When I was pregnant, there seemed to be a never-ending montage of daydreams playing in my head about our future.
In my head, I saw images of a belly full of baby, snuggles and soft kisses with my man, professional maternity photos that looked natural and relaxed, and piles of neatly stacked baby clothes next to adorable stuffed animals.
I planned for the birth and hired my doula. I knew who was invited to visit and how soon. I daydreamed about watching my partner love on our new tiny family member. I even made a list of requests and staple grocery items for when people came to see us in those early postpartum days.
But I did not daydream about parenting.
At no point did I imagine what it would be like to rock a stiff, purple-faced, crying infant for hours. I didn’t think about how it would be to have to negotiate with my partner to get a shower by myself. I didn’t realize it would be two years before I would have an hour alone in the house.
I didn’t have any idea what parenting would look like or how it would change me. There aren’t many practical resources out there about this one. We have thousands of books teaching us to parent and only one book telling us what modern parenthood really looks like.
When I stumbled on All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior, I fell in love instantly. I was deep into toddler-hood and her book spoke to my heart and my soul.
I highly recommend this book if you are:
- A parent (now or soon-to-be)
- Fascinated by cultural messages or trends
- Interested in psychology, sociology, economics, history, or philosophy
- Struggling in your own identity or your relationship after becoming a parent
- Feeling overwhelmed by the high expectations of parenthood
- Afraid that you’re the only one being driven mad by your children
Senior’s approach to helping us understand parenthood instead of parenting is new, informative, and reassuring. She walks us through her own research and draws on information from various other fields and cultures to create a complete picture of our modern day parenthood experience. She helps us realize that thousands of other people out there are all experiencing the same crazy things we are while we raise our children.
In All Joy and No Fun, we learn:
- How and why the context and expectations of being a parent make parenthood so stressful
- What early parent years do to our relationships and marriage
- How competitive parent-culture turns moms into over-scheduled busy-addicts
- Why we have settled for replacing family values and quality time with everything less important
- How our child’s adolescence will trigger our own self-reflection (and new frustrations with our partner) in hard, powerful ways
- What makes all the stresses and challenges of parenthood still so remarkably fulfilling and joyful – even when it isn’t fun
It’s impossible to truly understand parenthood unless you step into it, but Senior’s compilation of data and quotes from so many surveyed moms and dads creates an accurate representation of this bizarre lifestyle.
Really, it’s no surprise that this book made it onto the New York Times Bestseller list. Senior walks us through the developmental stages of our children and how each stage interacts with culture to transform our identities and relationships.
While there are so many brilliant take-aways from this book, these three stood out to me the most:
1.YOUNG CHILDREN DESTROY OUR ABILITY TO FLOW
Flow is the experience of being so engaged and absorbed in an activity that we lose our sense of time and external experience. Usually it involves the feeling of mastery.
This phenomenon of flow explains why so many of my clients talk about being the best version of themselves at work. If they like what they do and they’re proficient at it, they can get into a state of flow that is extremely rewarding.
People also often experience flow with their hobbies – like playing instruments or working on cars. I experience flow when I’m writing, reading, and sometimes knitting.
When I talk to clients about flow, they often say their first example is when they watch TV. Watching TV doesn’t count as flow because there is no feeling of mastery or fulfillment. Flow involves a quality experience that speaks to our soul, not just observation of a stimulus.
Flow is a beautiful example of being truly mindfully present. And it makes us feel good.
But here’s the problem: Young kids kill our flow.
Young children haven’t developed the brain capacity to understand “future” so they live in “right now” always. Since they can’t comprehend time, they don’t understand the concept of tomorrow versus next week or an hour from now.
Since these little ones can’t understand future, one of our primary jobs as caretaker becomes orchestrating and remembering all things future.
It polarizes us and them. No balance or shared responsibility exists in this relationship with our tiny children.
They get to live in the present so we have to live in the future – which means we lose out on experiencing flow.
It also explains why so many parents talk about becoming “less fun” when they enter parenthood. As the keepers of all things future and safety and planning, how could we not be less fun?
2. MOMS TEND TO BE MORE STRESSED BY CHILDCARE THAN DADS
Senior draws from a few different sources telling us that somewhere between 83% and 92% of couples experience one or more of the following after having a baby:
- Decline in marital satisfaction
- “Severe” crisis in individual identity and experience
- Increased disagreements
Those are hugely high and scary statistics. They are likely due to a variety of factors including changing sense of self, autonomy in relationship, and division of labor – plus a thousand other variables. But one factor we often don’t talk about is how moms and dads experience childcare differently.
