When it Comes to Parenting, What’s the Difference Between Joy and Fun? (Part 1)

In our August 10th essay we quoted from an article in New York magazine written by Jennifer Senior. In referring to the transmutation of children’s role from worker/helper to emotional centerpiece over the last century, she wrote, “Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses.” We decided to revisit that article, which appeared in the New York July 4, 2010 edition.

Photo: cute-babypictures.com

The article started with a description of Jennifer coming home from work into the enthusiastic outstretched arms of her 2 ½-year-old son. It was bliss. But once she settled in, so did the kid’s “terrible twos.” She describes the boy’s persistent tantrums in agonizing prose that ends with his time-out in his crib. “As I shuffled back to the living room, I thought of something a friend once said about the Children’s Museum of Manhattan—’a nice place, but what it really needs is a bar’ —and rued how, at that moment, the same thing could be said of my apartment. Two hundred and 40 seconds earlier, I’d been in a state of pair-bonded bliss; now I was guided by nerves, trawling the cabinets for alcohol.”
A wide variety of research indicates that parents are not happier than nonparents. The New York article cites a 2004 study in Texas that surveyed over 900 working women. Of 19 categories of pleasurability, child care ranked 16th behind such mundane activities as food preparation, housework and even napping. Mothers, according to some researchers are generally less happy than fathers and single parents are even unhappier; not a good indicator for America, where almost half of all births among under-30 parents are to unmarried women.
A compilation of family data by a group of sociologists, “Changing Rhythms of American Family Life,” indicates that contemporary married moms have less leisure time than did their 1975 counterparts, by 5.4 hours per week. Seventy-one percent say they would like more time for themselves, as do 57 percent of married dads. Even so, the report shows that 85 percent of parents still think they don’t spend enough time with their kids.
A huge source of pain for many parents, especially mothers, is that there are so many chores – years and years of never-ending chores.
There was a time when having kids was an automatic. If you got married, you immediately assumed the horizontal position until you struck gold, and thereby legitimized your existence. And oh, the embarrassment of not being able to bring forth issue. But now we have choices. The sexual revolution, with the catalyst of passive contraception in the form of the pill and intrauterine devices, suddenly gave lovers a spectrum of choices. And this, speculate two psychologists, may be why many parents are less happy. By becoming parents, they have precluded exercising many of the choices available to the childfree. By having kids, they have become have-nots when it comes to alternative options. In 2003, W. Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge conducted a study going back to the 1970s. They found that parents’ dissatisfaction increased from generation to generation and, surprisingly, that dissatisfaction increased with the respective generations’ wealth.
As fellow psychologist Daniel Gilbert, of Harvard, put it after he had a child, “They’re a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit.” For those who choose the childfree option, such liabilities are moot.
Chapter 8 of our upcoming book, Enough of Us, deals with such potential impacts on parents. We will continue this discussion next week. This is a good place to pause because it gives the reader some time to consider the issue of whether the joy of parenting might be paid for by a paucity of fun.


  1. Hi friends,
    This piece reminds me of when I was growing up just before the Civil War. 🙂 My mother and the other mothers in the neighborhood didn’t work, but once we past those terrible twos, they simply shove the door to “go outside and play” when we got in their hair. There was a little neighborhood troop of kids who went from yard to yard. When the weather was bad, we would play dress-up or some other game at one house or another, and the other moms would send us home when the time came. It was certainly different when I was raising my child, and events were far more formalized. I guess this is the concept of a village raising a child. It was more cooperative and more fun than today’s paranoia. I’m not saying that parents had more fun then, but they certainly didn’t have to go it alone where I grew up. Jane

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