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NYMP Q&A: The Parenthood Paradox

In her new book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior addresses the fact that while kids are the overwhelming joy of our lives, they're not always fun. She shares how family life has changed, and how you can find joy in parenting.

family having funStudies show that today’s overworked parents would rather fold laundry than spend time with their own kids. Yet mothers and fathers consistently rate their parenting experience as “magical,” “redemptive,” and “one of life’s crowning achievements.” What’s behind this very modern paradox? And why is it so difficult for us to enjoy something we wanted so much?

In her new book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood (HarperCollins), Jennifer Senior dives with grace, intelligence, and personal experience into these muddy waters, using extensive research and fascinatingly diverse family portraits to help unravel the tangled web of modern parenthood. If you’re looking for a suitable book to take to a baby shower, this isn’t it: All Joy and No Fun reveals some cold, hard truths about the parental role, nuanced and true as they may be. But if you’re already a parent, then you’ll discover recognition, maybe even comfort, in seeing that other modern parents are often as ambivalent about their duties; and you’ll revel in Senior’s insights and context. Bonus: There isn’t a trace of that judgment so pervasive in parenting titles of late, just an engrossing look into our own lives. After all, as Senior writes, “Mothering and fathering aren’t just things we do. Being a mother or being a father is who we are.”

In your book, you say we are living through a historic transition, that today’s children are more “protected.” Instead of working the fields or laboring in a factory, they are gently shepherded from K-12 and then ushered off to college. 
Up until the 1940s we sheltered, fed, and gave moral instruction to our kids, and in return our kids worked. Their existence was economically rational. But today’s kids are the first members of the information economy—and parents are squinting. They literally have no idea what their child’s profession is going to be…perhaps it doesn’t even have a name yet! So how can we prepare them for the future? It’s up to us to make our kids productive, because they don’t have their own productive functions. We have to figure out how to give them their jobs and to give them things to do. We’re hoping that chess will prepare our kids? Well, we don’t know. Parents aren’t sure what to do with their kids other than nurture the heck out of them. So our parenting role today does not have a script. We are simply improvising our way through it.

Your extensive research led you to the conclusion that parents feel more “joy” than “fun.” Can you explain the difference?
Fun, happiness—these are what I call “thin” emotions. It’s basically fulfillment. Yes, it’s absolutely great to eat a Snickers bar or have a boozy dinner with friends, but those are fleeting times where you are focusing on yourself. Joy is about connections. It’s looking outward, not inward. Joy is shared through others.

Do you have any words of wisdom on how parents can surrender to the joy more often?
This is not a prescriptive book, but I do have some ideas, things I do personally. For example, I’m not very sentimental so I try to take more videos, to write down funny things that my kid says, for the simple reason that one of the great pleasures is remembering. In my book I discuss the experiencing self versus the remembering self. Our experiencing selves tell us that we prefer doing the dishes to spending time with our kids, but our remembering selves tell us that no one provides us with so much joy as our children. What you experience day to day is exhausting and stressful, so it’s important to create an archive so that you have more memories.

Why are we so hard on ourselves with regard to the parental role?
These days, people work harder, longer hours. We all have an office in our pocket. If you make the kids the center of your universe, you make your life difficult. But it’s hard to separate out our lives. Parents I spoke to feel great shame about the fact that their kids are an interruption of Mommy’s email time, instead of the other way around. Parents should give themselves the option of not being complicit in this cycle of responsiveness at work. Set the ground rule that you are simply not going to look at the phone or reply after, say 5pm. Then of course you stay up until the wee hours responding after your child is in bed, so you pay the price in exhaustion…. But go ahead and put a price on it!

In speaking with so many parents during your research, what findings surprised you most about the modern family?
I was very surprised to find out that the women are the hard asses. Women all have similar stories—they are the taskmasters, they are frustrated with their husbands. And it’s a simple function of time. Women have more exposure to their kids, they log more hours. Women literally spend twice as much time doing child care. So naturally they are the ones aggressively monitoring their kids. But it’s the mom who’s there when a child comes home and wants to go to so-and-so’s house. It’s the mom who demands to know who so-and-so is, how you know him, and whether she has met his parents. If men spent more time with their kids, they would start driving the same hard bargains.

And what did you learn about the way parents are affected by their kids?
I was surprised at the range of emotions, the highs and lows of the relationships. For example, I was shocked at how much physical aggression adolescent girls direct toward their mothers. And I was always very amazed to see parents of those same adolescent kids choke up with pride when speaking of their kids, marveling at what their child had achieved. Seeing all of that lived out was pretty profound.

You write that raising happy kids is a pervasive goal, a beautiful one, albeit an unfair one: an elusive aim. What would you say to parents who deeply believe that it is their responsibility to raise kids who grow up to be happy?
That’s a very risky goal. Not every kid is happy, and kids suffer from the tension. It’s very stressful for a child if he’s not doing that for his parents. You can’t teach happiness and self-confidence, but you can teach your kids to be decent, productive, and to have good morals.

Author Curtis Sittenfeld wrote about your book that it seemed like you must have been spying inside her house, it was so familiar and real. Was this relatability part of your goal in analyzing the paradox of modern parenthood?
I wanted to create a pool of informed knowledge. And yes, I wanted people to discover that they are not alone. Their parenting experiences are quite normal.  My goal was to hold up this mirror: “See, it’s not you, it’s everyone!”

Lucy Bayly is a NY-based writer, editor, and mother of two young boys; she lives amongst a rapidly expanding pile of rainbow bracelets and Lego police vehicles.

Jennifer Senior is a mother of a 6-year-old boy and is a contributing writer at New York magazine; she lives with her family in New York City.


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