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Countless studies, scholarly articles and self-help books have considered the effect parents have on their children at every stage of their lives. But what about the effect kids have on their parents? Relationships, careers, hobbies and habits all change as soon as a child comes on the scene — for better and worse. Journalist Jennifer Senior dives into the world of modern parenthood, discovering rich rewards and vexing challenges alike.
- Jennifer Senior Contributing editor, New York Magazine; author, "All Joy, No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Before becoming a parent you can know a lot about kids, for example that bringing an infant into your home will also bring sleep deprivation, an effective torture technique, for a reason. It's often the first rude awakening for new moms and dads. You might also know that toddlers will do as they're told about half the time and that teens' most intense battles with their parents will happen between eighth and tenth grades.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIYou might know all of that but then you actually go ahead and have kids and wake up one day and realize that you had no idea what you were getting into and how you would be affected. But there's a growing body of research looking at mom and dad. And here to talk about is Jennifer Senior. She's a contributing editor at New York magazine and author of the book "All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood." Jennifer Senior, thank you for joining us.
MS. JENNIFER SENIOROh, thank you for having me.
NNAMDII suspect that a lot of people will want to join this conversation, so let me tell you how. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send us a Tweet @kojoshow or go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Do you think certain stages of childhood are more trying for parents than others? When were you most difficult as a child, 800-433-8850? Jennifer Senior, parenthood is at once a universal and completely unique experience, one that for better or worse has changed significantly in just a few generations. What factors have conspired to bring these changes about?
SENIOROh, that's a wonderful question. So I would say that the biggest change is post World War II. Prior to that kids worked. They worked. They were the staff. They were the help. If you had a farm they worked your farm. If -- you know, they worked in mines and mills and factories. This was not necessarily a moral arrangement and it dawned on people during the progressive era that perhaps banning child labor would be a good idea. But what happened as a result of that is that the entire family was sort of thrown into upheaval, specifically the family structure.
SENIORNow, rather than kids working for their parents, it effectively became the other way around and parents started working for their children. Kids went from being capital assets to being hugely expensive. And the idea was to cultivate them and to nurture them and to prepare them for this extremely rapidly changing world. I think that only got tougher and more labor intensive as technology started to just rocket. And, you know, the velocity of technological change really accelerated. I mean, now we just don't know how to prepare our kids, so we do everything we can.
NNAMDIIn addition to which, our work lives began to get more complicated.
SENIORThat is the other thing, right. I mean, now we have kind of a perpetual 24/7, you know, work cycle. So kind of perversely, even though we should think of emails as being disruptive to our domestic lives, we often look at our kids and think that they're disrupting our email. I mean, it's a very ugly kind of topsy-turvy thing. And the reason sometimes is because frankly, emails are -- they're easier to achieve flow with.
SENIORYou know, you can really concentrate on an email. Whereas if you've got like a kid who's very young and kind of not necessarily using the best judgment because let's say they're two years old, it feels like that's the disruptive force in the house. And it's really a shame that this is how we process it and experience it. But it is sort of the mode our brains revert to.
NNAMDIHow global is this phenomenon? I was born at the end of World War II but that was in another country. When considering the challenges faced here in the U.S. we often cast a somewhat envious eye overseas. Is this a strictly American phenomenon today?
SENIORYeah, you know, and I'm glad you brought that up. I really should've been issuing a caveat all along. It is a middle class phenomenon for starters. I mean, let's talk -- you know, if you have no money -- and my book does not -- it makes a conscientious point of not looking at very, very wealthy families or even upper middle class families. It's mostly really true middle class families where they, like, clean their own houses and do their own childcare, where very little is outsourced. But it also doesn't look at poor families.
SENIORSo, you know, because obviously if you're poor you're probably commuting much longer distances for work, you can't -- you know, you're going long distance is often for things like food stamps. If you're from a country that doesn't have as much then this obviously seems like an enviable, you know, problem. The flipside of this is that if you come from a country with a fabulous social safety net, in those countries parents are happier than non-parents, whereas here parents are less happy than non-parents. Or at the very least, it's a wash. It's neutral.
NNAMDIFascinating observation. In case you're just joining us, our guess is Jennifer Senior, contributing editor at New York magazine. Her latest book is called "All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood." One result of these societal shifts is this idea that pervades our culture right or wrong, that being a parent is the most rewarding, fulfilling, amazing thing anyone could ever possibly do in their entire lives. Why did we start equating child rearing with happiness? And why are we so surprised to learn that the arithmetic might not add up?
SENIOROh boy, how much time you got?
