Author Interviews
5:04 pm
Fri January 24, 2014

A Parenting Paradox: How Kids Manage To Be 'All Joy And No Fun'

Originally published on Fri January 24, 2014 6:29 pm

There's no shortage of books about how parents affect their children's lives, but what about vice versa? That's what New York Magazine contributing editor and mother Jennifer Senior sets out to investigate in All Joy and No Fun, a book about parental well-being.

"We assume that children will improve our happiness," Senior tells NPR's Melissa Block. "That's why babies are called bundles of joy. But what's so interesting is that one of the most robust findings in the social sciences — and it's been this way for about 50 years — is that children do not improve their parents' happiness."

Senior scoured decades of data about parental happiness and says that the numbers are pretty discouraging. Children either have a net effect of zero, or they "slightly compromise their parents' happiness" she says. But what about that "bundle of joy"?

In All Joy and No Fun, Senior attempts to untangle "the paradox of modern parenthood." The title, she says, "was a casual aside uttered by a friend of mine. He was a new father, and when asked what he thought of the gig, [he said it] was: 'All joy and no fun.'"


Interview Highlights

On what the numbers weren't capturing

So what the data was really leaving out was, in my view, joy. On most of these questionnaires and surveys, joy is indistinguishable from other kinds of pleasant feelings. If you're happy you just give it a 5. Maybe a [This Is] Spinal Tap analogy is good here: I think the joy really goes to 11 and there's no way to kind of measure that necessarily on a scale of 1 to 5.

That 5 you're feeling when your kid laughs or when your kid says something that's so totally, like, amazingly weird, or insightful, or sensitive — it's not the same as like getting a good laugh out of watching a movie or having a really nice time with a friend. It's just like a different category of experience and the fact that they all just numerically translate into the same thing is frustrating.

On a study by behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman that asked women to rate which activities gave them the most pleasure — and found childcare was pretty far down on the list

That study blows my doors off every time I hear somebody repeat it back to me. What's truly amazing about Danny Kahneman's study is that when the women were answering this question, they didn't even realize they were ranking childcare so low. Daniel Kahneman did not design this study to determine how happy moms were. He simply wanted to know how happy people were during the day as they were going about doing their daily business. And only at the end ... when everything was all added up did he discover that parents would have preferred — yeah, napping, answering emails, shopping, watching TV ... housework, vacuuming clocked in higher which is amazing.

On the way men and women internalize parenting differently

Women seem to have this running ticker tape of concerns in their head all the time about their kids. Whereas men just have this great gift of compartmentalization. And this is not just me speaking anecdotally, this has been born out in not just one study but many. The amount of psychological effort that women spend on their kids in addition to physical effort is really quite striking. The amount of time that women spend berating themselves for not spending enough time with their kids ... or spending the 'wrong kind' of time with them — heaven forbid that they actually turn on the television and let their kids watch TV for a half an hour so that they can do the dishes. It's really striking what the differences are.

On Minnesota parents Clint and Angie

What blew me away about Angie and Clint, is that Angie [who is a psychiatric nurse] during the day, she works with psychotics who are often in a delusional state and quite violent, and will bite, and will kick, and will hit. Yet she told me without any equivocation or ambiguity that she found her home life and her role as a mother much, much harder because she's not sure what she's supposed to do as a mom.

Whereas Clint who sits at a desk [managing rental car locations] — he's not contending with delusional patients — he finds working with his kids much easier. He finds his role of parent much easier ... he's very confident that what he's doing is just fine. He doesn't second-guess himself at all. Whereas when he's at work he's second-guessing himself all the time. That whole exchange, that said everything to me in a very small universe I heard all of the differences between how men approach this job and how women do.

On whether she was uncomfortable making generalizations about men and women

If you knew how many times I kind of hit "select all, delete" on those parts of the book ... the fact that there was so much data about this made it a more comfortable assertion to make.

On how writing the book affected her own understanding of being a mother and a wife

A lot of the material that I read about joy and meaning is something that I think about all the time now. And I do feel like — having spoken to parents of adult children and watching them well up with this wild sense of pride and accomplishment knowing what they know about who they've produced in the world — it's sort of an unrivaled feeling.

I think also some of the data that I ran across just helped me figure out how to be a better wife. I have now learned, that if I have something to do on a Saturday, I say so on a Tuesday and we make plans for me to do that so that on Saturday we're not duking it out about who gets the three hours.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

There are tons of books about how parents affect their children's lives. Not so many about how kids change their parents' lives. Well, writer and mother, Jennifer Senior is taking that idea on in her new book with the provocative title "All Joy and No Fun."

JENNIFER SENIOR: That title was a casual aside uttered by a friend of mine. He was a new father and when he asked what he thought of the gig, his response was: All joy and no fun. And I stole it.

BLOCK: All joy and no fun, that's the paradox of modern parenthood, as Jennifer Senior sees it. To untangle that paradox, she spent time observing parents interacting with their children and each other, and she went through scads of research studies about parental happiness. By and large, she says those numbers are pretty discouraging.

SENIOR: We assume that children will improve our happiness. That's why babies are called bundles of joy. But what's so interesting is that one of the most robust findings in the social sciences - and it's been this way for about 50 years - is that children do not improve their parents' happiness. In general, they have a net effect of either zero or they slightly compromise their parents' happiness. There are exceptions but overall the effect is zero to a slight negative.

