Looking for fun

All Joy and No Funthe paradox of modern parenting. The title put me off at first. I’m not sure why I decided to read this book last week, possibly it was because I felt like things were hard and I wanted to read something that said “yes, they are." 

In six chapters, Jennifer Senior addresses the struggle of the early years, the change in relationship dynamics between parents, the wonder of small children, the hectic flurry of the middle schooling years, the tension of adolescence, and the role of parenthood in creating a good life. It’s a very grounded book, and its central question is spot on. I love the little dude like crazy; why is my life such hard work? She starts with the conundrum that in study after study, parents report themselves as less happy than non-parents – which flies against the intuition of those parents themselves, who think that children bring joy. (Spoiler: parents also say their life is more meaningful.) I have a conspiracy theory that the publishers wanted this book to have a dash of self help, because that sells; and the editors wanted it to pontificate about modern life, because that’s in vogue; while the author wanted to thoughtfully examine the social structures that leave parents floundering. The book does all three well, but is strongest where it’s most aware of the feminist issues at hand, and my only criticism is that some of these ideas could have been more fully developed. The final chapter is devoted to demonstrating how kids ultimately enhance your experience of life (perhaps reassuring readers who don’t have kids that being a parent is not just endless drudgery), which is well and good; but I would have liked to see an additional chapter examining changes that could better distribute the load, so that parents can have the joy and also have more fun. 

Senior has a lovely turn of phrase, making this a very quotable book. With a journalist’s knack for the pithy, she often makes good points in a one-liner, and several times in a page I found myself pausing to mull. For example, "Normlessness is a very tricky thing. It almost guarantees some level of personal and cultural distress.” – wow, so true. By the time most of us have children, we’ve found our social subgroups, we have shared norms of behaviour. Babies throw it off. We have to decide what to do, amid myriad suggestions. Even if you tend to think it probably doesn’t matter much, you still have to pick an option. When and how do we start introducing solid foods? What should we do for sleep training, if anything? Which brand of car seat? You’re bound to do something that one of the grandparents thinks is foolish or wrong. 

To some extent, normlessness is the price we pay for pluralism, and I’m ok with it. But there’s also a chasm beyond that, a gap where we got rid of the old norms, and need some new ones. We don’t have a consensus as to the balance of responsibility between the nuclear family, the extended whanau, and the broader community. A two-parent family will struggle with the division of labour between themselves, but largely this is because so much is expected of those two peopleSenior acknowledges this – she says business and government have not adapted to the entry of women into the workplace and the decline of the extended family, leaving the nuclear family to “cope”. It’s a telling term, several times through the book parents speak of “coping”. Coping with sleep loss. Coping with sick kids. Coping with running the house. Coping, coping, coping.

In a feminist marriage or partnership, equality is the agreed goal, but every couple is carving out what that means for their own circumstances. I was worried I’d be bored at home this year, but I’m not; I’m just lonely and emotionally drained. Caring for a baby is not mind-numbing, it is ego-depleting. Meanwhile, my husband is run ragged trying to juggle a very demanding paid job, while being home as much as possible to spend time with bubs. It’s exhausting. We look at each other, through tired eyes, and think no seriously, what the hell, you’ve got to be kidding, this is our life right now? 

Then I think of my great-grandmother, who raised nine kids in a Liverpool tenement during world war two, while tending to a husband who was dying of tuberculosis. And I feel petty and spoilt and ungrateful. 

Or I consider a single mum on a benefit, or a family with low paid insecure work. The exact same factors that make life a struggle for us make life bloody mission impossible for them. (Pause for thought: maybe I shouldn’t back off from complaining – middle class families have political clout. If we don’t speak up about the inadequacy of social support, nothing will ever change for the families at the bottom of the economic heap).

In fact, even if I try not to complain, there’s no way to tell the truth about my life without making things sound hard. Sometimes, from friends who want to be parents one day, I get a nervous response along the lines of “but it’s worth it, right?” Well, yeah, but that’s the wrong question. Once you’ve had the baby, once the baby has stolen your heart, worth-it-ness knows no bounds. Anything and everything would be worth it. Ask not what a parent would do for their child; ask what society should do for the family!