SENIORAll right. Let's start with this. Yes. You are absolutely right that now having a child is like the equivalent of, like, getting married in a Jane Austen novel. It's what you live for, right. And then, you know, you live happily ever after. And, you know, the way it works out chronologically now is that it's last. It's the capstone to a middle class life. If you are middle class what you do is you graduate from college and you find your job. You get settled in your job. You get married. You buy your house and then bum, bum, bum then you have your kid.
SENIORSo there's a lot at stake because you've waited this long. The average -- let's see, I guess it's the median age of a woman who is college educated. The median age of first birth for that woman is 30.3 years old. That is an awfully long time to wait.
SENIORSo, you know, think about how much is riding on that choice that you've been deferring. Also we now have something called birth control that's plentiful, readily available. And we have fewer kids. So it's kind of the scarcity principle. We assign a very high value to these things because we don't -- to children because we don't have as many of them. So we have greater expectations in that way.
SENIORThere is a sentimentalized attitude toward children that started during the progressive era at the very moment we started banning child labor. It was a moment when child psychology was growing as a discipline and people were starting to think about kids as independently developing people rather than like deeply flawed immoral adults, which was a prior conception that never ceases to amaze me.
SENIORAnd finally I would say that the 20th century is very interesting in that one of its most consequential and peculiar developments is that if you live in an industrialized country, you think it is your right to be happy. And I don't know if that's really a good thing. I think being moral and productive might be a better aim. But, you know, that's an idea that started sort of in the 20th century. And, oh my god, I mean, it really got crazy in the '70s, right, with est and now we have kind of all sorts of self actualization and self fulfillment. We have -- I mean, the self-help shows must, you know, be as large as the shelves on -- you know, about military history or something, right. I mean...
NNAMDIMy own unscientific survey, which consists of reading the advice columns in the local newspapers, indicate that everything you're saying so far is absolutely correct. No matter how much a couple talks about their expectations of each other before a baby's arrival, tensions about sharing the work seem to arise early on. Why is it so difficult for parents to get on the same page when it comes to time?
SENIORWell, first of all, let's start with the fact that we have no script for this. Women have not been working for long enough necessarily for us to know. I mean, they started working in greater numbers obviously, like, in the late '60s, early '70s. Now 50 percent of all women who have three year olds and over are in the workforce or are looking -- I'm sorry, are fulltime in the workforce or are looking for jobs.
SENIORSo, you know, things have shifted dramatically but internally in the house, it's still lagging. Women do twice as much childcare still, according to the American Time Use Survey. They do twice as much housework. And men, while they are deeply participatory in ways that their fathers never were, there still is no script for men.
SENIORSo one of the funniest things I ever read about this, and I love it so very much, is Michael Lewis when he was riding his own fatherhood memoir, he pointed out that the surest way for a couple to get into a fight was to go out to dinner with another couple and to discover that that couple, their division of labor was just a tiny bit different. Because the car ride on the way home goes something like this. You know, the wife looks at the husband and goes, huh, did you hear that Fred takes the kids to school every morning? Sure would be fantastic if you did that. But there's no script yet. I mean, there just isn't.
NNAMDIThere isn't any script when I became a single parent as a result of the death of my wife many, many years ago. And I realized just how much of the load in the household that she used to carry that I was not responsible for undertaking. My response was, mom, can you come help me?
SENIORYeah. How old were your children?
NNAMDIMy children were -- they're twins -- they were nine years old at the time.
SENIORAnd that's the carpool '80s years. That's when you just spent all of your time in your car. But also -- yeah, I did not know that data point about you. I mean, so -- and I bet people gave you extraordinary credit for, you know, doing all the...
NNAMDICredit and assistance that a woman would never have gotten had she been undertaking the same task herself...
SENIORYeah, that's really extraordinary. And I...
NNAMDI...which women do all the time.
SENIORRight. And I think women are a little afraid to ask their husbands for that assistance. Because, you know, men work -- if you add up the total number of hours, men and women work the same number of hours. It's just that women work fewer -- work more unpaid hours.
SENIORAnd so -- and I think that one of the reasons that generates tensions too is that so a woman comes home from her work, and granted that work -- those work hours are shorter, but then she comes home and home is not a haven because she is doing different kinds of stuff around the house than her husband is. She's doing deadline work. She's got dinner to make by 6:00 and then she's riding the kids about homework because statistically women are the disciplinarians and the ones who crack the whip about homework. She's the one running the bath and trying to get them into bed.
SENIORWomen have very deadline-sensitive tasks on their hands. So it makes home a very stressful place. So there you are single father and then coming home and having absolutely no relief. I mean, it's really, I imagine...
NNAMDIWell, I discovered the Crockpot.
