What Jennifer Senior thinks we need to be happier parents

By Rebecca Gale

Jennifer Senior may not identify as a parenting expert, but her 2014 New York Times bestselling book, All Joy and No Fun, looks at one of the fundamental questions surrounding American parenting: why aren’t we happier?

With meticulous research, Senior examined various struggles of family life: the isolation of a stay-at-home parent, the time-management complications of a dual-income household, the perceived need to prepare kids for a globally competitive world, and the angst and upheaval that accompanies adolescence. Rather than being a how-to guide on raising children, Senior comes at the issues from the other side, exploring what effect kids have on their parents.

Senior did a media blitz when the book came out in 2014 and, in light of its great success, she has agreed to talk to Motherwell about the feedback she received in the three years since.

MOTHERWELL: We know parents are stressed out, and that All Joy and No Fun tackles the question of why parents are less happy than non-parents. Much of it comes down to the anxiety we experience in reaction to our kids. Do you notice parental anxiety improving in any way?

Jennifer Senior: Not at all. I think that so much of the anxiety is economic. For parents to feel less anxiety, it would need to be easier to live a middle class life. Health care would be easier to come by, we’d have more vacations, and it would be easier for kids to get into college. Parents would feel less pressure to cultivate their children, and they would need less of an edge to succeed in the world. Paid maternity leave would be broadly available, too few states offer it now. More men would take paternity leave, and they would create an even childcare arrangement from the beginning.

There have been no policy fixes to address this. I think people are more aware now of the reasons why they are suffering and they lament them more, but too many of these problems are structural and require policy solutions. And I have no faith that any policy solutions of any kind will materialize.

MOTHERWELL: You mention you had never intended to write a parenting book, that you came to this topic via a passion for social science and a hugely popular magazine article for New York Magazine. Would you write more about parenting, as other parenting writers have done, or do you see this as a one-off book for you?

JS: One and done. That is not even a question. Sociology, sure, I’d write about that again. For a while I thought I wanted to write a book about dying. I did one about birth, and now I wanted to do one about death. All Joy and No Fun answered a very specific question. It was a sociological puzzle, in the same way Betty Friedan wanted to know why housewives were miserable, I wanted to know why parents who were getting what they wanted weren’t happy. It wasn’t a particular interest in child-rearing.

MOTHERWELL: All Joy and No Fun has a pivotal chapter about adolescence and how raising a teenager can affect the lives of their parents. You decided to write this chapter after an editor’s feedback, and it’s the only chapter you give full anonymity to the families. What have readers’ responses been like to that section?

JS: The adolescent chapter definitely got the most response from readers. Half the people freaked out—it was genuine, emotional, and irrational—they would write me that this chapter frightened them out of their wits.

The other half, mainly people who had adolescents, or grandparents who remembered the adolescents, said, “this sounds about right.” They hadn’t read much about those experiences and it was nice for them to see it normalized. Even the best behaved adolescents go slightly bananas. That part in particular really spoke to them.

I became a stepmother before I was a mom. My stepkids were teenagers when I was dating my husband. My first experience being around kids was with adolescents, and it was tough. I saw the way my husband lived it. I thought “I’m not pussyfooting around this experience.”

Because I was a stepparent, this chapter was the one I had to be the most scrupulous about reporting. I had to unlearn my own responses and try and figure out what was universal and what was simply my own experience.

MOTHERWELL: One of the great things in All Joy and No Fun is the families you feature, several of which you found through Minnesota’s Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE), a state-sponsored program designed to help parents. Thousands of families take part. Do you see more states implementing programs like these to give parents a wider community of support?

JS: I have not heard of one! You think others would start it, but not to my knowledge.

The problem is that you have to have a state that has a taste for big government and a history of wanting to spend a lot of money on families. Minnesota is one of the progressive states that does those things.  It takes a lot of money to pull off something of this scale.

MOTHERWELL: Is there anything from All Joy and No Fun that you regret, or wish you had included?

JS: I’m sick with regret and disgust that there are no gay couples in this book. It was a fluke in how the reporting went, the two gay parenting sessions at ECFE didn’t want me to sit in. And then in Texas [another state where Senior visited], it’s so freaking conservative. Then in New York [where Senior reported on adolescents], the gay families I found were all blended. It was too complicated to separate if kids were acting out over divorce or remarriage or if it was just adolescence.

I think I mention data on gay couples twice in my book. It was enough to telegraph that I was seeing them as a kind of family and I was taking for granted that gay families existed in the world. I considered that such an unpardonable omission, it is something I wish I could sweep back in.

Gay couples disproportionately come up to me and tell me how much they like my book. They had fewer heteronormative expectations going in [for parenting] and they were more apt to be honest about disappointment. I’ve gotten so much feedback from gay men and women about the book, but I feel so much shame that they are underrepresented and they should be angry.

MOTHERWELL: You did an interview with Stephen Colbert, it was an appearance you later said you hated. In it, he throws out a line about how the proceeds of your book could very well go to your child’s therapy. Then the interview abruptly ends. You felt you didn’t get a chance to respond: what would you have wanted to say?

JS: It’s a really personal dig, saying that a book you’ve written is going to harm your kid psychologically. It’s scoring a laugh with a cheap shot.

My answer would have been, I am genuinely nervous about this and I don’t want my kid to think [the book] is about him. This has nothing to do with him or children generally, but the way life conspires against moms and dads. Now my son is bigger and he’s asked me about the title, and I say, “Parents should be having more fun. They don’t have to make it as hard as it is.”

Rebecca Gale is a journalist and writer and tweets @Beckgale.

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