From the 1950s to present day, studies have shown that having a baby is worse for your happiness than divorce or unemployment, that children weaken marriages, and that parents prefer just about any activity — including cooking, shopping, and cleaning — over child care.
And yet, the human race lives on. Today, we’ll explore the complex psychology and sociology of childrearing in All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior.
Senior concludes that, while the negative headlines are valid, they don’t tell the full story of the psychological transformation of parenthood. In fact, one of the most telling changes seen in new parents is that both the highs and the lows of life become more extreme. It’s often the first time in a person’s life that they’re stricken with chronic sleep deprivation, constant uncertainty, and a host of new and unusual demands on their time and energy, thus creating an extreme swing toward unhappiness.
But when you get out of the day-to-day and start asking broader, existential questions, parents report increased purpose, meaning, and overall joy in their lives. The data backs up the adage that the years are short and the days are long. Raising a child comes with very high physical, emotional, and financial costs — and very high long-term rewards.
The most fascinating analysis in this book is the contrast between modern parenting and that of a century ago. Until the first half of the 20th century, children were inherently valuable because they could provide financial gain to a family at a very young age. They worked in farms and factories and contributed to the bottom line as soon as they physically could. Modern laws prohibiting child labor reversed that equation, and children went from being an asset to a liability. Today, the government estimates it costs between $170,000 and $375,000 to clothe, feed, house, and raise a child to age 17 — not including expenses for college.
The big change in recent decades is that, broadly speaking, parents are now parents by choice. Senior describes parents in the days before birth control as “dutiful conscripts” — they were on board for the job because they pretty much had to be. Today, the choice to have children is more often part of a well-thought-out life plan. That agency is great in many ways, but it has the side effect of producing far more second-guessing and regret. When you have no control, you basically just roll with it. When you’ve made a conscious, active choice, you’re a lot harder on yourself as you experience parenthood’s inevitable ups and downs.
In fact, the word “parent” was rarely used as a verb — as in “parenting” — until the 1970s. The shift to parenthood as a deliberate choice also changed the lexicon to make “parent” something you can do rather than something you can be.
As the book’s focus shifts to 21st-century parents, Senior profiles a range of moms and dads as their kids progress through each stage of growth, from infancy to adolescence to leaving the nest. The common theme in many of these stories is that the demands of work and life, combined with expensive child care and a tendency to overschedule and burn out our kids (and ourselves), make parenthood a tremendous stressor in day-to-day life. These aren’t novel observations, but the stories are illuminating, and the data highlights how American business mores and government policies put parents, especially mothers, at a disadvantage that is unheard-of in most of the rest of the world.
My favorite takeaway is that reading books about parenthood won’t do much to help you as a parent.
“There’s little even the most organized people can do to prepare themselves for having children,” Senior writes. “They can buy all the books, observe friends and relations, review their own memories of childhood. But the distance between those proxy experiences and the real thing, ultimately, can be measured in light-years.”
In a way, that knowledge is freeing, and it can counteract our tendency to pin our self-worth and happiness on day-to-day childrearing success.
This book won’t make you a better mom or dad. It will encourage you to step back from the chaos of daily life and remember that someday you’ll reminisce about days like today, and those memories will probably be filled with a lot of joy.