More than two thousand years ago the Greek philosopher Democritus wrote, “Raising children is an uncertain thing; success is reached only after a life of battle and worry.” Not much has changed since then. The parenting shelf in the bookstore is filled with thick volumes of advice. For decades anxious fathers and mothers have embraced the latest theories, from Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care to Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in an effort to raise happy, well-adjusted children.
When journalist Jennifer Senior looks at that shelf of child-rearing books, she says, “I don’t see help. I see anxiety.” In All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood she doesn’t offer parenting advice but rather examines how becoming a parent shapes our identities and relationships. The parents she profiles include Jessie, who sometimes finds herself briefly entertaining the fantasy of running away from all parental obligations; Angie, who struggles to negotiate household responsibilities with her husband; and Sharon, who is raising her three-year-old grandson alone due to multiple tragedies in her family. Describing the worries that parents experience, Senior says, “We are all now furiously improvising our way through a situation for which there is no script. . . . We have no clue what portion of our wisdom, if any, is of use to our kids. The world is changing so rapidly, it’s impossible to say.”
After graduating summa cum laude in anthropology from Princeton in 1991, Senior pursued a career in journalism. Until recently she was a contributing editor at New York magazine, where she wrote about politics, social science, and mental health. She just took a new job as a daily book critic for The New York Times. She’s won writing awards, been anthologized four times in The Best American Political Writing, and interviewed then-Senator Barack Obama, Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, and President Bill Clinton. All Joy and No Fun has been translated into eleven languages, and her TED talk has been viewed online 1.5 million times. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and son.
The prospect of interviewing someone who’s an expert interviewer was intimidating, but Senior put me at ease. We began talking while she grabbed some breakfast in a hotel cafe in Davis, California, before her trip to Florida to cover Jeb Bush’s presidential-primary campaign, and we continued later via Skype when she was back in Brooklyn. Senior leavened her facts with personal anecdotes as she discussed some of her surprising findings about modern American parenting.
Leviton: All Joy and No Fun stands out by not being a “how to raise your kids” book. How did you decide that was the type of book you wanted to write?
Senior: I have an anthropology degree, and I wanted my first book to have that sensibility: How did this strange culture, these strange traditions, bloom? In what setting? What were the historical events that led to this particular moment?
I sort of came upon the subject accidentally, after I was assigned a story at New York magazine about the problems with “positive psychology,” a burgeoning new discipline on college campuses that, in the crudest sense, is the study of what makes people happy, though positive psychologists don’t like it when you describe it that way. Anyway, I discovered lots of interesting facts: Religious people are happier than nonreligious. Married people are happier than singles. (Of course, you have to ask if this is cause or effect — maybe happy people are more likely to get married.) Then I read the Harvard social psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. Toward the end of the book there were a couple of pages and an accompanying graph that said kids, believe it or not, didn’t make us happy. That brought me up short. This was 2006. I’d just started dating my husband, and I really wanted a kid. (He already had two.) I wanted to believe kids did improve happiness.
In 2004 five researchers, including the Nobel Prize–winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, did a study of 909 working women in Texas. Mothers were asked to do two things: (A) keep a diary of all the activities they did the day before and (B) say how they felt while they were doing them. And it turned out that taking care of their children ranked sixteenth out of nineteen in pleasurability. Child care ranked behind shopping, behind housework. It’s startling at first but also kind of obvious that it’s more fun to nap or go out to dinner than it is to change a diaper or argue with a two-year-old.
Leviton: How do researchers measure happiness?
Senior: There are various methods, all of them imperfect, and they’re not all measuring the same thing. Some look at our overall life satisfaction. Others look at how we’re feeling at the very moment we’re doing something. Different scales and inventories ask different questions, too. Some ask things like “Are you worried? Are you losing sleep?” which have yes answers for most parents. But if researchers ask, “Are you lonely? Do you have a sense of meaning in your life?” then parents — especially married parents — have less-depressing answers.
I like the work of the psychiatrist and researcher George Vaillant. He makes the distinction between joy and fun. Eating a Snickers bar gives you pleasure, and so does an orgasm. These things are fun. They make you “happy,” at least for a short while, in an ephemeral sense. But Vaillant says that joy is different. In his book Spiritual Evolution he writes, “Joy is connection.” It can be a connection to another person; it can be a connection to God. This is a very clarifying concept: that pleasure is really focused inward and joy is focused outward.
