Book Review: All Joy and No Fun, by Jennifer Senior
Title: All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting
Publication Date: 2014
Difficulty (on a scale of 0 – 5 with 5 being most difficult): 3
Today parents pour more capital—both emotional and literal—into their children than ever before, and they’re spending longer, more concentrated hours with their children than they did when the workday ended at five o’clock and the majority of women still stayed home. Yet parents don’t know what it is they’re supposed to do, precisely, in their new jobs. ‘Parenting’ may have become its own activity (its own profession, so to speak), but its goals are far from clear”Jennifer Senior, All Joy and All Fun (page 21)
What you will get
All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood is a book that, from page one, made me feel seen. Senior classifies this book as a “What to Expect When You’re Expecting for parents,” with five sections that follow the chronological stages of childhood and the effect that each stage has on modern parents. Each section is illustrated with examples from the lives of real families. I identified with these families, saw my children in their children, and felt a sense of camaraderie with other parents who choose children in a world increasingly prioritizing individual happiness and gain over family.
What you won’t get
This book isn’t a self-help book. It does not tell parents what to do when they encounter these almost-universal struggles with children or why those struggles are happening. This book feels more like a parent support group in which people share how children are impacting their lives and tell newer parents what to expect going forward.
What I can’t stop telling others about
You might have heard of studies that find children weaken marriages, increase stress, and contribute to unhappiness. A well-known study ranking pleasure in 909 working women found that child care ranks sixteenth in preference out of nineteen activities, behind preparing food, talking on the phone, watching TV, napping, shopping, and even housework. This book contextualizes that finding and offers hope. For example, the book describes how parents of young children experience more highs, as well as more lows, than those without children. Additionally, parents report greater feelings of meaning and reward than childless people, which is where the idea of “all joy and no fun” comes from. There’s no sugar coating it though: in a conversation with Senior, social scientist William Doherty calls parenting a “high-cost/high-reward activity.” Over and over again, All Joy and No Fun illustrates how that is the case.
My Top Five Takeaways
1. Modern parents mourn a loss of autonomy and feel isolated in their new role.
“One day you are a paragon of self-determination, coming and going as you please; the next, you are a parent, laden with gear and unhooked from the rhythms of normal adult life. It’s not an accident that the early years of parenting often register in studies as the least happy ones. They’re the bunker years, short in the scheme of things but often endless-seeming in real time. The autonomy that parents once took for granted has curtly deserted them” (page 32).
Senior says that, compared to the parents of yester-year, the modern parent has an added reason to yearn for the freedoms of their previous life: they had more time to live before having children. I was shocked when I read this because it perfectly explained how I felt. I had many meaningful life experiences before being married and having children, earning advanced degrees, working, traveling, and living abroad, and I thought this meant I wouldn’t struggle with the loss of autonomy when kids came around. Senior says it is the opposite: the consequence of deferring children is a heightened sense of contrast—before versus after. The average age of a college-educated woman at first birth is now 30.3 years old and children come typically more than two years after marrying. That timeline allows for about a decade of living away from parents, making your own decisions, and enjoying your autonomy.
To make matters worse, young parents are often not able to afford help and are increasingly living further from their family. When they have children, they then make the disappointing discovery that our society lacks structural support necessary to help parents transition to their new, less-autonomous lives. I wouldn’t trade any of the experiences I had before kids for an easier transition to motherhood, but this section really helped me understand why this loss of autonomy was so challenging for me, and remains so challenging for modern-day mothers.
2. Marriage satisfaction decreases when children enter the picture.
“For the majority of mothers, time is fractured and subdivided, as if streaming through a prism; for the majority of fathers, it moves in an unbent line. When fathers attend to personal matters, they attend to personal matters, and when they do child care, they do child care. But mothers more often attend to personal matters while not only caring for their children but possibly fielding a call from their boss” (page 101).
Facing difficulties in marriage is the second stage Senior discusses in All Joy and No Fun. Research suggests that marital satisfaction tends to decrease from the moment a child is born until the child is around 18 months old. Some studies say that parenthood merely hastens a decline already in progress while others say that parenthood exaggerates it. In either case, it is clear that most marriages struggle after introducing children. Kids fundamentally restructure relationships, and parents never know how their lives are going to be on the other end.
Senior relates a time she once sat on a panel with Adam Mansbach, author of Go the F*ck to Sleep. He confessed that it was his partner who put his child to bed at night. This may be funny on the surface, but this story reveals an important truth: Mansbach’s life was not compromised by having children the way it was for his wife. When a child is born, women have no choice but to change their lives to adapt. Men, however, have much more freedom to decide how much to participate in child rearing. Resentment builds as new mothers feel the stress of societal expectations, lack of institutional support, and the struggle of being expected to give 100% at both work and home. Add hormonal changes, isolation, and a partner who may provide minimal household support, and it is no surprise a woman’s happiness declines and cortisol levels rise when she has kids. Unfortunately her increased stress and inability to “do it all” tends to affect the happiness of the marriage as a whole.
3. Young children teach us to be more present in our own lives.
“Young children may be grueling, young children may be vexing, and young children may bust and redraw the contours of their parents’ professional and marital lives. But they bring joy too. . . They . . . create wormholes in time, transporting their mothers and fathers back to feelings and sensations they haven’t had since they themselves were young. The dirty secret about adulthood is the sameness of it, its tireless adherence to routines and customs and norms. Small children may intensify this sense of repetition and rigidity by virtue of the new routines they establish. But they liberate their parents from their ruts too” (page 167).
