Book Review: All Joy and No Fun

alljoynofun_cover
Image: Ecco/Little, Brown Book Group UK

This book arrived at the perfect time for me, as my parenting confidence was at an all-time low. As a family, we’re adjusting to a new baby who abhors continuous sleep, plus a four-year-old who is currently specializing in challenging behavior. I knew that lack of sleep colors everything negatively, but I was starting to feel like I wasn’t really doing a great job. What I needed was reassurance that my feelings were normal, that other people find this parenting lark as difficult as me. Could All Joy and No Fun really help me understand my feelings about parenting?

The book grew from an article exploring why parents have been observed to be no happier than non-parents, and sometimes are considerably less happy. Children are supposed to fill our lives with unending joy and happiness, so why aren’t parents happier? Guiding us through a selection of reasons why this might be the case, author Jennifer Senior expands on the idea that actually, parenting is a difficult job, especially in modern times, and explores different ways that parents are dealing with these issues. Where this books differs from many of the other scientifically-based parenting books available is that the author looks at research on how children affect their parents, rather than the other way around. She pulls together research from a range of scientific papers, interspersed with interviews with parents from broadly middle-class backgrounds. This makes the text accessible and interesting, as it allows the reader to see how their experiences are similar. I certainly identified with stories of attempting to negotiate with a recalcitrant child and trying to balance the needs of my children with my own needs as a person, not just a mother.

One area which really struck a chord for me is that Senior explains that there is no real way to prepare for a baby. You can paint the nursery and buy a crib, but until the baby arrives, there’s no predicting exactly what looking after an infant entails. This “Transition to Parenthood” is abrupt and can be traumatic, not even taking into account the physical effects of childbirth on the mother. This was very true for me personally. I’d never looked after a baby or even changed a diaper before my daughter arrived. Although I understood the basic concept, the actual day-to-day reality of infant childcare was a shock, especially the lack of sleep. Moving far away from my family has meant that I don’t have relatives available to give me a break, and my friends have children of their own to manage. This puts more pressure onto parents—how can you cope if you don’t have the metaphorical village to help you?

Another aspect which I found interesting was the fact that the trend is for first babies to be born to older mothers. At 33 when my first was born, I wasn’t the youngest in my antenatal class, but neither was I the oldest. At that point, I’d had 12 years after finishing university where I had been an independent adult with my own life and hobbies. Suddenly, along came someone who completely subsumed me and took away my autonomy. Senior suggests that this is more of a shock when you are used to your independence, and that younger parents might find this transition easier. I think that this is something that is even harder for us geeks. We are passionate about things, our hobbies define us in some ways, and they tend to take up a great deal of our free time. For me, my darkroom became a nursery, the time to draw or photograph became consumed by the needs of my infant, and my spinning wheel became dusty in the corner of a room. When I do try to balance my need to be creative with the needs of my children, I find I’m constantly interrupted and unable to reach the state of flow in which the creative activity will actually have a restorative effect.

Flow, that lovely feeling when you’re “in the zone” as athletes describe it, is when you are so engrossed in a task that time seems to stretch and bend. Geeky hobbies, by their very nature, tend to be time-intensive and when your free time is split into two-minute chunks by interruptions, it can be more frustrating than relaxing. For example, some of this article was written on my phone, in the dark, while trying to convince my seven-month-old son that it was time to sleep. This type of interruption to your thoughts can leave you feeling like your life before children has been completely swept away, which is a difficult feeling to cope with.

I particularly enjoyed the sections which talked about how some childhood behavior can be explained by the way that their brains are developing. Biologically, children have an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. This section of brain, which is placed just behind the forehead, controls the organization of thought, allows adults to focus on tasks, allows us to plan, and controls inhibitions. No wonder children are so different, as their brains have not yet developed the functions which we as adults consider to be normal. Even though I see this as a teacher and work round it in my lessons, to understand that some of the things which my daughter does that are so infuriating can be explained through the development of her brain was a revelation. It takes the pressure off a little. It’s not our bad parenting which is causing the behavior, four-year-olds really are just like that!

Although this is not a book of advice, one thing which really helped me was that Senior describes a theory of “ego depletion,” which explains why tempers can fray so easily. Suggested by psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and columnist John Tierny, it argues that self-control is a limited resource, so that the more you try to hold yourself together in the face of annoyance, the more likely you are to explode at the next infraction. As a teacher, I’ve always been proud of my ability to hold my temper when dealing with children and their annoyances, but recently I’ve found it harder to do that at home. As well as stressing for me how important it is for me to create time for myself, if only two minutes to have a cup of tea while the baby explores a new toy or takes one of his short naps, this theory explains why tempers become more frayed in the evenings in our house. It clarified for me that it’s easier to take a deep breath and not explode at yet another difficult episode with our four-year-old in the morning when we’re rested and have topped up that self-control somewhat overnight.

The interviews with parents are also enlightening. We see parents coping with shift work and young children while trying to divide the workload fairly, parents trying to work from home, and parents trying to deal with the way that their adolescents are moving towards adulthood. One of the most moving parts is the story of Sharon Bartlett, who had adopted her grandson Cameron after his mother had died. Sharon was incredibly committed to Cameron and when she was sadly diagnosed with brain cancer, her only thoughts were for Cameron’s welfare. It shows that parenthood is a broad brush; it comes in all colors and flavors. Sharon embraced the parenthood of a young child again, if only for a short while, and that made Cameron’s life all the richer for it.

This is a very readable book, which covers much more ground than I’ve been able to mention here. I can see myself coming back in years to come to reread the sections about adolescents and the way that their parents are coping, for example. It’s helped me think about parenting in a wider context, particularly how attitudes to children have changed as children are no longer expected to work to support the family. I don’t normally highlight books, but whole passages in my Kindle version are yellow, which says a lot about how much impact this book has had with me.

On the joy side of things, Senior describes the “bursts of grace” which pepper the child-rearing experience. These have been a saving grace for me. I try and burn them onto my brain, so that I can recall them when times are more difficult. The time when my son fell asleep in my arms, smiling, while a Chopin étude played, my daughter’s first steps, and when she said she loved me to the moon and back one hundred times. I’m cutting myself a little more slack these days, and trying to remember that my daughter’s underdeveloped prefrontal cortex is causing her outbursts, not my actions. I read the last chapter of this book in the dark while feeding my son to sleep, his warm smooth fingers holding onto my arm. These are the moments that make things worth it, and it’s these I’m holding onto as my parenting journey continues.

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood is available now.

For more GeekMom views on parenting and parenting books, have a look at 13 Things That Change When You Go From Geek Girl to Geek MomThere’s More To A Tantrum Than You Realize, and Life With a Spirited Child: A Geek Perspective.

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