The Highs and Lows of Parenthood

Jennifer Senior ’91
Jennifer Senior ’91
Laura Rose

Jennifer Senior ’91 has been a politics reporter for more than two decades, covering presidents, senators, and Supreme Court judges. Yet her first book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood (Ecco), tackles a subject arguably more provocative than politics: why modern parents find raising children so challenging.

Senior defines modern parenthood as starting after World War II, when children went from being “useful” to a family to being “protected” by the family. “The modern sheltered childhood is only 70 years old,” Senior says. “Kids have gone from being our help to being our bosses.”

The result? Parents are driving themselves crazy, Senior says, because their  jobs have shifted from simply sheltering and feeding their children to making their children happy and preparing them for the future. “It used to be that your child inherited your farm,” Senior says. “Now we don’t even know what we are preparing them for, which is why we sign them up for everything.”

In All Joy and No Fun, Senior illuminates the lives of middle-class families and their struggles from the children’s infancy to adolescence, weaving the research of historians, economists, and psychologists through the families’ personal moments.

A contributing editor at New York Magazine and the mother of a 6-year-old and two grown stepchildren, she begins, for example, by investigating what happens to parents when they bring home an infant. She spends time with one Minnesota family with three children as they deal with sleep deprivation and the loss of autonomy. In past generations, new parents often have had families in close proximity or a bevy of older siblings to help; modern parents struggle with trying to do it on their own, she observes.

She also considers the effect children have on marriages and the division of household chores, how the frenzied cultivation of the “globalized, optimized” child leads parents on endless carpools to sports, scouting activities, and lessons, and how the modern battlefields of adolescence (which include “the inverted power structure created by ... children’s technological fluency”) affect family life.

Another theme of Senior’s book is that despite the stresses, children undeniably bring joy. Senior urges parents to seize and appreciate the “sweet little bursts of grace,” such as the smell of a baby’s head and impromptu dance parties in the kitchen.

All Joy and No Fun is not a book on how to parent. Rather, it is a book about how to make sense of the lows — and the highs. Parents are setting unreasonable expectations for their responsibility for a child’s happiness, Senior says. If our children aren’t happy, whether it’s because a mother doesn’t get down on the floor to play as soon as she walks in the door from work or because a father took away the iPhone, “we shouldn’t be so damn hard on ourselves,” she says.

Parts of The Obamas by Jodi Kantor. “It explains a lot about the present administration and is so good at showing what an introvert Obama is and the effects of that politically.”