My husband and I can’t help but laugh over all the things we never thought we’d say as parents that pop out of our mouths (“What did I just tell you?” “Listen to your mother.”) We love our kids to bits, but man, is being a parent tough sometimes! In the new book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, award-winning journalist Jennifer Senior digs deep into this push-pull conundrum, looking at how parenting has changed over the last half century. She talked with me about some of the fascinating things she learned.
In All Joy and No Fun, you explore how, as parents today, we feel that the overall job of parenting is incredibly satisfying and fulfilling—all joy—but the day-to-day stuff completely wears us out—no fun. But you also discovered that that’s in great part because modern parents demand so much of themselves, right?
We do demand so much of ourselves! And a lot of it is about the context we’re living in. There are different external pressures we’re responding to today, we’re not making it up. Modern childhood really only started post-war. It used to be that having children was about giving a family an economic advantage. And I mean, thank god we ended child labor and came to our senses. But the arrangement of kids home and mom and dad working only worked out well once families had greater economic prosperity; that started more in the 50s. Then in the 70s wages were stagnating and moms thought, If my child’s not a super child, he’ll never have a good future. Then women started flooding the work force, and there were no rules.
So our parents felt some of the same pressures, but perhaps not the same way we do?
Even for our parents wages were only starting to stagnate; colleges were starting to become competitive. But our parents—or maybe this was just me [laughs]—didn’t care about homework. My parents knew I was applying to college, but they didn’t know or really care what my essay said. No one felt they had to know.
One of the things I’ve been loving about your book is that it’s been kind of a permission slip for me to get more of my own stuff done. When I need to fix dinner or whatever, I feel ok saying to my older daughter, “I have to stop playing now. I need to do this.”
Yay! Yeah, because guess what, it’s all okay. The world doesn’t end. For kids, learning to tolerate boredom…don’t underestimate that. In the book, one of the things I most viscerally connected to was [psychologist and blogger] Nancy Darling talking about her own childhood; when as a kid she told her mom she was bored, her mom would say, “Well, your room could sure use cleaning.” My son is old enough now—he’s 6—that when he demands that my husband and I play with him or we have to tell him, “That’s enough iPad,” we both go, “Your room could use a cleaning. If you’re pining for something to do….” It didn’t take long before that comment sank in for him and he’d figure something out to do on his own. It makes a very big difference.
What lesson can moms learn from dads when it comes to parenting? To chill out more?
To chill out, yeah. My takeaway from one of the dads from the book was: Chillax, I got this. At one point, he said about himself as a dad, “I am the standard” and I heard a chorus of angels. I thought, No woman would ever utter that! Also, the dads showed me that there’s more than one approach, there’s not one right way to do this. Because we can’t anticipate the future, we raise our kids for everything possible. And women feel like if they don’t know every parenting school of thought, then they’re defaulting on their duties as moms. But you’re really not.
We do put a lot of pressure on ourselves as moms, don’t we? I feel like I’m constantly questioning my instincts and decisions.
I’ve tweeted about this. Like on Halloween I tweeted, “All you people with your perfect pumpkin patch pictures, I know your kid was crying all the way there.” [Laughs] We are all triggered by certain things. Here’s an example that’s distinct to my life: Publishers are suddenly sending all these baby guides to me to weigh in on, and in one of them, it says something like, “Good parents don’t refer to their child as ‘the baby,’ but by their name.” It says that’s what “good parents” do. I constantly called my son the baby! It’d be the middle of the night and I’d be lying in bed and go, “Oh God, the baby’s crying.” So I was upset because this book was making me feel personally culpable, but then I reminded myself, No, it’s fine. Millennia of mothers did not sweat this stuff. My mother didn’t sweat it.
Is there such a thing as a “do-it-all” mom?
I sort of hate the term. Most of us lead lopsided lives. We lean slightly more towards our profession or our home life, whatever it is that works best for us, whatever we need for our families. So it’s a fake dichotomy. Not too many women have ever had a balanced life. Margaret Singer did not lead a balanced life. You can have a demanding career and still be great mom. Lopsidedness is a natural state that we live in.
Speaking of balance, having kids can also be incredibly stressful on relationships. Did you come across any especially helpful tips on that front?
Yeah, the researchers Carolyn and Philip Cowan discovered that when couples figure out the fine print of who does what before Baby comes—who does laundry, who does meals—the better the relationship is, and the more eager the father is to help. And it’s an effect that lasts clear through to adolescence. I’ve found that no couple has their sh** together that much, but I’ve also found that you can work out those agreements at any time. Like just this morning, my husband Mark said, “It would be helpful if while I’m gone this afternoon you could get the laundry done. That’s the one thing that’s really driving me crazy.” The alternative would be him coming home, saying, “You’ve been home all day, why didn’t you do the laundry!” Or I will tell my husband on Tuesday, “I need three dedicated hours on the weekend to do some work.” If I can tell him far enough ahead of time, then we won’t be passively aggressively duking it out. Because there’s nothing more stressful than fighting about something in real time, while the baby’s crying. But if you give each other advance notice, whether that’s a day ahead or three hours ahead, then everyone’s needs can be met.
You’ve talked about how the universally accepted parent mantra is “All I want is for my kids to be happy” and also how that may not be the best goal because it’s such an elusive one. What do you want for your son?
I want him to be a mensch. I want him to be a really good guy. I want him to be caring, productive, have grit. Kindness and manners: Those are two things where I think parents are more realistically able to weigh in. This is the way one behaves; this is not. This is kind, this is not. We can teach them acceptance, tolerance, decency. Also to work their asses off. I hope my son’s as happy as he’s capable of feeling because he feels loved and proud of what he can do.
Any advice for somebody who’s about to become a parent for the first time?
One very strong bit of advice: If anyone ever comes up to you and says they know the right way to do something, be very skeptical. And remember, the public certainty that they’re projecting is probably in direct proportion to their inner uncertainty. Your kid is your kid and you’re going to have instincts and ideas about what works best for him. Go with that. There’s no one script. Everyone’s searching for it, but parenting, the way we do it now, is new. So if anyone starts hectoring you about what you’re doing, run for the freaking hills.