The Rumpus Interview with Jennifer Senior

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In the 2004 concert movie CHO Revolution, comedian Margaret Cho quips, “When I see children, I feel nothing…I ovulate sand.” I remember laughing in recognition when it came out. I was twenty-one. So much about me has changed since then—for starters, I’ve developed a tolerance for alcohol and New York City and an intolerance for syllabi and five-year plans. But all these years later, I still (most likely, probably, almost definitely) don’t want a child of my own, and I’m running out of time to change my mind.

When Jennifer Senior’s New York Magazine article “All Joy and No Fun” came out in July 2010, I’d reached a new stage. I was now old enough to date men who considered it a dealbreaker that I didn’t want kids. At the time, my boyfriend of a few months had already predicted that the issue would tear us apart. I doubted we’d last long enough to come to such a grown-up stalemate as that. (I was right.) The soft focus cover of that New York issue showed a disheveled woman clutching her baby. There were bags under her eyes. Her blonde hair hung limp and dirty. The headline below: “I Love My Children. I Hate My Life.”

I devoured the story, an exploration of why studies show that parents are less happy than non-parents. It was like reading What To Expect When You Pray To God That You’re Never Expecting. I felt vindicated. Meanwhile, other readers were shocked. Some were angry. But I imagine most breathed a sigh of relief, happy to know that it wasn’t just them—parenting did indeed suck a lot of the time.

“Most Americans are free to choose or change spouses, and the middle class has at least a modicum of freedom to chose or change careers,” Jennifer Senior writes in her new book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. “But we can never choose or change our children. They are the last binding obligation in a culture that asks for almost no other permanent commitments at all.” She delves deeper into how children at various stages shape their parents’ lives and how parents might better face these challenges. Senior’s work doesn’t proselytize, but this time it leaves readers with a feeling of gratitude for the love labor of parenting…and the conclusion that it is (or just might be) all worth it.

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The Rumpus: I’ve read that your original decision to write the “All Joy and No Fun” cover story was some doubt about the statistics about the happiness—or lack thereof—of parents versus non-parents. Did you think the numbers were wrong or skewed?

Jennifer Senior: I thought the research might be missing something. You can measure happiness in a variety of different ways. Some studies try to do it moment to moment, checking in on subjects every X number of minutes and asking how they’re feeling and what they’re doing, so they can see what activities are associated with positive and negative affect. Then there are other studies that ask subjects to make overall life evaluations, like “How would you rate your life on a scale of one to five?” Others are like the depression questionnaires the CDC uses. They ask if you’ve felt hungry, if you’ve been nervous, and so on. Some measure the affect of people before they were parents, when they got pregnant, and then after the baby is born and then compare the results. Some do a cross-sectional of a bunch of people with the same demographics.

All Joy and No FunSo all these studies are different. They were done meticulously and designed to find what they were looking for. But think of Amazon ratings: Fifty Shades of Grey gets a lot of fives and so does Anna Karenina. This is sort of what goes on in happiness studies. When you’re with your kid and he does something that blows your mind, you rate that a five. If you’re out with friends and having an amazing night, you rate that a five. But to me, they’re not the same five.

Social scientists don’t necessarily look at meaning. I haven’t seen social scientists study awe or any study that asks, “How many transcendent experiences have you had today?” That’s what you get with a kid. You get unrivaled moments that are amazingly fabulous, in addition to all the drudgery. These moments are real outliers, spikes on a graph. I think a spike is indistinguishable from a really great moment in most of these studies right now. I think this spike needs to be proportionally weighted as something awesome.

I’m sorry. Is this too complicated an answer?

Rumpus: Not at all! You’ve written many New York Magazine pieces based on social science, like “Why You Truly Never Leave High School” last January. Where does this interest come from?

