Family life need not be such a grind, according to Jennifer Senior, the author of a book for burnt-out parents
We’re meant to sacrifice ourselves for our children, aren’t we? It’s what good parents do, deriving their happiness from securing theirs. Yet a new book creating a buzz among burnt-out American parents asks not just whether family life needs to be such a grind, but whether we should really be aiming for happy children at all.
Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun was inspired, she says, by research suggesting that having children doesn’t actually make adults happier. Women, far from being miserable empty-nesters, tend to cheer up after teenagers leave home; happiness peaks in the teens and plummets in the childbearing years. The gulf between expectation of family life and its reality is startling, perhaps more so the longer you’ve been looking forward to it.
“If you’re middle-class and have gone to college, on average you’re going to have your first kid at 30.3 years old; it’s the capstone to a grown-up life,” says Senior, who has a six-year-old son and stepchildren aged 20 and 24. “You’ve already presumably got married, settled in a career, purchased a house and then you’ve had your kid — it’s like the final step you’ve been anticipating; the crowning achievement in a middle-class life, not unlike marriage was in a Jane Austen novel.” What happens when these dreams are interrupted by a tiny screaming despot will be familiar to seasoned parents but let’s just say if Simon Cowell’s first words to his newborn really were “I’ve been waiting for you all my life”, he could be in for a shock.
So if children don’t make their parents measurably happier, Senior wondered, what do they do? Tired of reading about how to “mould and shape your kid”, she decided to investigate how kids shape us instead.
Her book is a series of portraits of families with whom she spent time watching them parent. Some were in the sleep-deprived toddler years; others with teens were panicking over porn and pot. In the middle were the manic, overscheduled “soccer moms”. Here are predictable tales of exhaustion and drudgery; of competitive parenting; of arguments over screen time; and a constant worry about being unable to protect them from the world’s ills. What stands out, even allowing that they knew they were being watched, is the intensity of the parenting.
The working mothers of toddlers play with them tirelessly; the older parents spend hours chauffeuring and coaching; those with teenagers are constantly vigilant.Does Senior think we’d enjoy parenting more if we just, well, lightened up a bit? She laughs. “I try not to be the slightest bit prescriptive in the book. But if you look at what I’m describing, does it look ideal to you? It looks exhausting. Any parent who wants to do that and enjoys doing that, fine. But my own personal feeling, what works for my family, is that yes, my instinct is to lift my foot up off the gas pedal.”
The idea that middle-class parents have become too child-centred isn’t new. From Daisy Waugh’s I Don’t Know Why She Bothers to the therapist Andrew G. Marshall’s argument that for a healthy marriage you should put partner before kids, the idea of fitting children around adult lives rather than vice versa is increasingly fashionable. However, it’s deeply uncomfortable for many, especially women who already feel guilty about working.
Senior recalls a radio phone-in she did in California where a woman rang “on the verge of tears, saying she had no sense of self, that every moment she was not at work she was spending with the kids. She sounded frantic and distraught to the point where she said that she almost wished she hadn’t had kids.” Working women are being suckered, she suggests, into an unsustainable “all-or-nothing model” of believing they must engage with their children every spare minute or it’s not good enough.
One solution, Senior thinks, may be for mothers to behave, well, more like fathers — or at least, a certain kind of father. One couple she studied, Angie and Clint, had two boys under 4. Both parents work shifts and alternate the childcare; both seem devoted, but while Senior portrays Angie as completely immersed in the children, Clint is loving but somehow more separate. She can barely put the baby down without him screaming; he plays absorbedly with the boys but will then leave them to their own devices while he does chores.
“I do try to channel my inner Clint because he was an awesome parent, very involved. It’s not like he was the slightest bit unloving,” says Senior. “But it’s also clear that his love was running in the background while he was cleaning the dishes or doing something else. He was perfectly OK with that. And he seemed not to have a problem with declaring at the weekend that he needed a little bit of time for himself.” Since doing the research, she says, she’s learnt to negotiate with her own husband for time out at the weekend. (The key, apparently, is to “tell him on Tuesday rather than wait until Friday and have some weird passive-aggressive argument”.)
The most controversial idea in All Joy and No Fun, however, isn’t that time away from the kids is healthy. It’s about what you do when you’re with them. It sounds old-fashioned to talk about raising children to be useful members of society but Senior argues that, unlike lifelong happiness — something every parent wants for their offspring but which is rarely in our power to give — at least it’s achievable. “We are obsessed with making our children happy and yet I don’t know how one can,” she says. “Dr Spock said this in the early Sixties: that in the absence of having any more tangible aims for their children, American parents fall back on this very elusive idea of happiness.”
Yet little more than a century ago, children were seen more pragmatically not as individuals to be fulfilled but as future agents of family prosperity. Senior’s point isn’t that we should send them back up chimneys but consider the impact our children have on the outside world rather than always the other way round. “I also worry about my kids’ happiness but I try to remind myself that happiness is really much easier to achieve as a by-product of doing something well or behaving well. If you can teach your kids how to be a really decent person then they might take a certain amount of pride and derive self-esteem from that.”
