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Books: The everyday miseries of child-centered parenting

“All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” by Jennifer Senior. Ecco. 320 $26.99

The day I told the man who would become my husband that I didn’t want to have children, I couldn’t even look him in the face. We’d been together for three months and, at 32, I was interested only in getting serious or being single. I don’t remember what I said, just that I spoke to a space on the wall northwest of his face. He paused for a long moment, and then shared similar feelings. I exhaled, and fell in love a little more: this was not the issue that would break us.

Nearly three years after that conversation, my husband and I still return to the topic, testing the wind to see if our hearts have shifted. On a holiday visit to my hometown, where nearly all of my old friends are parents, we both confessed to feeling pangs . . . for a cat. But it was in the spirit of ongoing exploration on the subject of children that I read Jennifer Senior’s carefully researched All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. (Disclosure: I was formerly an online editor at New York magazine, where Senior is a contributing editor to the print publication. We did not interact.)

Senior’s book explores the effects of children on parents – particularly, based on the bulk of her interviews and research, mothers. And let me warn you now: If you want to have kids but your partner is on the fence, do not let your partner read this book. Senior scrupulously chronicles the lack of fun. The joy, she admits, is difficult to quantify.

The book’s chapters mirror a child’s development, segmented into infancy and toddlerhood, primary school years and adolescence. Many of the day-to-day difficulties in child-rearing will sound familiar to anyone who is a parent, or has talked to a parent, or is friends on Facebook with a parent. The lack of sleep. The overwhelming workload. The tantrums. The disorder.

Senior, a parent of a young son, turns child-rearing literature on its head by writing about the role children play in their parents’ lives. No wonder you’re all so freaked out! Again and again, Senior emphasizes that delayed child-bearing and family planning mean that today’s parents can focus on their children in ways they didn’t, and couldn’t, before. “Whatever (parents) are doing is for the child’s sake, and the child’s alone. Parents no longer raise children for the family’s sake or that of the broader world.”

This path toward a child-centric world was inevitable, Senior theorizes. Old-timey parents had to do a lot more work just to provide children with basic staples. Now parents have outsourced all that responsibility to schools, pediatricians and Target. As a result, the work of the modern parent is less tangible, more metaphysical; modern parents try to set their children on the path toward a happy life. Just what that means is so elusive that parents try whatever they think might work. One explanation for today’s overscheduled kid, Senior writes, is that his parents must prepare him for every possibility. Who knows what the world will look like in 10 years?

Senior focuses on “middle-class” parents, who she describes as pretty much everyone who isn’t wealthy, poor, or working class. Those parents have their own problems, and existential fretting about their children isn’t typically one of them. “Lower-income parents . . . give orders and directives. Middle-class parents give choices and negotiate,” Senior writes. (Wealthy moms and dads, presumably, can hire someone else to do the parenting when necessary.) “Middle-class children . . . are told that they are fully empowered. In the long run, this attitude may or may not serve them well, because they then enter the world with the sense that no power structure is too formidable to defy or outmaneuver.”

This may not even serve them well in the short run, since one immediate result of active parental involvement is passivity: “Because middle-class children today occupy privileged positions within the family, and because their parents have overextended themselves on their behalf, kids sense that they have the power to make their boredom their parents’ responsibility.”

Everything is the parents’ responsibility. And while that’s a reasonable, even obvious, notion in the abstract, it’s tedious in the day-to-day. Parents, why do you put up with homework “checking”? It sounds miserable. Being an active participant in your children’s education is one thing. Being a third-grader by proxy is another. There’s got to be a better use of your time. This mind-set is encapsulated in one book-throwing sentence in All Joy and No Fun, uttered by a loving, well-intentioned mom in suburban Houston. Her son must transform a cardboard doll into an archaeologist. He affixes a shovel from his Lego set. Good thinking, kid. And then, there’s mom: “And what do you want me to work on?” Child, how may this adult serve you?

The book calls to mind the classic, ineffectual children’s comeback, “You’re not the boss of me.” This was directed at any nonparent trying to exercise authority in a little kids’ life – a sibling, a caregiver. It’s a pathetic rebuke, when you think about it. The kid is not declaring autonomy but rather defining the power structure of his own universe. You are not my boss, sure. But implicit in that statement is the notion that someone else is, and that person’s name is Mom or Dad. Not anymore.

But of course, as the childless one, I’m not allowed to say that. That’s a rule that modern parents made up and we childless follow meekly in their company. Parents will accept any amount of second-guessing from their own children, but not from the childless: You’re not allowed to express an opinion about parenting unless you are a parent. Sounds reasonable enough. How could I know, etc. etc. (Simply having parents doesn’t count.) But here’s the thing: Everyone makes judgments about everything all the time. You have an opinion on your dentist without having gone to dental school. You judge the value of goods while knowing nothing of the intricacies of international supply chains. You comment on teachers (your kid’s, your own) without reading up on pedagogy. And you have every right to, because you’re a human who experiences things. But parenting, with its contemporary existential heft, is cordoned off in a special area set aside for people who agree with you. Because if you are critical of how someone parents, you expose the raw nerve that throbs inside them – especially mothers, Senior suggests – all the time: This is the most important thing I will ever do. I am terrified I may be doing it wrong. And if I do it wrong, I have failed as a human.

No wonder parents are so nervous. No wonder they write blogs detailing their children’s bodily functions – look everybody, it works! – or Facebook posts admitting their parenting fails or chiding other parent’s choices. If you keep obsessing about being a parent, you must be doing it right. It’s talk therapy for a decades-long anxiety attack.

And yet, no parent Senior interviewed regrets having children. They wished their days were different, but not their lives. Because the joys are there, even though the ratio of no fun to joy in Senior’s book is four chapters to two. Young children afford parents “the opportunity to be our most human,” and “to be adored unconditionally.” Children affirm later the choices you made when they were small; what they grow up to achieve is, in part, because you raised them. Your children astound you, too; when the tedium of adulthood sets in, it’s children who jolt your worldview.

And I envy all that.

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