SENIORYeah. A friend to parents everywhere, single or not.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones, here's Mary in Bethesda, Md. Mary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARYYes, hi. I just wanted to share, I just feel like having a child as should be the pinnacle of life. I really do. And I think that this whole idea of having children when we're not -- it's just like you said, there's no script -- when we're not ready to have a child. I knew an older couple who both had tremendous careers. And they waited until they were older, until they saved their money, until they knew that they could have -- they wanted two children and to spend the rest of their lives with those children, raising them together.
MARYI think we need scripts. And we -- to me -- I have a son and he is -- I can't even imagine my life without him. And it -- I don't know, I just -- you know you're not ready -- you're never ready because you never really know until you're in there how it is. But I think that there should be some concerted effort in society. It's too easy to have a child and especially when many, many people are just not ready and they need to address their careers before they bring that young one back in there. And I just think having a child should be the greatest thing that you can ever have. You are raising a human being.
NNAMDIWell, actually Mary, there's another pinnacle, when they leave. But here is Jennifer Senior.
SENIORThere's a number of things to say about that that I like. I appreciate your comment. I think that one thing we can think of is that kids are a responsibility and a duty, right. I mean, and I think that if we frame them as that, we might be less anxious about, like, having things arranged in perfect chronological order. We're always going to have to sacrifice. There's always going to be some level of disruption we'll have to tolerate. You can't game this out and plan it.
SENIORSo in that sense I think if you change your expectation from one of like, you know, happiness and fun to, like, an enriched, deeply meaningful life filled with service, you're doing yourself and your child a favor. And what you said about how you find life without your child unimaginable, I totally agree with you. And I think that most parents would say that meaning -- their lives are filled with meaning and structure. And that's one of the great things that sometimes slips right through the sieve of social science. It doesn't get measured.
SENIORHow many transcendent moments parents have, because no one's, like, looking for transcendence in social science. And what's so sad is that, you know, if you're asked to sort of say rate on a scale of one to five, you know, how was that evening with your friends when you were all sitting around a table and having a wonderful conversation about a movie you had just seen. You rate it a five.
SENIORBut now, like, let's take a moment with your son where your son looks at you and says, I can't imagine anyone else but you having been my mother. You are the greatest person and the most meaningful person to me in my life, which occasionally a child will say, you know, and my kids said to me recently. I have to rate that as a five too to a social scientist. But that is in no way the same five. I mean, that's like looking at the Amazon ratings and seeing a five for "50 Shades of Gray" and a five for "Anna Karenina." They are not the same five.
SENIORSo I think we have to, like, think about how meaningful and transcendent these experiences are. And keep them foregrounded and not necessarily think about pleasure, which I think is also some of the things that you're talking about. Like the really deep profound sense of, you know, structure and purpose that your son -- I think you said you had a son -- has given you.
NNAMDIThank you so much for your call, Mary. We're going to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll get to your calls. if you're thinking about calling, the number is 800-433-8850. If you don't have children, how does your perception of raising them factor into your decision to have or not have a child, 800-433-8850? Send us an email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Jennifer Senior. She's a contributing editor at New York magazine and author of the book "All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood." You can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. You can send us a Tweet @kojoshow. Indeed, we got a Tweet from Paul who says, "Please ask Jen, a great political reporter, about her personal experience as a parent and how it affects her writing. And I give her Bill Clinton profile a review of AA++." There you go. With your five, that's like a ten.
SENIORThat is like a ten. I think I know who wrote that by the way, Paul. I'm going to take a guess but, you know, if...
NNAMDIDon't give us a last name.
SENIORYeah, but I can guess. So wait, how my parenting experience, but how it changed me or how it influenced my reporting, is that idea?
NNAMDIHow it affects your writing, yes.
SENIORMy writing. Oh, that is so interesting. You know, I wish I could say that it has some kind of tangible effect. I think it has affected my productivity in that I now know what it means to work, you know, bankers hours, That, you know, the writing hours of, you know, 9:00 at night to 2:00 in the morning are over. I think many writers and, you know, people who don't have like typical 9:00 to 5:00 jobs, you know, discover that.
SENIORBut I don't -- I mean, I do think that I probably, on some level, experience a kind of moral -- not -- I think I'm quicker to sort of maybe judge whether people are, you know, behaving productively and morally now that I have a kid running around in the world. I mean, I do feel like the stakes are higher. So to the extent that I ever write about policy or to the extent that I ever see politicians kind of mucking about, I get more frustrated. I do notice that, because I now have this future stake in the world.
SENIORBut, you know, you have to be very careful tonally whenever you write about these things, not to let it infect your writing and put people off. But I definitely feel like my heart has a much more complex investment in the future when I'm writing about policy more.
NNAMDILet's talk about another aspect of parenthood. Because the dynamics of parenthood have shifted so much, it seems that a lot of parents are not sure anymore how or even whether to be an authority figure. How conflicted were the parents you spent time with about striking a balance between being in control and fostering a sense of empowerment in their kids?
