Are We Having Fun Yet? New Book Explores The Paradox Of Parenting
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, in for Terry Gross. Our guest, Jennifer Senior, writes about how children change the lives of their parents for better and sometimes for worse. She's the author of "All Joy And No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood," which just came out in paperback. Senior considers the impact of children on marriage, sex, work, friendships and one's sense of self. Her book draws on a wide variety of studies, surveys, social histories and interviews with parents. This research is reflected in, quote, "the lives of real families in their kitchens and bedrooms, during carpool and over homework hours as they go about their daily business," unquote. Senior is the mother of a 7-year-old son. She's a contributing editor at New York Magazine. Terry spoke with her last year when her book was first published.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Jennifer Senior, welcome to FRESH AIR. So what does all joy, no fun mean to you?
JENNIFER SENIOR: It's a very economical way of describing, I think, the experience of parenting. It's a phrase that a friend of mine used almost parenthetically. It was this very offhand kind of comment that he had made when he became a new dad. He - that's how he described parenthood. He said that it was all joy and no fun, I think meaning that the highs are great, that there is something transcendent about the experience itself, but that the day-to-day strains are really, really tough and might interfere with what we traditionally think of as fun.
GROSS: Do you think there are ways in which being a parent has been sentimentalized in our culture?
SENIOR: Oh, my God, yes. And the way that - like, in the way that almost like if you read a Jane Austen novel, the way that, like, getting married was sentimentalized or something. I mean, it's - and I think it's - in a way, it's become the capstone to a middle-class life. I mean, you do everything first if you're a middle-class person. You get your education first. You settle into your career first. You get married first. You buy your house first. And then, oh, this big thing: You have a kid.
And also, there's kind of a historic transformation one can almost look at that shows the moment that having children was sentimentalized, which was really, like, let's say between 1890 to 1920. Activists really started, you know, aggressively protesting child labor. And around that time, kids became economically worthless and emotionally priceless. These are the words of a very shrewd and wonderful sociologist named Viviana Zelizer.
And she pointed out that kids just became these vulnerable, priceless creatures rather than economic assets in the family. And ever since then, steadily and surely, they have become these exalted creatures at the center of our lives. It's become, I think, in some ways much less clear what a parent's role is. We're now not exactly sure what we do in relation to our kids, and that's very hard, I think.
GROSS: What do you mean by that? Because I think parents do know what they do in relation to their kids. They raise them and teach them about life, and feed them and shelter them.
SENIOR: Right, but you know what's - I mean, that is, in fact, true. But, I mean, if you go to a bookstore, and you look at, like, the parenting shelves, they're just heaving with guides, right. I mean, there's just, like, a zillion of them. And when children were economically valuable to us, the parents were always really very clear. We provided food and shelter for them, and we probably provided them education, you know, because kids weren't going to public schools and completing high school until, like, 1940. That's when about 50 percent of all American kids graduated from school.
OK. Then kids stopped working for, you know, for the family, and our jobs became twofold. Number one, it was to kind of nurture them, but we're nurturing them for a future that we absolutely can't fathom. And the other thing is parents now think that they are supposed to be shoring up their children's self-esteem. They think that they're supposed to be making their children happy, now that we regard children as very precious and valuable and priceless.
But if you think about it, that's a really weird goal. I mean, it's very hard to teach your child to be happy and to be self-confident. It's not like teaching them how to do math or how to plow a field. You know, teaching your children happiness is a very vague and elusive idea.
GROSS: Now, you say in the book it used to be believed that couples were happier with children, and that children could even help save a marriage. But the latest research - some of the latest research contradicts that. So tell us about some of the research you've read about the correlation between the happiness of a couple and whether or not they have children.
SENIOR: Yeah, that is depressingly some of the most robust research out there, that the transition to parenthood is incredibly difficult for couples. I don't know if it was ever true that, as a matter of research, kids improved marriages. Starting from the 1950s, there was good evidence that they were, in fact, compromising marriages.