Senior: I grew up wanting to be a psychiatrist and was pre-med for a year in college. I majored in Anthropology, so I’ve always had this interest in looking at how we live now. I reached a crossroads where I had to figure out if I was going to go to grad school and be an Anthropology professor or if I was going to be a writer. I chose writing. In retrospect, it feels like a poor choice when print journalism is imploding. Jobs in the academy are tough to get, but once you have them, there’s some job security. So what you’re seeing is the frustrated social scientist in me. I never went that way, and I seriously contemplated it.

Rumpus: So why did you need to write the article “All Joy and No Fun” when you did? And when you started, did you know where you were going with it?

Senior: I’m not a particularly polemical journalist. I think the fact that I started out writing for newspapers, not in magazines, was helpful. When you work in newspapers, you’re told to be an information-collecting machine and not go in with a total point-of-view.

I had no initial conception of the article at first. As a mom, I had an intuitive sense that the research was both very right and very wrong. I also had this sneaking suspicion that this wasn’t about the kids. Kids weren’t the problem; how we parent is the problem. So I saw the article as a condemnation of parents, not a condemnation of children.

Rumpus: What is it like turning a magazine cover story into a book? Is anything easier about writing a book?

Senior: Nothing’s easier about it. First of all, everyone thinks that you’re going to do a padded version of the magazine story. You automatically have something to prove. Some of the devastating rejection notes I got when I wrote my book proposal were, “You already wrote this. This is something people are going to feel they’ve already read.” I knew this book had to be an ethnography that looked like Arlie Hochschild’s book. Have you read The Second Shift?

Rumpus: I haven’t.

Senior: The Second Shift is delicious. It’s like social science meets reality television. It’s so good—extremely rigorous but also novelistic. You see these couples fighting about chores and stuff that’s really recognizable. The people are emblazoned into your consciousness after the book is over. I still remember the names of some of the couples and the fights they had. So my feeling was that this book needed to be driven by people you wouldn’t forget. First of all, it’d be much more fun. Second, I’d have lasting relationships with the people I interviewed, and it would make it a more meaningful experience to report.

Rumpus: I think you accomplish that with the parents you interview in All Joy and No Fun. They’re relatable, candid, and articulate. How did you get them to open up?

Senior: This is where being a journalist for twenty-two years paid off. It’s having the patience to sit through a lot of interviews until you find the right people. I went to Minneapolis for a week and attended fifteen to twenty ECFE [Early Childhood Family Education] classes. There were probably 150 different voices on my tape recorder. I just listened to them and honed in on three who made an impression. Jessie talked a lot in her class, and I instantly liked her. I knew she was thoughtful and not lying to herself. There’s always a person in every office, classroom, or environment who’s a vague exhibitionist and wants his or her story told. Those people are not who you want in a book. They’re too self-dramatizing. I knew Jessie wasn’t like that. Angie was the same way. I always choose people I like. You can’t write about people you hate. It never works.

I knew I needed geographic diversity, so I asked friends in the South which city. One friend recommended Sugar Land, because it’s a demographic outlier. I also called the Census Bureau and made sure the statistics tracked. The Houston area is exploding with kids under the age of eighteen and changing very rapidly, in terms of demographics.

Rumpus: All Joy and No Fun is your first book. Did you have any idea that parenting would be the subject of your first book? Did you even plan on writing a book?

Senior: If you’re a journalist who’s had a reasonably successful story, you get asked regularly if you want to turn an article into a book. My answer was always, “No, I wrote everything I needed to write.” I assumed that maybe if I wrote a book someday, it would be about politics. That’s what I think I know the most about. I’ve covered Washington. But really, I was one of those journalists who thought I’d never write a book.

Rumpus: What changed your mind?

Senior: The response to the magazine story was so insane that I wanted to keep having the conversation. And I had so much left over in my notes. Usually, you don’t use eighty percent of your notes, because they’re garbage. But in this case, there was so much good information I hadn’t used.

