I’m writing this review a little later than I had hoped—Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood came out over a month ago. But after revisiting the first chapter, “Autonomy” (perhaps a more apt title would have been “no more autonomy”), I don’t feel so bad. At least, I don’t feel alone in my struggles to accomplish all that is on my to-do list. Senior’s book, which is an in-depth look at how children affect the lives of their parents, makes it clear that for those with children, work-family balance is hard. Flow is difficult to achieve.
As can be happiness. Senior reports that the social sciences suggest that children generate more arguments in a marriage than any other topic and that “parents are no happier than nonparents, and in certain cases are considerably less happy.” She argues that there are three modern developments in parenthood that complicate our experience as parents: the fact that becoming a parent today is a voluntary choice, the changing nature of work, and the transformation of the child’s role.
Anna Sutherland elaborates on the first development, choice, here. As for the second, my husband and I can attest to the challenges of working (together, from home) with a two-year-old and another kid on the way literally any day now. There are more occasions for us to argue than when we were first married and childless. With the constant connectivity of smartphones and 25 percent of the workforce now working from home at least some of the time, the home-work lines are blurred and the flexibility is both a blessing and a curse.
For example, as I write this, I’m sitting in the YMCA while my son tumbles over over-sized foam blocks, trying to stack them into towers although many of them are twice his size. Pro: I get to be with my son. Con: I’ll be finishing up work at home later tonight after he is in bed, because chances are I’m not going to finish writing this post while sitting here. Another con: I’m never sure if I should be playing or working or multitasking. As Senior observes, the result is guilt: “Guilt over neglecting the children. Guilt over neglecting work.”
The third development Senior documents is children’s transformation from economic assets—an extra set of hands on the farm, in the factories—to economic burdens. The USDA estimates that a child born in 2010 will cost a middle-income family $295,560 to raise. And that estimate does not include college expenses. As children require more money, they are also taking more of our time: middle-class parents feel the pressure to entertain and stimulate their children almost constantly, beginning in infancy, in order to prepare them for the competition of a globalized economy. Annette Lareau called these efforts “concerted cultivation” in her 2003 classic, Unequal Childhoods. (Did I mention that we are here at the YMCA because my son’s soccer class is going to start in an hour? Yes, I enrolled my two-year-old in a soccer class…)
Children provide parents with “structure, purpose, and stronger bonds to the world.”
And yet, despite the challenges of modern parenthood, despite the reported unhappiness, after hours of interviews with parents, Senior concludes that children “deepen our lives.” A 2007 Pew poll found that 85 percent of all parents rated their relationships with their kids as “most important to their personal happiness and fulfillment—more than relationships with their spouses, their parents, or their friends, and more than their jobs.” When researchers “ask questions of a more existential nature, they find that parents report greater feelings of meaning and reward—which to many parents is what the entire shebang is about.” Thus Senior notes that there is a distinction between happiness and joy. “Meaning and joy have a way of slipping through the sieve of social science. The vocabulary for aggravation is large. The vocabulary for transcendence is more elusive.”
Of course, as a parent myself I couldn’t agree more. This is certainly not a revolutionary conclusion. It’s ancient wisdom, the stuff of freshmen philosophy class. But that doesn’t make it any less profound.
In particular, I think All Joy and No Fun is helpful in two current public conversations.
The first is the controversy sparked by last August’s Time magazine cover story, “The Childfree Life: Having It All Without Having Children.” Senior’s discussion of themes like freedom, happiness, norms, duty, sacrifice, and what C.S. Lewis termed “gift-love” provide a sound response to the concerns raised by those who fear that children will rob them of their freedom and happiness. For it is not freedom from obligation that brings us happiness, Senior argues, but freedom that can be exercised for something or someone. Senior quotes Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis: “In an anomic society, people can do as they please; but without any clear standards or respected social institutions to enforce those standards, it is harder for people to find what they want to do.” Children, Senior says, provide parents with the “structure, purpose, and stronger bonds to the world” to counter this anomic malaise.
I’ve found this to be true in my own experience. Before I was a mother, I suffered from a restlessness, a sense of urgency to figure out what I was doing with my life. When I became a mother, that was largely replaced with a kind of peace, a sense of purpose. I can relate to the statement Senior makes about one of her interviewees, Sharon, a woman who raised her grandson and passed away from cancer shortly before the book was published: “I suspect that parenthood helped reduce the number of existential questions she had in the first place. She knew what she had to do each day, and why she was here.”
Senior’s book is also relevant to discussions about why unwed childbearing is on the rise. All Joy and No Fun reminds us of those things about parenthood that social scientists and economists can’t easily measure. While it's is not about low-income parents, it sheds light on why young men and women of modest means are still having children despite the cost and inconvenience, particularly in a world where meaningful work and lasting marriages are hard to come by.
Given Senior’s conclusions about the ways that parenthood enriches parents’ lives, I would have been interested in more discussion of how faith affects the experience of parenthood. While Senior focuses on how the transformed role of the child has affected parenthood, it would be worth investigating more how changing views of parenthood itself—from a sacred duty to God and community to a secular choice and an effort carried out “for the child’s sake and the child’s alone”—have shaped modern parents and our expectations, our experiences.
Many of the nuggets of wisdom that Senior shares were first passed on to me in my Christian upbringing—and as she acknowledges, they’re the same messages found in many of the world’s religions. Religious people have long made the distinction between joy and happiness and have seen suffering and duty as stitches in the tapestry of joy. As Senior herself suggests, this view, and the altered expectations that come with it, would serve us modern parents well.