Leviton: I’m reminded of a Yiddish word, nachas, which is often used to describe the joy parents get from a child’s accomplishments.
Senior: That’s pride, which is something else. You might feel nachas when your kid gets into Harvard, but you’d feel it even more so, I think, if your kid stood up to a bully, or for a principle, or did a good deed. Personally I’d be prouder of that behavior.
If your kid gets into Harvard, sure, it’s worth celebrating — but if your kid is the one who tells the asshole to stop picking on the gay kid, you’ve done something even more right.
Leviton: Perhaps joy is the feeling that the essence of life is present. There’s an alignment, a perfection. It’s a feeling of rightness that may be paradoxically unconnected from who you are, what you’ve achieved, or the specific circumstances.
Senior: Yes, joy often simply runs in the background. Sometimes life just feels right. Or it can be ecstatic: When I die, I’m pretty sure I’ll still remember the moment my son, Rusty, first cooed at me. He just looked at me and made this noise that for the first time said: I know you. That was an ecstatic moment. It’s a joyful feeling to suddenly see the basic architecture of your life.
Leviton: Can you talk about Kahneman’s concept of the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self” and how it relates to parenting?
Senior: I was captivated by this idea. Kahneman describes the experiencing self as the person who moves through the world in real time. The remembering self then takes all those past experiences and integrates them into our identities. Kahneman would argue that the decisions we make and how we see ourselves are really determined by our remembering selves, even though they’re not doing the actual living for us.
Our experiencing selves are pretty put out by parenting. We find it anxiety-producing. It often doesn’t seem fun. But if you ask people with children what their greatest source of joy is, almost all will say it is their kids. That remembering part of us loves parenthood. That’s partly because the transcendent moments stick better, so you remember them with more clarity. They occupy a special chamber in our minds.
And we play tricks with our memories, converting miserable memories into great ones. When you are awake with your kid at 3 AM, and he just won’t fall asleep, and he’s crying, and you’re exhausted, in that moment it’s torture. Yet when I remember how my son held on to me, like a koala bear hangs on to a tree, I just want to weep with nostalgia for that small, vulnerable person.
The concise way of saying this is: you can love your children and not always love parenting.
Leviton: And while you are parenting, you can’t clearly evaluate what you are going through.
Senior: I think that’s true. My grandfather fought in the Pacific during World War II. If you asked him if he enjoyed being hungry all the time and losing the full use of one of his arms for the rest of his life, he’d say no. In the moment it was horrible. But I know he was proud at the end of his life to have played a part in defeating fascism. He’d say that, given the chance, he’d do it all again. Having children is a lot nicer than going to war, but it gives our lives meaning in a similar way.
Leviton: Do children help couples bond?
Senior: It’s not true that having a child brings couples closer. Almost all studies agree that marital satisfaction goes south when a child is born. If you have different ideas about how money should be spent or who does which chores, or different values in a variety of ways, then those fault lines are going to be revealed even more starkly once you have children.
Leviton: How did you decide whom to talk to for your book?
Senior: I called Bill Doherty at the University of Minnesota, who had written several books about families. He said I was in luck: Minnesota had a program unlike anything else in the United States, and he just happened to be the faculty advisor to it. He invited me to visit the Early Childhood Family Education [ECFE] classes, where I met both high-income and low-income parents, black and white parents, Hispanic and Somali parents, stay-at-home parents and working parents. The program draws a huge cross section of families who have children between the ages of newborn and five. In 2010, the year I got my book contract, something like ninety thousand parents took a class with them. I sat in on a bunch of classes and spent additional time with those parents I wanted to know better.
My next destination had to be in an area where I could observe a different culture, and I figured it should be in the South, so I picked the conservative Houston suburb of Sugar Land, Texas. I made contact with families involved with the Parent Teacher Association of an elementary school there.
When I wrote the section about adolescents, I went to Brooklyn. I wanted to include New Yorkers but not the type normally profiled — namely, wealthy Manhattanites and Brooklynites who are anxious about getting their kids into Harvard. I wanted a middle-class enclave, and I found one in Lefferts Gardens. Many of the residents had moved there when housing was affordable, before Brooklyn was particularly safe or chic.
