Book Review: All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior
Book Summary: Jennifer Senior takes a sociological look at how children affect their parent’s happiness. Organized by life stages (marriage, newborns, toddlers, adolescence, post-adolescence), Senior uses several case studies to support her thesis, which in its essence argues: Parents, you’re in for a world of hurt.
You can read a version of this review on Goodreads.com: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/862429980
My Regular Person Review: As an early-30s something married woman, I am smack-dab in the middle of my childbearing years. Even though I’ve been a female for as long as I can remember, this stage in my life has somehow snuck up on me. All of a sudden, I look around and realize that the vast majority of my peers are parents, or are trying to become parents, and maybe I’m missing out on something? Naaaaa.
I picked up this book with the hopes that reading it would reaffirm that I’ve made the correct life choices (stranger validation is the best form of validation, btw). I also appreciated the idea of reading a sociological and somewhat methodological analysis on the effect children have on their parent’s happiness (Note: the book is highly sociological in its perspective, though not so much on the methodology). I was pleased to read in the vast majority of the book that as it turns out, raising children is not all fun and games. Despite what my friends would have me believe on Facebook, babies are not always sitting quietly in their booster seats, curled up angelically in a fruit bowl sleeping, rolling around playfully on the floor, or interacting nicely with their siblings. In fact, it would seem to be nearly the exact opposite, and that my happiness and mental stability will suffer dearly from the day-in-day-out reality of trying to keep my child happy, healthy, and not sitting in its own poop.
After reading Chapters 1 and 2, I sat back and looked at my husband while Neighbor Baby cried loudly through our thin walls, and I thought to myself how lucky I was to not have to deal with the horror of a newborn. Crying aside, there are diapers to change, sleep deprivation, loneliness, alienation, and resentment between couples. The husband comes home from a long day at work, tired, and annoyed that the house is a mess, and he says, “What exactly have you been doing all day? The laundry? Going to Target?” And the wife is all like, “Are you kidding me? This thing has pooped 400 times, and it won’t stop crying, there are Cheerios in my ear, and if I don’t talk to another adult in about 5 seconds, Imma lose it.” And so it goes for another 4 years.
Then there is a breather, it seems. And this is when I started to question my life choices. I happened to read Chapter 3 over a couple of snow days when Neighbor Baby was abnormally quiet. And I thought to myself, “Well, it wouldn’t be so bad to have a little kid to make cookies with, or do an art project with, or take to the movies to see Frozen, since my husband refuses to go with me.” I also start feeling a little like this at the end of my summer vacations. As it turns out, I don’t want a child, I’m just bored. Being bored is no reason to have a child.
And then we hit adolescence. This is the time in a parent’s life where they long for the days of sleepless nights, diapers, and watching The Little Mermaid for the millionth time. No one has a baby thinking that they will eventually turn into a teenager. But they do. And reading those chapters was enough to make me realize that unless someone can assure me that my kid will be just like Rory and that I can be just like Lorelai, I do not want one of them.
But the joy. The joy is what got me in the end. As a sociologist and a high school teacher, I can vouch for the idea that even though the day-to-day reality of people’s lives can be difficult, and that it’s much easier to quantify the fights, the number of sleepless nights, and the money spent on child care, it is nearly impossible to explain quantitatively or qualitatively the overarching existence of joy and happiness that comes from helping another person become independent, compassionate, and a productive member of society.
My Editor Review: There is no doubt in my mind that this was originally the author’s dissertation, and that there were some modifications to the book to make it more mass-market worthy. To be honest, that doesn’t bother me as much as it should. We should all be so lucky to have our dissertations end up on the New York Times Bestseller list. The narrative was well organized and followed a logical progression, the voice and tone were consistent, and the writing and research kept my interest from start to finish. You can’t really ask for more in a text like this.
Aside from clichéd phrases that you’ll only find in academic texts, such as “gap in the literature,” the only thing that I took issue with were the case studies that Senior used to flesh out her arguments. While the families she interviewed had important lessons to contribute to the overall discussion, they weren’t necessarily representative of the larger population. Senior chose middle class families that were raising children under very specific circumstances, which I felt made it hard to apply their struggles to the greater society. I don’t fault her for focusing on this socio-economic group, since the majority of Americans fall into it in one way or another. But, I would have liked to have seen case studies from all socio-economic groups in order to provide us readers with a base for comparison. We might assume that wealthier families have a higher rate of perceived happiness than the middle and lower classes simply due to the availability of resources, but perhaps all families across the socio-economic spectrum are susceptible to the same ups-and-downs inherent in parenthood. Based on the case studies presented in this book, we wouldn’t know.
Quotables from All Joy And No Fun:
“Prospective parents have no clue what their children will be like; no clue what it will mean to have their hearts permanently annexed; no clue what it will feel like to second-guess so many seemingly simple decisions…Becoming a parent is one of the most sudden and dramatic changes in adult life.”
“…Adults often view children as one of life’s crowning achievements, and they approach child-rearing with the same bold sense of independence and individuality that they would any other ambitious life project, spacing children apart according to their own needs and raising them according to their individual child-rearing philosophies.”
“Many women can’t tell whether they’re supposed to be grateful for the help they’re getting or enraged by the help they’re failing to receive.”
“She characterized the modern child as ‘economically worthless but emotionally priceless.'”