Pondering “All Joy and No Fun”
I just finished reading Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun, an insightful, thought-provoking book focusing on the effects of parenthood on the parents themselves. It is not a parenting how-to manual— rather, it is more of a social science study of not only the evolution of the American family, but also the complexities and uncertainties that parenting in the 21st century brings. Using history, sociology, economics, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and interviews with ordinary families across the U.S., Senior manages to tackle a ton of issues.
She starts out focusing on the identity crisis that enters the picture when a parent’s first child enters the home and both the husband and wife are trying desperately to find a new and acceptable “norm” in this new reality. Having “been there and done that” almost a dozen years ago, I found that particular discussion perceptive, affirming and normalizing.
And, likewise, I found the rest of the book quite eye-opening and intriguing. I loved Senior’s discussion of the history of the American family. Having read Stephanie Koontz’s The Way Things Never Were in a college sociology course, I was already somewhat familiar with the lack of accuracy in our nation’s nostalgia for “the good old days when families used to be like” X or Y or Z. But I must admit: the way Senior expanded this discussion, weaving Koontz’s work with modern-day families’ interviews, technological advances in the last few decades, current economic and sociological studies and statistics, was greatly helpful to give me a more updated and well-rounded viewpoint to chew on.
On the cusp of parenting two almost-teen girls myself, the chapters on both technology advancement and on adolescence were very thought-provoking and helpful to think about. She delved into “the economic inutility of children in the modern age” and how this new reality of an “extended childhood” affects both the teenagers and their parents. I valued her discussion regarding the new “culture-wide pressure to produce “happy, well-adjusted children” and how confusing and even unattainable this elusive “happiness” can really be. I also appreciated how extensively Senior dove into the discussion regarding the “concerted cultivation and the pressures on parents, since World War II, to intensively parent”— and the guilt that we tend to heap on ourselves when we are doing anything but focusing wholeheartedly on our children and their personal growth or fulfillment.
All in all, I loved this book and how it got me thinking about things differently.
But, just like my friend who recommended the book, I would have to say that I think the last chapter of the book was my favorite.
One concept that I loved about the last chapter in All Joy and No Fun was Senior’s discussion regarding how different our perceptions are in the present moment versus in memory. So often, moments that were extremely challenging and patience-testing in real time— for example, staying up in the middle of the night watching cartoons with your sick child— are brutal and painful in the moment, yet in hindsight we remember them fondly and with nostalgia.
“We enshrine things in memory very differently from how we experience them in real time… The remembering self plays a far more influential role in our lives, particularly when we make decisions or plan for the future, and this fact is made doubly strange when one considers that the remembering self is far more prone to error: our memories are idiosyncratic, and subject to a rangy host of biases.”
She talked about how when we get ourselves “out of the moment”— either in actual physical space and time or simply by mentally distancing ourselves for a moment— this helps give us perspective. Imagining ourselves down the road and looking back can help give us just the perspective and clarity we need to survive, if not treasure, the challenging moments we are currently facing.
I have certainly seen this to be true in my own life. After having an 8-year gap between my first two kids and my third little guy—and seeing how fast time really did fly by with the girls, plus having lost an unborn baby a few years before my son was born— these have all combined to offer me an absolutely priceless perspective when I am in my hard moments with my son. Whereas back when Ellie and Abby were one and two years old I was desperate for my days to pass as quickly as possible, pulling my hair out in exasperation on a pretty-much-hourly basis, I have found myself much more steady and patient with my son his first 2 years of life. Of course I have my moments, but simply knowing and having the life experience to prove that “this too shall pass” has been indescribably helpful to me.
Side Note: To tell you the truth, it feels like my girls were toddlers just a couple weeks ago. But Abby is 10 and Ellie is 11 1/2 now! Which means that if life continues at the pace it’s been going for me, then Ben, too, will be 10 or 11 “in a few weeks.” Which means, by default, Abby and Ellie will be 18 and 19 and out of high school “in just a few weeks”!!! Yikes.
And all of that brings clarity to “my Now.” Knowing that there will in fact come a time when Ben doesn’t wake me up in the middle of the night every two hours helped me be more patient and loving with him when he was still in that stage. And knowing that in the blink of an eye he will be a stinky, sweaty pre-teen who may or may not want to snuggle up on my lap and look into my eyes and kiss my face helps me to enter into my moments now and to do my best to simply enjoy them.