SENIORIt's a great question, and here is the truth. If you're a middle class family, you're now told that what you do in order to enrich your child and kind of get your child prepared for the world is to answer their questions with questions, and to treat every thought that they have as, you know, extremely important and singularly interesting. And on the one hand that might give them some short term confidence in terms of navigating large institutions and feeling like they have the world under control. On the other hand, it's probably not very realistic.
SENIORAnd speaking to your point, you're seeding some control. If you are allowing them to question you back, how much authority do you have? You know, if you are no longer allowed to say, because I said so and because families are not a democracy and because this is, you know, at the dinner table I rule by fiat, finish your peas, you know, you are seeding what I think might be some, you know, crucial disciplinary tools. But it is a new style.
SENIORAnd, you know, in the 1950s when kids were suddenly emotionally -- I'm sorry, when they were economically losing their value, a sociologist described them as emotionally -- let's see, how'd she say it? She said, they were economically useless but emotionally priceless. So if you have an emotionally priceless child sitting at your table who you are doting over or, you know, a filiarchy as another sociologist said -- you are going to be seeding ground to kids. And I do think it makes discipline much harder.
NNAMDIDo we put too much pressure on ourselves to make our kids feel happy and self confident?
SENIORYes, and I'm glad you asked that question, because here's what happened. Again, when kids went from being economically useless to emotionally priceless, I think one of the mandates for parents became, okay here's your job, your new job. Now that -- you know, it used to be like an economically rational model, right. You provide food and clothing, shelter and moral kind of instruction for your children. And in return they kick in something to the family too. They work. Okay, now it's not that anymore.
SENIORNow we do all those things and we spend tons of money on them and we run ourselves ragged trying to -- you know, to prepare them for a future. You have -- I'm with -- I'm even onboard with that. But the other part of the mandate is because they are emotionally priceless is -- our new job is to shore up their self esteem and make them feel important and make them feel happy. You cannot go to Barnes and Noble and look at the shelves about parenting without seeing every single book -- it doesn't matter -- even if it's telling you how to raise a gluten-free child, that gluten-free child book will tell you that it will also increase the kid's self esteem and make them happier.
SENIORIf you are -- you know, yoga -- you know, teaching your kids baby yoga will make them happier. Making them financially, you know, fluent will make them happier. Everything is framed around this idea of making a happy kid. Here's the problem. You can't teach happiness. It's a byproduct by something at best. But it is not like teaching your kid how to plow a field. And it is not like teaching your kid even how to do math. And no less than Benjamin Spock who dominated the child -- he was the only child-rearing book forever post war -- even he, he anticipated this. He said that happiness is a very elusive aim and it's what Americans fall back on without like a more tangible goal for their children.
SENIORAn d I think children even suffer, you know, under this kind of pressure to be happy, because what if they're not?
NNAMDIHere's Bridgett in Damascus, Md. Bridgett, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIDGETTWell, you know, whenever I hear a new parent, you know, about to have children, I tell them, you know, no matter what you think about having this child, no matter how amazing your husband is in speaking mostly to the other one, you're going to get angry at them because they're never going to do enough. You're going to get in fights because you're going to feel like they're not, you know, participating as much as you want them to.
BRIDGETTAnd to anticipate that and try to look at, you know, the good points of what everyone's contributing, I mean, I had twins and they were born early. And my husband, he's a fire fighter, he actually switched his job to dayside work so that he could, you know, get me off to work every morning. He would wake up at 5:00 in the morning, make me a huge sandwich so I could finish nursing my children. He would help me get out the door, come home, help me at night. He even slept in separate rooms, got up with one child...
NNAMDIAnd you still got mad at him.
BRIDGETTAnd I still got mad at him. And I think one of the biggest differences is that our generation of adults was brought up telling you -- or being told, you can be anything. You can do anything. You are the top of the world. And so we kind of grow up feeling a little selfish. And I think when you have children it's one of the most selfless acts that you can have. And I think true happiness as a parent comes from this slow release of your own selfishness into selflessness, and kind of giving up to your children. Not totally of yourself, but by giving up a lot of what you clout to as your own needs and allowing yourself to kind of get involved in their needs as well.
BRIDGETTAnd so I think that, you know, as we become -- you know, I think in general one of the reasons why people are having children later is because we are so selfish. And it's just hard until you're 30 or 35 and you're like, okay, I guess it's really time now to kind of give up some of those, you know, sundries that you're able to...
NNAMDISelfish pleasures, if you will. Jennifer Senior, what do you say?
