All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

  • By Jennifer Senior
  • Ecco
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jessica McFadden
  • February 13, 2014

A parenting book that acknowledges the disappointments and drudgery that accompany the delights of raising children.

Once upon a time, I was talking with a college friend about mothering my then one- and three-year-old children. He remarked, “You don’t sound very happy.”

“How can you say that?” I responded vehemently. “This is the happiest I have been in my entire life!” 

The truth is my friend and I were both correct. I had never been filled with so much joy and purpose in my existence. Simultaneously, I had never been so exhausted or so bored.

This contradiction is the focus of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior, a contributing editor at New York Magazine. Unlike traditional parenting tomes that focus on how parents affect children’s development, this book turns the equation upside down and explores how children change the adults in the family.

Senior draws on recent social science studies examining family life and on the experiences of the families participating in Minnesota’s Early Childhood Family Education classes, suburban Houston “soccer parents,” and Brooklyn parents of teens. Weaving together storytelling and anthropological observations, the author shows how parents are affected by children from infancy through adolescence. In each stage of childhood development, Senior evaluates the conundrum that all parents face: the enormous value parenthood adds to an individual’s life, the fierce love parents feel for their children, and the disappointments, drudgery, and fears that go hand in hand with raising modern kids.

One of the most reassuring points in All Joy and No Fun is how most parents of small children do not find parenting tasks very fulfilling. Playing My Little Pony, feeding children dinner, and corralling them through the steps of bath-book-bed are not stimulating in the same manner as are other occupations in our lives. The end result of childrearing is overwhelmingly important in the long run, but most adults should not expect elation in the day-to-day manual labor and constant reinforcement of rules for children. I believe the logical handling of this topic would save many adults — especially stay-at-home parents — hours of guilt over their conflicting feelings of love and exhaustion.

The book’s exploration of how parenthood affects marriage is also eye-opening. It addresses the increased stress parenthood introduces in a marriage and the conflicts that arise in how mothers and fathers, no matter their daily work locations, approach parenting based upon gender. Not surprisingly, the author identifies sharing household tasks, limitations on marital intimacy, and different approaches to rules for children as areas of marital conflict. However, all is not negative, and Senior celebrates the many positive effects of parenthood on marriage: increased worship attendance, higher community involvement, less societal isolation, and lower incidence of divorce. 

As a parent of school-aged children, I found the sections on our motivations for encouraging, enabling, and even pushing children to succeed in extra-curricular activities especially illuminating. Here Senior describes how parents lose personal and career time as they shuttle children among sports music lessons and the like. The author likens the current trend for middle class parents to enroll children in multiple activities to an “arms race,” a vague stockpiling of skills that parents hope — but have no proof — will ensure their children adult triumphs, prosperity, and happiness. Senior titles this chapter “Concerted Cultivation” after the phrase coined by sociologist Annette Lareau for middle-class parents’ concern for children’s individual pursuits. This phrase has sprung to my mind many times as I oversee swim practice and coordinate chess club meetings. Will these activities truly give my children an edge in life, and to what end?

The chapter on teens argues against the commonly accepted explanation that teenagers are difficult and unpleasant primarily due to raging hormones and physical maturation. Instead, Senior asserts that parents’ reactions to their children’s natural detachment and parents’ discomfort with their unfamiliar new role are the main root of conflicts between parents and adolescents. Teens’ new-found cognitive abilities to disagree logically, reduced impulse control, and the increased freedom made possible by technological change also play a role. The book thoroughly explores the trials of this period of parents’ lives. Senior engagingly offers a fly-on-the-wall view as a table of Brooklyn mothers debates whether to “friend” their teens on Facebook, what to do when pornographic words appear in the Internet search log, and how to respond when teens sneak out of the house at night. 

In the book’s introduction, Senior acknowledges focusing on the issues facing middle-class families, which she recognizes may not be shared by every parent. She is careful to note that the concerns of families in poverty are “inextricable from the daily pressure to feed and house themselves and their children.” Nor does the author explore how raising a child with disabilities may change parents as individuals and as partners. Parents of children with special needs may find the book frustrating as a result. 

Senior wrote the book because “I wrote a story for New York Magazine that examined one of the more peculiar findings in the social sciences: That parents are no happier than non-parents, and in certain cases, considerably less happy.” However, the author also illustrates the overwhelming, crucial, life-changing contribution that parenthood makes to individual happiness. Children give our lives meaning, sweetness, purpose, joy. The underbelly of parenting that All Joy and No Fun addresses is not always a barrel of fun to acknowledge, but the findings of this unique parenting book are, in the end, joyful. 

Jessica McFadden is the author of the Washington, DC, parenting blog A Parent in Silver Spring and the lifestyle parenting blog A Parent in America. She is the mother of three children.

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