And this started with a study by E.E. LeMasters in 1957. There's been tons of work, particularly by this couple called the Cowens, Carolyn and Philip Cowen, out in Berkeley, who have been looking at this for probably a quarter of a century. And what they notice is that parents fight more. They fight more aggressively.
Kids seem to cause a lot of strain in a marriage, and a lot of it is about the division of labor. I think that since women started working, this has become incredibly tense. We don't have scripts for this. We still don't know who does what now that women work.
GROSS: When somebody has a baby, they're always told you're not going to get any sleep for a long time. But you point out that some people truly can't deal with sleep deprivation, and that it is sleep deprivation. I mean, there's going to be a period of time when you're just getting a few hours of sleep a night, if you're lucky, and that - for some people, that's fine. For some people, that's - you know, it's difficult. But for some people, it's just kind of impossible to handle.
SENIOR: The population essentially divides into thirds in terms of how it copes with sleep deprivation. And, by the way, it knows no gender. It's not that men are better at or women are better at it. It's - there's really no telling. But one-third of the population seems to be OK when they experience protracted sleep loss. I mean, they're cranky, but they're functional, and they're reasonably polite to the people around them.
Another third are compromised and kind of cranky, and things aren't so great. And then another third react catastrophically, like, they're just basket cases. And you absolutely don't know who you're going to be. It's not like any of the previous experiences that you've had with sleep deprivation are analogous. Like, those all-nighters that you might have pulled at a job or in college or doing a night shift, they're not going to be terribly predictive unless they were, you know, for weeks and weeks and possibly years on end. There's no way to know.
And by the way, I was a category three. I was like a banana boat. I mean, I was just terrible on no sleep.
So yeah, that was one of the most crazy-making kind of studies to run across. And it was well-designed, and it had, like, a large population sample. So I'm guessing it's going to be replicated.
GROSS: So I'm wondering when you were sleep-deprived and couldn't handle it, did that lead to depression? Did it lead to you questioning whether you were a good mother or should have become a mother in the first place?
SENIOR: Let's see. Yes, no, and no.
SENIOR: I had depression, yes. Yes, it made me very depressed for sure. Did it question my becoming a mom? No. I think because - so in the middle of the night, even though it's, like, the worst, right, you're so tired, and you're just looking at your kid and going please go back to bed, like, you know, like please. The thing is, some of the most magical things happen in the middle of the night.
So, like, my kid at one month looked directly at me at one point and kind of cooed. It was this recognition. It was like oh, like, you're my mom. And I'd like to think that when I'm dying I'll remember that because it was really wild. And if you don't have any religious instincts, which unfortunately I don't, I was like born without them, that is like as close as I'm going to come to awe.
So even in my, like, depressive, sleep-deprived, hysterical, loony-tunes state, like, I remembered thinking that was just the bomb. It was really magic.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jennifer Senior. She is a contributing editor at New York magazine and author of the new book "All Joy And No Fun: The Paradox Of Modern Parenthood." And this is a good point to mention - that you point out that your book is really focused on middle-class parents because, like, parents who are poor have so many other complicating factors in their lives like not having enough money for food, having, like, lots of jobs in order to keep things running or maybe having no job and living on various assistance programs, and that those are complicating factors that are kind of different from what the middle class faces, and you didn't want to kind of confuse the two. Did I explain that clearly?
SENIOR: You totally did, and I'm glad you said it, but yes, I mean, if you have to work three jobs, or if you have to commute, you know, two and a half hours each way to your job, and if you're barely making ends meet, your parenting life just looks very different than somebody whose job is a normal commuting distance away and who makes a normal, you know, living wage, you know.
I also, though, just to point out, did not write about parents who are very, very wealthy either. I think almost every kid in my book went to public school. There were very few people who made, like, lots and lots of money, because if you have lots and lots of money to throw at your problems, it also makes your life much easier.
And if you have round-the-clock childcare, and you can go out a lot, and you can outsource a lot of the difficult parts of parenting, I don't think you're having the same experience either.
