The reputation of parenthood has not fared well in the modern era. Social science has concluded that parents are either no happier than people without children, or decidedly unhappier. Parents themselves have grown competitively garrulous on the subject of their dissatisfactions. Confessions of child-rearing misery are by now so unremarkable that the parent who doesn’t merrily cop to the odd infanticidal urge is considered a rather suspect figure. And yet, the American journalist Jennifer Senior argues in her earnest book about modern parenthood, it would be wrong to conclude that children only spoil their parents’ fun. Most parents, she writes, reject the findings of social science as a violation of their ‘deepest intuitions’. In fact, most parents – even the dedicated whingers – will say that the benefits of raising children ultimately outweigh the hardships.
Senior’s characterisation of parenthood as a wondrous ‘paradox’ – a nightmare slog that in spite of everything delivers transcendent joy – has gone down very well in America, where parents seem reassured to find a cheerful, pro-kids message being snatched from the jaws of sleep deprivation and despondency. The book spent six weeks on the bestseller list and has earned Senior the ultimate imprimatur of a lecturing gig at the TED conference. ‘All Joy and No Fun inspired me to think differently about my own experience as a parent,’ Andrew Solomon observed in his New York Times review. ‘Over and over again, I find myself bored by what I’m doing with my children: how many times can we read Angelina Ballerina or watch a Bob the Builder video? And yet I remind myself that such intimate shared moments, snuggling close, provide the ultimate meaning of life.’
It is possible, of course, that some parents are lying, or at least sentimentalising the truth, when they offer up this sort of rosy ‘end-of-the-day’ verdict on parenthood. (There are strong social and emotional incentives for not publicly expressing remorse about one’s reproductive choices.) But Senior rejects this surmise as unduly bleak. Having children, she contends, has always been a ‘high cost/high reward’ activity. If today’s parents appear to be having a horrible time, it is not because they aren’t getting the rewards, but because various aspects of modern life have conspired to make them feel the costs more acutely.
By ‘today’s parents’ Senior means American, middle-class, heterosexual, married parents. These are the people she interviews and about whom she generalises throughout her book. She has deliberately excluded the poor because the problems they encounter as parents are hard to separate from their more general money problems. She has also left out the rich because they can afford to outsource the arduous or tedious parts of child-rearing. Why she has chosen to glance only fleetingly – and pityingly – at the case of single parents is less clear. Given that the marriage rate in the US is the lowest it’s been in more than a century and that in 2013 nearly half of the first-time births in the US were to unmarried women, her focus on the nuclear family seems a bit quaint.
Senior identifies three main reasons why modern parents (according to her limited definition) feel more burdened by parenthood than their forebears. One is that they tend to have greater expectations of the existential satisfaction that children – and life in general – will bring them. With their unprecedented array of ‘lifestyle options’, their tendency to regard happiness and self-actualisation as entitlements and their habit of constantly taking their own emotional temperature, contemporary adults are poorly prepared, she argues, for the self-sacrificing work that child-rearing demands. They also suffer, she believes, from a general confusion about how childcare duties should be divided. Most mothers now work, but guidelines for how they should share domestic labour with their partners have yet to be established, leaving couples with the stressful task of improvising (and fighting about) their own labour-sharing arrangements.
Lastly – and in Senior’s estimation, most significantly – modern parents have to cope with the drastically elevated status of modern children. The useful little trainee adults who, just a century ago, were toiling in fields and factories and contributing to the family purse have been transformed into family pets – ‘economically useless but emotionally priceless’ in the words of the sociologist Viviana Zelizer. (Senior doesn’t mention it, but it’s worth noting that for some years the default phrase used by Americans to congratulate their offspring on any sort of achievement has been, ‘Good job!’ – a wishful idiom, it seems, designed to confer on a child’s economically useless exploits the illusion of the dignity of labour.) Rearing the priceless modern child is now a high performance, perfectible project, requiring an unprecedented outlay of money and time. In 1965, Senior observes, when women had yet to become a sizeable presence in the workforce, mothers spent 3.7 fewer hours per week on childcare than in 2008, even though women in 2008 were working almost three times as many paid hours. Fathers spent more than three times as many hours with their children in 2008 as in 1965.
What were these parents doing with all their extra parenting hours? Specifically, they were reading to their children, playing with them, helping them build replicas of the Giza pyramids, ferrying them to ballet class, taekwondo class, soccer practice, chess lessons, Scouts. Generally, they were attempting to maximise their children’s potential, to optimise their CVs, to ensure their psychological well-being – to make them happy.
Unlike other recent commentators on the middle-class mania for ‘concerted cultivation’, Senior resists the temptation to satirise the phenomenon. The parents she interviews in Minneapolis and Houston cannot be dismissed as neurotics, she argues. Nor can their manic interventions in their children’s lives simply be attributed to ‘coastal overprivilege or Lone Star State-size ambition’. They are sane, decent people responding in understandable ways to an increasingly atomised, suburbanised society, an uncertain, globalised future, and overwhelming social pressure to produce effective, empowered children. She wonders even so whether heroic feats of hot-housing and helicoptering are actually salutary for kids. And she is convinced that they are not good for marriages. In 1975, American couples spent, on average, 12.4 hours alone together per week. By 2000 – thanks in large part to the expansion of their child-focused activities – they spent only nine. (One Houston father interviewed by Senior observes, without irony, that attending his son’s soccer practice with his wife is ‘good mommy-daddy time for having a conversation’.)
