Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood
is a 2014 nonfiction book about the ways that children reshape their parents’ lives and how the role of parenthood has changed over the past 50 years. Senior is an award-winning journalist and editor for New York
The book’s chapters cover the stages of a child’s development from infancy to young adulthood. Unusually for the subject of childrearing, Senior explores the ways children affect their parents’ lives, rather than the other way around. She discusses research on parenting and conducts original interviews with parents for her material.
The first chapter explores the loss of independence new parents experience. She also notes that today’s parenting puts much more emphasis on the child than ever before: couples are having children much later than they were 50 years ago. Advances in birth control also mean that most children are planned.
Senior writes that children can often strain rather than strengthen marriages, noting a study that found 90 percent of couples reported lower satisfaction in their marriage following the birth of their first child. She explores where that dissatisfaction comes from: raising a child takes a great deal of time and effort. And nowadays, it’s typical for both parents to work outside the home—but mothers still do the bulk of childcare. Fathers help more than they might have in previous generations, but Senior notes that they tend to overestimate their contributions, leaving overworked mothers frustrated. Equal division of labor—or at least the perception of it—is key to a happier marriage after children.
The third chapter moves into the joy of parenting, discussing extensively the story of a grandmother who adopted her orphaned grandchild. Senior argues, backed by research, that one of the most rewarding parts of raising children is the opportunity for adults to engage in childlike play, to regress in a socially acceptable way. Parents liberate themselves from everyday adult concerns and preoccupations through entertaining their children or indulging their child’s imagination.
Next, Senior looks at school-aged children and the pressures both they and their parents face. Parents become overscheduled, with complex statuses and stigma around selection activities for their children: sports, music, chess, and so on. Parents are increasingly involved in more aspects of children’s lives, such as heavily assisting them with homework or outright completing their homework for them. Senior also discusses the way that parents are expected to provide entertainment for their children in some form, particularly via electronic devices.
Senior points out the way this approach to children has changed. In the 19th century, most children attended a few years of school, then began to work—or did both. There was little time for play or pleasure. As labor laws and perspectives changed, children gained free time, which they began to devote to unsupervised play. Toys were few, and tended towards social forms of play, such as jump rope or jacks. Today, though, unsupervised play is seen as irresponsible parenting. Instead, adults arrange for children’s playtime, and electronic toys are often solitary. Senior shows concern for the loss of unstructured free time and chances to socialize with other children. But she also suggests a reason behind the increasing structure in a child’s life: that parents navigating an increasingly uncertain and rapidly-changing world are trying to prepare their child for every possibility.
Senior takes on adolescence in the next chapter. She cites research that the parent of the same gender as their adolescent usually deals with the most conflict from their child at that age. She discusses parental identification in parent-child conflict and the way the adolescent brain operates. Modern parents of teens find themselves “wishing their children...would at least treat them with respect.”
Parenting, as Senior shows, isn’t easy. Parents lives are increasingly wrapped up in those of their children. She notes that the way we raise children is “one of the few remaining ways in public life we can prove our moral worth.” Modern parenting is the struggle for perfection—and to have the perfect children. And yet every parent interviewed rejoices in their choice to have children, despite the struggle. Children, Senior suggests, are a source of joy and growth, with the power to transcend and amaze their parents as they reach adulthood.All Joy and No Fun
was a critical and commercial success. It became a New York Times
bestseller, and the Washington Post praised it as “richly woven, entertaining, enlightening, wrenching, and funny.”