Parenting is a life-changing, meaning-infusing, deeply profound experience. It is also, day by day, a huge drag.
"All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood" by Jennifer Senior seeks to explain this contradiction - and mostly succeeds.
The book grew out of a much-discussed cover article that Senior wrote for New York magazine, where she is a contributing editor, that highlighted studies showing that parents are not as happy as their childless peers. The book is more nuanced, digging below the surface of those findings.
Parents will nod in recognition as Senior writes about the impairment caused by sleep deprivation in the early days; the stress of near-constant noncompliance in the toddler years; the frenetic schedules of school-age children; and the marriage-straining struggles of the teenage years.
From cradle to college, Senior explores the myriad factors at play that leave modern parents feeling conflicted, frustrated and utterly exhausted.
Chief among those factors is a paradigm shift. Children who were once contributing members of the family are now shielded and protected, and assumed to be "future assets," requiring much upfront investment.
Dwindling social ties - due to sprawl, two working parents and "pervasive busyness" - have also had an adverse effect.
"Without the pop-in, without the vibrant presence of neighbors, without life in the cul-de-sacs and the streets, the pressure reverts back to the nuclear family - and more specifically, to the marriage or partnership - to provide what friends, neighbors, and other families once did: games, diversions, imaginative play," Senior writes. "And parents have lost some of the fellowship provided by other adults."
What accounts for people's rosy global view of parenthood, then? Senior cites the gap in how we experience things versus how we remember them.
"Our experiencing selves tell researchers that we prefer doing the dishes - or napping, or shopping, or answering emails - to spending time with our kids," Senior writes. "But our remembering selves tell researchers that no one - and nothing - provides us with so much joy as our children. It may not be the happiness we live day to day, but it's the happiness we think about, the happiness we summon and remember, the stuff that makes up our life tales."
"All Joy and No Fun" is chock-full of fascinating information from papers, studies and books on wide-ranging subjects. It feels disjointed, however, and leaves the reader with a full inventory of our many problems, with very few solutions.
Still, the thought-provoking nuggets it contains are valuable for any parent seeking some perspective.