Because of the way my research unfolded, I wound up not including any gay parents. The gay ECFE groups that I approached in Minnesota didn’t say yes. The places where I logged time in Texas were way too conservative to attract many (if any) gay families. By the time I got to New York, where I was profiling the mothers and fathers of teenagers, all the gay parents I spoke to had had their children in straight marriages first; they were blended families, basically. Which means, in hindsight, I should have quintupled my efforts to find gay families in Minnesota. It kills me that there are no voices of gay parents in the book. I acknowledge them as a category, citing a couple of studies featuring gay parents. But it wasn’t enough, and it’s a massive regret. My largest by far.
I was amazed to read about the New York City newsboys’ strike in 1899, which ultimately improved conditions and raised wages. You had these armies of seven-, eight-, and nine-year-olds bringing the entire newspaper business to its knees. They organized and won. Today we don’t even let our nine-year-olds go on the subway by themselves.
Leviton: Why didn’t you include more low-income parents?
Senior: I tried. I spent a couple of months doing nothing but reading the literature about raising children in poverty. What I realized is that you cannot separate the problems of poverty from those of parenting. Low-income parents are understandably concerned with making rent, getting food on the table, and finding adequate child care. It became clear pretty quickly they deserved their own book.
In Unequal Childhoods Annette Lareau describes a poor woman who has trouble simply getting enough quarters to do her laundry, because she doesn’t have a bank account and most banks won’t sell rolls of them to noncustomers. Can you imagine? Not having the means to get quarters to wash your kid’s socks? How can you compare that to a mother who’s talking about the difficulty of waking up at 5:30 AM to take her daughter to ice-skating lessons?
Leviton: Why is there so little information about your own life, your own parenting experience, in the book?
Senior: That’s deliberate. I’m an anthropologist. What does my life have to do with it? I’m a sample of one. I’m idiosyncratic. I’m a second wife. I have one child with my husband and two grown stepkids. There are thousands of blogs written by mothers out there. My training is reporting. I synthesize material about others; I don’t write about myself.
Leviton: Did you research how children are raised in other countries around the world?
Senior: No. Again, it was just too much for one book. The most I did was reread Margaret Mead. She wrote a book in 1942 called And Keep Your Powder Dry, basically trying to explain us to our British allies during World War II. There’s plenty in her book about parenting. She believed that in old European cultures there were fixed parenting traditions, which made things a lot easier for moms and dads, but in America there were no fixed standards. In her words, “There are only this year’s babies.” This uncertainty made it hard to be a confident parent — and she was writing this in 1942.
Leviton: How has parenting changed over the years?
Senior: For most of American history, children were economic assets. They weren’t just along for the ride; they were actively helping in the family. This was particularly true when we had an agricultural economy. Children then worked from an early age. Kids of five or six were pulling weeds; by eight or nine they had intense, demanding chores.
Viviana Zelizer writes about this in Pricing the Priceless Child. Child labor on farms was one of the last types of child labor to be reformed in the twentieth century. It was not only an economic necessity to have children work; it was considered character-forming. The work was often done outdoors, next to parents, siblings, and other relatives. It was a family project. It wasn’t like work in a Dickensian factory or mill, where youngsters were employed because their small hands could work inside mechanisms, or in coal mines, where their small bodies could fit into tight spaces.
I was amazed to read about the New York City newsboys’ strike in 1899, which ultimately improved conditions and raised wages. You had these armies of seven-, eight-, and nine-year-olds bringing the entire newspaper business to its knees. They organized and won. Today we don’t even let our nine-year-olds go on the subway by themselves.
It used to be there were all kinds of ways to be a child, especially once you hit adolescence. You might be sent to a big city to work and live in a rooming house. Novelist Herman Melville worked on a whaling ship when he was a very young man. Girls, of course, had fewer options. They were often “little mothers,” asked to help take care of the house and younger siblings.
There wasn’t a huge middle class in the early twentieth century, and it was common for those who were in their teens (but not yet called “teenagers”) to work long hours. No one made a fetish of childhood. Kids were more like small adults. In 1940 half of all American boys still didn’t complete high school. Zelizer points out that, before we started restricting child labor, some of the most coveted children to adopt were teenage boys. They were strapping and could make money. By the mid-thirties the most popular children to adopt were baby girls, because they were adorable. We had begun to sentimentalize childhood. Children were assigned the same emotional value they’d lost economically.
