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For her new book, Jennifer Senior interviewed new parents to ask about whether their real experiences matched up with their pre-baby expectations. (Laura Rose/Ecco)
For her new book, Jennifer Senior interviewed new parents to ask about whether their real experiences matched up with their pre-baby expectations. (Laura Rose/Ecco)

Family happiness: Do parents expect too much? Add to ...

You can’t fault the blind optimism of expectant first-time parents. They are understandably excited, if nervous, and they’re surrounded by friends, relatives and online authorities who assure them their new baby will usher in a deliriously rewarding new stage in their lives. So it’s little wonder that many come to think that, by building a family, they will be happier than they’ve ever been before.

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Is that a reasonable expectation? Isn’t that a lot to expect from the burbling bundle you brought from the hospital? To gauge how our expectations measure up against real-life experience, author Jennifer Senior combed research literature and visited dozens of families. In her clear-eyed new book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, she argues that it’s time to reframe the debate and give ourselves a break.

We spoke to the mother of a six-year-old, and step-mom to 19- and 24-year-olds, from her home in New York City.

Is it a false premise to think that kids should make us happy?

There’s that moment in Indiana Jones: “We’ve been digging in the wrong place.” I do think it’s a misplaced, 20th-century expectation. Kids reveal to you that you might be worshipping a false god. Is that really what you want? Nothing but bliss and happiness and unfettered enjoyment? Or do you want something meaningful? Kids expose the hollowness of just wanting pleasure only, if you define happiness as pleasure as many people do. I’m much more interested in complexity.

But we want answers. Does the joy, or meaningfulness, balance out the not-fun aspects of parenting?

I would say yes, but I’m not sure life is a ledger anyway. What might be helpful is paying attention to it more. Social science hasn’t found a way to appropriately weigh those moments of joy. Do you just say that five dreary moments are cancelled out by one magical one? How on Earth do you apply some algorithm or formula to this?

I’d be happier, frankly, if we just scrapped the question. I like the old-fashioned idea of duty. Just doing things because one has to.

Social science sure can track the mundane “time use” chores, child care and meal-serving we do.

It’s good at capturing happiness too. But I think that you have to consign certain kinds of happiness to a separate category. You don’t want to say that the great enjoyment you had with your friends at dinner, which you rate a five, is the same as that mysterious moment when your child coos at you in the middle of the night and recognizes you for the first time? That’s also a five. They’re not the same five.

Which things about having kids are making us the most unhappy?

Number one is a simple matter of economic pressure. As income inequality expands, people become extremely anxious about their kids’ future.

Also what is extremely stressful for parents is they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing. The role of the child has changed and they’ve become these sheltered creatures. It used to be that children just were. They were just alongside you. You clothed them, you fed them, you gave them moral instruction, you might have sewed their clothes, grown their food, you might have taught them and tutored them. And in exchange, they worked and kicked stuff in. Your job was not to get on the floor and play with them. There was an actual rational, economic logic to the family economy.

Once that disappeared, no one knew what to do. Absent that, parents do everything. They get down on the floor and play for hours when they used to just let kids play on their own. They feel like they ought to be cultivating these things.

And no one has sorted out how we divide chores now that women are working. There’s still no script for that.

It does seem like a lot of the no-fun side of things rests on women’s shoulders.

Men as a rule tend to do less deadline-sensitive things. It’s not quite as stressful. Yard work is not as stressful and crazy-making as getting the dinner done at a certain hour. We have a shot-clock in our heads of things we have to do. Men get a lot of the fun stuff. Women should think about co-opting the fun stuff. There’s no reason women can’t put their feet down and say, “Why don’t you put this kid to bed? I’ll play Monopoly with them. And then I’ll sit here and drink some wine while you put them to bed.” We could do that.

Which periods of a child’s life coincide with the lowest levels of happiness for parents?

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