I recently read writer Jennifer Senior's smart, incredibly accurate, and thorough description of modern-day parenting in All Joy and No Fun ($27). As a mother of two kids, ages 3 and 1, it was the first section of Senior's book that spoke to me the most. (I could only skim through the school-age, adolescent, and teen sections, mainly because I'm too overwhelmed by my current life to read about how it might get even harder! Even with that cursory look, I'm now praying that neither of my children becomes a competitive figure skater, music prodigy, or — god forbid — both.)
In addition to interviewing real-life parents, Senior cites a number of parenting studies, and she had my attention with one of her first statistics. "In 1971 . . . a trio from Harvard observed ninety mother-toddler pairs for five hours and found that, on average, mothers gave a command, told their child no, or fielded a request (often in an 'unreasonable' or 'whining tone') every three minutes. Their children, in turn, obeyed on average only 60 percent of the time. This is not exactly a formula for perfect mental health." Um, yeah. I'm sure anyone who's told her preschooler to put his shoes on 10 times and is still staring at a shoeless kid would agree.
There's something wonderful about discovering facts, both scientific and anecdotal, that validates your own feelings and experiences (I'm sure that's part of the reason many of you read this site), and the book definitely made me feel less alone in my current state: while I wouldn't change a thing about my life and am beyond grateful that I am able to stay home with my kids, it's not a whole lot of fun day to day. Apparently, I'm far from the only one who feels this way. Senior's book also included a 2004 Texas study that showed moms get more pleasure out of cooking, shopping, and even doing housework than caring for their kids. The regular fight my husband and I have about who gets to do the dishes while the other watches our kids during the dreaded postdinner, prebath, and pre-bed period seems to prove the point.
In my own life, I've tried to analyze why I so feel so drained and so unfun in my current role while I simultaneously have no desire to make any real changes. (If I'd had a boss in my premom life who was half as demanding and irrational as my daughter, I would have started interviewing for a new position years ago.) I'm sure much of it has to do with the sense of responsibility I feel for my children's well-being and being their primary caregiver, but there's something greater than that, and, as Senior argues in her book, I think it has to do with joy.
To me, the distinction between fun and joy is kind of like the difference between eating a big chocolate chip cookie and carefully eating and exercising for six months to get back into my prebaby jeans. One makes me smile instantly; the other is a lot more work, a long game for sure, but at the end, there's a sense of deeper accomplishment.
The only problem with children? There's no real end to the work, and as parents, we're never sure when or if things will get easier. Case in point: a recent conversation I had with a mom friend who has a slightly older daughter. "Surely 4 is much better than 3, right?" I led. "I'm thinking 5 is going to be good," she knowingly replied. And 5 was good for her . . . until her daughter took up competitive gymnastics. Now she's more exhausted than ever.
While All Joy and No Fun definitely resonated with me (seriously, read it), it also confirmed my belief that there are no simple solutions to the "no fun" problem. Days spent with children will continue to seesaw from incredibly hectic to mind-numbingly dull. Three-year-olds will never magically act like adults or always listen the first time we tell them to put on their shoes. Moms will always have to seek out stolen moments of fun with their children (a good dance party always seems to work for me). But the joy will always remain, and truly, that is enough.
"How it feels to be a parent and how it feels to do the quotidian and often arduous task of parenting are two very separate things," Senior writes, and that, to me, is the heart of the issue. While doing the work of caring for my children is hard, sometimes insurmountably so, on the other end is the crux: being a parent is also the greatest joy of my life.