Parenting in Progress: An Interview with Jennifer Senior

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Jennifer Senior, author of "All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood." Her next Brooklyn reading is May 13 at the Park Slope Library. Photo: Laura Rose

The idea that a child should be the focal point of a parent’s life, a prized possession to educate and nurture until he or she emerges out of high school happy, successful and college-ready, is a relatively new concept. We all know this on some level—that we coddle our kids more than our parents coddled us, that our parents were coddled even less, and that their parents practically raised themselves. But as Jennifer Senior explains in her New York Times best-selling book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, it was only after World War II that modern childhood—“long and sheltered, devoted almost entirely to education and emotional growth”—really began. And as children have evolved from working members of the family, to precious people who are primarily expected to play and study, it’s created a lot more angst and ambiguity for the grown ups in the room.

“Unless we keep in mind how new our lives as parents are,” Senior writes, “and how unusual and ahistorical, we won’t see that the world we live in, as mothers and fathers, is still under construction.”

This is one of the many a-ha moments in Senior’s book, which examines the agony and ecstasy of parenthood from every angle—historical, psychological, and marital. She traveled around the country to spend time with middle-class mothers and fathers at all stages of the parenting life cycle, from parents of newborns to those with teens, and supports her very relatable subjects with social science and research to illuminate why co-parenting is so complicated, why the teen years can be so disorienting, and why we pour so much energy into raising our kids despite the toll it takes on our sanity.

It’s a deeply reassuring book for those of us preoccupied by parenting, as most of us are. The average mother, Senior points out, spends nearly four more hours on child care than she did in 1965, even though women are working three times as many paid hours, and fathers are more involved than ever in raising their children.

Throughout the book I kept wondering how Senior had applied her reporting to her own life—whether her interviews and research changed her own thinking about motherhood and marriage. I was lucky to spend nearly an hour on the phone with Senior, who recently moved to Park Slope with her husband and six-year-old son, asking questions along these lines. What follows is an edited interview of our conversation. You can also hear Senior in person at one of three upcoming readings, Sunday, May 4 at 2:30pm at Bank Street Bookstore with Kyla Kupferstein; Tuesday, May 13 at 6:30pm at the Park Slope Library; and Thursday May 15 at 6:30 at the Princeton Club of New York (free for members, $25 for guests).

Brooklyn Based: You make it clear that this book is about the experience of being a parent and is about parents. But I’m curious if it has changed your parenting style in any way.

Jennifer Senior: Yes, to some degree. The stuff that [husband-and-wife psychologists Carolyn and Philip Cowan] said in chapter two was interesting. They had one group of parents write out the fine print of what they were going to do before the baby was born. Like rather than saying, “Oh, you know 50 – 50! We’ll have a totally even relationship, we’ll split up the chores evenly when the baby comes along”–that wasn’t nearly as effective for their couples as having people write down: OK, what’s realistic? Given how many hours I work outside the home and how many hours you work outside the home and what your duties and responsibilities are and what mine are, what we want, what do we think?

And they would say, “OK, you know you take the baby on Tuesday nights and Thursday nights and Saturday nights.” However granular they could get it, the better off those couples were, up through the kid’s adolescence…I mean, they are still looking at these couples and they’re still doing better.

Now, my husband and I were not nearly that organized. We didn’t do anything of the kind. Like everyone else we had absolutely no contract of any kind written up. But what I’ve discovered is you can do that at any point. At any point along the way you can look at your spouse and say, “Here’s what I need coming up this weekend. It looks like I’m going to have a couple of hours of work to do. I’m going to need to run errands for like an hour. I’m going to want to like take a walk around the block for an hour so that I remain sane.” If you tell them that on a Tuesday, it’s very different from having an argument in real time in front of your kid about what you need to do and what needs to get done…people have these arguments while their kids are right there, because they’re suddenly feeling the stress in that moment. And so my takeaway from reading the Cowans’ work was that even the slightest amount of planning seriously helps.

The other thing is, Dr. Spock talked about happiness being a very vague aim for a parent and Adam Phillips, the British psychoanalyst talked about it, and I think that is pretty freeing advice because it allows you to try and focus on other things that are more achievable like teaching your kid to be an ethical kid [or] teaching your kid to be a tenacious kid and to just try over and over again. I found that really useful because I think that one of the most…intimidating goals for parents is to make happy children. It can be so hard and it just totally depends on the kind of kid you get. And so refocusing my energy elsewhere was very helpful. Like you think, “OK I’m just going to teach this kid right from wrong, and make sure that they are being really decent.”