Obviously, stepping back slightly is good for parental sanity; what will worry many is that it can’t be good for children. Senior, however, suggests that knowing that everyone else’s happiness rides on their own can make children feel guilty and anxious. When her own son is upset she now tries to react compassionately but not empathetically, not letting her emotions merge with his. “If you over-identify with your kid’s suffering you are not in a great position to handle it.”
Amid such anxiety, any joy seems elusive. There must be few parents, however, who haven’t felt the intoxicating rush of it: the love so enormous your heart must surely explode, the vicarious reliving of your own childhood, even the slapstick comedy created when poorly co-ordinated small people are unleashed on the world. Besides, there’s nothing like the pain of the involuntarily childless to put gripes in perspective. Children are gloriously greedy for life, infectiously enthusiastic; the highs are so intensely high that they cancel out an awful lot of lows.
And while this transcendent love may just be something we’re biologically wired to feel, for Senior it’s about more than hormones. “I don’t have a religious bone in my body but that’s the closest I get, that feeling of unrivalled connection — like when he first stared at me in the middle of the night and cooed with some kind of recognition that he got it, that this was his mother. I will remember that when I’m dying,” she says. “He said to me about half a year ago, out of nowhere, ‘When I was born, I was so happy to see it was you who was my mother.’ Nobody else says anything like that to you ever.” Since writing the book she’s started taking more photos, writing down funny things her son does: she wants to capture the joys, “to have as many of these memories as possible”.
So Simon Cowell, in the unlikely event you’re reading this: relax. The bad news is that the thing you’ve waited for all your life isn’t coming. The good news is you’re getting something much, much better instead.
Escaping the rut by Jennifer Senior
Of all the torments of new parents, sleeplessness is the most infamous. Yet most parents-to-be, no matter how much they’ve been warned, don’t fully grasp this idea until their first child comes along. Perhaps that’s because they think they know what sleep deprivation feels like. However, there’s a profound difference between sustained sleep loss and the occasional bad night. Professor David Dinges of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the foremost experts on partial sleep deprivation, says that the population seems to divide roughly in thirds when it comes to prolonged sleep loss: those who handle it fairly well, those who sort of fall apart and those who respond catastrophically. The problem is, most prospective parents have no clue which type they are until their kids come along. (I was the third type — just two bad nights, and blam, I was halfway down the loonytown freeway to hysterical exhaustion.)
Whatever type you may be — and Dr Dinges suspects it’s a fixed trait, evenly distributed between women and men — the emotional consequences of sleep loss are powerful enough to have earned their own analysis by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning behavioural economist, who conducted a study showing which activities gave 909 working women in Texas the most pleasure. Childcare ranked sixteenth out of nineteen — behind preparing food, watching TV, napping, shopping and housework. The women who’d had six hours of sleep or less were in a different league of unhappiness, almost, than those who’d had seven hours or more. The gap in their wellbeing was so extreme that it exceeded the gap between those who earned less than $30,000 [£17,900] annually and those who earned more than $90,000 [£54,000]. (In newspapers and magazines this finding is sometimes reported as “an hour extra of sleep is worth a $60,000 raise,” which isn’t exactly right, but close enough.)
Young children may be gruelling, young children may be vexing and young children may bust and redraw the contours of their parents’ professional and marital lives — but they bring joy too. Everyone knows this (hence: “bundles of joy”). It’s worth considering some of the reasons why. It’s not just because they’re soft and sweet and smell like perfection. They also create wormholes in time, transporting their mothers and fathers back to feelings and sensations they haven’t had since they themselves were young.
The dirty secret about adulthood is the sameness of it, its tireless adherence to routines and customs and norms. Small children may intensify this sense of repetition and rigidity by virtue of the new routines they establish, but they liberate their parents from their ruts too. All of us crave liberation from those ruts. More to the point, all of us crave liberation from our adult selves, at least from time to time. I’m not just talking about the selves with public roles to play and daily obligations to meet. (We can find relief from those people simply by going on vacation, or for that matter by pouring ourselves a stiff drink.) I’m talking about the selves who live too much in their heads rather than their bodies; who are burdened with too much knowledge about how the world works rather than excited by how it could work or should; who are afraid of being judged and not being loved. Most adults do not live in a world of forgiveness and unconditional love. Unless, that is, they have small children.
The most shameful part of adult life is how blinkered it makes us, how brittle and ungenerous in our judgments. It often takes a much bigger project to make adults look outward, to make them “boundless and unwearied in giving” as the novelist and philosopher C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves. Young children can go a long way towards yanking grown-ups out of their silly preoccupations and cramped little mazes of self-interest — not just relieving their parents of their egos, but helping them aspire to something better.
All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior is published by Virago Press as an eBook (£7.99) on February 19 and in paperback (£13.99) on March 13. To buy this book for £12.49 with free P&P from The Times Bookshop call 0845 2712134 or visit thetimes.co.uk/bookshop