Tuesday, January 28th, 2014
Today’s the big day for writer genius Jennifer Senior. Her big release, All Joy and No Fun hits shelves. She tackles some big parenting ideas–issues that we all have but never speak of. For example, why does happiness decline so much once we have children according to vast amounts of scientific research? What’s up with over-scheduling our kids when all of that running around makes us miserable?
Her article in New York Magazine, where she is on staff, first stirred up the topic. The book goes into detail after fascinating detail about how our kids change our lives completely. She studies real families all across America to explains why this phenomenon happens and tells us what to do about it.
The point of this tome seems to call to parents, “Hey you, it’s hard. And you are not alone!” Oh boy, just read the part about teenagers. Hint: Adolescence is harder for parents than it is for kids.
I asked Jennifer exactly what her goals are with this book and which topics she thinks push the most buttons. Get a great feel for All Joy and No Fun by reading the Q&A below.
KK: How did you get the idea to write about such a controversial topic?
JS: Okay. This is the part where I quite possibly reveal myself to be completely delusional when I say: I didn’t – and still don’t! – consider this topic controversial. I mean, what’s controversial about examining the ways that kids affect their parents? All of us are profoundly influenced by our kids. It’d be nuts to think that our kids are born and we remain the same.
As for how I got here: In 2010, I wrote a story for New York Magazine that tried to figure out why so many studies – across such a wide variety of academic disciplines – said that children don’t improve their parents’ happiness. I read about this finding in 2006, before I had a kid, and it struck me as bonkers, because all I wanted at the time was a kid. After I had said kid, my understanding became more nuanced, but this research still struck me as both totally right and dead wrong. I wanted to delve deeper into it, and I did. I suppose the magazine story was characterized as “controversial” at the time, but again, I never saw it that way, and I think those who made it to the end of my story didn’t either. (I mean, what parent doesn’t find the experience a mixed bag? Especially now, when there are no norms about anything?) But there was only so much one could say about that subject. What really interested me, in the end, was the broader question of how children shape their parents lives. I was, and remain, genuinely shocked that there aren’t several zillion books devoted to this topic.
KK: How do you think your research can help readers–moms of young kids in particular?
JS: What I’m really hoping is that my research will help people say: Whoa, so I’m not alone? It’s a sense of identification, really, that I’m hoping to provide.There’s no normed knowledge out there about our parenting experience. We’re all improvising, all doing it in our separate silos, all wondering whether our feelings are typical, without realizing that there’s actually tons of research out there that tells us what we’re feeling and experiencing is typical—the research is just scattered in all sorts of different places. So, for instance, in my chapter about how children affect your marriage, I’m really hoping that some woman will be sitting in bed somewhere, reading the book, and she’ll suddenly elbow her husband: You see! I told you there was a reason I was feeling this way! I don’t care that you do the yard work and shovel the driveway! I’d much rather you took the kids off my hands for a couple of hours. It says right here that most American women find child care more stressful than the chores you do.
KK: What is the main message you’d like to convey about modern parenting?
JS: That it’s precisely that: Modern. People think they’re supposed to know what they’re doing, when in fact “parenting,” as we know it, is only 70 or so years old. Before World War II, kids worked on behalf of the family’s welfare. Now, kids don’t work, and parents work twice as hard to support them. They treat their children a future investments. But the future, by definition, is unknowable, which means we are all working entirely without a script. Normlessness creates a lot of tension. We’re not sure what we’re raising our kids for, and we’re certainly not sure how to negotiate this new task within the setting of a modern marriage, with both parents working, which is now the norm.
KK: Have you made any personal parenting changes since writing and researching All Joy and No Fun? Which one(s)?
JS: Somewhere along the way in my research, I came across a piece of data I never used in my book but saw played out repeatedly in kitchens across the United States. It’s this: Parents who are good at self-regulation may not themselves be happier, but their children are happier. So I do try, mightily, to keep my temper at bay, even though I often fail.
And there’s one bit of research that is in this book that I seriously take to heart. It says that if parents hash out their divisions of labor before their first child is born — not just in broad terms, but with hyper-specificity —there’s much less conflict between them. Now, my husband and I weren’t organized enough to do that before our son was born. But I’ve discovered that I can still use this technique. Specifically: If the weekend is ahead of us, and I know I have three tasks looming — things I must must must do — I now warn my husband ahead of time and tell him what I need. And vice versa. We negotiate in advance who needs what time to do whatever. And you’d be amazed how much tension that eliminates. Before coming across that research, I had a much more passive approach: The weekend would come along, I’d tell him there was something I needed to accomplish, and he’d get very tense, like I’d sprung it on him. Now, he’s really relaxed about stepping in, because he’s been forewarned. And vice versa.
KK: Do you have any advice for moms who are struggling with the issues you raise such as constant guilt and all of this concerted cultivation?
JS: Yes! Don’t go bananas. Give yourselves a break, and give your kids a break. n terms of guilt: Remember, national time-use surveys say you spend more time with your children than your mothers spent with you (or women did in the 1960s, for that matter, when most weren’t in the workforce). And in terms of anxieties about concerted cultivation: We may have all sorts of notions about what will put our children in good future standing, but I’d like to point out: When I was in high school, it was considered essential that we all learn Japanese. That didn’t turn out to be the case. One can’t predict the future. We have no idea what our kids’ jobs will look like. Their jobs probably haven’t even been invented yet. Can you imagine Larry Page and Sergey Brin as children, looking at their parents and saying, “One day, I’m going to make all the information in the world searchable. And I will call my company Google.” Their parents would have rolled their eyes.