The Parent Traps

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood BY Jennifer Senior. Ecco. Hardcover, 320 pages. $26.

The cover of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

A young author recently confessed to me that she probably won’t have kids, since doing so would require giving up her career. I assured her that, thanks to a great local day care staffed by attentive teachers, I was able to write a book and keep my full-time job as a TV critic after I had two kids. “No, I could never be that kind of mother. I never do anything half-assed,” she replied. “I would have to give my children everything.”

When even childless women preemptively claim the title of ideal mother, you know that there’s a strong current moving through the culture—one strong enough to knock you off your feet and drown you, in fact. Try arguing that the embrace of motherly self-sacrifice and child-centric living amounts to a cultural trend, and you’ll encounter the same hardened stare you might have elicited fifty years ago if you told a housewife, “The floor doesn’t really have to be so clean you could eat off it. They’re just trying to sell you more floor wax.” Highly suggestible but armed with rich imaginations, we Americans are herd animals who stubbornly cast ourselves as the authors of our own destiny.

So what happens when the herd gets spooked? In All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood (Ecco, $27), Jennifer Senior ventures into the domestic wilds looking for signs of restlessness and dissatisfaction, and discovers forlorn straggler packs of modern parents, dragging destroyed careers, blasted social lives, and crumbling marriages along behind them. Apparently there’s a hidden price attached to never doing anything half-assed—but it’s one that’s tough to recognize until you’re halfway through the slaughterhouse door.

“One day you are a paragon of self-determination, coming and going as you please,” Senior writes. “The next, you are a parent, laden with gear and unhooked from the rhythms of normal adult life.” Senior quickly demonstrates a real talent for portraying the thorniest challenges of parenting as a chilling house of horrors. Like the widely shared New York magazine article on “why parents hate parenting” that spawned it, All Joy and No Fun contrasts the pleasures of child rearing—those meaningful moments that justify a procreator’s existence—with the suffering and indignities of mundane life among beasts who won’t hesitate to smear their feces all over your favorite armchair, if they’re so inclined.

Senior’s book is clearly designed to soothe beleaguered parents by illustrating the mishaps and distorted values of the contemporary parenting revolution, gently underscoring its singular madness. As the author visits one chaotic household after another, the same unnerving scenes play out over and over again: Babies disrupt sleep and demand around-the-clock attention, and toddlers behave like passionate, unconscientious objectors. Then, right after Daddy leaves for work in the morning, everyone celebrates by wetting the bed and throwing up all over everything. Soon these happy, golden toddler years give way to school-age child rearing, which involves such an uninterrupted flurry of far-flung extracurricular activities and marathon parent-assisted homework sessions, it makes an afternoon of potty trouble and projectile vomiting sound like a soothing trip to a day spa. Not to worry, though: All of that hard work pays off during adolescence, when hormone-addled mutants pull their eyes away from gunning down assailants or watching porn on their digital devices just long enough to inform their parents that they hate their stupid guts.

Yet strangely enough, the more Senior delineates the unmatched suffering of today’s parents, the less sympathetic one feels. After all, there are only so many laments about overscheduling that one can take, especially when they come from parents whose children simply must ice-skate competitively/visit a math tutor/stay active in Girl Scouts/learn violin, or they’ll fall behind and never get into their boutique private college of choice. Over time, the weary parents of such overachievers start to sound more like bourgeois narcissists whose talk of self-sacrifice thinly veils a passion for raising finely crafted ego puppets. Maybe it’s time to cancel a few ballet and painting and candle-making classes and let those kids master the fine art of baking mud pies and building forts out of couch cushions instead.

Although the Mommy Wars will continue to rage around such talking points, it would be a mistake to let emotional debates about who’s making the worst lifestyle choices obscure the fundamental difficulties of parenting in this country. Parents today long for freedom in part because, as Senior demonstrates, their ability to live balanced lives is severely limited. Researcher Arnstein Aassve found that “the happiness that people derive from parenthood is positively associated with the availability of childcare.” But in America, child care isn’t funded or even adequately regulated by the government. Quality day care is often prohibitively expensive. Women bear the brunt of this problem, downshifting their professional lives to stay home, or keeping their full-time careers but still handling the lion’s share of the child care and household chores in their few free hours away from work.

