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). (more…)