Decency is a massive piece of this picture. That’s what parents used to do. Even in the 1950s, if you asked a parent what they wanted for their children they would say that they wanted upstanding members of the community. They wanted moral kids. Even post-war for a brief period that was an objective. The happy child as a goal didn’t start until the 1970s with Free to Be You and Me and all that stuff.  Which is when the culture-wide fixation on finding our bliss really started in a major way. Although as I note in my book, starting in the 20th century lots of people started thinking about their happiness in a way that they hadn’t previously because their other needs were met. [Below is Senior’s recent Ted Talk on this very topic]

Clearly the planning ahead and defining roles helps a lot, but has your relationship with your husband changed in any other ways as a result of writing this book, specifically chapter two, in which you talk about the division of childcare?

Yeah. We actually are at the 50-50 mark. I mean most couples aren’t there and we didn’t start there.

How did you get there?

Well, I wonder if in part if he read my book. It might be that and hearing me talk about it. It could also be that Rusty is bigger now. I mean my husband already had two kids when Rusty was born. I’m his second wife and they were older, and he’d already gone through it…I mean it’s hard to become a father all over again when your cohort is exiting this period–they’re getting their freedom back. And I had said to him, “Look, I will assume all of it. I’ll do the night duty.”

For years I was the one to get up early with Rusty. And it was making me really tired, cause I was also working full time… Now I would say Mark is up at least 15% of the time getting him to school. He does all the cooking and shopping for the house. I do the bath, the bedtime, I come home and I play with him…I mean things shift within a couple. They seesaw. So I’d like to think that my having discussed this enough with him has sort of made some impression.

What kinds of reactions have you been getting from other fathers? Are they showing up at your readings in equal numbers?

No.

But they are coming?

Oh, they’re definitely coming and in terms of book buying numbers, it’s very close…something like 50 to 48.

Oh, wow.

It’s crazy. I don’t know how they keep track of that, other than through Amazon. But the numbers were very closely tracking and it might be that men can get it on Kindle [so] they don’t have to walk around with a book that says All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.

I mean in San Francisco, it was practically 50-50 in terms of the number of men [at readings]. When I went to Texas, there were a lot more women.

What are the men reacting to?

Men oftentimes push back and say something funny. I’ll say, “Women do twice as much child care” and they’ll say, “I disagree with that.” And I’ll say, “You can’t disagree with that. It’s not an opinion. I’m citing the American Time Use Survey. That’s hard data based on tens of thousands of families. It’s longitudinal. It’s ongoing. It’s one of the most meticulously kept studies in the United States. You can’t disagree. You can tell me it’s different in your family. I’ll totally believe that. I totally believe that you’re doing way more than what the national average is, but you can’t disagree with that number. You can only tell me that your own personal arrangement does not conform to the average.”

I get that kind of push back sometimes. And I say, “That’s great. It’s because guys like you are changing it. You are setting the new standard. You are making it hard for others to do less.”

And so every time I hear that I think that’s fabulous. You’re on the cutting edge, dude.

Chapter two—in which you talk about how women still shoulder more of the child care burden, and typically do the mundane, “routine” kind, versus the fun, “interactive” kind—resonates with me and moms I know who’ve read your book. But do you feel like that message is getting through to dads? Are any saying, “You opened my eyes to this” or “I’m seeing this debate in a different light thanks to you and I’m doing things differently”?

No. (laughter) No, I totally take it back. Guys don’t frame it like that. They don’t say, “Oh, I’ve been screwing up and my poor wife.”

That’s not a guy thing. Here’s what they do they say: “Your book opened up my eyes to why we’re fighting…that my wife is experiencing time so differently from me. I didn’t realize that home is not a haven for her. That she feels like she’s being tugged in seven different directions. Our home does feel like a haven to me. I didn’t understand that this was a source of so many of our arguments.”

In that sense, yes, it is sinking in. What they take in is that “She’s multi-tasking; I’m mono-tasking…She feels like she’s got to be everything to everyone–her boss who’s sending her an email, her child who’s demanding that she be played with or he be played with right now. And that there’s also these domestic duties that have to get done, like the bath has to get run and the homework has to get checked. Whereas, you know, I come home and I don’t feel this ticking shop clock.” They do say that. They say that a lot. That it was mentally clarifying about why they are arguing. Why there is so much tension, why the two of them look at the same situation in two completely different ways. So I am getting that, yes. Quite frequently.

I think that’s a step forward.

Thank you! (laughter)

AllJoy_hc final (1)In one section you question one of the Minnesota moms as to why she feels compelled to sign her kids up for so many activities, and then later when you’re in Texas, you seem to understand and empathize with parents who are over-scheduling their kids because it seems like the only way to up their child’s chances of getting into a good college. Where do you personally stand? Do you think we are going overboard as parents, shepherding our kids to a million activities?

