All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood- Jennifer Senior


I rarely ever read non-fiction and I even more rarely read parenting books because while it is nice to have ideas of what to try with your kids, parenting advice just feels like a giant minefield to step into.  Like the time I accidentally started reading an attachment parenting book and was like no, no, no, you will not make me feel guilty about not letting my child sleep in my bed.  So Senior’s book was appealing because it is not a “this is how to parent” book, but more of “this is how we parent and this is how it affects our lives” sort of book, which is fascinating stuff because becoming a parent really is a paradoxical thing, just like the title says.  It is joy and love and wonderful moments and simultaneously it is the most frustrating, mind-numbing, and puzzling journey I’ve ever embarked on.

All that to say, I really enjoyed this book and found it impossible to put down.  I was totally fascinated.  This is the type of non-fiction I enjoy– social science data combined with lots of anecdotes and history.  I am not sure that there is much practical that I learned from this, but it has made me think about what I get out of being a parent and about what my goals are in terms of parenting (a large portion of modern parenthood seems to be uncertainty about what exactly the goal is). The larger message is simply that being a parent is challenging, sometimes boring, frustrating hard work, but somehow, someway we find that in spite of that fact, it is a rewarding, enriching, joyous experience.

Senior divides the book into parental experiences at different times of childhood– early childhood (babies, toddlers, preschoolers), the elementary school years, and the adolescent and teenage years.  I very much related to the feelings of middle class mothers in the early childhood years- the feelings of needing to be present and actively involved if I’m with my child (which my husband doesn’t seem to share), struggling with feelings of perceived inequity in the division of domestic duties, and the intense frustration of interacting with someone who needs direction, yet only listens about 60% 33% of the time.  I haven’t yet reached the later years (my kid is only 2) to empathize with the parents of elementary school or adolescent children, but the areas she focused on were certainly familiar and things I think about when I think of the upcoming years– how many extracurricular activities are reasonable for a child? is it possible to escape the intense competition of upper middle class Texas suburbs like the ones Senior examines/I live in? should one monitor their adolescent’s online activity?  I particularly found the fact that living with adolescents has emotional effects on parents fascinating. Working with young adults, I could already see how being around young people making life choices makes one rethink their own life decisions and adolescences and I can only imagine the intensity of these feelings when it is one’s own kids in the hot seat.

What will stick with me longest, though, I think, is the statement that in the moment, parenting is not fun or enjoyable, but in the stories we tell/our memories it is the source of great joy and happiness. This reminded me a lot of Gretchen Rubin’s statement in The Happiness Project that the days are long and the years are short. This is something I feel every day, the drudgery and frustration of walking my toddler back to bed a million times every night is so rough in the moment, but once she finally surrenders to sleep, all I can think about is the cute thing she said to me in the bathtub and how nice it will be to see her in the morning (a feeling I do not experience when she walks into my room before the alarm goes off).

This was a thought-provoking read for sure, but I think mostly if you are a member of the demographic Senior focuses on. As a white, suburban, middle class, married mother who works full-time outside the home, this book was highly relevant. While Senior’s intention was to speak to parents like me, I don’t know that this review of the experience of parenting is widely applicable.  Also, because she relies heavily on anecdotes, it is hard to know if these are really accurate slices of the average parent’s life.  I learn really well from anecdotal evidence, but I know that is not the preference of social science and doesn’t really prove wider truths.  In any case, this is something I’d recommend if you are at all interested in thinking about what social science has to say about the experience of parenthood.  The conclusions might be fairly obvious (all joy, no fun), but it is interesting to see how other parents report similar experiences and to look ahead at the challenges I might face in later stages of childhood.