BIANCULLI: Author Jennifer Senior speaking to Terry Gross last year - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2014 interview with author Jennifer Senior. Her book about child rearing and its impact on the parents is called "All Joy And No Fun: The Paradox Of Modern Parenthood." It's now out in paperback.
GROSS: Another study you cite in your book "All Joy And No Fun" is about mothers dealing with empty nests after their child or children have left. And you said that the conventional wisdom is that the mother despairs at the empty nest, but the study found that actually mothers became happier. A majority of mothers became happier when they had no children at home anymore.
SENIOR: Yeah, this is interesting and also replicated consistently, and it's fascinating. Men tend to be sadder than women. The first study that was ever done on this was in 1975, and it's been replicated many times since. The most interesting findings surrounding this particular point have to do with the way mothers respond to their adolescent children.
They seem to weather adolescence worse than dads, particularly if they have daughters but I think just generally. They are so alive to the tensions in the house and the anger in the house and those rejecting kind of behaviors of their kids that they've been all along kind of separating from their children and feeling the kind of hurts of separation.
So when their child finally leaves, I think many of them experience it as a bit of a relief, and it's just not quite so painful, and then they're able to enjoy having raised their child. I think a lot of it is that, you know, that - just the pain of adolescence. Oh, and also during adolescence, as a P.S., Mothers are the enforcers. They're the cops. They're the bad cops. They're the nags. You know, they spend more time with their children, generally.
So just imagine all these fights that you're getting into where you're trying to regulate screen time and trying to regulate who kids' friends are, which they really resent, you know, they don't like that, and they're weighing in on your musical tastes, you know, and your adolescent doesn't like that.
And then finally your kid leaves, and you think, well, I've done my part. You know, I can't do anymore. And so a lot of mothers, it was surprising to me, they experienced this as a relief.
GROSS: Something that I have to say really surprised me in your book and sounds really counterintuitive, you know, and this, this I understand. Today parents pour more capital, emotional and financial, into their children than ever before. And certainly I think it is more expensive than ever before to have a child.
But you write that parents - studies show parents are spending longer, more concentrated hours with their children than they did when the workday ended at 5:00 and most women stayed home. Can you explain that?
SENIOR: No. I mean yes, of course I can explain - I can explain the forces that contributed to that. But I mean every time I read that statistic, and it's a meticulously compiled statistic, you know, it's done from the American Time Use Studies, where Americans sit down and fill out a form describing everything they do for every minute of the day.
I mean, this is one of the - it's a goldmine. It's one of the best long-running longitudinal studies that we have. It's really fantastic. Why this would be, I mean I have a couple of theories. One is that I think, first of all, we are now under the impression that in order to get our children ahead, you know, we really have to cultivate them, that being average is no longer sufficient, that, you know, you have to be outstanding, and that is going to require a lot of extra time and effort.
So there is this woman in my book who I really liked. She was a lovely, very sympathetic woman. And she said to me - it was this, like, little epigramatic gem. She said, you know, I think homework is the new dinner. Like her dinner table had been totally given over to her kids' homework, and she was just sitting there working on it with them.
And she didn't know how to cook. Like it was just like filled with the detritus of, like, some takeout meal. Like what they were doing at that table was not eating. You know, they were, like, reading and doing writing assignments and doing math. That was her way of giving to her children, not standing at a stove and making them a meal while they sat and played on the floor or played outside.
And I think it was just part of this deep-seated anxiety she had about getting them ahead. The other thing is that I do think that because so many women are working now, there is this intense pressure on them to also show that they are deeply, you know, committed mothers. And I think that one of the best indicators that we have of this transformation is in this little switcheroo in language that we have.
In the 1960s, if you stayed home with your kids, what were you, you were a housewife. You focused on your house. You didn't focus on your kids, you focused on your house. Your house had to be clean, you had to master the differences between oven cleaners and floor waxes and stuff that made your wood nice and shiny, but you put your kids in a playpen. Like, that's what you did.
