All Joy and No Fun: One-on-One With Jennifer Senior

Featured Article, Growth and Development, Parenting Styles

Award-winning journalist Jennifer Senior did the research and found the answers to what most parents suspect but hadn’t yet confirmed: that parenting is all joy and no fun. In her new release, titled just that—All Joy and No Fun, she explores what she calls the paradox of modern parenthood. We recently chatted with her to find out more about what went into her research and the interesting things she discovered along the way. Here’s what she had to say: You really focus on the household division of labor and the staggering gender differences tied to outcomes versus expectations. Talk more about the patterns you observed.

Jennifer Senior: When both parents are working, there’s often a default notion that things will be 50/50. Women took on a disproportionate burden from the very beginning because women are now encouraged very strongly to breastfeed. From the get go, there are things that only they can do that men can’t. In some ways, it’s the force of habit. It takes a lot of counter-programming. Also, men start encountering greater pressures at work. Their employers aren’t degenerate to them, as female employers are. Women are often the ones who are pleading for more flexibility. Their employers come to expect it from women and less from men. So they work fewer hours than their husbands, but they come home and are still on the shot clock. Home is not a haven for women. Men come home and do not feel responsible for the deadline centered tasks, whereas women really do. This is something the American Economy Survey has found. It’s something sociologists have found. And then again, that’s become habit. It’s also interesting to me that women are the family nags and disciplinarians.

DP: Do you feel that older parents have a better sense of self and a better sense of priority and subsequently parent better?

JS: What’s interesting and sort of paradoxical about older parents is they have more means, they have more money, and they have more wisdom. But they also have a bigger sense of professional esteem going on. They are probably better able to retain their places when they go back to the office, because they’ve built up some credibility and some bona fide sense in their world. But they’re also at peak performance mode when they have a kid. Yes, it’s true that parents who are older have more wisdom but it’s true they don’t have more energy. I think it’s clear that the data suggests the economic outcomes are better for children of women who have gone to college. But I can’t say that older parents are better. I don’t think that there’s any way of knowing that.

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DP: You mention a quote that summarizes the precarious position of modern children: “economically worthless, but emotionally priceless.” What would you say about that idea as it relates to the parents you observed?

JS: It’s a very good way of thinking about why parents are suffering without exactly understanding what’s going on in their lives. No parent sits around saying, “Oh I know what’s going on in my life, I’m living through a historic transition.” But they are, because kids used to be economic assets. It’s a good thing that they’re not anymore. It was never a humane arrangement, but the fact of the matter is, there is nothing economically rational about how we raise our families now. The family was an economically rational unit when kids chipped in something to the family too, and parents, in exchange, gave them food, shelter, clothing and moral education. Now that they don’t, parents are going broke in order to cultivate their children, and they are spending all of their extra time cultivating their children. They are doing all these extra things on their children’s behalf that are not actually economically rational. It causes a lot of anxiety. It causes a lot of stress. We are pouring more and more time into our kids.

DP: You observed parents who hyper-programmed their children with extracurricular activities and all sorts of enrichment. What was the parental end game?

JS: I think most parents, when they are filling in their kids’ schedules very aggressively, they are doing it because they are very anxious. It’s not because they are status-oriented. It’s not because they are competitive parenting. It’s because they genuinely want their kids to have a foothold in the shrinking middle class I also think that because the world is changing so very, very rapidly, they don’t actually know what’s going to position their kids to be successful. They sign their kids up for everything, just hoping that one thing will work. It’s not like you can teach your kid to inherit your farm. Kids are no longer inheriting our own ways of life. We no longer raise them to be like us anymore. These are all drivers of parental anguish.

DP: Let’s shift to this idea of mothers as disciplinarians and fathers as friends. What are the mechanics of this dynamic, and how does it manifest in a marriage?

JS: It’s certainly the subject of a lot of arguments, particularly in the teen years. Because if you’re the bad cop, you’re constantly cast as the bad cop, and also you’re arguing with yourself about a genuine philosophical difference because you believe you should be tougher on the kids. In terms of how it manifests, there’s data about this. In the teen years, moms are more apt to be trying to figure who their teens’ friends are … where they live, their phone numbers. Moms are more apt to be regulating screen time. If you ask parents, women are much more apt to identify as the disciplinarian than men. Men really do concede that “It’s not me, it’s my wife.”

DP: Speak to your experiences where you observed and engaged single-parent households. How did the challenges shift or magnify?

JS: They are magnified. What you continually hear from single parents is that they are exhausted. Now, Americans have fewer friends than they used to, they have fewer dinners with their neighbors than they used to. Everything falls back to the marriage to support a kid. And if you don’t have a marriage, you don’t even have that unit of two, how stressed out are you? It all falls to you. Child care falls to you. Paying for healthcare falls to you. Managing their education falls to you. Creating educational readiness falls to you. In other countries, there are social supports for these things; there’s more unity. Homes are even closer together. We live very far apart from our neighbors in the United States. We live in very large houses. Everybody seems to have less time for friendship. If women were going to go to work, there were going to be fewer women around.

DP: There’s a lot of anxiety attached to children transitioning into adolescence. What do you deem the biggest challenge for parents raising teenagers?

JS: I think in a funny way, the mere fact that kids are protected for so long. Kids used to work, but it’s good that they aren’t. When teenagers were able to pour their risk-taking impulses into worthier pursuits, I think it was easier. There’s a reason that teenagers are built for risk. They are biologically primed to leave the house. Leaving the home is hard. In order to leave home, you have to have a purposeful requisite. You have to be willing to take some risks. We are now sheltering our kids for so long that there’s no place to really supplement those impulses, so they go to whatever is available in the family garage—to the car or to a skateboard, which they will turn around and ride down the roof. I think it’s hard. I think it’s the reason why parents like sending their kids on Outward Bound wilderness programs and things like it that involve prescribed risks.

DP: Let’s talk about mothers in 2014: the same group with unprecedented career lives and unprecedented career opportunities. Do you feel that they are happier and more effective parents, or collectively as women, much more stressed out and less effective parents?

JS: I hate thinking about these things in terms of happiness. I think happiness is a misguided goal. I think we should embrace our obligations and the complexity of our lives. I wouldn’t want to say whether we are happier or less happy. Instead, it’s that Indiana Jones moment of “We’ve been digging in the wrong place.” We should stop thinking about whether we are more or less happy. We have to stop being tortured by the lives we didn’t live. We have to stop being tortured by happiness as an ideal. Or think that if we aren’t self-actualized every minute of the day, then we’re failures. I think that 2014 is highly confusing. The role of the child is so new. We are protecting the child so aggressively and trying to cultivate them. Their work is now our work. Their work is soccer lessons and tennis and violin and homework that we have to check. That’s very stressful for all of us. I think that makes our work very hard and very complicated. We still think that we are supposed to be making uber-excellent super children instead of moral, productive children. Frankly, it’s quite easier to make moral, productive children, and that was, in fact, a goal. So, we think that because we’re supposed to make uber-excellent, super children and happy children, that’s the goal. And that’s probably really, really hard.

Click here to learn more about All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.

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