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All Joy and No Fun: why parents love to whinge.

An adorable little fellow. Exhausted parent not pictured.

An adorable little fellow. Exhausted parent not pictured.

Published in The Age on March 22, 2014.

All parents love a good whinge. It’s one of the chief benefits of membership in the world’s least exclusive club. And who can blame us? According to the latest Australian time use data, having a child in the home involves an extra 48.5 hours of work per week, to be shared by mum and dad. For a middle-income family, the average cost of raising two children to adulthood is $812,000 – around 50% more than it was just six years ago.

Jennifer Senior’s new book, All Joy And No Fun, backs up those moans with social science. The hit of the season with New York’s stroller and sippy cup set, it argues that modern American parents are more stressed than their own mothers and fathers were, and less happy than couples with no children.

Every few pages, there’s another terrifyingly believable research finding: the paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that showed 90% of couples reporting a decline in marital satisfaction after the birth of their first child; the survey of working mothers in Texas that found they enjoyed cooking, shopping and even doing the housework more fun than looking after their children; or the Harvard study that observed mothers issuing a command, saying no, or dealing with a whine from their toddlers every three minutes. “This is not exactly a formula for perfect mental health,” Senior writes.

The book was not intended as a manifesto for childlessness. Senior has a six-year-old son and two much older step-kids. “I never thought for a second that people would look at it and say ‘I’m not going to get into this racket,’” she says, when we meet at a coffee shop near her home in Brooklyn. “It’s very hard work, but you never want to give your children back.” In the corner, a young mother is reading All Joy And No Fun while her infant son sleeps in a stroller.

Senior’s own experience as a parent is noticeably absent from the book, beyond a couple of brief asides about her hopes for her son. “That’s a crowded field, the mom memoir,” she says. “Also, I’m a reporter and an anthropology major. I wanted to do something that was data-driven.” She has woven decades of academic research about how families function into a New York Times bestseller that is already being translated into Russian, Korean, German, Polish and Portuguese.

On Friday, Senior delivered a TED talk about trends in modern parenting at the organisation’s annual conference, in Vancouver. Next Sunday, March 30, she brings an extended version of that presentation to Sydney Opera House, for an appearance at the All About Women festival.

The verb ‘to parent’ was coined in 1970, soon after women began to enter the workforce in large numbers and one-and-a-half job families became the norm. Senior argues that as the age at which parents have their first child has risen, so modern mothers and fathers have become more aware of the independence they are giving up. Western society values freedom of choice above all, and having a child occasions a sudden, shocking loss of autonomy. When divorce is commonplace and few expect a job for life, kids are “the last binding obligation in a culture that asks for almost no other permanent commitments at all.”

Your correspondent, improvising with a restless newborn.

Your correspondent, improvising with a restless newborn.

She describes a society “tyrannised by the idea of its own potential,” in which people buy into the fantasy that they can ‘have it all’ and thus set themselves up for disappointment. This is aggravated, she suggests, by the porous border between work and life. In the smartphone age, parents carry their jobs in their pocket wherever they take their kids and are burdened by the notion that they could be, should be, doing something more productive.

Senior argues that parenting has become a confusing and ill-defined activity, as the traditional roles of mothers and fathers have been outsourced: schools educate our children, factory farms grow their food, sweatshops make their clothes and doctors treat their ailments. The only thing parents can agree on, whether they hothouse their children or let them make their own mistakes, whether they believe in attachment parenting or tough love, is that they’re doing it “for the child’s sake, and the child’s alone.”

The book features several in-depth case studies. One of the women that Senior spent time with notes that whereas her mother described herself as a “housewife” she calls herself a “stay at home mom” – the pressure to raise perfect children has replaced the need to keep a spotless home. “If you look at the American Time Use survey, our houses are a mess. We don’t take care of them anymore,” says Senior. “But we walk through the door and the first thing we do is get down on our hands and our knees and play with our kids.”

In Australia, “there is no such thing as a mother who’s at home,” cautions Professor Barbara Pocock, Director of the School of Work and Life at the University of South Australia. “Almost all Australian mothers move in and out of the labour market. Seven out of ten say that they are rushed and pressed for time often or almost always – in all our surveys. So I think what we’ve done in the last thirty years is given mothers a job and made them very harried.”

Researchers Lyn Craig, Abigail Powell and Ciara Smyth, from the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, determined that from 1992 to 2006, the amount of time that Australian parents spent with their children declined, as more mothers and fathers entered the workforce. Despite this, the amount of time they spent on active childcare (as opposed to keeping a weather eye on the kids while working or doing the dishes) remained constant. In short, parenting has become more intensive.

“I think what’s happening is that there are many very guilty mothers who have internalised their mother’s way of doing things and are also holding down a job,” says Pocock. “And the price they pay is a lot of cognitive work around ‘how do I hold this together and look like a half-decent mother?’”

Senior devotes a chapter to “concerted cultivation” and attributes the trend towards this hyper-scheduled, intensive parenting style to the widening gap between rich and poor. “So long as income inequality is accelerating, so long as the middle-class is shrinking, I have to imagine that parents’ behaviours will be driven by these macro-economic realities,” she says. “They will feel tremendous anguish on their kid’s behalf and want to give them a toe-hold in the middle class.”

Warren Cann, of Australia’s Parenting Research Centre, is wary of applying the “helicopter parent” label. “I think what we’ve got is a generation of conscientious parents,” he says. “There’s a thoughtfulness and intentionality around parenting. Modern parents are creating these kinds of opportunities for children, and on the whole there’s not a lot of evidence of them doing it past the point that kids are stressed out by it.”

Senior’s argument is that the parents are stressed – and here the Australian data is more revealing. “What seems to be happening is that women are preserving the kind of ‘parenting’ time, and working, and what they’re sacrificing is the ‘me time’ – time for recreation, a break and leisure,” says Cann.