SENIORYeah, there are two things to say to that because you raise two really great points. Speaking to the selfishness -- you know, the selfishness point, there is some economic component to that that people really don't feel like they have the means to raise kids until they're kind of settled. And that women in particular seem to pay an economic penalty. This said, you're totally right. I mean, what seems to happen if you defer kids is, on the one hand, you have more resources to raise them. And that's good.
SENIOROn the other hand, you are like this, you know, paragon of self determination until you are, let's say, 30 or 35, as you said. And then suddenly you aren't. So you have this exquisite sense of the before and the after. You know, you were freewheeling and doing whatever you wanted and then you were not. And that's probably a difficult contrast for some people to reckon with. As for the being angry with your husband part, I love the honesty in that. And I love you're also pointing out that you got angry even though he made all these elaborate accommodations for you.
SENIORThere is a couple in my book who I love and adore who everybody else seems to respond to really strongly. Their names are Angie and Clint. And they have a very equitable, like, division of labor in their house because they're shift workers. So they each do their shift and then come home and raise the kid on their own. And Angie used to get mad at her husband too, you know, And one of the things that I think was happening with them -- and I will never forget this -- Clint at one point declared to me, I am the standard when I come home. He was very comfortable with his parenting style.
SENIORWhereas when he was at work, which was at a desk, you know, he felt like he wasn't so sure of himself. Angie was a psychiatric nurse and people would -- and, you know, so all day long she was getting -- you know, hearing people scream and, you know, people were kicking and biting her. She felt very in control in that environment. She thought she did a great job there. But she came home and she didn't feel like she was the standard at all. She judged herself very harshly.
SENIORAnd she used to get very mad at her husband for, like, taking time out to, like, read the paper for ten minutes and maybe putting the kid in front of the, you know, television. She couldn't understand why he wasn't on the floor every minute with the kid, like, full emergent, saturation playtime. She couldn't understand like how he could just, like, let them play and he could load the dishwasher.
SENIORYou know, and I get it. She was driven by a ton of anguish and guilt. She felt terrible. So I think that plays a role. And then there's just the -- and then there's the fact that, you know, a lot of this division of labor still isn't really divided equally. You know, I mean, that women still do assume two-thirds of the burden at home. So when their husbands are home it doesn't look to them like they're working because they are in fact doing less work. They're not, you know. I mean, they're working in the -- excuse me, in the office but not home so...
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Bridgett. Does geography make a difference? You live in New York but you visited families in several parts of the country. Were there any notable differences in the approaches you saw in suburban or rural settings versus urban settings?
SENIORI would say that, you know, I'm going to give kind of an obscure strange answer. In urban settings, I think parents were less resentful of the fact that now there's this kind of globalized standard for excellence. You know, if like the family next door was sending their kids to Cuman -- you know, if the Chinese and, like, Indian immigrants had, like, these kids who were learning math early, in the urban settings they were used to taking their cues from immigrant cultures. And we're like, okay, my kid's going to be great at math too.
SENIORWhen I went to more suburban settings where, like, kind of, you know, where diversity was kind of new to the neighborhood, that they were still kind of sporty -- like I'm thinking of one particular enclave in Texas where it was Tom Delay's old district. It used to be very, very white. It's now suddenly one-quarter Asian. And there's suddenly Cumans everywhere. And all of these, like, kind of gung-ho Friday night lights football parents and families were going, why does my kid need to, like, know calculus in, like, eighth grade. They were getting...
NNAMDIHe's a great running back, for crying out loud.
SENIORHe's a great running back, yeah. They were getting upset. And I was surprised at the level frankly of resentment I saw in some of the -- I know that sounds a little harsh to say, but I think an immigrant environment -- you know, like you're kind of used to like, well, okay, that's the new excellence. Everybody, you know, step up their game. Whereas I think in some parts of the country people just did not -- it looked like they didn't know what had hit them.
NNAMDIWell, because they were seeing the culture that they grew up with changing before their very eyes and having difficulties making adjustments to that.
SENIORYeah, I mean, right. Whereas I think the future comes earlier to, like, urban centers, you know.
NNAMDISusan in Herndon, Va. Your turn, Susan.
SUSANHi. This is a really wonderful show. I didn't have kids, though my sibling did and my brother. And I got into childcare as a profession in my 20s because I thought it would be a wonderful way to use my skills. And I did that for over 25 years, very well paid and great experiences throughout. And the one thing I saw with my boomer parents or my peer generation was this constant need to give their kids these almost competitively perfect childhoods where every kid got a trophy. Nobody got to feel sad. Nobody really was going to lose a game, you know.
SUSANAnd I think it was -- I saw it as very unhealthy. One extreme to correct another extreme I don't think works. And children, I thought, needed to learn what no meant and to have a sense of self discipline that came out of a very healthy strong set of parents. And I'd like you to talk about that, you know, where it got into sports and, you know, all that genre with kids. And thank you.