When World War II ended, the progressive reforms had locked into place, and the modern American standardized childhood emerged. The vast majority of children were now marching in lock step from kindergarten to twelfth grade, grouped together by age.
Leviton: Essentially “teenagers” were invented in the 1950s.
Senior: They emerged then as a protected species. In the nineteenth century children spent much more of their time with adults than with kids their own age, because they worked. By the end of the twentieth century that had reversed. Teens are now kept in a box with other teens.
Leviton: In 1957 E.E. LeMasters published his study “Parenthood as Crisis.” What were his main points?
Senior: It was really just a four-page paper, and the methodology wouldn’t hold up now. He didn’t have a very big sample. He asked parents about the impact of their first child in retrospect; it’s not clear how many were speaking about the present. But however flawed his methods were, the results were surprising in their day, because they revealed people in acute distress.
Parents were complaining about the same things they complain about now: They weren’t sleeping enough. They’d lost touch with their friends. Women who’d gone to work during World War II lamented that they had to leave the workforce and stay home. They were encouraged to have modest personal aims and focus on mothering — and they became very anxious about being good mothers.
LeMasters discovered that many fathers had thought marriage and parenthood would be more satisfying. They’d thought they would have more sex; they were upset that they weren’t the sole focus of their wife’s affections. They were anxious about supporting their families, were more dug into their jobs, and had less freedom.
Leviton: Today we have more women in the workplace, and both parents are often working, sometimes at multiple jobs. One might think they’d be spending less time with their kids than parents did in the fifties and sixties, but you say that’s not true.
Senior: Parents spend more time with their kids now. Something called the American Time Use Survey keeps track of these numbers. In 1965, with not as many women in the workplace, mothers still spent fewer hours per week on child care than they did in 2008. And fathers spent nearly three times as many hours with their children in 2008 as they did in 1965.
Today more than 40 percent of mothers are the primary or sole wage earners in their family. I don’t think that trend’s ever going to reverse. It’s become harder and harder to raise a family on just one person’s income. But also the most successful economies in the world are those where women are a large part of the workforce. That’s a positive development.
You might assume that if women are working more hours away from the home, they are neglecting their children. Not so. As I said, mothers spend more time with their kids than they did in the 1960s. I believe the reason is partly to assuage our guilt, because our culture is still deeply, neurotically ambivalent about women in the workplace. We believe women should have the right to work, and we also believe they should be with their kids full time. But there’s zero consistency in the literature about what’s better for the child. I’ve seen studies saying virtually everything: It’s better for kids to have a mother who works. It’s worse. It’s exactly the same. Et cetera. A lot of this is going to come down to individual families and their needs — and what feels right.
Of course, a mother might want to be at home full time. My friends who are stay-at-home moms are good at it. If I were that good at being a parent, maybe I’d want to stay home all day, too. But I have a calling to both work and mothering. So, like most mothers, I compensate by spending record amounts of time with my kid.
For mothers in the fifties and sixties the emphasis was on keeping the perfect home. They buffed floors to a high shine, removed “ring around the collar,” and made scrumptious and punctual meals — but they put their toddlers in playpens, and once the kids were big enough to get on a bike, they told them to go outside and not come back until supper at six o’clock. It was the Betty Draper model of parenting on the TV show Mad Men. I’m guessing the character of Betty Draper represents a sort of wish fulfillment for some mothers: they wish they, too, could tell the kids to watch television while they drink a martini at 4:30.
The American Time Use Survey says that today we’re neglecting our houses, not our children: many modern mothers can’t cook, and our houses are filthy. What we do is spend more time at the office and more time with our kids. A woman who stays home used to be called a “housewife” or “homemaker.” Now she is a “stay-at-home mom.” The emphasis has changed from the place to the person. Keeping the home is no longer the focus of an American mother’s life. Kids are.
In Mad Men Betty Draper is embarrassed if she or her house doesn’t look good. And she has to be a good cook. Now it’s not shameful to have people over and order takeout. There’s no shame in having a living room filled with toys that you haven’t bothered to clean up. There is shame, however, if you are not attentive to your children.
