No Ode to Joy
All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood
By Jennifer Senior
Ecco, 320 pages
I am not a great believer in our style of parenting,” Jerry Seinfeld said recently. “What I mean is our generation…I just think we’re too into it…The bedtime routine for my kids is like this royal coronation, jubilee centennial of rinsing and plaque and dental appliances and a stuffed animal semi-circle of emotional support.”
Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun is a book-length exegesis of Seinfeld’s observation. Senior, who writes for New York magazine, travels from Minneapolis to Houston to Brooklyn, talking to middle-class, divorced, married, and single mothers and fathers of babies, toddlers, kids, and teenagers. She makes us painfully aware of the ways in which parents are “too into it”—and how, perversely, their methods are making
All the old reasons for having kids no longer apply, Senior explains. Whereas once kids were useful to families as added labor, as sources of income, or, eventually, as caretakers of their elders, today we can have kids or not based on personal whim. Procreating has become voluntary. And yet, all the social-science research Senior has examined suggests that parents who were under no obligation to have kids (and therefore might be expected to have had kids to enhance their lives) are in fact less happy than those who do not have children.
Senior takes the measure of what she defines as our modern-day “normlessness”—a world in which prior rules, values, sex roles, and traditions have all been thrown out—and finds it a disaster when it comes to finding a framework for raising children. “Normlessness is a very tricky thing,” she writes. “It almost guarantees some level of personal and cultural distress.”
Senior finds ample evidence. She speaks to mothers who are worried about how engaged they are—and to moms annoyed at how dependent their kids have become. She profiles mothers trying to be everything to their kids who are simultaneously upset with their husbands for seeming less involved. Senior offers portraits of mothers and fathers trying to figure out what skills, sports, classes, and aptitudes would be best for future success, even as they acknowledge the economy is so complex and confusing that it is nearly impossible to have a guaranteed path. They are exhausted by all the effort, the driving and the scheduling, but not one seems willing to push their kids out the front door and let them figure it out for themselves. And there are those who speak of wanting to provide all the emotional support and love they believe is necessary for their kids to thrive even as they acknowledge none of the same was necessary when they were kids themselves.
“We live in an age when the map of our desires has gotten considerably larger, and we’ve been told it’s our right (obligation, in fact) to try to fulfill them,” Senior writes. But seeking self-actualization through children is bad for them and a dead end for the parents: “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.” And those heightened expectations are a big part of the trouble. “The sole area of agreement for almost all middle-class parents is that whatever they are doing is for the child’s sake, and the child’s alone,” she writes. “Parents no longer raise children for the family’s sake or that of the broader world.”
The result of that focus is a highly combustible combination of exhausted parents experiencing significant declines in marital happiness (if they are married at all) as they raise children who are less independent, less resilient, and more disrespectful. Senior is therefore taken by the popularity of Boy Scouts among so many of the parents she met. As one dad explains: “It is very nice to have your kids be polite. Or go to a restaurant and have them act properly.” Senior seems to agree—but not without betraying her own prejudices. She can accept Scouts, largely because it is secular: “The Scouts teach order. They teach respect. They aren’t the only institution to do this, of course; religious institutions do too. But the Scouts put parents in charge, not strangers dressed in robes.”
To her credit, Senior’s distaste for religion doesn’t prevent her from admiring one of her most confident and put-together parents, an African-American beauty and mother of four who is committed to religious practice and demands that her kids say their prayers as well. The act of profiling this woman and her family provides readers with one of Senior’s important discoveries, which is that some old-style traditions and “folkways” (Senior’s terminology) really are better for raising kids. One of those is regular religious practice. Another is the importance of actual community for children and their parents. As Senior explains, children can bring together “not just couples, but extended families, social networks, entire communities.” But only for those who make such a commitment. One impediment is that higher education, which is so important for future success, decimates physical community.
“College-educated Americans,” Senior explains, “tend to live farther away from their parents then those who have only completed high school.”
In her final chapter, Senior does get to the joy part of her title, and she gets it right when she argues that “to be happy one must do.” Happiness isn’t an achievable goal so much as the by-product of a meaningful achievement, she explains. But having spent the previous 80 percent of the book illuminating and dissecting why parenting is “no fun,” it is hard to be left with anything other than a heavy, somewhat hopeless feeling about what lies ahead for these hothouse-flower children and the puzzled, exhausted people who are raising them.