Before children, your future is an unwritten book. After children, the most important thing in your life has already happened. Some of my glorious, adventurous, childless friends will one day decide to take the plunge into domesticity, others won’t – good on them for living the life they wanna live, huzzah for contraception. It’s just… someone has to have the babies. And it’s a tricky concept to articulate, because children are a joy and a privilege and a wonderful gift, but they are also incredibly hard work. Possibly this seems more acute for me, having an oops baby in my mid-20s? Nah, I don’t reckon, I think all parents find this hard – this is a very sensitive topic of conversation, as children are also the most wonderful blessing, and not everyone who aches for a baby is so lucky. This is the dilemma Senior is exploring, I think it will resonate with most parents. 

Imagine the thing you most love doing in the whole world. Now imagine doing it every day, all the time, and waking up to do it at night as well. Imagine that in a given day, you change a nappy five times – even if you’re efficient, that’s half an hour changing nappies. Imagine you haven’t had a full night’s sleep in months and months and months. 

Everything is better in moderation. How can we enjoy our children properly if we never have a break from them? As Senior puts it, “pressure reverts back to the nuclear family—and more specifically, to the marriage or partnership—to provide what friends, neighbors, and other families once did: games, diversions, imaginative play. And parents have lost some of the fellowship provided by other adults.” I’ve lost my village. 

She suggests that mothers bear this burden more than fathers, probably, maybe, yeah. A parent who has stayed at home for more than a couple of months is forced to inhabit the role with their whole psyche. And men are socialised to take things, women are socialised to give things. It requires conscious effort for hetero couples to break out of these roles. In the chapter on relationship dynamics, Senior oscillates between obvious personal sympathy with the women’s point of view, and the suggestion that perhaps we should learn from the way men do it. “Fathers] aggressively protect their free time. None of this means they love their children any less than their wives do. None of this means they care any less about their children’s fates.” Well, ok, but  maybe it means they’re less willing to compensate for society’s lack. Which means they’re willing for their children and wives to bear more of it. Which makes it difficult to enlist them in changing the world. I’m looking at you, John Key and Bill English. 

When I was studying, I had a part-time job in a creche. I loved it. It was so much fun. It was four hours, one day a week. I usually took the toddlers outside to the playground at some stage, unless it was rainy. Often I think of that time, and realise I was more present with those kids than I am with the little dude. Yes, I love him like he’s the whole world, but when I’m looking after him, I’m also thinking of how to make it through the day and how to get at least some chores done, and I very seldom give him two or three hours of solid, undivided attention. Basically never. In a sweeping generalisation, Senior tells us that “all parents at some time feel overwhelmed by their children; feel that their children ask more of them than they can provide”. Of course we do. Children ask for something that only a community can provide. Children, says Senior, are “the last binding obligation in a culture that asks for almost no other permanent commitments at all” – and the commitment to children is asked only of the parents. Any contribution from the extended family is a bonus, not an expectation. There have been days where I’ve gritted my teeth and thought you have to look after him, there’s no such thing as being too tired (presumably my great-grandmother had those days every day). Loving them doesn’t mean you always want to look after them, it means you look after them even when you don’t want to. 

When I came to the chapter on adolescence, I suddenly felt like I was a kid myself, snooping on a book written for grownups. My own adolescence is not long past, my time as the parent of an adolescent is way off. But I wonder about the links between how we parent babies given social isolation, and parenting kids and teens. In that first year, for many of us, it’s just the mum and the baby all day and you pour your heart and soul into the little being. Of course it will be hard to transition to independence. You struggled mightily to come to terms with how much this child needs you, it was a massive shift in your whole attitude, it won’t be easy to undo. This is part of why I want to return to work between babies, I think forward – what will my life look like when they’re grownup? If I devote the next twenty-five years to raising children and nothing else, what will happen when I reach middle age? How will that affect my relationship with my adult children? 