Leviton: There are now accusations of parental neglect, with the police sometimes being called, when children are allowed too much freedom of movement.
Senior: There’s a recent case in Silver Spring, Maryland. A couple was investigated by Child Protective Services because they let their ten- and six-year-olds walk around the neighborhood by themselves. The parents are both well educated — I think trained as scientists — and believe it helps their kids learn self-reliance and independence to allow them to wander within a mile of home.
The kids were walking home from the park in a very safe neighborhood, in broad daylight, and got picked up by the cops because someone had ratted them out. I consider that creepy. The neighborhood’s no longer the place where we keep our eyes on the street for the sake of other kids’ safety; now it’s a place where we spy on each other. In the 1970s nobody would have batted an eye over two kids walking alone, and the streets weren’t nearly as safe then as they are now. Just the fact that parents are talking about raising “free-range kids” shows how obsessed we’ve become with the fantasy of total safety.
I was in Vermont on vacation once and stopped to buy a gift for our neighbors, who were leaving. My son, Rusty, was five, and he had bad blisters on his feet from walking around all day, so he asked if he could stay in the car. I said sure. I cracked the windows and told him to honk the horn or get out and come find me if he needed me. This was a town where the police blotter is full of items like “A squirrel caused a power outage last night by gnawing his way through farmer so-and-so’s wires.” And I could see him through the shop window.
I was in the store for two minutes before a woman came up to me and said, “Are you Rusty’s mother?” I said I was. And she let me know that she thought I’d endangered my child. I replied that I believed in data, and the data said that he’d be in far more danger after I started the car and drove him home in a few minutes. Riding in a car is much more dangerous for a child than sitting in a parked one in rural New England.
Leviton: We live in a culture of fear. If it isn’t sexual predators, it’s terrorism or Ebola. My childhood in Southern California in the fifties and sixties was outdoors, self-directed, and fearless. Is that type of upbringing gone forever?
Senior: I think it may be. Even during my childhood there were times when I came home as it started getting dark, and my mother said, “Did someone feed you?”
Here’s another story: One day I had left Rusty’s bike helmet at my brother’s house, and he wanted to ride his kick scooter up and down our Brooklyn street without it. I told him how far he could go in either direction, and I was sitting at the top of the stoop, reading a book and keeping an eye on him. This is already way more attentive than a fifties, sixties, or seventies parent would have been. Our neighbors came along with their son, Rusty’s playmate, and he asked his mom to let him scoot without a helmet, too. His mother looked at me and said, “In our house we believe in helmets.” As if I believed in gratuitous risk-taking, in courting unnecessary danger. I love my neighbors, but I’d considered the facts: it was a gorgeous day, my son really wanted to scoot, and I didn’t think it would end with a traumatic brain injury. I’m not saying bike helmets are bad. I’m saying there’s a difference between scooting on a hundred feet of neighborhood sidewalk and riding a bike on a hundred-mile mountain trail.
Leviton: It’s like the Margaret Mead quote you mentioned: “There are only this year’s babies.” The history of previous generations, who lived lives we now consider dangerous, dirty, and unhealthy, doesn’t inform the thinking of today’s parents.
Senior: Plus there’s something to be said for a kid falling off his scooter and getting scrapes and bruises. There’s a cost to conveying to your kid that he’s delicate and has to be protected. Why can’t we convey the idea that he’s tough, that he can fall down and get up again?
Leviton: I was fascinated to find out from your book that, although fathers and mothers are both spending more time with their kids than ever before, they have discrete parenting styles and use their time with the children differently. Tell me more about that.
Senior: That was a revelation to me as well. Fathers tend to do more interactive tasks that don’t depend on a schedule: They play catch. They help the kids build models with Legos. They do much less disciplining. “Wait until your father gets home” is a myth. If you ask men who the family disciplinarian is, they overwhelmingly say, “My wife.” Although dads spend more time with their kids than ever before, men still spend fewer hours at home than their wives. And because the wives are home more often, they have to deal with the discipline issues more.
Generally fathers don’t enforce deadlines. There’s great data showing that mothers are the ones who make sure meals are served on time, baths are given, soccer uniforms are laundered before the game, and the kid is dropped off promptly for activities. Moms are in charge of logistics and bear the psychological load of being the “family nag.” It erodes self-esteem to be a nag.
