When you're a parent — even when you're a miserably sleep-deprived parent — sometimes magical things happen in the dead of night. Jennifer Senior's son was 1 month old when, during a late-night feeding, he looked directly at her and cooed. "It was this recognition, like 'Oh, you're my mom,' " she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I'd like to think that when I'm dying I'll remember that. ... Even in my depressive, sleep-deprived, hysterical, Looney Tunes state, I remember thinking that was just the bomb — that was magic."
In her new book, Senior writes about how about children change the lives of their parents — for better and sometimes for worse. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood considers the impact of children on marriage, sex, work, friendships and one's sense of self. Senior draws on a wide variety of studies, surveys and histories, as well as her own interviews with parents.
She says she's tried to show how all this research is reflected "in the lives of real families, in their kitchens, and bedrooms, during car pool and over homework hours as they go about their daily business."
On the meaning of "all joy and no fun"
It's a very economical way of describing, I think, the experience of parenting. It's a phrase that a friend of mine used almost parenthetically ... when he became a new dad. That's how he described parenthood. He said it was "all joy and no fun." I think meaning that the highs are great, that there's something transcendent about the experience itself, but that the day-to-day strains are really, really tough and might interfere with what we might traditionally think of as fun.
On how parenthood became sentimentalized
There's also a historic transformation that one could almost look at that shows the moment that having children was sentimentalized, which happened around the progressive era. The second kids stopped working, which was really between 1890 and 1920, activists really started aggressively protesting child labor, and around that time kids became economically worthless and emotionally priceless. These are the words of a very shrewd and wonderful sociologist named Viviana Zelizer, and she pointed out that kids just became these vulnerable, priceless creatures rather than economic assets in the family. Ever since then, steadily and surely, they've become these exalted creatures at the center of our lives.
On how the role of the parent has become harder to define
It's become much less clear what a parent's role is. We're not exactly sure what we do in relation to our kids and that's very hard, I think. ... Kids stopped working for the family and [the parent's] job became twofold: No. 1, it was to kind of nurture them, but we're nurturing them for a future we absolutely can't fathom, and the other thing is, parents now think that they're supposed to be shoring up their children's self-esteem. They think that they're supposed to be making their children happy now that we regard children as being very precious and valuable and priceless. But if you think about it, that's a really weird goal. It's very hard to teach your child to be happy and to be self-confident. It's not like teaching them how to do math or how to plow a field. Teaching your children happiness is a very vague and elusive idea.
On "housewives" vs. "stay-at-home moms"
In the 1960s if you stayed home with your kids, what were you? You were a "housewife." You focused on your house. You didn't focus on your kids. You focused on your house. Your house had to be clean. You had to master the differences between oven cleaners and floor waxes and stuff that made your wood nice and shiny, but you put your kids in a playpen, that's what you did.
And now if you stay home with your kids, you are a "stay-at-home mom," you focus on your kids. You are a professional mom and you focus on the right toys for your kids, the right educational things for your kids. So all the women who are working, when they're not working they want to be professional moms too, so they're pouring all of this energy into their children in their off hours. And by the way, their houses are suffering. Their houses are a mess. If you look at the American time use surveys, no one takes care of their house anymore. That's a very clear downward slope.
On "drone" vs. "helicopter" parenting
It's hard. There's this real expectation from all of our kids now that we should be their playmates and I'm constantly saying to my kid, "You're bored? Go clean your room. Or go like, play with your stuff. You've got so much stuff." And our kids have way more stuff than you and I had when we were kids. There's plenty for them to do ... and yet all of us feel like we have to be deeply, aggressively interactive and I'm not clear on whether or not kids benefit from that. I mean people are looking at that now and claiming that it's backfiring and that this form of helicoptering is not as good for a child's self-esteem as the kind of drone model that our parents had, which was kind of like they were more remote. I have to say, I think it's really hard on parents. I do question whether it's good for kids just because it might set up this very unrealistic expectation like, if they snap their fingers, someone's going be there to answer them.
On a study that looked at the correlation between parental happiness and government-subsidized social services
There is a direct correlation between parental well-being and the amount of social services provided by a country to the point that if a country provides lots of assistance and support for parents then parents are actually happier than nonparents. So if a country provides ample maternity leave and paternity leave, and guarantees your place when you return from your leave; if it provides child care — subsidized or even free; if it provides health care that's essentially free; if it provides good public education, you're going to be so much happier as a parent. Which also says something to me, which is: A lot of parenting strain is ... clearly economic ... and they're giving you the gift of time and they're telling you it's OK to actually have a career and to kind of diversify your life and they'll be there and have your back. So I think they're providing economic assistance and psychological reassurance all at once.