And now if you stay home with your kids, you are a stay-at-home mom. You focus on your kids. You are a professional mom. And you focus on the right toys for your kids, the right educational things for your kids. So all the women who are working, when they are not working, they want to be professional moms, too. So they are pouring all of this energy into their children in their off hours.
GROSS: I was thinking back to my memories of when my mother stayed home to raise the children. And, you know, before I went to school or when I'd come home from school, you know, in the afternoon, my memories really are not so much of my mother like playing with me or doing homework with me. My memories are more of me being in my room, either playing with a friend or playing by myself, or if I was older, like doing homework while my mother did her thing. You know, which was cleaning the house or maybe talking on the phone with a friend but, you know, shopping for food, preparing the food. She was always busy with something but it wasn't necessarily parenting.
But she was there. You know, like, I always knew she was there and I always knew that my brother and I were the most important things in her life - period, no questions asked, no doubt about it. But it doesn't mean that she was playing with me all the time or focusing on me all the time, you know, during her typical day.
SENIOR: It's so true. And it's amazing, right, because her love ran in the background for you. I mean you just said it, you knew.
GROSS: Oh, it was just a given. It was unquestionable.
SENIOR: I have to say, I just listened to that and I am so envious. You know, I try to practice that, right? It's hard. I mean, I think there is this real expectation from all of our kids now that we should be their playmates. And I am constantly saying to my kid, you know, you're bored, go clean your room, you know, like, or go like play with your stuff. You've got so much stuff. And our kids have way more stuff than, like, you and I had when we were kids. Like, there's plenty for them to do. Not to mention, like, many electronic babysitting options, which no one likes to talk about but, you know, you can also send your kid off to go play chess on the iPad if you want to feel virtuous about sending your kid off to play with the iPad. You know, and yet all of us feel like we have to be deeply aggressively interactive and I don't, I'm not clear on whether or not kids benefit from that.
I mean people are looking at that now and claiming that it's backfiring and that this form of helicoptering is not as good for a child's self-esteem as the kind of drone model that our parents had, which was kind of like they were more remote. And I have to say, I just think it's really hard on parents and I do question whether it's good for kids, just because it might set up this very unrealistic expectation that like if they snap their fingers someone's going to be there to answer them. I mean it's like we've all become Jeeves and they're Bertie Wooster. It's a little weird, you know?
BIANCULLI: Author Jennifer Senior speaking to Terry Gross last year. Her book about modern parenthood called "All Joy And No Fun" is now out in paperback. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross back with more of Terry's interview from last year with author Jennifer Senior. Her book, "All Joy And No Fun: The Paradox Of Modern Parenthood," is now out in paperback. It draws on research studies, history and her own interviews, with the goal of examining how children affect their mothers' and fathers' lives and describing what today's parents find so challenging about raising children. Senior is a contributing editor at New York Magazine.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about adolescence, which is I think a particularly hard period for many parents.
SENIOR: Oh, my god. I mean, again, it's documented in these ways that are so meticulous and almost funny. I mean there were researchers who have actually taken the pains - a woman named Susan McHale, I mean this was, she's at Penn State, she did this unbelievable study where she looked at kids who are not yet adolescent - they were just faltering on the precipice of adolescence -and then checked in with them later as their voices began to break - if they were boys, or as they were starting to get their periods, if they were girls - and started like and checked to see how their parents were doing. And sure enough, their parents started doing worse the minute these changes started happening. I mean, it was kind of amazing. I mean, how rigorously designed her work was. Yeah, I mean, it's been shown.
GROSS: So adolescence is often the most stressful period for the parents' marriage.