NNAMDIWe had a generation of parents who wanted to be their kids' best friend. What do you say?
SENIORYeah, I think it's a really great point. And it goes back to this idea that parents are now responsible for their kids' self esteem as opposed to, like, their kids productivity or, you know, moral contributions to the world. It's much easier to create, like, a productive kid or a moral kid. But if you just keep telling your kid that your kid is fabulous, when maybe your kids is actually being mean to someone or, you know, you tell your kid that they're fabulous at sports when really maybe they're better at painting.
SENIORYou know, it might be more realistic for them. It's certainly more realistic for you. I think it -- or actually I should say, it's more realistic for them. You know, it's a better deal for them. And this is sort of what the new kind of self esteem mandate has wrought. And I saw it myself. You know, when my kids went to preschool I was instructed to make a Me book for him -- just this book that was all about himself.
SENIORAnd I just stared at it and thought, like, this is just going to lead to no good. I mean, there's already kind of this Copernican worldview, in my house, like where everything just revolves around this child. And now I have to make, like -- I mean, since when does he get, like, an autobiography? He's three. I mean, it took me 44 years to write a book and it was about other people. My god, you know?
NNAMDIWhile his world can flash before his eyes in ten seconds.
SENIORI mean, yeah. I mean, I don't -- exactly. I mean, how many memories do you have as a three year old? I mean, exactly. I mean, it just offended me. And, you know, but you don't want to be the only parent who doesn't do the Me Book, right? I mean, then you're, like, you know, your child becomes self conscious because they don't have one. And, you know, so it became this very delicate balance -- like, how was I going to do a Me Book, where I didn't create like an incipient egomaniac at three years old. I mean, these are like, you know, because you want to walk that balance.
NNAMDIYou have two choices: incipient egomaniac or bad mommy.
SENIORRight, exactly. Well, you know, I think that that is what many -- I love that you just said that. God, can that fit on a bumper-sticker or something? Like a tweet? I don't know. Anyway, it's great. Exactly. And I hate it that it's an either/or question, by the way.
NNAMDIBut this book is not, as you stress early on, a parenting book. It's rather a book about parents. However, are there one or two pieces of information in it that you think parents might find reassuring in moments when they're struggling with issues like this?
SENIORYes. And thank you for bringing it up. A couple of things: so, you know, there are all these funny moments in my book with like, you know, parents negotiating with their kids, you know, like, "Put on your socks." "No." "Put on your socks." "No." You know? It winds up sounding like a good -- like a Becket play, you know? It's just like you're in the middle of some kind of or -- or, I don't know, even worse. I mean, it's some kind of absurdist dialog.
SENIORAnd it's very helpful to know that there is a body of studies that have been done since the 60s showing that kids are very unlikely to comply with parents' requests if they are toddlers or, you know, or preschoolers. About every three minutes, mothers or fathers ask their kids to do something else. And kids only seem to listen -- this is if they're preschoolers or toddlers -- about 60 percent of the time. I am outraged, and I mean outraged, that this body of knowledge has never made it into a parenting book. Because, if parents read it, they would just feel better and not feel like they were nags.
SENIORSo I say this is just like a point of reassurance. As a point of advice, I would say this: The behavioral economist, Danny Kahneman, has noted that we have two selves. We have the experiencing self, which is the self who walks through the day and makes decisions on a, you know, moment-to-moment basis, and feels and experiences the world as we are living it. And there's the remembering self. And that remembering self is a very different person. You can be up at 4:00 in the morning with your kid who is throwing up and, you know, making you miserable, but you'll miss that moment one day.
SENIORYou'll really, really long for it. You'll long for the closeness to that kid. You'll long for all sorts of things. So our remembering selves really privilege these kind of -- these moments with our kids that, in real time, are unprivileged. So here's what I would say. As a parent, make sure that you document a lot. Take pictures. Write down funny things kids say. Because your remembering self will love you for it. At the end of the night, you can look at those pictures. You can reread the funny things your kids say. You can talk about it with your spouse and it's great.
SENIORAnd the remembering self can really luxuriate in those things.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Thank you very much for your call. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. If the lines are busy, shoot us an email to Kojo@WAMU.org. How do you think parenting has changed most dramatically over the last three or four generations? Or you can go to our website, KojoShow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Jennifer Senior. Her book is called, "All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood." She's a contributing editor at New York Magazine. And you can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. You can send email to Kojo@WAMU.org. Jennifer Senior, it's not necessarily the norm, but grandparents can play a strong role in childrearing. And you spent time with a grandmother raising her grandson after her daughter's death. What did her story and her perspective show you that you didn't get from other families you spent time with?
