About a decade ago, when the girls were 6 months and almost 2, I showed up to the lobby of my office building just as I had every morning for five years and started rooting around my bag for the I.D. that would grant me access through the turnstiles. It was probably about 9:30, which meant I had likely been up four hours, and the caffeine hit from the single cup of coffee I allowed myself (breastfeeding, pumping, etc.) had long worn off. I seemed to find everything else in that bag — wallet, yellow-capped Medela bottles, Disney figurines — but not my I.D. Watching everyone else glide through to the elevator bank was too much for my sleep-deprived state — so I stood there and wept. Surely this was the worst thing that could ever happen to any human. Where the hell was my I.D.? Why couldn’t it be right where it always was? What was wrong with me?
Had I read Jennifer Senior’s new book All Joy and No Fun I would’ve probably had the same outsized reaction, but I’m guessing I would’ve been a little more forgiving of myself. Because among the many things I learned in her meticulously reported book on the complex state of modern parenthood (based on her widely discussed 2010 New York magazine cover story), I learned that there wasn’t much I could do about my reaction — it turns out that the way we handle sleep deprivation is a fixed trait, with most of us fitting into one of three major groups: “Those who handle it fairly well, those of us who sort of fall apart, and those who respond catastrophically.”
This tidbit seems small and almost obvious, but as with most things, to understand the science, to read the hard research on why our houses have become messier than any time in history; why a three-year-old is biologically incapable of responding to logic; why I loved — craved — going to work when my kids were little (when I remembered my I.D.); why moments of unbridled parental euphoria are so hard to capture in the day-to-day life with kids…to drill down deep on all this stuff is both instructive and comforting. Especially when the reporting is interspersed with personal stories from parents across the country. All in all, I’d say that reading Senior’s book felt like one big exercise in what the medical folks might call normalizing.
All Joy is also a fascinating chronicle of the many paradoxes of modern parenthood including, but not limited to:
- What’s great about America (your kids can grow up to be anything! There is no script) is also what’s so terrifying (there is no script!)
- We’ve never been in greater contact with each other — digitally — and yet, compared to our parents’ generation where neighbors were in and out of our houses, and kids were playing kickball in the cul-de-sac, we’ve never been so alone, so on our own.
- The more stuff children have, the more useless they become.
- The very same empowering skills parents encourage in their children (particularly in middle class families) lead those children to challenge and reject parental authority.
- Since after World War II — at which point the child’s status started shifting from “useful” to “protected,” — children have become “our crowning achievements,” and yet they have never been less equipped to live their own lives.
The most interesting paradox for me, though, was the fact that All Joy is really much more of an anthropological look at parenting than it is a parenting guide — Senior says this right away in her introduction — and is fundamentally based on the fact that raising happy children is harder and more elusive than it has been for any previous generation. And yet I came away the opposite of scared. Did I recognize myself in the story about the woman from Texas signing her kids up for tutors and football and softball without really knowing what the end game was? Yes. Did I freak a little when I read how a Brooklyn mom described her role in her teenage daughter’s life as “the pit crew?” (“I change all her tires, polish up the car, and get out of the way…then she peels out.”) Did the entire section on adolescence and its corresponding downward spiral effect on parental happiness scare the daylights out of me? Well, yes. But, oddly, when I closed the book, the more overwhelming feeling I experienced was that we were all in this together, struggling with the same (mostly unanswerable) questions — and even having a rough guide to the territory makes me feel just a little more mentally equipped to take the trip.
We’ll see how I feel about this theory in a few years.