Senior uses four of six chapters to dissect the no fun. New parents are unhappy, she posits, because they miss not only sleep but autonomy: “One day you are a paragon of self-determination, coming and going as you please; the next, you are a parent, laden with gear and unhooked from the rhythms of normal adult life.” She emphasizes the strain on marriages, especially when very young children or teenagers are in the house — apparently couples with children have more arguments than childless couples, and their fights are more often about children than any other topic. She probes the maddening self-doubt that accompanies the “murky” goal of raising happy, confident kids. And she endorses the view that adolescent struggles are worse for parents than for teens. “They exacerbate conflicts already in progress,” she writes, “especially those at work or in the marriage, sometimes unmasking problems that parents hadn’t recognized or consciously acknowledged for years.”
I’ve been a teenager but not the parent of one, so I can’t speak to how well that last bit rings true. I can, however, identify with what Senior says about the early parenting years. I write this review after a wakeful night with a sick toddler that required a quick change of bloody crib sheets. Just teething, my husband and I reassured each other, based on the absence of curdled milk. I’m sure I’ll eventually smooth over the rough spots in my recollections, as parents tend to, but I’m not yet that far removed. I get what Senior is talking about.
I imagine that most parents will agree with her, too, that the joy is real, if sometimes fleeting and difficult to measure. “Meaning and joy have a way of slipping through the sieve of social science,” she writes. “The vocabulary for aggravation is large. The vocabulary for transcendence is more elusive.”
To help articulate the highs of parenting, she relates carefully observed scenes of families she spent time with while reporting the book. Here’s one: “When a sudden hissing sound issued from the kitchen, Luke [the dad] assured Abe [the toddler] . . . that it was just the potatoes on the stove coming to a boil. ‘They’re screaming, “ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGH,” ’ cried Luke, waggling his hands in the air. ‘You’re going to EAT US UP.’ Only a four-year-old child,” Senior writes, “gives you permission to imitate a despairing potato.”
Senior admirably avoids chronicling the privileged New York parents in her immediate vicinity and instead introduces us to middle-class families she found through parenting groups in Minnesota and parent-teacher organizations in Texas. She does a nice job balancing her observations with academic research, though she leans a bit heavily at times on pop psychology, discarded psychoanalytic theories and C.S. Lewis.
She also succeeds in making her book more relevant to men than many parenting treatises are. Most of the voices are still female, but in addition to Luke, her male subjects include a soccer dad in a suburb of Houston and a father of two in Rosemount, Minn., whose wife works night shifts as a nurse. While Senior doesn’t set out to offer parenting advice, the Minnesota dad comes close to what seems to be her concept of a model parent. He’s attentive to his kids yet doesn’t obsess about keeping them stimulated every moment, he takes care to preserve some time for himself, and he’s confident in his parenting decisions, declaring, “I am the standard.” He is the antidote to the problem with parenting today, as Senior sees it.
Senior wants to make the case that modern childhood and parenthood have been “completely redefined” since World War II. She writes about “the rise of the useless child,” contrasting a time when children worked to help support their families with today, when childhood is “long and sheltered, devoted almost entirely to education and emotional growth.” Over the same period, she writes, “our lives as mothers and fathers have grown much more complex, and we still don’t have a new set of scripts to guide us through them. Normlessness is a very tricky thing. It almost guarantees some level of personal and cultural distress.”
Senior thankfully doesn’t go so far as to suggest that this distress makes parents unhappier than they were in times when children frequently died of disease. Still, some aspects of her argument seem overstated.
It’s a stretch to say that “Americans are trying to ready their sons and daughters for a life that will look nothing like the lives they themselves lead” when economic mobility has been stuck at a low level for the past half-century. Parents’ earnings and education are still the best predictors of their offspring’s earnings and education. Even if the child of two teachers grows up to be a journalist, even if a digital native quickly surpasses her parents’ technological savvy, her life path isn’t likely to be that different from theirs.
And it seems a bit odd to suggest, as Senior does, that adolescent angst is a modern consequence of sheltered childhoods when we have stories about teens acting out, in history and literature, that go back centuries. How about Romeo and Juliet? Or Lydia Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice”? Or all the political revolutions instigated by disaffected youth?
Senior may be right that, as a result of having more control over family planning and having children later than previous generations did, parents today “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.” Unfortunately, not all children are the result of hopes, dreams and careful planning. She mentions that in 2010, more than 61,500 kids resulted from the use of reproductive technology. Yet 40 percent of U.S. births — about 1.7 million — are from unintended pregnancies each year.
It’s also difficult to make a convincing argument that middle-class parenting is different from what it was before World War II, given that we weren’t a majority middle-class country before the 1940s — and in many ways the middle class as we know it didn’t exist. In the upper classes, children have always been fairly useless. And in working-class and some middle-class families today, plenty of teenagers work after-school and summer jobs because they have to.
Despite its weak spots, Senior’s book is punctuated with smart insights — of the sort that make for good magazine pieces. For instance, the replacement of “housewife” with “stay-at-home mom,” she suggests, says a lot about the increased pressure on women to be expert mothers. And she points out that most parenting blogs are written by mothers and fathers of small children, perhaps because whether a baby hates peas reflects less on parents than whether a teenager is a decent person.
Returning at the end of the book to the question of joy and its elusiveness, Senior writes that while parenthood may not always provide moment-to-moment pleasure, it gives meaning and purpose. And the joy becomes more obvious in our memories. “It may not be the happiness we live day to day,” she writes. “But it’s the happiness we think about, the happiness we summon and remember, the stuff that makes up our life-tales.” I would have liked to see her take this idea further in a chapter focusing on parents of grown children who are able to take stock, knowing more or less what sort of people their kids will become.
Depressing as parts of this book may be, I appreciated the nudge to try to recognize joy in not just the milestone moments but the quotidian ones. Senior’s thesis was in my head last weekend when my daughter and I watched a barred owl land and perch on a tree in front of our house. We have several picture books with owls, and seeing one in person, staring down at us, had the same effect as if one of Maurice Sendak’s wild things had shown up in our yard. “Whoa!” my daughter exclaimed, over and over. “Whoa!,” I thought, seeing again for the first time.
Marisa Bellack is deputy editor of The Washington Post’s Outlook section.