SENIOROh, I love you for asking that. I adored her. Her name was Sharon. She lost, in fact, not one child but two. She lost her 16-year-old a long time ago and then she lost her 33-year-old. And this 33-year-old had a nine-month-old when she died. So Sharon took care of her. Now, first of all, what did I learn from Sharon? I learned a lot from Sharon just because Sharon was this amazingly ethical, interesting woman. And she's like my equivalent of Jesus. I'm like walking around in the world and I ask what she would do. She's Annie Oakley, she's moral, she was everything.
SENIORSharon also, because she was a retiree, she was a fabulous example of what happens when you can live in the present with a kid. It's very hard when you have a Blackberry that's pinging and you consider your kid the disruption to your emails. She didn't have -- I mean, she knew how to email and she loved email and she loved texting -- but when she went to the park, she left her phone in her car. God bless her, I loved her for that. And it made like this very, very, very, very, very big difference. She just suddenly lost sense of time. And also she was at a contemplative age. So like the kind of...
NNAMDILate- to mid-60s -- mid- to late-60s.
SENIORYeah, she was 67 when I met her. And so, like, the kind of questions that kids ask when they're three tend to be philosopher questions. They're things like, you know, Why are people mean?
NNAMDIWhy is there air?
SENIORWhy is there -- exactly. What is water made of? It's all this cool, great, weird stuff. Will I grow up to be a squirrel? You know, I mean, really, you know, I've heard all of these things. And Sharon was at, like, she was just sort of at that stage when she could join him there and almost be a kid too. It was like she was unencumbered. It was lovely being with her.
NNAMDIReally? If you will, please, a little bit of what you wrote about Sharon.
SENIOROh, yeah. So this is on the -- what I wrote. And just to, you know, give the context here, when I showed up that morning at her house, she was so tired. I mean, it's hard. You're 67. You have a three-year-old bundle of energy, this little boy.
NNAMDIIt's hard when you're 27.
SENIORIt's hard when you're 27. And now imagine this kind of erratic sleep patterns of a 67-year-old woman, right, who doesn't sleep so well. And here's this little kid bounding around, pretending to be a ghost with a towel over his head, right? And so she was very tired that morning, really trying to kind of perk up. But by midday, we had gone to the -- it was 100 degrees out that day. We had gone to the splash pad, the local kind of water park -- just a teeny, tiny water park. So here's what I had written.
SENIORThe Manor Park Splash Pad is just a dinky patch of concrete painted in primary colors and studded with a modest sprinkler system and some swirling gizmos. But it is heaven for a child. And on this hundred-degree day, it is heaven for an adult too. The moment we arrive, Cam, that's her son -- her grandson -- Cam starts bobbing and weaving between the water jets. And Sharon, to my amazement, follows right behind him. There's a huge smile on her face, one that doesn't disappear the entire time she's there, in spite of her fatigue, her bad knees, her 67 years.
SENIORI think, unbidden, of the opening scene in the book, "Immortality," in which the narrator watches an older woman wave gaily to a lifeguard, managing for one heartbreaking instant to completely transcend her age. As Sharon stands beneath a nest of buckets, giggling while a stream of water rains down on her head, the same could be said of her. She is as unencumbered as a 21-year-old, a picture of girlish bliss. There is a certain part of all of us, Milan Kundera writes, that lives outside of time.
NNAMDIThat is absolutely beautiful. Thank you so much for reading it.
SENIORThank you so much for having me read it.
NNAMDIOn to Camille in Alexandria, Virginia. Camille, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CAMILLEHi. I just have a question about kind of the timeframe that you spoke about earlier with people deferring children till after their career. I'm somebody who's in their 30s. I now have two small children. And I spent my 20s working in New York as a designer and working 12-hour days. And there's oftentimes I wished that I had actually started a family earlier, because I feel like the way that I'm growing now and the maturity that my kids are bringing to my life would have actually been helpful earlier on.
SENIORI share that regret. And I don't know how to do the counter-factual on my life or on yours and say what would have happened. On the one hand, yes, you know, you deepen, I think, in many ways by becoming a parent; although some people don't. You know, some people, if they start out shallow and selfish, they remain shallow and selfish. It depends really on, you know, who one is. But, again, there are these economic forces that are very hard to weigh in this balance that really mediate the question here.
SENIORThere is good data suggesting that women, if they have kids earlier, are compromising their earning potential. And increasingly, as the middle class shrinks and as, you know, economic inequality grows, it does seem more important to have that earning power when you're raising your kids, because kids are so expensive, because college is so impossibly expensive, and all those things. At the same time, as we had discussed earlier with another caller and as you are sort of alluding to, it's not like we know that our ducks are all going to be in a row ever -- ever.
