Parenting is drudgery and rapture, exasperation and bliss. In All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior holds up a mirror up to today's family and shows us how we got to this place where raising children has become, to quote social scientist William Doherty, "a high-cost/high-reward activity."
One of the greatest gifts this book offers is historical perspective. Senior reminds us that modern parenthood is just that: modern.
"As parents, we sometimes mistakenly assume that things were always this way," she writes. "They weren't. ... Unless we keep in mind how new our lives as parents are, and how unusual and ahistorical, we won't see that the world we live in, as mothers and fathers, is still under construction. Modern childhood was invented less than 70 years ago — the length of a catnap, in historical terms."
The big shift happened after World War II, when children stopped working. Suddenly, they became, in sociologist Viviana Zelizer's words, "economically worthless but emotionally priceless." The new sentimentality about childhood led to new confusion about our roles as parents.
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"Children went from being our employees to our bosses," Senior writes. Without clear "folkways" to guide us, we now load our children's schedules with what we imagine to be enriching activities, hoping to prepare them for a future that is increasingly uncertain.
None of us really know what we're doing. Perhaps this reminder will help parents be more compassionate toward those who make different choices; it might even help us be more compassionate toward ourselves.
Cultural ideas about marriage also have changed; it only recently became redefined as "a sheltered loop of mutual fulfillment rather than a public institution," and having children can have a staggering impact on these new romantic expectations.
"Until fairly recently, what parents wanted was utterly beside the point," Senior writes. "But we now live in an age when the map of our desires has gotten considerably larger, and we've been told it's our right (obligation, in fact) to try to fulfill them."
Children disrupt this quest, and the loss of autonomy that comes with parenthood can lead to deep frustration. It might help parents to hear that even though our "experiencing selves" are often exhausted and overwhelmed by the day-to-day rigors of parenting, our "remembering selves" — who she says we most truly are — will look back and cast our lives as parents in a rosy glow.
The book is a quick, lively read. Along with abundant quotes from sociologists, Senior quotes literary writers Michael Ondaatje and Milan Kundera, and her carefully observed case studies of modern families read like scenes from novels, capturing moments of peekaboo and homework and running through sprinklers with vivid, lived detail.
Senior writes, "Meaning and joy have a way of slipping through the sieve of social science. The vocabulary for aggravation is large. The vocabulary for transcendence is more elusive." She finds this vocabulary, inviting us into the heart-expanding moments of parenthood and the mind-numbing ones.
She reminds us that the joy of parenthood holds its own paradox: "to fully experience it requires something terrifying as well as exalting: opening oneself to the possibility of loss."
Joy forces us to be agonizingly vulnerable; it takes us right up to the edge of grief.
"But how else can parents experience ecstasy?" Senior asks. "How else can they know awe? These feelings are the price mothers and fathers pay for elation, and for fathomless connection."