SENIOR: It appears that way. Yeah, that's what the graphs tend to look like. And I think some of it too is that, look, you're not having arguments any more about like whether or not you should be feeding your kids, like, soft foods or hard foods. And you're not, like, having arguments about, like, hey, look, I got up last night with the kid. Would you please get up with the, you know, kid tonight, like, and cut me some slack? You're having arguments about, like, your child's work ethic and whether that kid is being, you know, is turning into a moral creature. And you're also doing something that might be slightly dangerous, which is that you're projecting. Like, this is something that a UCLA psychologist talked to me at length about, and it was really poignant. And it made so much sense, and it was so - it was almost novelistic, his descriptions.
He said he would get couples coming into his office and, you know, one of the kid would - you know, one of their kids would be like kind of showing a little bit of laziness. And the wife would turn to the husband and say, you know, well, in the same way that you are kind of not that aggressive when you try to ask for a raise, like, our son is doing that now. You know, or, like, the husband would look at the wife and say, well, gee, our daughter is turning into a screamer. I wonder where she got that. You know, I mean these are really painful fights. You know, you're looking at your kid and seeing, like, the incipient stages of adulthood and adult characteristics; things that, you know, you can't, you can't really dismiss traits anymore as just being like phases or cute, you know? You got to reckon with them.
GROSS: You also write about the neurological underpinnings of the risk-taking, sometimes foolish risk-taking, and combativeness that a lot of adolescence teenagers express. What are some of those neurological things going on?
SENIOR: Wow. Yeah. They're crazy. So the adolescent brain is this really interesting thing. First of all, the prefrontal cortex is not quite done developing. And the prefrontal cortex is what is responsible for kind of rational decision-making and planning and impulse control. So there's a reason that, like, teenage kids, like, take dumb risks. You know, I mean, the mechanism that actually should be functioning as their brake pedal is not fully developed. It's a rather weak brake.
They also tend to sort of overestimate the reward that they will get from taking risks, which is interesting to me. Their brains are just awash in dopamine, which is the feel-good hormone, so they feel everything very, very, very intensely - and that's everything from crushes to, you know, rejection. It's the good and the bad. So it's a real adventure having been in the house. What's so interesting is that it now looks like the prefrontal cortex keeps developing, like, right into your, like, mid-20s. So the only kind of group of people who seemed to figure this out before neuroscientists was car insurance companies.
SENIOR: Like, they actually knew; you do not give a car to anyone under the age 25. Like, I guess it was showing up, like, in their statistics, like, these people, like, drive like maniacs, and there's a reason. So there you go.
GROSS: Let's get back to talking about toddlers and preschoolers. You point out that there are so many moments in a parent's day when they're trying to get their toddler or preschooler to do something or to compromise on something and how exhausting that is. And how you never know, like, so when do you just give in.
SENIOR: Yeah. It's the hardest calculation for a parent to make. Again, particularly if they have been working in rational environments, you know, where, like, rational discourse is kind of the coin of the realm. You know, if you are a college-educated woman, odds are you are 30.3 years old when you have your first kid. So you've had like 10 years behind you of kind of being in the workforce - or let's say eight or five or whatever - and talking to people where, like, you say something, and they say something back, and it all makes sense. And then you have, like, a 2-year-old, and you say something, and nothing makes sense because, you know, they can't reason yet. Toddlers do not have the machinery to reason. They live in the permanent present, they barely have any prefrontal cortexes to speak of. But all of us seem to make the same mistake. We argue with them as if logic played - will have any sway over these kids. But they don't. It can't, really. I mean, their brains aren't optimized for logic. That's not what they do.
I mean, little kids are like insects with eyes all over their heads. You know, they're kind of just sweeping in the world and they're living in the present and they're, like, taking in a lot of stimuli. But, like, if you say to them, no, you can't have that cookie right now, you've got to have that cookie in, like, 10 minutes, like, it's a catastrophe for them. They do not know what 10 minutes from now means because, you know, what your prefrontal cortex does is explains to you that all things will come in good time. That, you know, if you just wait and you restrain your impulses then, you know, you will be rewarded later. I mean that's not where they live. It's not where they are. So it just winds up being this temporal mismatch and this kind of mismatch in sensibilities. And as an instructor pointed out to me, no 3-year-old or 2-year-old has ever looked at their mother or father and said, oh yeah, you're right. That's a really great point, mom. OK. Like they never do that.
