The studies seem counterintuitive, even baffling.
“Kids Are Depressing, Study of Parents Finds,” read one typical headline, about a sociologist’s 2006 discovery that parents are more likely than nonparents to battle the blues.
Similar findings have piled up in study after study. Almost across the board, people with children report feeling less happy than those without. The idea that children could be sources of unhappiness seems to overturn cherished cultural beliefs. Aren’t children supposed to be bundles of joy?
Actually, they’re a little of both, writes journalist Jennifer Senior in “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.” The book combines scenes from average families’ lives — including Minneapolis families the author met through local Early Childhood Family Education classes — with social science revelations and Senior’s own insights to explain why mothers and fathers experience such confusing ambivalence.
Senior identifies plenty of reasons kids can be a drag. They interrupt parents’ work and sleep, defy their rules, strain their marriages, saddle them with drudgery, cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars, fill them with anxiety and guilt and worry.
But she also captures a more elusive and positive side of parenthood. Lost in the objective data measuring ephemeral pleasures, she argues, are richer rewards, including a deep sense of purpose.
Senior will appear at Talk of the Stacks on Tuesday at the Central Library in downtown Minneapolis. We spoke to her by phone about Minnesota parents, the value of transcendent moments and which parenting emotions feel unsafe to admit publicly.
Q: A few years ago, when research started coming out showing that parents were less happy than people without children, everybody seemed surprised. How did you react when you first heard about it?
A: It struck me at the time, as it still does to this day, as both right and wrong. There are certain moment-to-moment aspects of parenting that are extremely difficult and stressful and boring. But there are some overall benefits to being a parent, some ways that being a parent changes your life and is powerfully transformative.
Social scientists might not be capturing them, because they don’t make a distinction, necessarily, when they’re asking people, “On a scale of 1 to 5, how good was this experience and how good was that one?” Going out to dinner with friends and having a great time is a 5. It is also a 5 if your child looks at you for the first time in the middle of the night and looks directly into your eyes and coos. But that is an awesome experience. That is a life-changing experience. Those two 5s are not the same 5s.
Q: Much of the action in the book takes place in the homes of Minneapolis parents, whom you met in Early Childhood Family Education classes here. How did you decide to mine those classes for sources?
A: I called [University of Minnesota social science professor] Bill Doherty and I said, I have to find a sample of parents for this book and they cannot [all] be New Yorkers. And he said, it just so happens that Minnesota has this extraordinary statewide program. You can find parents of young children right here. And it was perfect! I sat in on like 20 classes in a week. And I found all these great people.
Q: Why do you think negative aspects of parenthood are so rarely discussed?
A: On the one hand I feel like parents do complain about their kids, and in fact it’s a common vocabulary we have. It’s safe to say that you were annoyed that your kid threw up. It’s not safe to say that playing with your kid is boring. It’s not safe to say how mad you get sometimes. It’s not safe to admit that you lose your temper or your patience.
Q: You note that parents are happiest in places like Sweden, where families enjoy strong social services such as paid parental leave and subsidized day care. Among industrialized countries, the United States has both the least government support for parents and the highest happiness gap between parents and nonparents. Were you tempted to stop your research with that fact and just blame the government?
A: There’s a very strong will in this country to go it yourself and to not rely on the government for things. I could sit there and blame the government but that just seems like an unproductive instinct, because I know where I live and I can’t change it. But you know, I think we can all take a breath and maybe resolve to do things differently. There’s no material evidence that scheduling our kids for 9,000 things is any more helpful than scheduling them for 4,500 things.
Q: One review of your book warned, “If you want to have kids but your partner is on the fence, do not let your partner read this book.” Are you afraid of turning off prospective parents and causing the human race to die out?
A: [Laughs.] No. I think people ought to have honest conversations about this. If people are on the fence about having children and they read my book and decide they don’t want to have kids, I’m not going to feel like I did anybody a favor or like I did anybody a disservice. I feel like I laid it out in as clear a way as I could.
My hope is that parents will feel affirmed. The feedback I’ve gotten suggests they are. And I also have heard from people who are about to have kids or are on the fence, who feel affirmed by the joy stuff, who feel like the joy alone is worth it.