When friends of mine became parents for the first time, I liked to say to them, “Welcome to the parallel universe.” To me, that summed up the experience of having children—when you said goodbye to your old life, and the new normal becomes sleepless nights, breastfeeding guidebooks, and intense emotional bonding.
Becoming a parent is such an overwhelming life transition that it’s probably rare for parents to reflect on how the experience has affected them. But Jennifer Senior’s new book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, provides much-needed analysis. Combining parent interviews with findings from research, Senior, a contributing editor to New York magazine, argues that, while having kids can fill parents’ lives with meaning and joy, it can also present a formidable challenge to their everyday peace and happiness.
Senior attributes this, in part, to the role that children have come to play in modern America. In earlier centuries, children were born (largely without much planning) to fulfill adult social obligations and to add to a family’s workforce. But children have since evolved into beings that are anticipated and treasured by their parents.
“Today parents pour more capital—both emotional and literal—into their children than ever before,” writes Senior, “and they’re spending longer, more concentrated hours with their children then they did when their workday ended at five o’clock.”
That effort comes at a cost. Balancing the needs of young children against those of their parents can be daunting, even more so when one lacks childcare support. Toddlers are particularly challenging, writes Senior, because they live in the present and don’t have executive brain functioning, which means they don’t reason, plan, or anticipate consequences. She paints a familiar picture of working parents struggling and failing to get an uncooperative toddler dressed and out of the house on time to get to work or staying up late to clean up after a messy dinner of thrown food.
These kind of everyday stressors can wear on a parent. But another challenge to parental happiness is the parent’s inability to reach a state of flow—the experience of being totally engrossed in an intrinsically rewarding task so that time seems to fly by. Children—especially young children—need almost constant attention; so flow is an elusive state for parents.
Children can strain a marriage, too, writes Senior, with spouses often fighting over the division of childcare and household labor. Women—even those working outside of the house—still handle more than their fair share and sacrifice career advancement more than men, which can lead to resentments. As children grow into teens, parents may blame each other for how their surly, risk-taking adolescent turned out. Either way, the conflicts over parenting can fray relationships (though couples with children are less apt to divorce, writes Senior).
Parental pressures change as children go through different stages of development, Senior points out. When kids become school-aged, parents feel obligated to structure their children’s free time with a multitude of extracurricular, character-enhancing activities—to provide social outlets and to nurture their strengths. Even though this can mean parents spend inordinate amounts of time behind a wheel or sitting on the sidelines at soccer matches, they often feel resigned to it, thinking this will help their children succeed.
“Americans are trying to ready their sons and daughters for a life that will look nothing like the lives they themselves lead,” she writes.
This statement and others like it reflect one of the things I most appreciated about Senior’s approach. While questioning parents’ over-exertion and over-scheduling for the sake of their children’s future happiness, she doesn’t blame them. She acknowledges societal pressures—like increased competition for college admission, uncertain economic prospects, and the decline of neighborhood—that can make it difficult for parents to let go. And she gets the pull that many feel to be a “helicopter parent,” even as she examines the costs.
“We live in a nation of women who work, a fact that still generates discomfort and ambivalence, resulting in stricter imperatives for parents, mothers especially, to spend more of their nonworking hours with their children to compensate for all that time away,” she writes.
Of course, if parenting were only stressful and overwhelming it would be a pretty tough sell. Though much of Senior’s book is focused on the dark side of parenting, she does extol some of its joys, too. Among them are the ways very young kids can help us unplug from our conventional lives and be in the present moment. And, kids can utter amazing profundities, hug you unexpectedly, or fascinate you with their knowledge of bugs. Parents everywhere will tell you about joyful experiences like these that make it all worthwhile.
But even beyond those happy moments, the joy of parenting comes in large part from the meaning we parents find in having kids. Perhaps this accounts for why, even though researchers find parents as a group to be less happy than non-parents, there is still a huge draw to becoming a parent. While we may not always be happy in the moment, lots of parents in hindsight think that having kids was the most important experience of their lives. In fact, a 2007 Pew poll found that 85 percent of parents thought that their children brought them the most happiness and fulfillment of any relationship.
“Lots of parents will tell you that when they aren’t fighting with their teenagers about homework or scraping up raisins their toddler have expertly ground into the kitchen floor, they’re quite happy, upon reflection,” writes Senior. “When asked to think about what makes us happy, the answer is clear: our kids.”