While the struggles of early parenthood are front and center in chapters one and two, chapter three is all about how parents benefit from the chaotic energy of young children. Anyone with small children understands the built-in paradox: we love children for their spontaneity and ability to live in the present, but this is often what is the most infuriating about them as well. I love my son’s wild energy and how any ball and stick he finds becomes an instant game of pickleball (his favorite sport right now). As I play games and go places with him, I am transported back in time to experiences that I loved as a kid. I finally see glimpses into why we wanted children and the joy that they bring to our lives.
For many mothers, this stage of parenting can be bittersweet. Few of us have the flexibility to be “permanently present” with our children. We rejoice in the individual they are becoming but mourn that we can’t be there for as many of the moments as we’d choose. We are back to balancing other duties (and, by this time, possibly another child!), and although we would love to be whimsical and fun with our toddlers all the time, that isn’t realistic (or sustainable) for many moms. Senior reminds us that it is possible to have fun and join children in their “permanently present” world even for a few minutes, if that is all we have to give.
4. “Concerted cultivation” reflects parents’ stress that they need to prepare their children perfectly for their futures.
“Eddie will do two sports this summer. And he’ll have stuff during the day–swimming five days a week for five weeks. And he’ll have an art class too, but they’re with his older brothers, so I only have one drop-off. But then he’ll have T-ball and soccer, which are going to be a different schedule than Henry, who’s on traveling soccer and rec league baseball, and Ian, who’s just in rec league baseball. And then they both have tutoring for reading. Henry does piano and cello. He does cello at school, and he does private piano lessons. . . And Ian does violin. That’s at school, but I have to be at his lessons, because it’s Suzuki” (page 212).
“Concerted cultivation” is when parents place significant demands on themselves and their already-busy children by adding camps, extra-curricular activities, and after-school programs to enrich and enhance their children’s lives. The focus is placed on the development of each individual child, and that development often comes at the expense of the collective family.
“Concerted cultivation” is on the rise, and the reasons are multitude: we modern parents are having fewer children and investing more in each one. Urban sprawl means friends are no longer in the neighborhood, so we shuttle our children around to find friends. Parents feel pressure to provide enriching activities so that their kids aren’t on screens all day. We fear for our children’s safety, and therefore we oversee more of their activities. And, finally, we provide an endless list of extracurriculars thinking that will pave the best path to college and future success. Additional pressure from society to be a perfect nurturing mom means that much of the planning and legwork that undergirds this concerted cultivation push is placed squarely on women.
Honestly, I don’t know what to make of this chapter, and I probably won’t until I am in the thick of it with my own children. The world is competitive, and we want to give our children the best shot at success that we can. But, on the other hand, while a lot of these responsibilities still fall on mothers, I think the quantity of activities threatens to overwhelm parents and can decrease the quality of family life.
5. Adolescence is a time of stress and isolation for parents and teens.
“The conventional wisdom about adolescence is that it’s a repeat of the toddler years, dominated by a cranky, hungry, rapidly growing child who’s precocious and selfish by turns. But in many ways the struggles that mothers and fathers face when their children hit puberty are the very opposite. Back when their children were small, parents craved time and space for themselves; now they find themselves wishing their children liked their company more and would at least treat them with respect, if adoration is too much to ask” (page 326).
Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University and an expert in adolescence, said in an interview with Senior, “It doesn’t seem to me like adolescence is a difficult time for the kids. . . . It’s when I talk to the parents that I notice something.” Steinberg says that adolescents are like salt, intensifying whatever financial, marital, and personal challenges their parents are facing. The challenges parents and teens face during adolescence are often more personal and private, which is why we don’t see many parenting blogs about raising adolescents like we do about raising younger children. This means we tend to muddle our way through the experience, wishing for more support and never quite finding it.
So, what is the answer? Like in most sections of the book, Senior doesn’t really give one. Senior acknowledges how hard it is to balance your teenager’s autonomy with their limited abilities, but what I took from this section is how important it is to give them the freedom to fail, the security to ask for help, and the space to figure it out. Further, parents need to learn how to separate their identity from the success (or lack thereof) of their teens. At this point in the parenting journey, we have sacrificed so much for our kids that it feels personal when they don’t succeed. But their failures are not an indication of you or your parenting, and your mistakes are not destined to repeat in your children.
All Joy and No Fun is a book I would give to new parents. When I was pregnant, I read a myriad of books about pregnancy and having a baby. But it feels like as soon as you are able to keep a baby alive with relative confidence, very few books are written to help you navigate your own experience with parenthood. There are books about what is going on in the development of the child, but not specifically about how these are going to change you.
Even more helpful than the roadmap Senior gave was her discussion on happiness. A big part of my struggle with motherhood is my preoccupation with assessing my own happiness. Senior argues that parenthood exposes the superficiality of our ideas of happiness, which we often define as pleasure, bliss, or the ability to think only of ourselves. “Raising children makes us reassess this obsession and perhaps redefine (or at least broaden) our fundamental ideas about what happiness is. . . . As we muddle our way through parenting years—trying to execute that role in a culture that provides so little support for working and nonworking parents alike—it is very worth asking, what are we digging for and what have we found?” (page 409)
All Joy and No Fun is about how completely we are changed by our children. What I loved about the book is that it shows that parenting rarely fits the mold of “fun” that we might initially seek, but the process of raising children catalyzes an even more important emotion: joy.
If you don’t have time to read:
Here is Jennifer Senior’s TEDTalk on All Joy and No Fun.
Editing credential to Bethany Bartholomew.