Q & A With Jennifer Senior, Author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

Jennifer Senior is a contributing editor for New York Magazine and New York Times best selling author of, “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood” now out in paperback. Her book analysis the effects of children on their parents based on case studies and her own observations. She will be speaking at Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera on January 27, 7:15-8:45pmI’m excited to share an exclusive interview with Jennifer Senior.

What inspired you to write a book about the crisis of modern parenting? 

It began in 2006 with my first social science story for New York Magazine. My research took me to Dan Gilbert's book, “Stumbling on Happiness.” Towards the end of Dan’s book, he mentions that the social science is clear; kids do not improve their parents happiness and even tend to compromise it and that parents were less happy then non-parents. These results are from many studies showing this. When I read that I thought that can’t be right. At the time, I was 36, and all I wanted in life was a child. My instinct was to write about it then and there, but, because I didn’t have a child, this would be an enormous credibility gap. I couldn’t come to the topic neutrally. Two years later, I had a baby and two years after that I still kept thinking about that body of research. Now I get it and I think it’s right and wrong. My article "All Joy and No Fun," was published in 2010. I didn’t expect the response I got. It was one of the most popular pieces from New York Magazine, being shared in a furious way through social media.  

Can you define the meaning of “Joy” and “Fun” as it relates to your book? 

The title was me cribbing a phrase from a friend, who, when asked about fatherhood, said, “It’s all joy and no fun.” I thought it was an unforgettable phrase. The way I define joy in the book is best stated by George Vaillant, a really thoughtful psychiatrist with the soul of a poet. He defines joy as this profound abiding connection. His description of joy is it's outwardly focused and not on your own pleasure but on being elated by another. Joy is harder to tolerate then sadness. If joy is about connections, what lurking behind joy is the fear you are going to loose this connection. 

You have been on Terry Gross, Steve Colbert, Anderson Cooper, over one million views of your TED talk, met with many experts and parents and it’s been a year since your book was published. Is there anything new you’ve found surprising, learned or would change from the time you published your book? 

I’m always surprised how many people still want solutions and advice. While they appreciate what I have to say about why parents are facing their various predicaments, I identify the different forces that brought us to this place and time, and dissect them. Still parents want to know, “Okay, now how do I do it better?” "How do I know they are in the right number of extracurricular activities?” or “Can I have some advice?” There is this deep wish to find the "secret sauce." It's hard to tolerate the ambiguities that we, as parents, tolerate. I can explain all that but at the end of the day everybody still asks the same questions. The strength of the anxiety that people walk around with has moved me. How unaddressable they seem and how unaddressable it seems to give people those answers. No one is content to think there is not a right answer, or results may vary, or that parenting is not an exact science.  

The one thing that just kills me is that I don't have gay families in this book. I meant to have them, but I wasn't persistent enough in Minnesota, which is where the first three chapters take place. That would have been the place for a good, in-depth profile of a family with two moms or dads. I cite some of the research about gay families, but there's not a whole lot of it, though there's more now than when I started.

Childcare has changed and become a front and center national debate. Since my book was published women workforce participation has gone down, connected to the recession and the costs of childcare. There has been a lot of movement politically regarding good subsidized childcare, maternity leave and illness. These are developments I watched from a policy point of view. 

What was it like to be interviewed by Steve Colbert?

Steve Colbert was a really difficult interview. His last question was a cruel one that I didn’t have a chance to answer. But he is a comedian and going for the laughs. It can be funny but if it is a sensitive topic it can be tough. 

Can you answer Steve Colbert’s last question, with regards to your son, “When he’s older are you going to use any of the proceed to this book to pay for his therapy when he reads it and finds out he made you so unhappy?” 

I thought about writing a letter to my son, just so it’s clear that he’s not the problem and kids are not the problem. It’s something about parenting right now at this moment that is the problem. My life wouldn’t be my life without him. It wouldn’t be as meaningful. My heart is so full of love for him; he is everything to me. Trying to make that distinction for him is really important. A superficial glance at my book someone might interpret as what a drag kids are. I want to make sure that he knows that writing this book had nothing to do with him. It’s a purely an intellectual idea that started before he was born because all I ever wanted was him. One of the things I was interested in once I had him was to show that the data doesn’t tell the whole story. The data says were not as happy and on some level we know that is not right. We know that our lives just wouldn’t be as meaningful without kids. Hopefully in the same way that a kid who is raised by a mother forced to stay home, if that kid reads Betty Friedan, that kid will understand what their mother went through. I wanted to deconstruct parenthood in the same way. 

David Attenborough said “Having offspring is the next best thing immortality.” Unlike other species we control everything in our world. We have fewer kids, we’re choosing to having them when were older, so loosing a child is hard. When you have ten kids your immortality is not an issue. So we have one, maybe two or three shots and we want them to be happy. What is wrong with that? 

I have one biological child and I am haunted by the line in Downton Abbey, after Matthew dies in the car crash, his mom, Isobel Crawley, says, “When your only child dies, then you’re not a mother any more. You’re not anything, really. And that’s what I’m trying to get used to.” It used to be you would have eight to ten kids and the goal was to raise productive citizens, make sure they were part of the community, continued the family line, and fulfilled obligations. Now we have two kids and our inclination is to have a lot invested in the outcome. You can’t engineer their lives and some kids are just not going to be happy. 

Marin is very similar to the community in Houston you described in your book, we over schedule kids, sports eats up all time on weekends.

There are so many different complicated reasons and not just competitive. There is economic anxiety; people are afraid that unless their kids are “super children” that their not going to have a chance to go to a good college. Parents also do this because their are fewer kids in each family and they might not have other siblings to play with. Kids no longer roam around on bicycles, so you can’t assume your kids are going to have something to do for the afternoon. We live in bigger houses so individuals have their own rooms and computers. There’s all these efforts people make to get children in the same place. Extra-curriculars are also a form of child care and we don’t have a manageable system of that in this country. Some of this is mania about excellence. A lot of that is driven not so much by the quest for status but feeling of security that your kids future is going to be ok. One of the things I said in the book; because the world is changing so quickly we cannot figure out how to prepare our kids for it. With every passing year the world gets stranger and stranger and less familiar. What we do as good parents is try to figure out how to prepare our kids for any possible kind of future. So that means throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall and hoping one strand will stick.

Are parents in other parts of the world happier and are other countries producing happier kids?

Yes, much happier. In places where there is good social safety nets, more social capital, families that live closer to parents are unfailingly happier. It’s such a cliche but in Scandinavian countries and France, parents are happier then non parents. It's directly tied to how much support they get. They don’t fret about their kids health care, education, child care, maternity or sick leave or whether they’re going to loose their place in the workforce if they stop and have a kid. With those anxieties dramatically reduced, they don’t rival the parents situation in the United States in that scale or magnitude. Their is a sociologist named Robin Simon who looked at 28 countries and the greatest disparity in happiness is in the United States. We have the least social support compared to other industrialized nations.  

You asked a mom in your book, “What makes a good mother? I would like to ask you the same question.

No one has ever asked me. Lots of different things. I don’t think there is one answer and depends on your child, and a mothers to what age. I was interested in asking Angelique in my book because she was talking like she had to meet some standard and I was curious what the standard was. It’s easier to describe what a bad mother is - but a good mother is hard to define. We are all capable of being good moms.