BLOCK: So for you, when you started looking at those numbers about happiness and being a parent, what was missing? What were those data leaving out?

SENIOR: Right. So what the data was really leaving out was, in my view, joy. On most of these questionnaires and surveys, joy is indistinguishable from other kind of pleasant feelings. You know, if you're happy you just give it a five. Maybe a "Spinal Tap" analogy is good here. You know, I mean I think the joy really goes to 11 and there's no way to, you know, kind of measure that necessarily on a scale of one to five.

That five you're feeling when your kid laughs or when your kid says something that is so totally, like, amazingly weird, or insightful, or sensitive, it's not the same as like getting a good laugh out of watching a movie or having a really nice time with a friend. It's just like a different category of experience. And the fact that they all just numerically translate into the same thing is frustrating.

BLOCK: One of the studies that got a lot of attention came from the behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman. And he asked a bunch of working women what activities gave them the most pleasure. And lo and behold, childcare was way down on the list - 16th out of 19.

SENIOR: That study blows my doors off every time I hear somebody repeat it back to me.

(LAUGHTER)

SENIOR: What's truly amazing about Danny Kahneman's study is that when the women were answering this question, they didn't even realize they were ranking childcare so low. Daniel Kahneman did not design this study to determine how happy moms were. He simply wanted to know how happy people were during the day as they were going about doing their daily business.

And only at the end - when everything was all added up - did he discover that parents would have preferred, yeah: napping, answering e-mails, shopping, watching TV...

BLOCK: Housework.

SENIOR: ...housework - vacuuming clocked in higher, which is amazing.

BLOCK: You spent time observing different families around the country. And I wanted to ask you about a couple in Minnesota, Clint and Angie. And as you describe them, they both do shift work. They have two small kids. She's a psychiatric nurse. He manages rental car locations. But it's really clear from your narrative that the toll of taking care of their kids weighs very differently on them.

She feels guilty all the time, right, that she's not doing enough. And Clint is very forgiving of himself and he put it this way - it really struck me. He says: At home, I am the standard - I feel like I do it the way it should be done. She doesn't have that.

SENIOR: I feel like I want to make up bumper stickers that say: I Am The Standard...

(LAUGHTER)

SENIOR: ...and give them to every woman I know. So women seem to have this running tickertape of concerns in their heads all the time about the kids. Whereas men just have this great gift of compartmentalization, and this is not just me speaking anecdotally. This has been borne out in not just one study but many. And, you know, the amount of kind of psychological effort that women sort of spent on the kids - in addition to his physical effort and all that stuff - is really quite striking.

And the kind of amount of time that women spend berating themselves for not spending enough time with their kids...

BLOCK: Or not spending the right time with your kids.

SENIOR: ...or not doing the right - that's right, or spending the wrong kind of time with them. Heaven forbid that they actually, you know, turn on the television and let their kids watch TV for half an hour so that they can do the dishes, you know. It's really striking what the differences are.

So what blew me away about Angie and Clint, is that Angie during the day, she works with psychotics who are often in a delusional state and quite violent, and will bite, and will kick, and will hit. Yet she told me, without any equivocation or ambiguity, that she found her home life and her role as a mother much, much harder because she's not sure what she's supposed to do as a mom.

Whereas Clint who sits at a desk - he's not contending with delusional patients - he finds working with his kids much easier. He finds his role of parent much easier...

BLOCK: Because he's defined it for himself.

SENIOR: Because exactly, because he just as well, I am right because I am the standard. He's very confident that what he's doing is just fine. He doesn't second-guess himself at all. Whereas when he's at work, he's second-guessing himself all the time. That whole exchange, that said everything to me in a very small universe, I heard all of the differences between how men approach this job and how women do.

BLOCK: How leery are you of making broad generalizations about how women and how men parent differently, approach parenting differently in a book like this? Because obviously there so many exceptions to every rule.

SENIOR: Oh my God, terribly and if you knew how many times I kind of hit Select All/Delete...

(LAUGHTER)

SENIOR: ...from those parts of the book. The fact that there was so much data about this made them a comfortable assertion to make. So much so that I actually stand by my initial declaration, I want those bumper stickers made for all the gals we know.

BLOCK: I Am the Standard.

SENIOR: I Am the Standard.

BLOCK: In the end, at the end of writing this book, do you think you've come to understand yourself as a mother and maybe as a wife any differently, than you did when you went in?

SENIOR: In many ways, yes. I mean first of all, I think a lot of the material that I've read about joy and meaning is something that I think about all the time now. And, you know, I do feel like - having spoken to parents of adult children and watching them well up with this wild sense of pride and accomplishment knowing what they know about who they've produced in the world - it's sort of an unrivaled feeling.

I think also some of the data also that I ran across just helped me figure out how to be a better wife. I have now learned, that if I have something to do on a Saturday, I say so on a Tuesday. And we make plans for me to do that, so that on Saturday we're not duking it out about who gets the three hours.

So, oh yeah, for sure.

BLOCK: Jennifer Senior, her new book is titled "All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood." Jennifer, thanks so much.

SENIOR: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.