SENIORSo there -- why not start earlier when, you know, you're biologically primed for it and have more energy and feel like you might have some useful growing to do? You know, I can't game that. And data on it is too complicated to string apart right now -- to know for sure, like, who winds up benefitting and how.
CAMILLEYou know, it's interesting. I mean, I wonder if there will ever be a time when society kind of reevaluates the, you know, the efficiency of the model that we have now with career coming first, because I think it all kind of comes back to student loans and things of that nature. Like we're all saddled with all of this debt, so everyone is trying to get out of that immediately following college.
SENIORWell, precisely. I mean, some of this is not like a real -- it's out of our hands. It's not realistic if you're paying off debts and trying to get a toehold in the workforce. You know, and you've already paid for this, you know, valuable college degree. In some ways it doesn't make sense to start having kids right away. So, you know, and obviously people aren't doing it. But what you say still really rings -- I mean it really rings true to me in some ways and feels very real. My parents had me when they were 22 and 24. That didn't seem to work out all that well either because they were probably too young.
SENIORBut in -- I waited an awfully long time. I was 37 when I got pregnant. And now I just think that that was batty, like that it was crazy. There's got to be some in between kind of number and some economic and social sweet spot that works.
NNAMDIThank you so much for your call. We talk a lot about how tough the early years are on parents. But the teen years can make or break a parent-child relationship. Just how tough are those adolescent years on parents?
SENIORThe big revelation to me is that it seems that adolescence is a bigger crisis for parents than for kids. And that's actually statistically borne out too. And if you sit in the homes of adolescents and parents, you can kind of see it. I mean, adolescents struggle, don't get me wrong. I mean, they can really acutely feel things. And some adolescents struggle mightily. But, man, do parents struggle. I mean, about 40 percent experience a drop-off in their wellbeing, I think in part because, you know, when...
NNAMDIWell, partially because your kids tend to be listening more to their peers than they seem to be listening to you.
SENIORI think that you have to have to have a pretty strong ego to withstand that. I think that that's true. I also think what happens is a great unmasking. You know, your kids used to give you all this fuel. You came home. They came bounding up to you and they loved you and they respected you. And now they are, you know, listening to you less and possibly even being very rejecting. So you have to fall back on different resources.
SENIORSo if, in fact, you know, you haven't been liking your job all these years or your spouse all these years or your friends all these years and suddenly your kid is giving you grief, you kind of notice it more. You know, it's just a lot easier to see. And so, you know, I guess that's another thing I would sort of say in the advice column -- not that I am in the business of giving any and not that there's anything prescriptive in there -- but it does seem very clear to me that having a hobby or, you know, your kind of job or marriage shored up in preparation for the adolescent years would be a good idea.
NNAMDIOn to Mark in Fairfax, Virginia. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKThank you. I wanted to share an experience that I had raising my children and I -- now I'm a grandfather. But my experience is that having children is a wonderful opportunity for self improvement. I feel like I've learned more from my kids than I ever taught them. And one of the things that I learned was that they follow my example more than they did what I told them to do. And I realized fairly early on that, if I was going to raise my kids properly, I had to make myself into the person that I wanted them to become.
NNAMDIBecause they will notice the inconsistencies between what you say and what you do. How important is that, Jennifer?
SENIORIt's such a beautiful sentiment. And I'm so glad you brought it up because it reminds me of something that a researcher once said to me. He's a guy who collects life stories, and just like kind of looks and sees, you know, how people tell the stories of themselves and what details they highlight and which ones they sweep into the background. And one of the things he said is that the most productive adults -- he called them the most generative adults -- but are ones who think that they are doing something for future generations. They think that the future generation is going to be their judge.
SENIORAnd, if you're a parent, the future generation might be your own child, that they are the ultimate, you know, evaluator of who you are. They are watching. And it's a very different idea, by the way, from what, say, Freud said, where he believed that the things that we do are to please ghosts; that what we do is to please our own parents and that we are trying to make of for, you know, shortcomings of theirs or to show them that we can do things that they never thought we could do. You're saying that you became your best self on account of your kids.
SENIORAnd, ideally, under the best circumstances that is exactly who our kids make us. We relax into our best selves. And I think that's lovely. And I think it's maybe the best thing about having kids, that they set this kind of gold standard for us.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have but I think an appropriate note to end on. Jennifer Senior is a contributing editor at New York Magazine. She's author of the book, "All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood." Thank you so much for joining us.
SENIORThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIThe Kojo Nnamdi Show is produced by Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein, and Stephannie Stokes, Brendan Sweeney is the managing producer. Our engineer, catcher and backstop is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker is one the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives and free transcripts are available at our website, KojoShow.org. If you'd like to share questions or comments with us, you can email us at Kojo@WAMU.org, join us on Facebook or send a tweet at KojoShow.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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