What Ails Modern Parents?

Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun, on the fraught state of raising kids.

Exhausted parents with baby

It’s harder than it used to be, right?

Photo by Noel Hendrickson/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

There was a moment three or four years ago when the media could not stop talking about how miserable parents were—especially mothers. We prefer doing pretty much anything to taking care of our offspring (even housework!), we get less sleep, and we’re more depressed than adults without kids. But, as most parents will tell you, the experience of parenting also provides moments of transcendent, uncomplicated glee: the giggle you share with your toddler, watching your 7-year-old master a math problem, a gossipy lunch with your young adult.

As the parent of a toddler, New York magazine contributing editor Jennifer Senior felt the innate contradiction between the highs and lows of parenting keenly and sought to explain it in her 2010 New York cover story, “All Joy and No Fun.” The piece was a hit, and now it’s a book, also called All Joy and No Fun, out Tuesday.

The book isn’t prescriptive. Senior isn’t admonishing parents to be more mindful or trying to convince them that if they just get more sleep, they’ll be happier and more successful. But it does explain the roots, development, and state of modern parenting culture in a more comprehensive and well-researched way than I’ve seen.

Up until the 20th century, parents’ roles were clearly defined, and so were their children’s. You had children because you needed someone to work the farm, so you taught your kid to be a farmer, and that child provided labor to the family. But once having a child became a choice rather than a necessity and children were no longer providing economic support to their families, the roles got scrambled and remain fraught. When becoming a parent became a choice, we also expected more from the role. As Senior puts it, we’re regarding children “as sources of existential fulfillment rather than as ordinary parts of our lives.”

I talked to Senior at a coffee shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, N.Y. We discussed why parenting has become even crazier in the past 30 years, the dangers in the pursuit of happiness, and the surprisingly violent urges of teenage girls.

Slate: In the book, you outline how parenting fundamentally changed in the past century or so. But it seems like the craziness has accelerated over the past 30 years. I look at my mom’s experience of parenting, and there didn’t seem to be the same expectations of parental happiness, and there weren’t the same pressures on parents to spend so much time cultivating their children. Do you think things have changed even more dramatically in the past few decades, and if so, why?

Jennifer Senior:  I can give two answers. The first thing is parents don’t realize they’re living in the middle of a historic transition, which is to say only since the 1950s did the old roles go away. Kids used to work. They worked on their family’s behalf. Just to give it a precise point in time, in 1940, only half of all American teenagers graduated from high school. That was the tipping point. Right on the eve of the war. Until then, 51 percent or more of teenagers were still working and kicking in money to their families. Which to me is astounding.

What that means is, the first main thing that changed in the wake of the Second World War is we had this sheltered childhood. Kids weren’t wage earners. And absent kids being wage earners, you have to figure out what the kid does and what you have to do. And after the war years, there was this unprecedented prosperity. You could raise your kid on one wage. This is just a guess, but maybe some of the old attitudes were still there at that point; kids weren’t fully sentimentalized.

Now we’re in this place where we just know two things: We have to nurture our kids for a future we can’t see, and we have to shore up their self-esteem because we’ve decided that they’re special and they’re vulnerable. Ever since self-esteem became a goal, and it started to become a goal in the 1970s with Free to Be You and Me and all that, was the moment kids became fully precious. In the 20th century, one of the triumphs, but also one of its sorry outcomes, was we all decided human happiness became achievable.

Let’s say it first started in the ’50s, and then there was an acceleration in the ’70s when women first went to work, and there was this misplaced idea that happiness above all else was what we wanted for ourselves, but also for our children.

But I think that the biggest acceleration is globalization. So let’s say the ’90s. Because then you’re trying to prepare your kids for a future you can’t see, which was the Margaret Mead reasoning. When I was in high school in the late ’80s, the idea was we all had to learn Japanese. That didn’t turn out to be the case. So now it’s like, every kid needs to learn Mandarin, and it seems to be true sitting from here, but I don’t know.

Slate: Another thing that struck me about your book is how much more time parents spend parenting than they used to. I remember a stat from your book about how only a very small percentage of children said they wished they saw their mothers and fathers more often. Is all this time spent on child care doing anything other than making parents unhappy?

