Jennifer Senior makes it abundantly clear from the start that her book All Joy and No Fun is not a parenting book. While countless books explore how parents affect their children's lives, Senior's book examines parental well-being and whether having children makes parents happy.
Senior, a contributing editor at New York magazine, doesn't just fill the pages of her book with advice. Instead, she explores the many ways in which children reshape their mothers' and fathers' lives, from their marriages, jobs and habits to their hobbies, friendships and senses of self.
The first seed for Senior's book was planted in her mind long before she had a child of her own. It was when she read Dan Gilbert's book Stumbling on Happiness in 2006.
"At the very end of his book … almost as an aside, he mentions the body of data that parents are not as happy as those who don't have children," Senior says. "I didn't have kids then, and I remember thinking that it was so interesting because I really badly wanted a kid. I didn't necessarily think it [the statement] was wrong. I didn't think it was right. I thought it was intriguing."
Without having children of her own, Senior felt like she wouldn't be a reliable narrator for a full book on the topic, so she sat on the idea and wrote a shorter piece for New York magazine instead. As she dove into the research, the data painted a rather sour portrait of parenting and happiness.
But that didn't deter her desire for kids.
"I saw it and said, 'I don't care; I want kids,'" she says. "I'm not a person who walks around in the world trying particularly to optimize my happiness. I like leading a nice productive, reasonably moral life. That's my goal, right? That's what I strive for. Productivity and morality are easier aims. I think they're better aims. I don't think your life is all that interesting if you're just aiming for happiness."
But even so, Senior didn't think the research was right.
"We experience more highs, and we experience more lows (as parents)," she says. "The studies were looking for very blunt things. They weren't measuring for meaning. They weren't measuring for transcendent moments."
Senior says that changes in the last half-century have radically altered the roles of today's mothers and fathers, making their mandates more complex and far less clear.
"The expectation to be happy is a twentieth-century expectation," she says. And with that expectation, we're destined to be disappointed as people and, of course, in parenting.
But that doesn't have to be the case. Senior doesn't prescribe certain activities or changes that could improve your parenting experience, but she does think research supports the idea that making changes in your life can help you appreciate parenthood.
"I started out parenting not as a very sentimental person. … I got married at City Hall. It is not my thing to be sentimental," she says. "As a consequence, when my kid was first born, I was not like every other parent taking pictures of him every seven seconds. I preferred to be in the moment with my kid. ... I liked living it out."
But when she discovered the research by Nobel-Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman where he described the "experiencing self" versus the "remembering self," she wanted to make some changes.
Whether we are in real time or the experiencing-self mode, we parents are stressed out. Our remembering selves look back at our memories and love parenting. Our remembering selves think that parenting is the greatest thing ever.
Senior suggests we take more pictures, take more videos and write down the funny things our kids say.
"[I do this] so I can remember these things and my remembering self can take pleasure in them," Senior says. "I'm collecting and archiving cool memories."
Cultivating our remembering selves can shift the focus from the day-to-day stresses of parenting and possibly change our perspective on the situation.
"Children are associated with a lot of stress," Senior says. "Childbirth is associated with a lot of pain. What we do is remember the awesome, transcendent moments and meaningful moments. They are unrivaled. They don't have any equals."
Throughout All Joy and No Fun, Senior weaves together the stories of average parents around the United States through their parenting highs and lows. The reoccurring theme is that the connection felt between parents and their children far outweighs any expectation for happiness. Therefore, joy is the connection, and it's almost impossible to experience alone, Senior says. It turns you outward.
"How it feels to be a parent and how it feels to do the … often arduous tasks of parenting are two very separate things," she says. "Meaning, joy and purpose come from all sorts of places."