Parenting “All Joy and No Fun?”

by Robert Pondiscio
July 13th, 2010

“Most people assume that having children will make them happier,” notes New York magazine. “Yet a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so.”  The story “All Joy and No Fun,” wonders out loud “why doesn’t childrearing make us happy?”  

For those unaccustomed to New York-style navel gazing, the piece can read dangerously close to Onion-style parody – “Parents surprised to learn parenting isn’t fun” – but if you can get past the whiny anecdotes from Manhattan habitués (“It’s the drudgery that’s so hard: Crap, you don’t have any pants that fit? There are just So. Many. Chores.”) there are interesting ideas to chew on.  Writer Jennifer Senior wonders if parents aren’t “deluded” or “in the grip of some false consciousness that’s good for mankind but not for men and women in particular.”  She advances the possibility that “parents don’t much enjoy parenting because the experience of raising children has fundamentally changed.”

“As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed….This is especially true in middle- and upper-income families, which are far more apt than their working-class counterparts to see their children as projects to be perfected. (Children of women with bachelor degrees spend almost five hours on “organized activities” per week, as opposed to children of high-school dropouts, who spend two.) Annette Lareau, the sociologist who coined the term “concerted cultivation” to describe the aggressive nurturing of economically advantaged children, puts it this way: “Middle-class parents spend much more time talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution. And this is very tiring work.” Yet it’s work few parents feel that they can in good conscience neglect, says Lareau, “lest they put their children at risk by not giving them every advantage.”

Ultimately, Senior gets around to the critical distinction between moment-to-moment happiness and the long-term satisfaction borne of feeling purposeful.   Parenting tends to be short on the former and long on the latter.  Good news for the species. And for parents.

13 Comments »

  1. If education inside yuppie homes is getting more intensive, might not this account for some of the widening of the achievement gap?

    Separate point: I worry about kids who see adults as kids’ handmaidens. What a grim view of adulthood.

    Comment by Ben F — July 13, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

  2. Very nice piece, Robert. I, too, read the Senior piece and was irritated by it. Without a doubt, I often wish I could nap on the weekends, a privilege that ended with the birth of my now 14-month-old daughter. I also remember how lovely it was to read for pleasure–and not just for 10 minutes before I collapse into bed too late at night.

    But when I’m away from my daughter for a day or more, I want nothing more than to see her again. I suspect most parents are in the same boat. Does that make me a “happier” person? I’m not sure. But it sure makes a difference.

    Comment by Claus — July 13, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

  3. I suspect you were irritated, Claus, because the piece IS irritating. New York Magazine has long specialized in these kinds of stories. They did a piece on the lengths parents go to in order to get little Cody and Rio in elite preschools some years ago called “Give Me Harvard of Give Me Death” The kind of thing that makes much of the world look at those of us who live in New York and say “Who ARE these people?” Secretly I wonder if the piece isn’t aimed at those who thought having kids would make them not happier but hipper. But I digress.

    Personally, I never harbored many illusions that parenting would make me “happier.” That wasn’t part of the calculus. But clearly child-rearing has undergone many dramatic changes since you and I were children. Those changes speak volumes about our society. To the degree Senior’s piece focuses on those issues on not the ennui of the affluent, it’s interesting.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 13, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

  4. Why is there such surprise that the route to long term happiness isn’t enjoyable at every moment along the way? And that something that involves as much responsibility as parenting isn’t always fun?

    I figure the fun comes with grand-parenting…

    Comment by Rachel — July 13, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

  5. Happier? How about more mature, more responsible, not to mention better able to understand and appreciate those remarkable people who were parents to me!

    Comment by Homeschooling Granny — July 13, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

  6. I too was annoyed by the article, but did anyone else find the first photo kind of strange? This angsty-looking woman in a transparent dress, clutching a baby, in a designer bathroom. Next to the toilet. If she’d been less well-groomed, you’d expect to see that post in front of a rundown shack from the 30′s. Very weird, I thought. (Am I supposed to feel sorry for her?)

    Comment by dangermom — July 13, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

  7. This sounds like what happens when someone’s precious little snowflake has to play grown-up.

    My wife & I alternated between fits of laughter and the desire to hunt down every parent interviewed and smack them. We seem to be dealing with people whose only prior reason for existence was self-gratification and are suddenly dealing with having real responsibilities.

    I kept hearing Bill Pullman in “Spaceballs”: “Okay Princess, the fairy tale is over. WELCOME TO REAL LIFE!”

    Comment by Obi-Wandreas — July 13, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

  8. Parenting put my life in perspective, especially after having been a teacher for fifteen years before becoming a father. It also made me appreciate what my parents went through trying to raise ten kids. My wife said the same as she was from a family of eight children. My wife and I decided one was enough.

    Wasn’t New York Magazine also the one who published Stephen Brill’s illuminating piece on the New York City schools’ “Rubber Room” or was that the New Yorker? We Bostonians don’t get out much.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 13, 2010 @ 7:31 pm

  9. They had to do a research study to find out that the joy of parenting has its nadir during the baby & toddler years?

    As my MBA-holding DH puts it, our 18 month old is at the top of the “J-curve”. Fortunately, our almost 5 y.o. and our almost 8 y.o. have rounded the tip and have a net positive impact on our family :-)

    Comment by Crimson Wife — July 13, 2010 @ 9:23 pm

  10. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Wendy Rawley, Robert Pondiscio. Robert Pondiscio said: NY Mag finds parenting isn't a lot of fun. Interesting piece if you make it past the whiny anecdotes. http://bit.ly/bft2vh [...]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Parenting “All Joy and No Fun?” « The Core Knowledge Blog, The Core Knowledge Blog -- Topsy.com — July 14, 2010 @ 2:09 am

  11. For Rachel, you are correct. The REAL fun begins with grandparenting! I quit the best paying job in my life in April so I can babysit my granddaughter and allow my daughter to work without worrying about childcare. This was important to me for several reasons:

    1. She has debts she needs to pay off.
    2. I was on active duty in the Navy nearly all of their childhood years and missed seeing so many milestones, I wanted to see and share them with her and her husband.
    3. I was pretty immature as a young mother and feel so much better prepared to be the full-time caregiver now.

    The one thing all of these studies never take into consideration is that every person/couple is different. Some personalities love parenting, some don’t. Some are ready at an early age, some aren’t. The whole categorizing and pigeonholing thing always irritates me.

    Comment by Cindy — July 14, 2010 @ 2:45 am

  12. Claus,
    I am right there with you….my 2 year old is hard work and I miss those naps and good books too. I also agree that time away from her (although I hate it to be too long) is definitely needed. I need refreshing, time with friends, laying by the pool alone, etc. Anything that is just for me! Don’t you think that makes you a better parent though? I feel like I have more patience when I come back after a much needed break.

    Comment by Katherine — July 17, 2010 @ 8:58 am

  13. Nice summary of the article, and great comments.

    @ Ben F – adults as kids’ handmaidens drives me nuts too. Even though my girls are just 5 and 2, I ask a lot of them. As a result they’ve learned, already, that being part of this family means that mom needs help too. Not just help, but time to collect myself while they entertain each other.

    As for all the work parenting requires, my non-parent friends remind me frequently of the mountains of work that consume their supposed free time.

    Comment by Sarah — August 4, 2010 @ 3:49 pm

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