I don’t know, I mean, you are very rightly capturing a kind of tension within my own thinking about this stuff. On the one hand I am sympathetic, I was sympathetic to the woman in Minnesota. I was trying to just figure out what made her feel so maniacal about it, you know? Because she wasn’t limiting herself to one activity per kid…What I was intrigued by was that it wasn’t just enough to have her kids sign up for nineteen things, it was that she had to be the Girl Scout troop leader and she had to be the ECFE representative for her three-year-old daughter, which sounded like so much work. So I was just curious why she felt [these] internal pressures on top of signing up her kids.

And here is the truth–I don’t know how to feel about it because the economic pressures that people are responding to are real, right? On the one hand, we have to posit that middle-class wages are stagnating. The middle-class is shrinking. Income inequality is growing. A college degree is more and more essential if we want our kids to get ahead. You know that their earning potential just exponentially increases if they get one. So there are reasons to want your kid to maintain a foothold in the middle class.

On the other hand, here’s what we don’t know, because it’s an uncontrolled experiment. We don’t know whether or not our kids would have all of their natural advantages anyway, simply because they were born into the middle class…If they are born into a middle-class home, their parents are probably reading to them. They are probably living in a safer environment. They are probably getting more natural enrichment programs around them in their communities, in their schools…That might be enough.

I have a friend who’s a colleague of Annette Lareau’s. He’s a sociologist and he once said to me that Annette Lareau–she coined the term concerted cultivation, and wrote the book, Unequal Childhoods, which, if you’ve never read, you should totally read because it’s super readable and novelistic. She apparently said to him that she didn’t even know. She couldn’t tell you whether concerted cultivation helps. Like if you just left those middle-class kids alone and let them follow the natural growth model, she couldn’t tell you with any certainty whether those kids would be any worse off for it. No one knows the answer to that question.

How do you approach it personally with your son? Where do you fall in the spectrum?

So where I personally fall into this is I follow my kid’s own cue. He’s a really, really, really good drummer which never ceases to amaze me. Because I have no rhythm–like it’s unbearable watching me dance. And out of me pops this child who like, since he’s been under three, can play the drums, and has been obsessed with drums. We go to the drum stores in town and he sits there and plays them and groups of old men sit there and stare at him playing the drums. He’s good at it, right? So he takes home lessons because he’s good at it and he really likes drums. (laughter)

Recently my husband was making noise about signing him up for soccer because like all New York children, he doesn’t get enough exercise and he’s indoors too much and we sort of think he should run around.

I mean this is the other thing…and I made this point in my book. You’re not doing it for extracurricular purposes. You’re doing it because kids are not outside enough, whether it’s because people have kidnapping panic if they live in the suburbs, or because they’re in the cities and there’s not enough outdoors stuff to do.

Is over-scheduling our kids is a form of overprotecting them?

It doesn’t have to be. I mean that’s a totally beguiling formulation…that one Texas mother who said to me that she was signing up her kids for extracurricular activities because he was at that age where if she didn’t, he would be playing video games. And you talk to teenage parents, they talk about that all the time that like they sign their kids up for shit because…it’s a way of diverting them.

I mean there can be so many different reasons why people do this. And I’m very sympathetic to all of them. I will tell you that if Rusty comes home and doesn’t have anything to do…he will nag me about playing Minion Rush on the iPad and we were really reluctant for a long time to even download it but … he soon became the only kid in his Kindergarten class who did not have Minion Rush on his iPad and there came a day when we took a six-hour car trip and we were like, “Well, Minion Rush it is!” And now it’s a constant battle for him not to be playing Minion Rush all the freaking time, I mean, their little brains get addicted to these things very quickly.

We do all sorts of counter-programming. I was really interested in the extracurricular activity as the counter-programming. I found that fascinating. And then there was that other woman in Texas who was talking about signing up her kids to Boy Scouts just so that they could do what she called “old timey fun.” Again, it was so that they weren’t on their Wiis. And by the way, it might be way more functionally adaptive for our kids to be on their Wiis. Like, for all I know, I am robbing my son of a crucial skill by saying, “Cut it out with the iPad!” The world that he’s growing up in demands that they be electronically fluent and they’re obviously going to be thinking in certain ways. Blah, blah, blah. So I don’t even know. This woman’s attachment to having her kids do archery, in Texas, saying, “I really love that they were doing the pine derby relay rather than being on their computers”–I mean, I get it and it’s great. I don’t know if it’s any better.

Photo of Jennifer Senior by Laura Rose

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