One crucial difference is the amount of help that Australian parents get from the state. The USA has no statutory minimum maternity leave and no state benefit or guarantee that a job will be kept for mothers who take time out to care for their infant. Many companies expect new mothers to be back at work six weeks after giving birth – and provide ‘pumping rooms’ for them to express breast milk during breaks.

Leave me unsupervised with the paint while you catch up on work? This is what happens.

Leave me unsupervised with the paint while you catch up on work? This is what happens.

When sociologists measured the difference in happiness between parents and non-parents in twenty-two developed countries, in 2012, the largest gap by far was in the United States, where the state offers no childcare below school age. A separate study showed that in France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Scandinavia, where maternity leave is generous and free or heavily subsidised childcare is available, mothers were consistently happier than non-mothers.

This is the global context for the current debate about maternity leave and state childcare provision in Australia. Pocock welcomes the Coalition’s proposal to provide six months leave on full pay, but was astonished by Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s admission that his daughters changed his mind about the policy. “Here we are as worthy researchers collecting decades of fabulous data about how paid parental leave is good for cognitive development and maternal wellbeing, but all you need is a Conservative to have three daughters,” she says. “What if he’d had three sons?”

Sociological research also suggests that the opposition’s proposal to provide greater access to childcare and require more flexible working conditions for parents could also be effective. Using data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC), Dr Amanda Cooklin and three colleagues from the Parenting Research Centre showed that there is a strong correlation between workplace conditions and the mental health of new mothers – the more leave they are offered, the greater job security and flexibility they have, the less likely they are to be stressed or depressed.

There is surprisingly little scientific literature specifically about parental satisfaction in Australia. The most directly relevant survey, of 1,200 parents in Queensland, showed that 86% of them found the experience of raising children to be very or extremely rewarding – but that data is fifteen years old and has not been followed-up. In the most recent LSAC data, 70.1% of fathers and 64.2% of mothers of young children rated themselves a better than average parent or a very good parent.

The problem with this research is that parents are liable to delude themselves about what a great job they’re doing – the more so when replying to a survey – and parents who are too busy, tired or stressed are less likely to take part.

I wasn’t a very good father while I was writing this article. I certainly wasn’t a good husband. I shouted at both my little boys, on different nights, for waking up shrieking again and again. I picked small, stupid fights with my wife. One afternoon, I petulantly threw a spoon of lukewarm soup into my one-year-old’s face when he refused to eat and loudly demanded the same Old McDonald Had A Farm book, with animal noises, for the ninth time that day.

I wrote at three different tables, in the bedroom, kitchen and living room, rarely for long at one sitting, with constant interruptions, in an apartment with old wood and glass doors that barely close properly, let alone lock. This was an object lesson in the impossibility of achieving what psychologists refer to as ‘flow’ when children are around (Senior describes it as a state of being in which we are “so fortified by our own sense of agency, of mastery, that we lose all sense of our surroundings”). And with that and the need to be useful at all times, all the cooking and washing and tidying and caring that goes into being a good partner, all the coaxing and pleading and caving pathetically to avoid hysterical meltdowns, I was often irritable and short-tempered.

It's all worth it.

An “unforgivably cheesy” moment of joy.

The last two of six chapters of Senior’s book are about joy. They were the hardest to write. “I was crippled by the fear of sounding cheesy,” she says. At the playground, hanging out with all the exhausted, harassed, goo-stained mothers and fathers, the last thing we want to hear is how wonderful someone else’s child is. Instead, we whinge, to reassure each other, about teething and ear infections and small plates of pasta that require an hour or more of hostage negotiation to half-finish.

“When a friend tells you about something really meaningful and fabulous their kid did, you go ‘oh’ – it doesn’t have that meaning to you,” Senior says. “But if they tell you that their kid kept them up half the night vomiting, or their adolescent was saying really rude and appalling things, you can totally relate and answer in kind. It’s so much easier. There’s a common vocabulary for that stuff.”

As she sought to convey the wonder that is bound up in being a parent, to explain why so many of us are prepared to put up with the endless drudgery and lack of sleep, Senior found that it was something that social science struggles to quantify. “If you’re trying to measure something like meaning or moments of transcendence or unrivalled awe, how are you going to get at that?”

In the end, beyond exploring the great pleasures of behaving childishly and the opportunities for philosophical discussion inspired by small, enquiring minds, she drew on psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between the experiencing self and the remembering self: “Our experiencing selves tell researchers that we prefer doing the dishes… to spending time with our kids. But our remembering selves tell researchers that no-one – and nothing – provides us with as much joy as our children. It may not be the happiness we live day to day, but it’s the happiness we think about”.

Having children will cost you a fortune, put your marriage under strain, wear you down, stress you out and use up almost all your free time – the research is conclusive, as if we needed telling. But as all parents know, this is only half the story. “Meaning and joy have a way of slipping through the sieve of social science,” Senior writes. Or, as Cann put it, with a laugh: “If you just crunch the available numbers, you’d be crazy to be a parent, wouldn’t you?”

On Thursday, I took my four-year-old to karate, bringing his one-year-old brother along so that their mum could work – she usually takes them. After the class, he spilled water on his underpants. For fifteen minutes, I tried to convince him – he could “go commando” without underwear, or put on the wet pants, as there was no way that we could un-wet them – but in between bouts of crying all he would say, over and over again, was “my willy will get cold.” It was no fun, and all joy. After a while, the one other dad in the changing room looked over and said “I have to deal with this… every day.” That fellowship is worth something.

That night, after whatever age-inappropriate superhero book he’d insisted on was over, my son climbed up on my chest, looked at me and said: “Now, I’m going to cripple you.” He’s more right than he knows.