Another aspect I loved about the last chapter of All Joy and No Fun was that, after spending almost 240 pages discussing all of the confusions and competing cultural expectations on modern day parents, I loved how everything came into focus when she discussed what happened to one of her interviewees two years after they met. You see, this woman Sharon— a retired single grandmother who had lost two of her three kids over the years and was currently raising her 5 year old grandson, the son of her deceased daughter— was dying. And something about facing one’s own mortality tends to bring a heightened sense of clarity to our roles as parents. Sharon, though she already had a greater level of focus than many other parents, likely due to her age and many of her harsh life experiences, facing her just-around-the-corner death brought an unprecedented attention to what really matters in life.
This brings to my mind Kara Tippets‘ story of courage and grace as she faced her own looming death, knowing that stage IV brain cancer would soon win and she would have to leave her four little ones motherless. For those of you unfamiliar with her story, she wrote one of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching books when she shared her real-life journey in The Hardest Peace, published just a handful of months before she passed away earlier this year. Her journey was one that did indeed demonstrate that famous “peace that passes understanding” that the Bible speaks of. After wrestling with her reality, she finally declared this:
“I can say that cancer and suffering give the beautiful gift of perspective. It is the gift you never wanted, the gift wrapped in confusion and brokenness and heartbreak. It’s the gift that strips all your other ideas of living from you completely. The beautiful, ugly raising to the surface of the importance of each and every moment… It took me years to find contentment in the mundane momentum of loving in motherhood… Cancer has slowed me, caused me to look at my activity and the purpose in it. I look at the precious lives in my home and long to pour my heart into each moment.”
As Senior says in All Joy and No Fun, when parents are forced to face their own mortality,
“the clarity of their role, rather than its complexity, locks into view. Meeting daily obligations, arranging for the future, communicating unconditional and eternal love—these become the primary tasks of a parent who is dying. They are the primary tasks of a healthy parent too, but the snowy static of the outside world often makes them difficult to see (emphasis mine).”
And isn’t that the truth? Don’t we so often get bogged down, perhaps even paralyzed by the plethora of choices and decisions we need to make each day regarding our lives and the lives of our children? It is so easy to see the rush of all the people around us and feel like we too should get swept up into the scurrying madness of activity. It is so easy to fill our days with a bunch of “good” things that may not actually be what is “best” for us or for our children. I am reminded of Jim Collins’ book Good to Great in which he discussed the reality that so often we (in both the business world and in our personal lives) settle for mediocrity when we could be having much more focused, fulfilled, fruitful lives.
So those are some of the big lessons I am taking away from All Joy and No Fun. The first big one involves the concept of “the remembering self”— this abstract paradox that being in the moment and being outside of the moment can be so very different from one another that sometimes it would behoove me to voluntarily “take myself outside of my Now” so that I can gain an admiration and some form of respect and appreciation for the challenges in my Now. Talking with friends and writing are two huge ways I am able to do that. Stepping outside of my self to write out my story helps me to analyze myself and my life and my habits in ways that “simply living it” is not able to provide me.
And the second big “take away” from this book was this: I will continue to try my best to get a mortal, big-picture perspective on my own life and my role as a mother— and I will reassess and realign my priorities and my day-to-day agendas with eternity in mind. I will ask myself the age-old question “How would I do any of this differently if I knew I didn’t have much time left on this earth?”
I want to be present in my life. I want to enter into my Nows with all the passion, love and grace I can. I want to seek my God and receive truth and wisdom as often possible. I want to recognize His voice and listen to His promptings. I want to do things that matter. I want to spend my time wisely and with purpose.
And, by God’s grace, I certainly hope to be a good form of contagiousness for my kids. May I follow closely to my God and may they see it and— fingers crossed and hands folded in prayer!— may they “catch” it and fall desperately in love with God too.
That’s really what I want. For them and for me.
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What about you?
What are some techniques or lifestyle choices you have made to help you be that parent you feel “called” to be? Have you read any inspiring or thought-provoking books recently?
Please feel free to share your thoughts or experiences in the comment section below.