Fun makes us reconsider some of our culture’s most basic beliefs about parenthood, all while illuminating the profound ways children deepen and add purpose to our lives. By focusing on parenthood, rather than parenting, the book is original and essential reading for mothers and fathers of today—and tomorrow.
From the Introduction:
“There’s the parenting life of our fantasies. and there’s the parenting life of our banal, on-the-ground realities. Right now, there’s little question which one Angelina Holder is living. Eli, her three-year-old son, has just announced he’s wet his shorts.
“‘Okay,’ says Angie, barely looking up. She’s on a schedule, making Shake ‘n’ Bake chicken parmesan for lunch. Her evening shift at the hospital begins at 3:00 PM. ‘Go upstairs and change.’
“Eli is standing on a chair in the kitchen, picking at blackberries. ‘I can’t.’
“‘I think you can, You’re a big boy.’
“Angie unpeels the oven mitt from her hand. ‘What is Mommy doing?’
“‘No, I’m cooking, So we’re in a pickle.’”