So in 2010, I read this article in New York Magazine entitled “All Joy and No Fun: Why parents hate parenting.”
It resonated so much with me that I referenced it on the “About Me” page of this blog when I wrote it three years later.
“All Joy and No Fun”. The statement summed up so perfectly much of what I was feeling as a new parent as I tried to keep “me” while also becoming “mom” with all the expectations that come along with that title.
Indeed it’s that quest to be both a good mom, and happy with the me I am beyond that role, that make up much of what I blog about here.
So imagine my A) joy when I discovered the author of the article, award-winning journalist Jennifer Senior, had built on her article and come out with a book of the same title in 2014 and B) the absolute fun I had in reading it.
The book builds on everything I enjoyed about the article and contained numerous “A-hah!” moments for me.
The main thing I enjoyed about both is that neither tell parents how to parent. Instead, Senior delves into the impact parenting has on parents, discussing the ways children simply change your lives, be it your marriage, job, habits, hobbies, friendships, sense of self, or, well, all of the above.
Some of what stuck with me most?
The fact that the way we raise our children is completely modern. There are a few parts to this, one being that children are a choice now in a way they never were historically. And so “because so many of us are now avid volunteers for a project in which we were all once dutiful conscripts, we have heightened expectations of what children will do for us, regarding them as sources of existential fulfillment rather than as ordinary parts of our lives.”
Next, there’s the fact that historically, kids worked. They cared for siblings and worked in fields, mines, mills and trades. They were not protected from the hardships of life and it wasn’t until after World War II that childhood as we now know it, began.
The way most historians describe this transformation is to say that the child went from “useful” to “protected.” But the sociologist Viviana Zelizer came up with a far more pungent phrase. She characterized the modern child as “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.” Today parents pour more capital—both emotional and literal—into their children than ever before, and they’re spending longer, more concentrated hours with their children than they did when the workday ended at five o’clock and the majority of women still stayed home. Yet parents don’t know what it is they’re supposed to do, precisely, in their new jobs. “Parenting” may have become its own activity (its own profession, so to speak), but its goals are far from clear.
Senior also discussed Margaret Mead‘s idea that it is a lack of folkways that leave parents unsure what to do today, and so open to fads. Because we aren’t raising our children to take over the family farm, or the store, or work in the mill, we are instead raising them to “be whatever they want to be.” So the question becomes how do you successfully prepare your kids for that? Hence the ballooning of extracurricular and enrichment activities (because “maybe” a key to their future is piano, or football, or computer camp…) and so please welcome the “tiger moms” and tendencies for – and stresses involved -in over scheduling so your child doesn’t fall behind.
Another point she discussed a lot was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s idea that happiness comes from “flow” and that family life makes that very difficult to achieve for parents, because “flow” comes from completing tasks with a clear sense of rules and a desired outcome and losing your sense of yourself in the pleasure of the process. You can do this at work, but not so much with child-rearing where rules and outcomes are unclear and constantly changing.
Speaking of happiness, another point that stuck with me was the idea that “happiness” should be a byproduct, not a goal. And so the “goal” of raising “happy” kids, is a difficult one to achieve. She cited the famous Dr. Spock:
…raising happy children is an elusive aim compared to the more concrete aims of parenting in the past: creating competent children in certain kinds of work; and creating morally responsible citizens who fulfill a prescribed set of community obligations. The fact is, those bygone goals are probably more constructive–and achievable. Not all children will grow up to be happy, in spite of their parents’ most valiant efforts, and all children are unhappy somewhere along the way.
Then there was the idea that today when we think of freedom we tend to think of “freedom from obligations” be those financial, familial, work-related etc… which pretty much sets us up to feel trapped by parenthood. Yippy!
Getting back to the fact that current parenting ideas are quite recent, another point I found fascinating was Senior’s discussion of the evolution of the role of women who stay home from “housewife” to “stay at home mom”.
Senior’s notes that in the post-war generation, the success of women in the home was measured by homemaking – namely how clean your house was, that the meals were cooked well and on time etc… She discussed how supermarkets advertised and sold different cleaning products for different tasks around the house and that you were to learn what to use where and that this was called “home economics”, thus showing this was a job and a calling that required a mastery of skills and expertise to do well.
Then, the “housewife” gave way to the “stay at home mom”. The measure of success became less a well run home, and instead well-raised children and “being a good mother”, which is harder to define and so harder to achieve.
But I don’t want to leave you with the idea that the book was all doom and gloom on the parenting front. A last point that stuck with me – and that I also remember from the article – is that parenthood shows the differences between our experiencing and remembering selves.
Our experiencing selves tell researchers that we prefer doing the dishes — or napping, or shopping, or answering emails — to spending time with our kids. (I am very specifically referring here to Kahneman’s study of 909 Texas women.) But our remembering selves tell researchers that no one — and nothing — provides us with so much joy as our children. It may not be the happiness we live day to day, but it’s the happiness we think about, the happiness we summon and remember, the stuff that makes up our life-tales.
Senior backs up her arguments with much research citing numerous studies while telling the story through the eyes of different parents as she paints clear portraits of their lives. She also breaks the book up beautifully into the different stages of parenting and the effects those stages have on the parents.
All told, I read it over the holidays and think it was my favourite read of last year. And given I referenced the author in the “raison d’être” statement on my blog, I felt it would be remiss to not share some of my thoughts on it with you. So much of it certainly rang true to me.