GROSS: So in addressing, like, the neurological underpinnings of the behavior of a toddler, how does the prefrontal cortex come into play here?
SENIOR: OK. So the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that plans, that reasons and very importantly, for a toddler, that kind of manages impulses. You know, it's responsible for impulse control. So you can imagine that if you, as a parent, are reckoning with a small person whose prefrontal cortex is barely developed - and that is true of a toddler - then you're going to be spending a lot of time trying to explain to them that the things they want they can't always get and they will get them later. But later is a very hard concept for them. And understanding gratification as a thing that will eventually come doesn't happen so much. It's very hard to reason with a toddler. That's what the prefrontal cortex does. It's responsible for reasoning. It's responsible for planning. So, you know, just imagine having a human being in your house who lives in the present, in the moment all the time while you're trying to plan. You're trying to plan your day. You're trying to get them out the door to go to school. You're trying to convince them why it's a good idea to wear snow boots. You know, and they don't see why it's a good idea to wear snow boots. You know, they're not thinking, you know, rationally about, oh, yes, there's snow on the ground outside and therefore I should probably dress appropriately. That's not how a toddler thinks, and a lot of that is because the prefrontal cortex is not completely developed.
GROSS: We have kind of focused a lot on what studies say about the difficulties of being a parent, so let's kind of switch it for a second. Your book is called "All Joy And No Fun." Let's get to some of the joy. And I don't know how many of the studies that you refer to in your book really focus on joy. So you want to give some equal time to joy?
SENIOR: I'd love to. And, you know, the studies don't focus on it so much. I have to sort of go to philosophy and novels in order to discuss the joy. The problem with these studies is that if you're feeling good about something, you know, you rank it a five. So that moment that I was describing with my baby looking at me and cooing at me - which was, like, just like this transcendent moment in my life - would rate the same if I'm doing everything on a scale of one to five, as, like, a dinner with a friend, if I had a really great time at that dinner. In the same way that, like, you know, on Amazon, you know, a John Grisham novel and, you know, and Charles Dickens like kind of get fives, you know, but they're not necessarily the same experience, you know.
And also, I can't remember who said this to me - I think it was George Vaillant, a psychiatrist who is kind of a poet-philosopher, too - he pointed out that, like, it's kind of like using a number to describe a taste. You know, how do you do that? So I think that social science misses a lot of the joy.
And, you know, one of the remarkable things about joy is that it is sort of predicated on this idea of being very connected to somebody. I think Christopher Hitchens described, you know, having kids as, you know, your heart running around in somebody else's body. And that feeling is so powerful, it's almost scary, because there's almost, like, an implied sense of loss about it.
It's, like, you love somebody so much, that you are almost automatically afraid of losing them, like, that this connection is so deep, that you can't think of that connection without thinking of that connection being broken. So joy, in some ways, is almost a harder feeling to tolerate than sadness, in some ways, because it's so powerful and makes us so vulnerable. But it's why it is also so profoundly special and what makes parenting, to so many of us, so huge and incomparable.
GROSS: I'd like to have you end by reading the end of your book and the acknowledgements, the words that you say to your son, who is now 6.
SENIOR: Oh, yeah. Thank you for asking me that. I say: Without this kid, the world wouldn't be half so beautiful or half so meaningful or half so large. How I love you, darling boy. You'll never know the half of it. And that's just fine.
GROSS: Jennifer Senior, thank you so much for talking with us, and good luck raising your son.
SENIOR: Thank you.
BIANCULLI: Author Jennifer Senior speaking to Terry Gross last year. Senior's book on child rearing and its affect on parents called "All Joy And No Fun: The Paradox Of Modern Parenthood" is now out in paperback. Coming up, we remember TV and radio personality Joe Franklin, who died last Saturday.
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