I believe that fathers are easier on themselves about parenting. This doesn’t mean they are lazy or inattentive; it means they are more forgiving of their own mistakes. Exhausted mothers might want to imitate the dads who are engaged but not beating themselves up about every misstep.
My experience with one couple, Clint and Angie, really helped me understand this gender difference. She is a psychiatric nurse who routinely deals with people who are having psychotic breaks, some of whom physically attack her. At one point I asked which she found harder: being at work or being at home. She answered swiftly, “Oh, it’s much easier for me at work.” I found this baffling. At work she was dealing with people in distress, who often couldn’t be reasoned with and may scream and bite. But she felt competent at work. She knew what she was doing. When I asked her if she was a good mother, she hesitated and said, “Sometimes.” I thought she was a very good mom, patient and loving and concerned about all the right things. She was also an overworked mom who felt she had to be right there on the floor with her kids. Her youngest, Zay, wanted to be held all the time, because that was the standard she had set.
Angie’s husband, Clint, had a job managing people in an office. I asked him which was harder, work or home, and his answer was just as swift as Angie’s had been: he found work much harder, even though it was not physically taxing and he was dealing with much less challenging people. I asked why, and he said, “At work I’m held to someone else’s standard, whereas at home I am the standard. I feel like I do it the way it should be done.”
“I am the standard” appeared to me in fiery orange letters. The second he said it, I thought, No woman would ever say that. For a woman there’s always an outside standard hovering above, tyrannizing her, whether it’s TV housewife Donna Reed, or the real-life “tiger mom” Amy Chua, or the woman on Facebook who makes perfect organic treats on Sundays. Because this is the first generation of involved fathers, they get points just for showing up. If Dad’s emptying the dishwasher and the kids are playing on their own, and no harm seems to be coming to them, he doesn’t think he has to be right there on the floor, too.
Angie feels guilty going to work because the kids wrap their arms around her legs as she tries to leave. Clint doesn’t have these same preconceived ideas about perfect parenting. He’s doing much more than his dad ever did — even making dinner! He told me his father had left when he was seven. So he was going to surpass his father’s involvement simply by not leaving.
Leviton: A woman is also dealing with the inevitable loss that comes with birth: a part of her own body has been externalized; she’s in a relationship with a child that used to be her flesh. It’s fundamentally different from what a father feels.
Senior: There’s something to that: We mothers carried our children, grew them inside us. There is no analogue for a man. I don’t know how much psychological weight to assign to that experience, though.
Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that helps us bond, and breast-feeding mothers are awash in it. But men feel deep and abiding connections to their children, too. Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik says, “It’s not so much that we care for children because we love them, as that we love them because we care for them.” Parental love is about time and engagement, not just biology.
The data say that men feel the result of the empty nest more than women. [Psychologist] Laurence Steinberg is probably the foremost authority on adolescence, and his theory is that, because women spend more time with their kids than their spouses do, and because they are the disciplinarians, they’ve experienced more conflict. So it’s a slight relief for mothers when their kids go off to college.
Leviton: You say that women also tend to be the “designated family empaths.” Does this mean children vent more to their mothers?
Senior: Mothers often sense when something’s the matter. They’re attuned to the emotional frequencies of the house. That’s awfully burdensome for them sometimes, to sense other people’s distress. And if you ask a teenager what’s the matter, we all know that doesn’t always work out so well. It’s a good idea to ask — teenagers kind of secretly wish their parents would communicate more — but if the question is filled with anxiety, it comes off as an accusation: “What’s wrong with you?” Teenagers hate being asked about their friends or what music they’re listening to. They think we should be policing their safety, not their choices.
Leviton: But it matters a lot which choices kids make: which schools they apply to, for example, and what classes they take.
Senior: Right, but what really matters most — it’s depressing to say this, but true — is if your kid was born into a reasonably highly educated, intact, middle-class family. When I talk to high-income parents, I find myself constantly reminding them that their kids are already on the road to success. They probably aren’t going to have a lot of debt, if any, after college. They have orthodonture and nice clothes. They were read to and have a large vocabulary. And they have well-connected parents, who’ll help them get their first jobs. The other stuff — being great at several extracurriculars or whatever — is just gravy in comparison. The more powerful factors are the things they were already born with.
