Senior, a New York magazine contributing editor, draws on history and philosophy; sociological, economic and psychological studies; talks with experts in the field; and plenty of time spent with parents. What emerges from her extensive research is not a parenting book in the traditional sense. In fact, Senior cautions in the introduction that she doesn't aim to provide “usable child-rearing advice.” Rather, it’s a book about the effect parenting — which, in our modern world, has become a “high cost/high-reward activity” — has on parents.
The book is broken up chronologically, focusing first on babies, then young children, then elementary-age kids and, finally, adolescents. I’m a mom to a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old so the early years of parenthood are still fresh in my mind. Not only did I identify with the first several chapters but they provided countless aha moments, as if someone was finally putting my fragmented thoughts into eloquent words, and explaining why I had them, to boot.
Senior writes about how parenthood affects a person’s ability to feel “flow,” described as “a state of being in which we are so engrossed in the task at hand — so fortified by our own sense of agency, of mastery — that we lose all sense of our surroundings, as though time has stopped.” Feeling flow leads to happiness. The early years of parenting, full of distractions and redirection and quickly changing moods are characterized by very little opportunity to feel flow. That’s why parenting young children can often feel boring and unsatisfying in the moment.
Senior also talks about how parenthood changes marriage. According to the studies Senior examined, a large percentage of adults experience a decline in marital satisfaction after the birth of their first child. The tension that arises between severely sleep-deprived adults trying to make meaningful decisions and solve problems together doesn’t require explanation to anyone who has survived it. But some of the reasons Senior gives for this decline in satisfaction are illuminating.
Mothers, who tend to multitask more than fathers when they’re caring for kids, often feel rushed and frustrated. Mothers also tend to feel pressure to live up to a standard of motherhood, and then guilty for not achieving it. Fathers, not so much. “Unencumbered by outsized cultural expectations about what does or doesn’t constitute good parenting, and free from cultural judgments over their participation in the workforce, good fathers tend to judge themselves less harshly, bring less anguished perfectionism to parenting their children,” Senior writes.
Young children can transport us back to our youth and get us away from our “silly preoccupations and cramped little mazes of self-interests,” Senior writes. She explores the middle-class phenomenon of “concerted cultivation,” whereby parents overschedule and micromanage every part of their kids’ lives. And she writes an especially sobering chapter about parenting adolescents, describing the despair moms and dads often feel when their little ones no longer need them in the same way. I won’t lie — it made me a little scared for what’s to come.
But it’s Senior's last chapter, “Joy,” that moved me to bawl like a baby (and freak out my kids), and which I imagine I’ll revisit often as I continue my wild journey of parenthood. Senior talks to renowned psychiatrist George Vaillant, who beautifully describes happiness as a speeding up of the heart, compared with joy as a slowing down of the heart. Parenting goes way beyond the fleeting, superficial construct of modern happiness. Our kids teach us what’s really important in life, what it means to love and to sacrifice. They give us, writes Senior, “a shot at redemption.”
All Joy and No Fun made me feel part of a larger community and affirmed my belief that being a mom is the best and most important thing I’ll ever do. When you’re in the trenches of parenthood, that can be a hard thing to remember.