Throughout the book, Senior explores the idea that children were once useful members of society, and are now cossetted. At age four, my father already had chores on his parents’ dairy farm. One of my great-grandfathers worked in a steal mill when he was only 13. Older children used to help out with babies. This point is particularly hammered home in the section on adolescence – “youth” used to be the first stage of adulthood, not the final stage of childhood. The 17-year-old who gives his parents grief with risky behaviour used to be expected to earn a living. I think of all the books I loved as a child, the children’s literature of the 19th and early 20th century – Anne of Green Gables was a school teacher at 17. Huckleberry Finn was 13 when he ran away from home. Yeah, kids are useless now. Because we are rich enough as a society for them to have become useless. 

Everyone wants fun jobs (actor, celebrity chef, etc), while a lot of people work in jobs that they suspect have no real value or meaning. The best line from Friends, hands down, was Chandler saying “alright, kids, I gotta get to work. If I don’t input those numbers… it doesn’t make much of a difference.” Work used to mean “things that need to be done”, now it means “something I get paid to do”. Consequently, unpaid work has become a non-sequitur. I’ve tried to think of a definition of “work” that would encompass all paid work, and all unpaid work, but I can’t. Some unpaid work is absolutely essential and very meaningful (mine). Some paid work is completely non-essential and meaningless (the B Ark).

This is what gets to me, it’s not that things are hard per se, it that things are needlessly hard. We have enough money as a society to provide much more parental leave and early childcare subsidies, we actively choose not to. Hell, go further. We could have free transport for parents of preschoolers – we do it for senior citizens. We could have urban planning which prioritizes the provision of child-friendly public space. We could have work expectations that are compatible with being a primary caregiver. Senior doesn’t explore the sociology around how caregiving is valued, which is a shame, because it would have been a fruitful area. I wonder whether it is because caring is intimate, can never be mass produced, can only touch a few people at a time? We value grand, big things – things that can be scaled up. A brilliant musician can be heard by the whole world in the age of Spotify; a mother, no matter how gifted, can only touch a few individuals. Yet, to those individuals, she was once the air and the sun. 

And, of course, the high of being that important to another person is overwhelming! Sometimes I feel like my life is smaller, as small as my baby’s chubby little body, then I think of those stories where the universe is contained in a marble or a droplet or water. That’s about right. The milky smell of his breath. The way he sits and stares at the leaves of a tree – he looks at things so intently. My mother says “you can practically see the synapses forming.” How he puts his arm around mine when I carry him on my hip. I wouldn’t trade these last nine months for anything, I feel blessed beyond belief.

As Senior puts it “it’s just that the fun parts of raising a kid—whether it’s singing at the top of your lungs or buying your daughter a dress, coaching a soccer game or staying in and baking banana bread—can be overwhelmed by the strains and moment-to-moment chores of the job.” She suggests that this is partly because parents no longer raise children for the sake of their usefulness to the family or community, but for the sake of the child meeting their own potential. It is a very burdensome model for the parents, who make themselves responsible for the child’s happiness; and for the child, who is given no purpose other than being self-fulfilled. I blame society. Just jokes. No seriously, the world no longer expects parents to be raising children for the benefit of society, and doesn’t really give parents that credit. We celebrate stories of children doing things differently, forging their own paths, untying themselves from their parents.  And we have legal structures and social support structures that reflect this. We don’t expect children to provide for their parents in their old age, we have universal superannuation instead. Society conceives of the parenting relationship as mostly a one-way street. If you have children, you pay it forward, giving them everything your parents gave you. Insofar as there is a norm for good parenting, it is to raise a successful adult. This eradicates the value of the quietly kind and generous actions – which are the bedrock of parenting. We seem to have forgotten that being a nice person, a person of compassion and integrity, is enough.

So there’s the social critique, the self-help message, and the social change message all in one. There’s our problem. A society that values only the great (spectacular achievements!), not the good (compassion, integrity, conscientiousness), does not value parenting. At the same time, if we want to parent well, we need to teach our children to value the good.