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All Joy and No Fun: Jennifer Senior on her new book

Scientifically speaking, we’re not bad parents. Your child not listening to isn’t a fault of your skills as a mom or dad. It’s because a big, important part of our kids’ brains just aren’t developed.

And that encompasses one of the biggest surprises Jennifer Senior found while researching her buzzy new book “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.”

“It had never found its way into mainstream parenting books,” she said. “No one had thought to say ‘It’s okay if your kid isn’t listening to you. You’re going to feel like a nag and it’s not working, but this is how it’s supposed to go.”

After years of research and following parents raising children of various ages, that is one of the things she made sure to put into her richly woven, entertaining, enlightening, wrenching and funny book.

So, parents, take a read and give yourself a break. Senior is here to tell you to enjoy the joyful moments (there are many if you try to notice), and to accept that of course it’s not all fun. [Edited excerpt of our conversation follows.]

What’s one takeaway you hope every reader gets? Or one that you yourself got? It’s not just me. Seriously. [The book is] a little look at how we parent now, how we live now. Seeing your experiences articulated on the page, your feelings articulated on the page. Other families sharing your experiences. The other thing: The history. When I finally read a proper history of childhood, I realized if every parent read about the history of childhood, they’d feel a lot better. Because they’d understand that everything we’re doing is like 10 minutes old. The answers haven’t been written.

You illustrate some of the differences between moms vs. dads. Are dads happier, and why IS he the fun guy? The reason mothers might be more anxious, or that their happiness is compromised a bit more is because they spend twice as much time on childcare or the house. They are still working, then they come home and their home is not a haven, because they’re home and they’re on the clock. Dinner by 6, homework to check, bath, bed. They’re kind of on the police force. And men are really exhausted because they come home from a longer work day. But there is something about domestic stress that is uniquely difficult. You’ve breached this one frontier that is supposed to be safe.

Women are tyrannized by this imaginary standard of perfect mother who is working, coming home, playing with kids, making a perfect dinner. Whereas men, they still get points if they show up. Clint [a father she profiles in the book] said [when asked if he thought he was a good dad] “I am the standard.” [His wife] Angie would never dream of saying that. She found work the easier place to be, where psychiatric patients kick her. And Clint felt like work was harder.

How has parenting changed between when your parents were raising you and now? “Parenting.” It’s like an active verb. It kind of first became commonplace in the 70s, but man, our generation has run with it. We parent differently in that we squint into the future and can’t know what it will look like. When we were kids, our parents thought we would be lawyers, doctors. I don’t think anybody in our generation has such an assumption. Our kids will do something with a name we don’t know. The technological change has made parenting so much more frantic. I don’t remember my mother parenting frantically. People weren’t spending as much time thinking about child psychology back then.

What was the biggest challenge in reporting this book? In my own life, the hardest part is I was wracked by guilt. I would go for a week to Minnesota and not see my own son and would be playing with other people’s children. I’d be leaving my 3-year-old and befriending another person’s 3-year-old so it wasn’t weird for me to be there talking to his mommy. That kind of killed me. And the monomaniacal nature of writing a book. You become really wrapped up. I would feel like the world’s biggest jerk. [I was doing] the very thing I was remarking repeatedly about that women are too hard on themselves and need to cut themselves some slack.

There have been so many studies saying nonparents are happier than parents. Are those findings flawed? Right now, the way happiness is measured in these studies is you’ve got people saying “So, on a scale of 1 to 5, how was your day?” As a parent, you are tired or anxious. So you may rate your day a little lower than a non-parent. You might be spending more moments doing grunt work than a non-parent. And if you have a good moment in those studies, you’ll rate it a 5. But if you have one of those amazing parent moments of unrivaled beauty, it’s also a 5.


In other words, for parents, those moments of joy are off the scale.

And if you’re wondering what a moment of joy is, readers, take a look at this example toward the beginning of the book. Jessie, a mother to Abe and William, loves to play with her young sons. After a nap, she turns up some music for a dance party. They start to joust with light sabers. She picks Abe up and turns him upside down.

“No!” he repeats. She looks at him assessingly. “You were up too early, huh? Okay. No swinging.” She decides to change both songs and tactics, turning her son right side up and holding him in a koala hug as she finds a beautiful Spanish ballad. They start to slow dance. It clicks. The music forms a cocoon around them, as if I’m not even there. Abe melts into his mother’s shoulder. She breathes him in.”

Or, as one father in put it: Only a four year old gives you permission to imitate a despairing potato.
(Senior will be at Politics and Prose tonight at 7 p.m., reading from her book.)

Follow me @amyjoyce_berg