In the introduction, Jennifer Senior reiterates questions first asked by sociologist Alice Rossi 45 years ago: What is the effect of parenthood on adults? How does having children affect their mothers' and fathers' lives? It's an intriguing topic, especially considering the fact that if you ask adults which activities they most enjoy, childcare ranks very low on the list, but at the same time, they "view children as one of life's crowning achievements." Senior sets out to explore why this paradox could possibly be true. She looks at the effect children have on personal lives, careers, and marriages as well as how the various stages of childhood (from newborn through adolescence) influence day-to-day emotions and decisions.
This is exactly the kind of nonfiction I love, and Jennifer Senior's style is so readable and convincing. It is a perfect melding of research, anecdotes, and personal wit. As part of her research, she sat in on a lot of parenting classes and discussions, but then she also selected a few families to personally interview and get to know more intimately. Their stories are woven seamlessly in between the facts and the studies so that it all reads like one effortless narrative, all of which is punctuated with Senior's own experiences and humor and big vocabulary. Even though I didn't agree with all of her findings, it didn't matter because it was just such a pleasure to read
There was just something so incredibly validating about this book. There were times I just stopped and thought, Yes! No one has ever put my thoughts into words before, but there they are! For example, towards the end of the book, she talked about the fear and joy that simultaneously accompany parenthood. She quoted Brené Brown who called it "foreboding joy" and gave this example: "I'm looking at my children, and they're sleeping, and I'm right on the verge of bliss, and I picture something horrible happening." I didn't realize other parents dealt with this same type of irrational fear (mostly because Mike is almost always optimistic), but I know exactly what it feels like to have my joy tainted by worries, and there was something so comforting having those thoughts verbalized.
I could definitely relate to the chapters on autonomy and marriage and toddlerhood. That has been my life for the last six years. With Aaron going into first grade this year, I am also getting my first taste in "concerted cultivation." (In fact, a mere few hours before reading this chapter, Mike and I were having an argument over whether or not I should sign up Aaron for an art class this summer. Me: He loves to draw! Shouldn't we give him the opportunity to develop this talent and see if it's something he wants to invest some time in? Mike: He's five years old. I never took an art class when I was a kid, and I loved to draw, too.) But then I got to the chapter on adolescence, and my heart was struck with panic. A few pages in, I actually had to shut the book and say to Mike, "What have we done? We didn't think this thing through! We have four children. Four boys. And they are going to turn into four teenagers." Seriously, that chapter was . . . terrifying. In all the other chapters, Jennifer Senior uses the real names (first and last) of all her interviewees. But on the chapter about adolescents, she switches to first-name pseudonyms because "there's too much potential harm and not much point in revealing their identities, or that of their parents." Yikes.
In each chapter, Senior talks a lot about the cultural shift that has happened to parent- and childhood over the centuries. She mentions the fact that children used to be valuable, an asset to the family's welfare. Now they are, in the words of sociologist Viviana Zelizer, "economically worthless but emotionally priceless." Equally fascinating to me is the shift in roles women have experienced in their families. Senior reported on it this way:
"It was a woman in Minnesota who clarified this shift for me. She pointed out that her mother called herself a housewife. She, on the other hand, called herself a stay-at-home mom. The change in nomenclature reflects the shift in cultural emphasis: the pressures on women have gone from from keeping an immaculate house to being an irreproachable mom. And the market today, still hoping to appeal to women's professional instincts, offers the same differentiation in baby products for mothers that it offered in cleaning products for housewives sixty years ago."Looking at parenthood from an historical point of view really added some depth and breadth to the more recent studies and experiences.
Also, even though Senior herself admits at the end that the whole book had a biased edge to it, overall, I found her account to be very well-rounded. In fact, many times she mentioned a particular study to back up an idea only to then also point out its limitations.
I hinted that I didn't agree with everything in the book. Want to know one of those things? This paragraph about one of the moms she interviewed:
"Gayle's choice was to be a stay-at-home mother. When she made her decision, it made perfect emotional sense. 'I quit working because I couldn't stand being away from my children,' she says as her girls yo-yo in and out of the kitchen. 'To be away for an hour, to go to the bank, just hurt me.' She never once thought less of her friends who continued to work and found alternative child care arrangements. It just wasn't something she could get motivated to do herself. 'And now I think, What kind of role model was I?' she asks. 'I have three girls and I quit my job? I went to college and grad school!' She shakes her head. 'If they'd been boys, maybe that wouldn't have bothered me so much.'"I guess I hold motherhood on a higher pedestal because it made me sad to read this. I don't hold anything against the moms who want to work, but I hate the thought that the only way we can be good role models for our daughters is if we choose to have careers. I think there's so much daughters can learn from their mothers as mothers. If they choose to have another career, great. But let's not allow outside jobs to devalue motherhood.
There's so much more I want to write about this book, but I've already been trying to finish this review for two days, and if I don't wrap it up now, it might never happen. It's been on my brain that whole time (and then some). The irony of the whole situation was not lost on me as I tried to snatch fifteen minutes here and there to write another paragraph. In chapter 1 about autonomy, Senior tells about Jessie, a stay-at-home mom who has a photography side business. Jessie struggles with the predicament of trying to get her work done while her children constantly demand her attention. This afternoon, I told my mom (who's staying with us for a few days), "I just need one hour to finish this post." I shut myself into my room. It took me about ten minutes to pick up my train of thought and get back into the groove of writing, and all three times I attempted it, by the time the ten minutes were up, I had a screaming baby or a wailing toddler, and they were always problems that could only be fixed by me. Finally, tonight, I scored a blessed chunk of uninterrupted time, but this was the fourth attempt of the day. It was so incredibly frustrating (and it's not like this is even my job!).
At the end of the book, Senior talks about the difference between our experiencing and our remembering selves. Our experiencing selves are how we experience all of the moments that make up a day. My experiencing self was feeling frustration this afternoon. I just wanted to do one thing! One! And in spite of spending the time to get everyone settled before I started, I still couldn't get it done. This is the "no fun" part of parenting. But our remembering selves focus on the big picture, the way we feel when we look back on our experiences. And when I look back at this time of my life, I'm not going to remember this afternoon when I couldn't finish a book review (except, I might since I just spent all this time writing about it). No, instead I'm going to remember what it felt like to have my four boys so little and loving and needing me. And when I think about that, all I feel is joy.