ALL JOY AND NO FUN:The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, by Jennifer Senior. Ecco, 308 pp., $26.99.
I've been trying to write this review all weekend, but I keep getting interrupted. My 10-year-old had a friend over, and I had to make sure they weren't going to cut their fingers off as they sliced corks with a mini-saw to use with their slingshots. I agonized over whether I should let them do it themselves to gain independence, or whether it was too risky -- though my husband insisted it was perfectly safe.
There were emails to answer for my job, as well as the usual household tasks: bills to pay, meals to prepare, laundry to fold. Who had time to write a book review, even though I'd already gotten an extension on the deadline?
Jennifer Senior would sympathize, I'm sure. Her new book, "All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood," is a trenchant look into the world of contemporary parents, who spend way more time supervising their children's lives than their own parents spent supervising theirs, yet also are electronically connected to the office seven days a week. Who has time for relaxation, or hobbies, or friends, or talking to your spouse about anything other than logistics?
Senior's insight is that though there have been many books about parenting, no one has written about the effects of having kids on the parents' lives. We've been told we should be fierce Tiger Moms, pushing our children to excel, or strict like French parents, who produce gourmet eaters by not catering to a child's taste for chicken nuggets. But what does all this intensive focus on children do to a parent's mental health? Parenting is a "high-cost/high-reward activity," Senior says, quoting social scientist William Doherty, and the costs today are higher than ever because of the amount of time and energy parents are expected to put into the role.
The book is organized into sections including "Autonomy" and "Marriage," but it also moves chronologically, beginning with parents of babies and toddlers, then moving on to the elementary school years and the scary realms of adolescence. Senior seems to have read every book and study relating even tangentially to parenthood, and she gives us a digest of thinkers ranging from Margaret Mead ("What struck her as different about American parents was that they didn't know what particular goal they were steering their children toward") to Matthew B. Crawford, author of "Shop Class as Soulcraft" ("The information economy has made such a fetish of 'knowledge work' that people no longer experience the joys afforded by knowing how to do things with their hands").
Senior, a contributing editor at New York magazine, also goes into the field and meets parents, watching them interact with their kids and acting as a sounding board for their observations and complaints. There's a Minnesota nurse who works the night shift while her husband is the morning manager at a car-rental place; they rarely see each other as they hand off the care of their kids. A father in Houston wonders how hard to push his noncompetitive son to play soccer. In Brooklyn, a mother doesn't know what to do when she finds (unforwarded) naked pictures of her teenage daughter while snooping in her phone.
These glimpses into the conundrums of other parents are thought-provoking and fun to read. I would have liked more of them -- and more of Senior's own experiences, too. In the early chapters, especially, she quotes so heavily from other people that the book begins to feel secondhand; she even quotes one British psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, quoting another, Donald Winnicott. I kept wanting to tell her to get into the "flow," that elusive state of being she describes as having been codified by another expert, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and which she says new parents sorely miss.
But some of the parents have stuck with me, like Sharon, actually a grandmother who took in her baby grandson after her adopted daughter died. Or Jessie, who loses herself in dance parties with her toddlers. The last chapter is called "Joy," but there are glimpses throughout the book of the transcendence kids can bring to their parents' lives. There's one expert Senior didn't quote but whom I kept thinking of: Gretchen Rubin, author of "The Happiness Project," who says of parenthood: "The days are long but the years are short." Enjoy it while it lasts.