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All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood Hardcover – January 28, 2014
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Author One-on-One: Jennifer Senior and Curtis Sittenfeld
Curtis Sittenfeld: As a journalist, you’ve written about a wide range of topics, including pop culture and politics, so I’m wondering why parenthood is the subject that elicited a book from you.
Jennifer Senior: You’re right, and if this were a parenting book, it wouldn’t even occupy the same hemisphere as the other pieces I’ve done. (Confession: I have purchased exactly one parenting book in my lifetime.) But I consider this a social science book, and I’ve done plenty of social science stories over the years: About the psychological effects of high school on our adult years; about loneliness and cities; about burnout; about our obsession with happiness. Also, I think of this book as a series of mini-ethnographies—portraits of how American families live now—and that comes pretty naturally, having been an anthro major. Even when I wrote about the Senate, which used to be often, I treated it as an other-planetary universe with its own alien customs.
CS: This book has its origins in a much-buzzed-about New York magazine cover story. In that article but not in the book, you discussed your own experiences as a parent. Why didn’t you include yourself in the book? Can you share a bit about your family?
JS: So funny: I mentioned my own experience in just two paragraphs of that magazine story, but because they were the first two paragraphs, people misremember it as part-memoir. The only reason I did so – both early in the magazine story and in this book — was to alert readers that I, too, was a parent. But the specifics of my own story seem irrelevant, and too idiosyncratic from which to generalize. It’s far better to look at the full spectrum of social science research about families, and to talk to a wide variety of parents.
For the record, though: My husband and I have one six-year-old son, and my husband has two grown kids from a previous marriage. I entered their lives when they were adolescents, which made me realize how complicated that period was for parents.
CS: One of the book’s fascinating tidbits is the implication that parents have friction with teens in some sense because the parents are jealous.
JS: Jealousy is only a small part of it. (Though I’m amazed by Laurence Steinberg’s finding that fathers become depressed when their teenage sons start to date.) What generally seems to happen is that adolescents make their parents take stock of every life choice they’ve ever made—their marriages and careers especially. Teenagers can be so critical and rejecting that they expose all the holes in their parents’ lives: Now that my kid’s dispensed with me, all I have is my marriage and my job, and I’m not thrilled with either.
CS:In your marriage chapter, you suggest at one point that many moms would be better off being more like dads. Can you explain what you mean?
JS:I only mean this in the sense that fathers seem less frantically perfectionist about their parenting than mothers do, probably because they aren’t burdened by the same unattainable cultural ideals (real or fictional—Tiger Mom or June Cleaver.) It’s a crude generalization, yes, and of course there are exceptions. But both conversations and hard data make it clear that fathers feel much less pressure to play with their children during every free moment, and they’re much quicker to claim their right to free time. If mothers did the same, one wonders what would happen—Glad you’re back from that bike ride, now I’m going to the gym! It’s possible domestic divisions of labor would shift a little in their favor.
An Amazon Best Book of the Month, February 2014: Reading Jennifer Senior’s lively and weirdly comforting All Joy and No Fun was like attending the self-help group for beleaguered parents that I never knew I needed. (“Hi, my name is Neal, and I’m a parent-aholic…”) Far afield from the headline-grabbing shockers in books like Tiger Mom, this is a thoughtful and deeply researched look at the reality of modern day parenthood: we love our kids, and they make us crazy, and it’s all our fault. The book grew from Senior’s eye-raising New York magazine piece, in which she explored the dark side of parenting--the depression, the marital woes, the loss of self-worth. Sure, raising kids is, ultimately, deeply rewarding. But on a day to day basis? Sometimes a bummer. Parenthood has changed a lot since World War II, as more women entered the workforce, dads became more engaged in child rearing, and an “asymmetrical” parent-child relationship evolved. We’re doing more for our kids, but they’re doing less for us. “Children went from being our employees to our bosses,” Senior writes. If you want to be a better parent--or, maybe more importantly, to feel better about the parent you’ve become--you need this book. And, probably, a nap. --Neal Thompson
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For example, it was interesting to learn that parenting as we know it is a relatively new concept. It wasn't until after World War II, when the US began enacting child labor laws, that "childhood" came into existence. Before then, our kids were expected to work, contribute, or be invisible. Once we started protecting them more, though, and requiring less and less of them, our kids became, as Senior somewhat playfully puts it, useless. This uselessness (or maybe purposelessness is a gentler word?) has kind of snowballed over time and led to a whole host of other issues, including bored and unchallenged teenagers and parents who have made it their jobs to fill in their toddlers' spare time with hosts of educational, time-consuming, character-building activities. As kids have become more useless, their restlessness has grown--and parents have taken on the burden of relieving this restlessness.
In short, one of the lessons I am taking away from this book is that my kids (ages 4 and 2) need to be challenged!--and not necessarily through intense or chaotic play dates and heavily-managed planned activities. Instead, I'm focusing on increasing their responsibilities when it comes to taking care of themselves and our house. They can clean, put on their own clothes, maybe even start cooking. I'm going to let them feel boredom and frustration...and I'm going to let them wait out the negative feelings until they experience those wonderful sensations of accomplishment, personal responsibility, and that feeling of belonging that comes when you contribute to something that benefits you AND the people around you.
At any rate, this book is packed with interesting information and insight. I loved it from start to finish, and I know I will be reading it again at some point in the future. Just a great book all around. Highly recommended!