Zoë Heller reviews Jennifer Senior's All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, in the LRB:
The reputation of parenthood has not fared well in the modern era. Social science has concluded that parents are either no happier than people without children, or decidedly unhappier. Parents themselves have grown competitively garrulous on the subject of their dissatisfactions. Confessions of child-rearing misery are by now so unremarkable that the parent who doesn’t merrily cop to the odd infanticidal urge is considered a rather suspect figure. And yet, the American journalist Jennifer Senior argues in her earnest book about modern parenthood, it would be wrong to conclude that children only spoil their parents’ fun. Most parents, she writes, reject the findings of social science as a violation of their ‘deepest intuitions’. In fact, most parents – even the dedicated whingers – will say that the benefits of raising children ultimately outweigh the hardships.
Senior’s characterisation of parenthood as a wondrous ‘paradox’ – a nightmare slog that in spite of everything delivers transcendent joy – has gone down very well in America, where parents seem reassured to find a cheerful, pro-kids message being snatched from the jaws of sleep deprivation and despondency. The book spent six weeks on the bestseller list and has earned Senior the ultimate imprimatur of a lecturing gig at the TED conference. ‘All Joy and No Fun inspired me to think differently about my own experience as a parent,’ Andrew Solomon observed in his New York Times review. ‘Over and over again, I find myself bored by what I’m doing with my children: how many times can we read Angelina Ballerina or watch a Bob the Builder video? And yet I remind myself that such intimate shared moments, snuggling close, provide the ultimate meaning of life.’
It is possible, of course, that some parents are lying, or at least sentimentalising the truth, when they offer up this sort of rosy ‘end-of-the-day’ verdict on parenthood. (There are strong social and emotional incentives for not publicly expressing remorse about one’s reproductive choices.) But Senior rejects this surmise as unduly bleak. Having children, she contends, has always been a ‘high cost/high reward’ activity. If today’s parents appear to be having a horrible time, it is not because they aren’t getting the rewards, but because various aspects of modern life have conspired to make them feel the costs more acutely.