For me, this next part was probably the most shocking and helpful information from Senior’s findings. In surveying moms and dads around the country, she discovered the following patterns:
Moms reported lower stress levels in their high-stress and high-performing jobs than in their childcare responsibilities. So even moms who were surgeons, social workers, and attorneys noted taking care of their children as more stressful than working.
Dads reported higher stress levels, even in low-stress jobs, in their jobs than in their childcare responsibilities. Meaning even dads who had low-pressure desk jobs reported feeling more stress at work than when taking care of the kids.
Whoa. This explains everything.
This is why I would oftentimes much rather do the dishes than entertain the children. Until reading All Joy and No Fun, I had always felt that awful prevailing mom guilt thing. But now I knew I wasn’t alone – and there’s some serious comfort in that.
So why does this happen? Why is it that moms and dads experience child care-taking so differently?
It all comes back to flow and the way our brains work. Senior helps us understand that when men play with their kids, all they are doing is playing. They are fully immersed in the activity and therefore are fare more likely to experience flow.
On the other hand, women’s brains tend to find familiarity in multitasking. When we are playing with our children, we are also planning for dinner, keeping an eye on the clock so we don’t push bedtime too late, thinking about that email we can’t forget to send tonight, and wondering what our partner is up to.
Women oftentimes don’t know how to just play. And since we can’t just play and be present (our mind is too distracted thinking of future), we can’t flow.
This information and normalization has been extremely powerful for me. It has allowed me to forgive myself when I would prefer to do something other than what I think I should be doing..
Don’t get me wrong, I love playing with my babies. It feels like we play every hour of every day. But sometimes I don’t want to play. Understanding why has helped me accept it and advocate for myself.
I now can speak my truth and tell my partner when I would prefer to start dinner than pull the kids in the wagon outside. And I can also step more freely into play time.
I can recognize that my mind wants to be everywhere else and that awareness allows me to reign it back in and just be here now.
In practicing all those great mindfulness skills, I can get into flow while playing with my kids. Which means I find playing more joyful.
3. HOMEWORK IS THE NEW FAMILY DINNER
There is a serious problem we have in our modern-day culture that we aren’t talking about enough:
Our addiction to being busy.
Senior eloquently illustrates this newfound addiction and its impact on parents, children, and families.
Due to our emphasis on individualism, accessibility of activities and experiences, our tendency to have fewer children, and the evolution of purpose and value of children, we have all stepped into some serious busyness addictions.
Children used to be rather useless until they were old enough to work for us and contribute to their family through tasks and responsibilities They were seen as part of the larger family system and they were not yet valued as individuals.
We are now in an era of wanting our children to be loved, experienced, prepared, globalized, and optimized. We see them first as tiny people and then as part of our system.
Some of this is great. Attachment parenting has revealed a lot of really helpful and important information about raising secure, stable, and happy adults.
But maybe we’ve taken it a step too far with our schedules.
Having fewer children means we have more time and resources to devote to each one. And we are increasingly trying to keep up with our neighbors, the Jones family – except that our neighbors are now the whole world instead of our whole street.
So we get our kids involved in everything. All the sports, all the clubs, all the test, all the college prep – and even kindergarten prep.
We add more homework, saying it “helps,” when every bit of research tells us this doesn’t work and is harmful to them.
We are overscheduling them and overscheduling ourselves.
Children need lots of free play time to explore and learn about their environments and this big world they live in. But we are crowding out all of that free time. We are crowding out down time, family time, play time, dinner time.
We have activities planned for them every day, all year. And we feel pressured to keep adding more because we want them to be the best little individuals they can be.
Our friend joined a toddler gym class and it helps their gross motor skills and social skills so we should probably join that gym class, too… Even though it rushes our mornings and makes us frantic and takes away our flow. Even though our kids would love quality time with us even more than a romp on the tiny trampoline.
Honestly, All Joy and No Fun changed my life. It normalized so much of what I experience as a parent and it enabled me to be more intentional in choosing how I want to present the world to our children.
I don’t want them to be busy-addicts like all of us.
I want them to have more joy and all the fun.
This is one of my favorite books to recommend to clients and they always seem to love it, too. If you’re interested in what other terrific life-changing books I recommend, check out this list I created and read some more great take-aways.
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