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Misery Never Felt So Rewarding

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Attention childless persons: If you're thinking of having kids, and are looking for an accurate assessment of the experience, disregard the holiday cards you may have received that portray merry families in various stages of triumph. Instead, read Jennifer Senior's book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. This eloquent read is a tonic to the realist school of childrearing, exploring the grind in the job along with the bliss. We're having no fun, and we are no fun, but we wouldn't do it any differently.

Senior is an editor at New York Magazine, and this exquisitely titled book is her first. It's a more detailed and thoughtful version of a widely-read article she wrote in 2010 that explored the effect of children on their parents. To find the answer, she studies philosophy and social science research, spends time with parents, reviews the history of childhood, and wades through much of the current literature on childhood and parenting. Her not terribly surprising conclusion to those of us in the trenches is that kids give our lives meaning while sucking the pleasure out of our every day.

Most of the book explores the no-fun ways children upend and reorganize their parents' lives. Babies and young children, with their ceaseless demands and all-consuming needs, eat away at our autonomy. Sleep, leisure, work, and daily routines are shattered by the arrival of an infant, and the old ways of organizing a life never return. Independence suffers, and marriages buckle under the weight of even one child. Elementary school-age children, charming though they may be, run us ragged with their demanding, but apparently necessary extra-curricular schedules.

Adolescence is the worst of all, for just when parents are beginning to grapple with how they've constructed their own lives, the carefully-cultivated little darlings suddenly turn on their meek masters and become sullen, ungrateful beasts. Here, Senior posits the daring and plausible thesis that parents are responsible for most of this adolescent drama, because the kids' pulling away coincides with a period of crisis for us. At the crest of our careers, coming down the other side of child-rearing, and confronted with updated versions of ourselves, we are reminded that our lives are coasting to a finish just as theirs' are getting interesting. It's only natural then for parents to get a bit snippy, or even slightly hysterical, at the injustice of it all.

More than other writers, Senior captures the transformative effect on adults of all that instructing, nagging, advising, and cajoling. "It's exhausting to be the family compass and conscience," she writes. "It means the stuff of everyday life becomes a source of tension; it means you're the designated family prig." As children grow, some of the associated drudgery is self-imposed. In one of her more revealing sections, she follows two anxious middle-class mothers from St. Paul who go quiet when asked why they frantically drive from T-ball, to swim team, to Girl Scouts. "This is what they do. It's what other parents around them do," Senior writes. "As far as children are concerned, there is no such thing as excess... Their children deserve nothing less."

Children haven't always been so precious. Senior draws on the work of Steven Mintz, a historian on childhood, who explains that before the 19th century childhood was considered "a time of deficiency and incompleteness," wherein new babies went by "it" and children, if they made it past infancy, received no special protection either at home -- no safety gates or bumpers there -- or at the mill or on the farm, where they toiled. The Progressive Era brought an end to most child labor, and after World War II, modern childhood began in earnest. Now while the grown-ups went to work, the kids went to school. For Senior, this is when the trouble started: "The moment children stopped working for adults, everyone became confused about who was in charge."

This muddle over roles and authority is what's caused us so much grief. Parents are simply unclear about what they're supposed to do with their kids. Having outsourced most of the traditional parental responsibilities -- growing food, sewing clothes, building shelter, or teaching the basics of a trade -- modern mothers and fathers are left to figure out on their own what their purpose is. "How one equips children to go prospecting for themselves has never been more unclear," Senior writes. "The sole area of agreement for almost all middle class parents -- whether they make their children practice the violin for three hours a day or exert no pressure on them at all -- is that whatever they are doing is for the child's sake, and the child's alone."

Here's where I disagree. She is generous to the families she interviews, and is understandably reluctant to share less charitable explanations for their -- for all of our -- behavior. My personal experience in the suburbs suggests that there's more than selfless devotion to their offspring, combined with hyper-anxiety over the future, to explain why modern parents prostrate themselves so before their children. The quest for status, so pernicious in our make-believe classless democracy, must also play a part. As junior representatives of Mom and Dad, children have the power to elevate or deflate their parents' standing. Hence, the "concerted cultivation" Senior explores may be as much a scramble for rank as a reflection of love. And as Gore Vidal noted, "It's not enough to succeed. Others must fail." What better way to assure Ashley's success, and our own implicit superiority, than to jam her schedule with twice as many Mandarin, cello, and karate classes as Caitlin from up the street?

Indeed, a perverse kind of eminence accrues to the woman with the most insane and difficult schedule, the mother with six little ones who will deny herself all in order to produce more accomplished and productive children. The excessive, self-imposed suffering and predictable moaning has even acquired a name, courtesy of Debora Spar, author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection and president of Barnard College: competitive collapsing. Fathers aren't exempt on this front, either. Go to any youth soccer or basketball game and tell me that all the berating of children, most often coming from fathers, is a function of love, rather than pride, envy, or some other deadly sin. We parents are loathe to recognize these baser motivations for some of our parenting decisions -- those that stem from our own demons and doubts -- but they play a commanding role in how we rear our children nonetheless.

The balance of the book examines the joy in being a parent, that unpredictable and fleeting part of the job that compels grown-ups to persist in reproducing, diapers be damned. Young kids give adults permission to shed their protective shells, to sing, dance, and play with abandon. By asking simple questions, they also provoke parents to re-think their assumptions and reasoning. (Hmm, why do we step over the man lying on the subway grate, but give away canned beans at Thanksgiving?) But the most lasting satisfaction that children bring us is a sense of connection to each other and to the institutions that sustain communities. Happiness has nothing to do with it, as any parent of a colicky baby or lost teenager knows. We tend to our children out of a sense of duty, and in doing so find the purpose and value in our own lives -- whether we like it or not.