Sunday, April 6, 2014

"All Joy and No Fun" by Jennifer Senior

Although I am not a parent (in the active sense, anyway), I am fascinated by parenting issues, and by how different childhood & parenting seem today from what I remember of my own experiences growing up. Today's style of intensive, "helicopter" parenting sometimes makes me wonder whether I could have cut it as a mom. (And sometimes makes me very glad that I don't have kids, if this is what it takes these days to pass as an acceptable parent.)

I've always found it interesting how parents could be screaming at their children & complaining about them in one breath, and then in the next ask when *I* was going to have kids and tell me how wonderful they were.  Gee, you're a walking advertisement. ;) 

This paradox is reflected in the title and explored in the pages of Jennifer Senior's new book, "All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood."  This is not so much a how-to manual or advice guide as a study of the challenges of modern parenthood, how those challenges are different from what parents of the past faced, and the impact of parenting on parents themselves. There is a nice balance of academic research (presented in a highly accessible way) and chats with/observations of real-life parents and kids.

Senior sets out and explores three reasons why modern parenting has become such a complicated affair: 
  • First, for the first time in history, parenthood is a choice -- when and whether to have children at all and, if so, how many. In the past, children were viewed as an economic necessity (to help with the family farm or business) or moral obligation;  today, children are seen as crowning achievements and sources of parental fulfillment. “Mothering and fathering aren’t just things we do," Senior observes. "Being a mother or being a father is who we are.”
  • Second, governments and businesses have yet to adjust to the influx of mothers into the workplace. Fathers, too are trying to figure out their new roles. 
  • Finally, childhood itself has been completely redefined in the years since the Second World War. As Senior observes, "Children went from being our employees to our bosses."  
Most of the book deals with the challenges of modern parenting. It isn't until the final chapter that Senior looks at the joy part of her equation.  She delves into the concepts of "the experiencing self" versus "the remembering self" -- which explains to some extent why, as I mentioned earlier, a parent can be screaming at their child in one breath and then a short time later rhapsodizing about the wonders of parenthood and encouraging you to join the club. Senior does acknowledge (albeit briefly) that children are not the only things that can invest a life with joy, meaning and purpose, which I appreciated as a childless-not-by-first-choice woman.

If you're a parent, you will likely find this book a source of validation and insight into your role. On the flip side, one review I read said that if you're on the fence about becoming a parent & read this book, you'll probably run away screaming. ;) (Or words to that effect.) I'm not sure about that -- we all know that parenting is hard. This book may not give you any firm answers as to whether you should take the plunge... but it sure raises some interesting questions. I enjoyed it! 

This is book #4 that I have read in 2014.


  1. How odd. I am also interested in parenting issues, and the changes today. I won't read the book - but I do appreciate your review and the snippets from it. It reminds me of something I heard the other day - I can't remember it exactly, but it was a woman driving her child to activities after school, and realising that her child doesn't spend any time alone, and has very little free time. Yet she remembered her own childhood, out in the neighbourhood (or in my case, farm) exploring and only coming in at dinner time.

    I don't think I'd be a very good helicopter parent either. Maybe though, that's why we would have been such FABULOUS parents? (And you know that no-one can say otherwise! )

  2. A friend gave me this book for my February birthday. I have found it very validating and recommended it to several friends. The girls are going into kindergarten next fall, so we've entered the age of concerted cultivation. That chapter is extremely accurate.

    But the book is something of a downer... I haven't gotten to the last chapter yet.

    I'm currently reading Overwhelmed. : )

  3. @Ellen, that's the next one on my list, I think. ;)

  4. I know exactly what you mean about wondering about having kids in this current day and age. I might have had to home school, I feel like todays american education system ounds the love of learning out of kids. And I could not have been a helicopter parent!

  5. I'm also fascinated by the changes in parenting over time. Even though I'm not a parent (CNBC), parenting is everywhere - it's an inescapable part of other people's lives that seep into our own and I find it intriguing. To have a conversation about the trials and tribulations of parenting with others who are genuinely interested in it as a real-world sociological topic, it's kind of fun... not so with those who simply want to glorify it or make it out to be something it's not. Interesting stuff!