In All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, Jennifer Senior asks why American middle-class parents so often find parenting intense beyond expectation, exhausting, anxiety-provoking, and not much fun, at the same time that they evaluate it to be the most rewarding and joy-producing aspect of their lives.
Like many readers, I appreciated seeing myself and my struggles represented with compassion. I have spent a number of years as a stay-at-home parent writing books during naptimes. I would have felt guilty admitting that I found playing with toddlers incredibly tedious if my own wonderful stay-at-home mother hadn’t admitted that she felt the same way, and assured me that it was ok. I always felt that the mismatch between the attention span of an academic writer (same project for a decade? no problem!) and a 2-year old was painful. Senior points to this as a more generally-experienced mismatch between adult and toddler cognitive styles, and connects it to the concept of “flow,” or being “in the zone.” Adults thrive on focused activities, which makes it hard to enjoy many hours of the company of someone who changes focus every 30 seconds. I read Senior’s analysis, and thought, “aha! It isn’t just me!”
But my favorite aspect of Senior’s book is that she takes history seriously, and uses it to great effect. I believe, with Senior, that knowing where our culture and society have been can tell us a lot about where we are now. Even more powerfully, it can show us that what we take for granted as universal human experience is often, in fact, shaped dramatically by the time and place in which we live. As she says, “Any good history provides useful context for present-day conventions and belief systems, but reading about the history of childhood is especially startling, because we tend to think of our beliefs about children as instinctive, and therefore as unchanging, irreducible” (p. 127). Once we know that our deeply-held beliefs may instead be historically malleable, we can start to imagine how to make improvements.
Senior draws extensively on two of my favorite historical works about childhood: Sidney Mintz’s Huck’s Raft: A History of Childhood and Viviana Zelizer’s Pricing the Priceless Child. She shows how as the role of children changed between the colonial period and the mid-twentieth century, the experience of parenting changed dramatically as well. Children had been contributors to the family economy, and good parenting meant imparting traditional skills for earning a living. In the twentieth century, children were withdrawn from the labor market, and increasingly the assumption was that parents would work for the benefit of their children, not vice versa. As children became “priceless,” they were sentimentalized. Parents increasingly had children for the emotional depth they expected that children would bring to their lives, rather than to guarantee a means of financial support in old age.
By the twenty-first century, parenting was mostly about “happiness,” in one way or another, rather than concrete things, like food, clothing and financial support. The prime parenting goal became producing happy children. And the special relationship parents had with their children was supposed to make them happy. This has turned out to be, at best, an elusive goal. It’s much easier to give another person food, shelter and an education than to give that person happiness. And the result has been a lot of anxiety and guilt.
While I think that Senior is correct about the source of current middle-class parenting distress, I do wonder if we might see an eighteenth and nineteenth century analogue in parents’ worry about the state of their children’s souls. It is as hard to make someone “saved” as to make them “happy.” And evidence from past centuries’ sermons and diaries certainly indicates that many fathers and mothers felt this concern about their children, from early childhood through their children’s adulthood, and worried and pestered their kids in attempts to make them into believers. Is “happiness” totally different, or is it the secular faith of twenty-first century America?
Occasionally, Senior looks directly to the past for inspiration. Perhaps “duty” is not such a bad concept after all. Maybe sacrifice can be a virtue. But mostly, she uses history to show us why we so often feel anxious, guilty or frantic. It’s not us; it’s our current parenting culture. In the end, she compassionately assures us that it is ok to be content with “joy,” and lose the guilt when “fun” is too high a bar.