And laughable or not, the cultural pressures to structure every second of your kid’s time are real. Most mothers, regardless of whether they work or stay at home, find themselves pulled into child-related activities and errands around the clock, thanks to an increasingly child-centered culture that equates balancing each family member’s needs with parental selfishness. It’s tough not to long for the public squares of Spain, where parents sip pilsners and engage in rambling conversations while their kids speed by on bicycles, scooters, and roller skates. Such bucolic scenes make the local Gymboree or Chuck E. Cheese’s look like Dante’s third circle of Hell.

Unfortunately, rather than wrapping up her book with a galvanizing critique of America’s delusional embrace of the ideal mother and the ideal, child-focused home (which is rarely backed up with policies that support young families), Senior retreats into generic, glowing talk of the deeply felt rewards of self-sacrifice. Instead of taking a clear stand, she lands firmly in the realm of oft-repeated clichés, along the lines of “Having kids is so hard, but it’s totally worth it.” Readers might arrive at the same conclusion more efficiently by watching a few minutes of any family sitcom ever made.

Luckily, Washington Post reporter and self-confessed overscheduled working mom Brigid Schulte has fewer qualms about emphasizing how the American way of parenting—and living in general—has eroded our happiness. In Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time (Sarah Crichton Books, $26), Schulte examines how staying very busy has become “a powerful cultural expectation.” She cites Gregory Berns, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, who asserts that speeding through life is now seen as a virtue: “If you are busy, if you get things done quickly, if you move quickly throughout the day, it expresses success.” Meanwhile, thanks to the proliferating demands of kids and the convenience of computers, parents multitask constantly, putting up with a steady flow of interruptions that previous generations would have found intolerable, thereby fragmenting their time and compounding their anxiety. In such an overachieving culture, the myth of the “ideal worker” guides employer expectations, leading employees to believe that they must work long hours and avoid taking maternity or paternity leave, lest someone start to view them as less than completely dedicated to their jobs.

American workers are far less likely than their European counterparts to be awarded flexible work schedules or even to use their limited vacation time, and mothers are often penalized (or fired) when they attempt to go on leave, cut back their hours, or try in any other respect to live more balanced lives. Yet studies indicate that women still take on much more of the housework and child-care duties than their husbands do. “The cult of intensive motherhood,” as Schulte unabashedly calls it, dictates that mothers feel as if they can’t spend enough time with their children. Forget that moms actually lavish much more attention on their kids than they did twenty years ago; mothers still feel guilty, and view the time they do spend as insufficient.

Ironically, though, it’s not clear that all this quality time with Mom translates into robust psychic health for the young charges of overscheduled parents: Psychologist Suniya Luthar found that “affluent kids are two to three times more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and high levels of distress than kids living in harsh urban poverty.” In other words, the herd of terminally anxious parents is not only demented, but our offspring aren’t benefiting from this culture of self-sacrifice we’ve created. Rather than dragging us into the mire and then retreating into warm fuzzies, Schulte offers an unflinching view of overachieving and overscheduling as a pervasive American sickness. “The research shows, it’s not worth it. Not if it’s making everybody crazy, no one is having any fun, there’s no time to connect, adults are losing their identities in the service of their children, children think the world exists to serve and entertain them, and there’s no space for anybody to . . . just be.” Now imagine, instead, a household where unstructured leisure time is defended just as passionately as frenetic scheduling is pursued in so many today.

By taking on more than our fair share of the work, aiming for perfection, and resolving to give our kids everything, we parents mostly succeed at forming children in our own weary, overburdened images. It’s a karmic refutation of narcissistic breeding worthy of Greek mythology. But with any luck, Schulte’s readers can spot the telltale symptoms of this syndrome—and future generations surveying the legacy of all this madness will say to themselves, “No, I could never be that kind of parent.”

Heather Havrilesky is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead, 2010).