Wednesday, January 7, 2015

All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior

I’ve had this book on my to-read list since it came out last year, but when I saw that my library had it I was tossing up whether I wanted to use up some of my precious summer-holidays time reading it rather than one of the 8 other books I had in my book pile/tower. I’m so glad I did. I LOVED it. 

It’s about “the paradox of modern parenthood” (which I’ll explain in a moment) and is so very insightful and clear and non-judgy and brilliantly written that though I started it thinking I might never get around to finishing, I ended up picking it up and reading at every available moment and was disappointed when it ended. Early on in the book Senior refers to the work of the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and then adds the pronunciation of his name (“cheeks sent me high”); I realised at that moment that a) she was exactly my kind of person/author and b) I was completely hooked on the book. I even read the section on adolescence even though it won’t apply to us for another 9-or-so years (I’ll happily re-read it closer to then).

The back cover says it’s “a book about parenthood rather than parenting,” but I think it’s a book that perfectly captures both. It’s also the first I’ve read that’s distinguished between these two things, which is the most helpful explanation for my own paradoxical experience of motherhood/mothering: I love my kids. I am regularly filled with wonder and pride and pleasure as I watch them doing new things and becoming their own people: Hazel running to comfort Mo when he’s cranky and in time out; Moses bravely sticking his head underwater at swimming lessons for the first time; Hazel saying “owweeee” (/Q . w i:/, for my SAMPA-loving friends) after biting me; Moses letting me know he’s decided I’ve earned “one hundred and sixty hundred trophies” for being the best mum ever. I’ve thought a lot this last year about whether or not, if I could go back in time, I’d still choose to have children, and the answer always ends up being yes, no matter how sucky the day’s been, because I love Moses and Hazel with an intensity I don’t have the vocabulary to adequately express, and I would never, never, never give them up. 

BUT: if someone had sat me down in 2010 before we’d started trying for kids, and if they’d explained in painstaking detail what my life would look like in 2014 if I proceeded with the kid-having plan – the ridiculous arguments I’d be having with my four-year-old (I know I should ignore his provocations, but the kid thinks he knows everything AND HE DOESN’T), the meal-making with a toddler either balanced on one hip (while I attempt to chop with my free arm) or clinging to my leg and screaming, to name just two unfun examples from our nearly-everyday life at the moment, and if I had no faces to attach to this picture and no idea at all that it would be balanced (often) by moments where the four-year-old would call me “Mama” and say he was sorry for speaking rudely to me, and suggest that maybe we should try to do a better job of communicating with each other tomorrow, or when my toddler would race for me when she was frightened by bird noises and greet me with an excited “Mummeeeeeeee!” when I returned from an afternoon out – I probably would have decided that kids were not for me. Being a parent is very regularly joyful. Parenting, on the other hand, is very regularly no fun.

The book’s a tidy and fascinating presentation of a stack of research about parenting today; there’s no advice or judging of particular parenting styles, but I still found it practical. Senior talks about how the modern family has evolved (and it is modern! As Senior puts it, “Modern childhood was invented less than seventy years ago – the length of a catnap, in historical terms.”), which went a long way towards explaining some of my particular frustrations and uncertainties and anxieties, and also forced me to think more deeply about how I parent and what I’m aiming for and why. I also really liked the positive and often slightly amused tone of the book; since finishing Ive found myself paying more attention to the joyful moments and less attention to the no fun ones. Senior meets with a few families whose stories emerge throughout the book, and whose experiences very often reflected mine and reassured me that I am (and Moses is) gloriously normal. I found it all incredibly interesting, which was certainly a combination of both the topic and the writing. I highly recommend it to all parents, and I score this book 18 out of 5 potatoes.


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