Senior: This is a body of literature that I didn’t drill very deeply into, because as you point out, it’s about the children, and my book is about the parents. But there’s a huge body of literature that seems to be emerging saying that being overweening and being overhelicoptering is backfiring. In terms of precisely the things I was just talking about: self-esteem. There was that Middlebury sociologist [Margaret K. Nelson, the author of Parenting Out of Control] who wrote that too many hours was working out the wrong way. I don’t read all those books because I’m over it, but there’s plenty of evidence that having a depressed parent is bad for you.

Slate: Do you think that part of modern parents not enjoying parenthood is a question of control? As you point out, men and women are single for much longer than they were in previous decades. So we feel like we can really shape our lives, and then we’re shocked and confused when we can’t control our lives after we have kids, and we can’t control their lives either.

Senior: It’s a great point. Like I said in the book, this is the one binding obligation we have. You can change your job, your husband, you can change where you live—we’ve got unprecedented mobility. But you can’t walk away from your child.

But you’re saying something, which is much more nuanced, which is that you also can’t change the outcome. You can’t control who they become—you can, but only a little bit.

Slate: Exactly. I see this as the mother of a baby—we all seem obsessed with what we eat when we’re pregnant and whether we’re breast-feeding, when it really doesn’t matter as much as we think it does. It’s this feeling we can control outcomes.

Senior: Children are constantly in the business of upending our illusions of control. I think that’s particularly true in the teen years. This SUNY psychologist I spoke to, Joanne Davila, said the parents of kids in their elementary school years can help their children become someone who the parents think their kids should become. But once you hit the teen years, parents have to help their kids become who the kids want to become. And accepting that is so insane for some parents. It’s so hard.

Slate: Your book doesn’t try to give advice, but I did come away with a great tidbit. There’s a father of three in the book, Clint, whose wife, Angie, worries about whether she’s a good enough mother. Clint does not worry about whether he’s a good enough parent, and he doesn’t worry about what other parents do. He says: “I am the standard.” I’ve said that to myself any number of times since I read the book: “I’m not going to care about what the moms in my moms group do. I am the standard!”

Senior: Men really are more inclined to say that to themselves. They just don’t have all that static electricity coming in through those channels. I mean, they don’t have a dads group, probably. They’re not on parenting message boards as mothers might be. If the kid’s having a problem, they’re not the ones running off to the bookshelf for the parenting book, looking in the index to see if they’ve been doing it right or wrong all along, or if there’s a quote “better way.” They don’t know their way around BabyCenter.

And you know, they still get points just for being actively involved. We are still at the point where they are getting points! I look at how easy my husband is on himself  around my son sometimes, and I just think, “I have to take my cues from this guy.” I’m sure it’s what made me look at Clint with the same eye.

Slate: Were there any other experiences you had writing the book that you think changed the way you parented?

Senior: Early on when I was just doing my archival spelunking, I came across a body of studies that talked about the fact that parents who are self-regulating—where it’s one of their core character strengths—are not necessarily happier people, but it’s one of the best predictors for your kid’s happiness. I didn’t put it in the book, for one, because the book is about parents, not about children and their outcomes.

But I also I thought it seemed slightly punitive to put it in, because we know this. We know kids do not do well when they get screamed at. It makes perfect intuitive sense that you should control yourself as well as you can. But I have to say, seeing how well it worked out when someone didn’t lose his shit? Amazing. But I’m not saying I can always do it.

Slate: What was the biggest surprise for you in your research?

Senior: That adolescent girls expressed all those violent wishes toward their mothers. They didn’t enact their violent impulses, but they actually express the wish to hurt their parents more than boys do. I never thought girls were so precious, but I was really surprised by that.

There’s only so much you can learn through structured studies that take place in university labs, but there seems to be a very consistent thread running through them: That about every three minutes a mom had to say something because she needed to redirect the course of her toddler. That’s a lot. I bet if I had timed myself, it would have worked out that way when my kid was 2.

This interview has been condensed and edited.