Senior acknowledges that more affordable childcare would go a long way to alleviating pressure on working parents but doesn’t press the point with much vigour. Her focus instead is on what parents themselves can do to improve their lot. Her first recommendation is that mothers and fathers – particularly mothers – learn to relax and do less. (The most persuasive piece of data she cites in support of this advice comes from a 1999 survey of children of working parents conducted by the Families and Work Institute: 10 per cent of the surveyed children wanted more time with their mothers, 16 per cent wanted more time with their fathers, and a full 34 per cent said they wished their mothers were ‘less stressed’.) Senior cites approvingly Pamela Druckerman’s recent book, Bringing up Bébé, in which American mothers are encouraged to emulate the less slavish child-rearing customs of French women, but she also suggests that another, equally helpful model for American mothers may be found closer to home – in American fathers:
unencumbered by outsized cultural expectations about what does or doesn’t constitute good parenting, and free from cultural judgments over their participation in the workforce, good fathers tend to judge themselves less harshly, bring less anguished perfectionism to parenting their children … and – at least while their kids are young – more aggressively protect their free time.
A more hands-off approach is only one part of her proposed remedy, however. In addition to lowering parents’ expectations of what they have to give their children, Senior also wants to lower, or at least adjust, their expectations of what children can give them. If, as she believes, part of what modern parents are suffering from is a fretful nostalgia for the fun of their old, childless lives, they must be encouraged to make peace with their lost freedoms. They don’t have to spend as much time building Lego with their kids as they think they do, but when they are on Lego duty, they need to stop thinking wistfully about the better times they might be having at yoga, or in bed with a lover. She quotes Adam Phillips on the value of learning to live ‘somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like’. Parenthood curtails the pursuit of certain kinds of pleasure, she observes, but it also puts those pleasures in perspective, by revealing the deeper, more meaningful satisfactions of connection, attachment and service to others:
Indeed, one could argue that the whole experience of parenthood exposes the superficiality of our preoccupation with happiness, which usually takes the form of pursuing pleasure or finding our bliss. Raising children makes us reassess this obsession and perhaps redefine (or at least broaden) our fundamental ideas about what happiness is. The very things Americans are told almost daily to aspire to may in fact be misguided.
This is a troubling paragraph. It seems reasonable enough for Senior to want to correct some of her fellow Americans’ more callow, entitled attitudes. And she is not to be faulted for pointing out that fun is more usefully regarded as an occasional by-product of experience than as an end in itself. (British readers, who tend to have more modest expectations of life’s fun quotient, may be forgiven for finding her progress towards this revelation a little ponderous.) But there’s something grim about asking parents to resign themselves to the end of paltry bliss-seeking in order to concentrate their energies on the higher satisfactions of duty, service and sacrifice. Let’s by all means concede that parenthood isn’t a trip to the funfair, but does it have to put the funfair off-limits? And can it only be appreciated if the funfair is dismissed as having been a rather childish and squalid diversion? Here and throughout her final chapter, entitled ‘Joy’, Senior sounds suspiciously like a prison guard trying to convince inmates of the superior value of incarceration. Freedom has its cheap kicks, sure, but life behind bars feeds your soul:
‘Joy is very different from the kind of pleasure one gets from pursuing excitement or satisfying a drive. Those pleasures tend to be intense and ephemeral … They’re fun. But also solitary … Joy is almost impossible to experience alone’ … Joy is about being warm, not hot. In Spiritual Evolution, [George Vaillant] offers this lovely maxim. ‘Excitement, sexual ecstasy and happiness all speed up the heart; joy and cuddling slow the heart.’
Even readers who agree with Senior about the loveliness of this maxim may wonder why warm cuddles and hot sex are being pitched as an either/or proposition. This is a place where Senior’s cursory treatment of single parents is particularly keenly felt. Single parents, as she repeatedly points out, have all sorts of problems, but they do tend to date, fall in love and have unmarried sex more frequently than their married peers. In fact, freed from having to ‘work on their marriages’ in the same cuddly, anaphrodisiac setting in which they are nurturing their children, they are quite likely to conclude that nuclear family life, not parenthood, is the true enemy of heat.
Senior’s paeans to parental self-abnegation and her sour grapes attitude to the lower, animal pleasures of excitement and fun provide a disappointing conclusion to a book that elsewhere seemed keen to challenge the dotty child-centricity of modern family life. ‘The most productive, generative adults,’ she writes, ‘see their children as their superegos … Their kids hover over them and guide all of their moral choices … They are exquisitely aware of themselves as role models … They know they are being watched.’ It’s hard to conceive of a creepier vision of parenthood. Children have many selling points, but their capacity to act as their parents’ moral panopticons isn’t one of them.