New Perspectives on "The Paradox of Modern Parenthood"

Impressions from Jennifer Senior's new book, All Joy and No Fun

Posted Feb 25, 2014

In case you missed Jennifer Senior’s riveting New York Times Magazine article, “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting,” or if you read and thoroughly enjoyed it, here’s your chance for more. Senior’s new book was published in January, and the title, above, says it all.

This is a must-read for anyone who’s on the fence about parenting or for those who think they’re ready to jump right in. It’s also a great read for folks like myself who are childfree, either by choice or by chance, but are sometimes ambivalent about not being a parent and need a few reminders of everything that parenting entails.

Senior, a mother herself, bravely journeys into territory that few have been willing to enter, where the myth of the bliss of parenting is firmly shattered. She provides study after study as well as numerous face-to-face interviews with parents and couples whose lives have been greatly impacted by the experience of modern day parenting. As the title suggests, Senior finds that parenting is, for the most part, no fun but marked by blips of pure joy.

Unlike the parents in Senior’s book, I tend to have an abundance of free time, especially on weekends, and so I was able to finish all 308 pages in just two days. All weekend, while reading about the intricate details of parents’ hectic daily routines, I pondered how different my life would be had I, by happenstance, become a mother. On Saturday morning, while lounging and reading in bed with my terriers until 10:00, I thought about the loads of laundry that didn’t need to be done, the science project that didn’t need to be finished by Monday morning, and the soccer game and birthday party I didn’t have to attend. I felt grateful for a full night’s sleep and for the romantic dinner and movie I’d enjoyed with my husband the night before. I felt relief that I don’t have to choose between my career as a psychologist and the full-time job of mothering, and that I need not distress about a lack of time and emotional energy that would keep me from doing either job really well.

While reading All Joy and No Fun, I thought back several years to when my local newspaper did an article about my book, Complete Without Kids. The photographer visited my house one Friday afternoon and told me to just go about my usual day. What I found comical was that, on a typical drizzly, Pacific Northwest day in November, I don’t do much of anything, so the photographer’s presence was, frankly, awkward. I sat on the sofa and read, then made a cup of tea, fiddled around on the piano a bit, tossed a ball for my dog, ate a snack, wrote a letter to a friend, and fingered through a cooking magazine looking for a good dinner recipe. When Senior spent time with a family in her book, the parent rushed from one task to the next, hardly having time to sit with a cup of tea. Demanding children constantly interrupted their conversation.

As a non-parent, I was struck by Senior’s many encounters with exhausted, emotionally frustrated, and financially stressed parents. In between these bouts were some brief descriptions of “joy”: a child dancing in the living room and bringing out the inner child in even the most grown-up adults. Senior seems to imply that children are the only source of such joy in life. I found myself protesting, thinking about the delight my Border Terriers provide me in their daily silliness.

Another misconception plaguing the parents in All Joy and No Fun is that having children is an expected, even required part of life. Reading Senior’s book, it seemed clear that some of the parents would likely have richer, more joyous lives had they chosen not to have children. This was especially true for some of the women who chose to curtail serious careers in order to be mothers. They had put their heart and soul into years of schooling and spent long hours building their careers only to toss it all out to stay home and raise kids. Yet such decisions are considered normal and even healthy in many communities today.

The reviews of All Joy and No Fun on Amazon provide further insight into how parents misconceive the childfree life. One reader commented, “We are all in this parenthood thing and it is no fun and it is exhausting and overwhelming. And in the end we are left remembering mostly the joy and connections. Children give structure and meaning to our lives. And that does not come cheaply (emotionally and physically and mentally and monetarily).” I wonder if this reader truly believes that childfree adults don’t have structure and meaning in our lives. And even if this were the case, (which I don’t think it is) is it a valid reason to have a child?

Have you read All Joy and No Fun? Did it impact your decisions about parenting? What impact will this book have on young men and women contemplating becoming parents?