Tuesday, March 11, 2014

'All Joy and No Fun': An Unflattering Mirror

Do you know how badly lit dressing rooms can make you feel horrible about yourself? You see the dark circles under your eyes, your skin takes on a sickly green pallor because of the fluorescent lighting, and your thighs are way bigger than you remembered? You know that the reflection belongs to you, but somehow you are your worst version of yourself in that dressing room and nothing fits or looks even remotely appealing enough to purchase.  That's what Jennifer Senior's book 'All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood' made me feel like; it focused on the worst reflection of parenthood.

Anyone who is a parent knows the difficulties that come with it.  In the baby stage sleep becomes a luxury.  In the toddler stage, patience isn't just a virtue, but something that you need to continually remind yourself about minute to minute as your 2 year old tests the limits of your sanity.  The elementary school years are an activity puzzle - how do I ever get myself to two or even three places at one time? Parents balance work, couple hood, wellness, meals, exercise, activities, school work, projects, homes, yards, pets . . . it's a never ending cycle of crazy, but the upside of all of this struggle is that we love our kids.  Really, really love them.  They are our gift, our legacy, our present, our future.  It's so worth any ounce of frustration or burden that we feel temporarily in the throws of modern day parenthood.

I didn't get that sense from Senior's highly touted book about the plight of the modern parent.  In the introduction she says, "There's the parenting life of our fantasies, and there's the parenting life of our banal, on-the-ground realities." She delves deep into the heart of the "banal reality" tension spots and pokes those spots until they hurt to figure out what is the effect of parenthood on adults.

I literally got depressed as I read the unflattering portraits of parents who deal with many of the same issues that I deal with:
1) How parenting affects my marriage
2) How parenting affects my "me time"
3) Why do I put my child in activities that cause stress in my nightly schedule and keep all of us in a constant game of GO?
4) How do I keep my temper at bay when I can't seem to accomplish anything because of constant interruptions to the flow of my day?
5) How will I change my parenting once my kids are teenagers?
6) Do my husband and I actually share parenting responsibilities or do most of the responsibilities fall to me?

Senior starts with the premise that parents are no happier than non-parents and in many cases parents are less happy than non-parents, and then she dissects why this is the case.  She studies the history of parenthood and the transformation that occurred somewhere in the 1950s when kids went from being useful to protected.  "Children went from being our employees to our bosses." As sociologist Viviana Zelizer put it, children became "economically worthless but emotionally priceless."

As Senior searches for answers about why parents are so unhappy she misses the key part of the equation until the very end of the book - JOY.  Ask any parent if they hate being a parent, and I can say with some certainty that they will answer with an emphatic, "no!"  Joy and fun do exist in the realm of modern day parents.  We love our kids deeply which is why we drive them to theater rehearsals and Envirothon meetings and swim lessons.  We want them to succeed and have opportunities that we had or excel beyond what we could have ever imagined.  We want them to have choices and to be emotionally prepared for life and for being humane to themselves and others.

Parenthood is about connection, creation, joy, fun, chaos, messy days, clean days, meals, conversations, relationships and so much more than can ever be captured in a book that pokes open the raw spots that every parent deals with but hopefully doesn't dwell on.  If we only thought of the bad parts of life, we'd all go a bit nutty.

Near the end of the book, Senior uses the metaphor of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" when one of the characters asks, "what are we digging for, and what have we found?"In parenthood, we aren't always digging for something.  Sometimes we just need to let it be without all the dissecting of whether or not we are happy in each moment and know that life ebbs and flows more than that.

Is parenting hard? Sure.  Is it worth it? Absolutely.

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