Jennifer Senior’s astute book about parents and children, “All Joy and No Fun,” is especially eye-opening about how many prejudices are usually built into such studies. Take “parenting,” a word that invariably makes its way into books about parent-child dynamics: Senior would like to remind us that this was not always a verb, and that the emphasis on parents’ need to devote themselves 24/7 to their offspring is a relative novelty.
Her clear and helpful book is meant to reassure adults who have imbibed this new flavor of Kool-Aid, reminding them that there are parents who took a different approach to child-rearing. Like their own.
As a contributing editor at New York Magazine, Senior is a skilled interviewer, good at finding parents and children who defy expectations. This book’s emphasis is on middle-class parents who do all their own child-rearing and housework, and to some readers of both social science and contemporary fiction, they may seem like an almost lost species. But here are pairs of parents with work schedules that do not overlap, who live together as ships passing in the night, whose approaches to child care could not be more different, and yet who manage to raise the same set of kids, though in very different ways.
Senior seems to bring no preconceptions to her research. That, too, is refreshing. She starts the book by introducing a woman named Angie, who works as a psychiatric nurse, with an evening shift that starts at 3 p.m. She’s trying to make a meal while arguing with her 3-year-old about whether he can change his own clothes instead of distracting her from what she’s doing. When this little boy goes and finds his own underwear, his mother treats the moment as a victory.
Later, Senior presents Clint, Angie’s husband, who has to wake up at 4 a.m. and who sees his wife for only 15 minutes a day. So he’s in charge of feeding the kids, playing with them, putting them to bed, cleaning up, doing the household bookkeeping and maintenance. He approaches his part of the job much more calmly than his wife approaches hers; this alone is cause for argument. Angie’s take is that Clint doesn’t care about the kids in the way that she does. Clint’s take is that Angie gets overly emotional about problems that can be handled with efficiency. He’s the one who advocated the cry-yourself-to-sleep method, and he’s not sorry to say that it worked.
Another big difference: Clint is comfortable taking free time for himself if he can occupy the kids with some other activity. So he is not fully devoted to them at every moment and feels just fine about that. Angie sees a degree of negligence in this, and perhaps feels some superiority about her own dedication.
Senior uses several other well-chosen examples, most notably a grandmother who has already lost two adult children but is loving the chance to raise a grandchild and to recover the pleasure of childhood abandon. By a twist of fate, this family gives the book a tender and haunting ending.
But as “All Joy and No Fun” moves on to older children and more complex problems, it begins to bog down, as might be expected. These are indeed the no-fun years, and they have lately become even more so. Senior does a good job at identifying why the new adolescence is so much harder on parents than the old kind; when a teenager wanted to lie, he or she couldn’t do it via cellphone and had at least to go through some live, in-person drama. If adolescence now feels prolonged into and beyond college, Senior argues, that may be because high school students don’t have the freedom to experience it as easily as other, less tightly scheduled, Internet-free generations did before them.
However smart and helpful “All Joy and No Fun” is, it cites the same highly reputable outside sources repeatedly in ways that may make her material overly familiar. And she is wedded to the magazine writer’s habit of ending each episode on a sunny note, whether the situation calls for one or not. Still, this is an eye-opening debut, and it will help a lot of parents feel less alone, if not less frazzled.
In Betty Friedan’s day, Senior points out, women were supposedly judged by the quality of their housework. “Today, they’re told to master the differences between toys that hone problem-solving skills and those that encourage imaginative play,” with a linguistic shift suggesting “that playing with one’s child is not really play but a job.” Anyone with children to play with ought to find that a helpful observation.