It’s not a crime to have other portions of your identity thrive while you are parenting. . . . I don’t believe we need to annihilate ourselves in order to be exemplary parents. I remember it was a revelation to me the first time my husband said to our son, “I really don’t like certain kinds of board games. I’m not going to play them with you.” I thought, Look at that! You can just say that!
Leviton: I have encountered expectant couples who say they won’t let having a child throw them off kilter: they are still going to do what they’ve always done after the baby arrives.
Senior: If you’ve already lived ten years post-college without a kid, it’s unimaginable to think about rearranging every aspect of your life. You just imagine the new arrival fitting into all the existing systems. But how long can you manage that? Maybe in the early stages you can resist making the necessary changes, but having a child is profoundly life changing. Carolyn and Philip Cowan wrote about this in their book When Partners Become Parents, and when I talked to them, they spoke with wry amusement about those parents who, three months from birth, said nothing was going to change: they were still going to Venice; they’d just strap the baby on and walk the canals. There are some rare parents who can probably figure that out. Maybe they have enough energy to integrate a child into an active life, and maybe they have a compliant baby. But most children won’t sleep and eat only when you need them to.
Leviton: Did it overturn your life when you had your son?
Senior: My job was probably more accommodating to parenthood than most. As a writer I have more flexibility in my schedule. So my professional life wasn’t severely impacted. I certainly wasn’t socializing as much, however.
I became a stepmother before I became a mom, and that helped me prepare. And I had my son when I was thirty-eight, after most of my friends already had children. So I’d seen up close what parenthood looked like. I was realistic.
Leviton: When you were growing up, were you aware of the effect you had on your parents?
Senior: I don’t know that I had a conscious sense that I was really inconveniencing them — you don’t think that when you’re three — but I definitely felt that I was a lot to handle. My folks had me when they were twenty-two and twenty-four. Parenthood had happened to them relatively early, and they found it hard. My mother was part of that interstitial generation of women who kind of got screwed. If she had been born two or three years later, she might have gotten married in her thirties, and she would have made a real serious stab at being an opera singer. If she’d been born five years earlier, I don’t think she would have had any career at all. What she did was work at IBM as one of the early female programmers there, and she taught music and cared for the kids until she went to law school at thirty-one.
I think my father would have been a calmer dad if he’d waited longer to have children. He’s a litigator. He was born high-strung and had lots of wanderlust. He hitchhiked through Europe, at one point wearing a priest’s robe because he knew he’d get picked up more often — a nice Jewish boy dressed as a priest. Or so he tells us.
Leviton: How does parenting change as the children grow older?
Senior: When children are small, their prefrontal cortexes are barely developed. The prefrontal cortex regulates impulses and is in charge of planning. So, as the parent of a toddler, you’re interacting with a small creature who has no self-control, can’t imagine a future, and lives in the permanent present. And you are the one who has to break the news to them that there are things they have to do and places they have to be, and that they can’t have everything they want. You are going to be responsible for disappointing them a lot.
In adolescence the prefrontal cortex is more developed, so children now have some notion of how to plan; they have some self-regulation; they understand the concept of waiting; they can reason. But they also have a narrow range of experience and don’t know how much they still have left to learn. Their assessment of risk and reward is faulty. And their bodies are awash in dopamine, which is closely associated with the reward and pleasure systems of our brains. So, as the parent of an adolescent, you function as a brake pedal. They might see you as their jailer, the resident jerk who is there just to say no.
Leviton: I remember when my second son was five and wouldn’t go to bed, I’d physically pick him up and carry him to his room. A psychologist suggested that I might want to develop techniques for communicating with him that didn’t depend on physical control of him, because that wasn’t going to work forever.
Senior: Laurence Steinberg says one of the most difficult things about raising adolescents is that you no longer have any physical control over their actions. You have to learn the art of diplomacy and persuasion. Steinberg also believes hormonal changes in puberty have only a modest effect on adolescent behavior, and that rebellion during adolescence is atypical. He thinks teenagers experience life in a kind of pleasant haze, which drives their parents crazy.
In his book Crossing Paths Steinberg describes his longitudinal study, which showed that 40 percent of parents in his sample suffered a decline in mental health when their first child entered adolescence. The parents felt rejection and low self-worth; their sex lives declined; and they had more stomach problems, insomnia, and headaches. In his theory, if adolescents weren’t around, midlife crises wouldn’t be as intense.
Leviton: You cite Stephanie Coontz’s book The Way We Never Were, which concludes that extended families — three or more generations under one roof — have never been the norm in America. She says the highest percentage on record of people living in extended families was just 20 percent, and that was between 1850 and 1885. I was surprised by this. I thought one of the big differences in modern life was that change from the extended family to the nuclear family.
Senior: Extended families may not have lived together in great numbers, but they did live closer to each other. Today college-educated Americans tend to live farther away from their parents than those who have only a high-school diploma. Education translates into mobility, which weakens family ties. And we are waiting longer and longer to have kids, which means the grandparents, if still alive, are going to be older and less able to help out. People in their forties might be taking care of parents and young children at the same time.
Leviton: In your book you offer Sharon Bartlett, who is raising her grandson, as an example of how extended families can still be lifelines.
Senior: I met Sharon in Minnesota through the Early Childhood Family Education program. She was twice the age of most other parents in the ECFE class. I just assumed she was a grandparent attending the class with a son or daughter. When it became clear that she was raising her three-year-old grandson, Cameron, alone, I asked if I could come visit her at home, and she agreed. I learned that Cameron’s mother had died of cancer in her thirties. Sharon had also lost her son, Mike, who’d committed suicide at sixteen. She was sixty-seven years old. Taking care of a child had changed since she’d last done it. Even the technology had changed. Opening a modern stroller wasn’t easy with bad knees. She also didn’t have a built-in community of other young mothers this time around.
She was very involved in her church and believed in doing good works. This is what powered her through her sadness. She struggled with depression, given what life had handed her, but serving others, including her grandchild, held her up. When Sharon’s daughter died, there was nobody else to take Cameron. His father was out of the picture, and this child needed her.
Leviton: What did you learn about parenting from Sharon?
Senior: Since she was sixty-seven, she was not as self-annihilating as most young mothers. She was creaky in the mornings. She would tell Cam, “No, I’m not going to put a towel on my head and run around the house playing ghost with you. I need to finish my coffee.” And you know what? The world didn’t come to an end. Cam was growing up fine.
The way Sharon parented was more like the way my parents treated me in the seventies. The other parents at ECFE were hyperengaged, but Sharon gave herself permission to find a balance in life. She recognized her limitations.
She also didn’t have the attachment to her cellphone that the other parents in her class did. She’d leave the phone in her car or in her pocketbook; she didn’t care. At the park she didn’t have one eye on her cellphone and the other on Cam. She was just there with him, having fun, without all that noise in the background that is normal for so many people, including me.
Leviton: Should parenthood be about self-sacrifice?
Senior: It’s not a crime to have other portions of your identity thrive while you are parenting. My book is not about parenting advice, but I think it’s clear that I don’t believe we need to annihilate ourselves in order to be exemplary parents. I remember it was a revelation to me the first time my husband said to our son, “I really don’t like certain kinds of board games. I’m not going to play them with you.” I thought, Look at that! You can just say that! You can find something else to do that you both might enjoy. Nobody’s going to cart you off because you declined an activity with your son.
Leviton: You believe happiness is not really a goal in parenting, but a byproduct. Yet every parent will say, “More than anything, I want my child to be happy.”
Senior: It’s a great goal, but often a fool’s errand. It places an unfair burden on the child and the parent. First of all, happiness was not even an expectation for most people on the planet until the second half of the twentieth century. The historian J.M. Roberts wrote that the idea that human happiness is realizable on earth is a relatively new, revolutionary idea. It’s as if we’ve risen so far above the basic needs for food, water, and shelter that self-actualization and personal fulfillment are the only goals left.
This idea that we must seek happiness all the time is its own kind of tyranny. It makes people feel inadequate if they can’t achieve it. Maybe I sound like a schoolmarm, but there’s a deeply conservative streak in me that says all you can do is work hard and raise ethical human beings. You cannot engineer the rest. Yes, love your kids, make them feel special and secure, but you are not a failure as a parent if your children have moments of unhappiness or failure. Don’t put that burden of happiness on them, or on yourself.