I was also mid-career. It did occur to me to try doing something else. I knew how to write a magazine story, but maybe I should try something new. I’m in a very lucky position at a magazine that still exists and has a staff with health insurance, but I do still think about backup plans.

Rumpus: You discuss a number of reasons why today’s parents are stressed, and economics is a huge part of it. I’m curious to see how this plays out as more people from my generation have kids. I keep hearing this fuzzy statement that millennials are the first generation that won’t have it better than their parents.

Senior: I’ve heard that said about three generations now, starting with Generation X. I don’t know for sure that it’s true. In the book, parents do express anxiety over this encroaching global standard. They’re terrified about the kind of income inequality their own child will face, and they feel they have to put their kid in perfect standing to beat that. We definitely know millennials are experiencing more income inequality. Millennial parents fear for their own lives. They’re wondering how they’re going to make ends meet and raise their own kid, who in turn has to be a super-kid. I think eighty percent of the pressures in parenting are economic. If you look at E.U. countries with state support, parents are happier than non-parents. To me, that means that when the state picks up the slack, things are better.

Rumpus: Your son was two-and-a-half when you wrote the first article. Did you ever feel unqualified to write about parenting overall?

Senior: So much about parenting written online is by new mothers. I wrote the first article as a new parent. It still probably had the same rookie mistakes baked in. But I have two step-kids, and I entered their lives when they were twelve and sixteen. I certainly had a sense of how they affected my husband and his ex-wife. That said, yes, I still felt anxiety about my qualifications. The perspective of a stepmother is not the same as a parent. The adolescence chapter is the one that gave me the most trouble, the one I spent the most time on, and I think it’s the best one. My New York editors agree, because it’s the one they excerpted. I took so much longer on it, because I was neurotic about being unqualified to do it.

Rumpus: Throughout the adolescence chapter, I found myself feeling a lot of empathy for what I put my own parents through. I really don’t think this is a book just for parents or future parents. It’s an interesting way to examine your own childhood.

Senior: I like hearing that. I hope people who don’t want kids read the book and find it interesting anyway. It can show them what their friends and parents went through. Once you get to the teen chapter, you start understanding yourself. It’s more recent history. Adolescence poses an interesting intellectual question: How does an adult manage an incipient adult in the house?

Rumpus: How has writing this book changed the way you parent?

Senior: There was valuable stuff I learned from the research, but even more valuable stuff I learned from looking at families I admired. Like Jessie had this way of dropping to her knees when she was with her kids so she was eye-to-eye with them. I started doing that, because it makes such a difference. It makes kids feel so much better heard.

Jennifer Senior NY TimesThe problem—and I feel comfortable saying this to The Rumpus—is that writing a book makes you incredibly anxious and monomaniacal. Those aren’t good qualities in a mom. In the home stretch, it was hard. I was coping with the stress of writing a first book, being judged, being a perfectionist, returning to my day job during revisions… I’d like to think that once all this madness is over, I’ll be a much better mother.

It’s also made me much more conscious of how much I have to enjoy this moment right now. My son is still young and adores me and gives me big koala hugs and comes bounding toward me when I walk through the door. Writing the adolescent stuff made me painfully aware that that physical contact with him one day won’t be a part of my life. I’ll be so devastated when it goes. I’m hyper-aware of that now.

Rumpus: It reminds me of something you wrote in the first chapter about how with small children, these magical moments can feel “so hard-won, so shatterable, and so fleeting, as if located between parentheses.”

Senior: Right. I really have to expand them, or just remember to savor them. Sometimes we miss these parenthetical moments, because we’re busy preparing dinner or stressing over an e-mail we just got from our boss. I really have to double down on my efforts to tune that stuff out. I’ll be full of regret if I don’t make the most of this.

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Featured image of Jennifer Senior © by Laura Rose.

Second image of Jennifer Senior © by The New York Times.


Amanda Green reads for free and writes for money in New York City. Her work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in Mental Floss, Popular Mechanics, Marie Claire, and various other print and web publications. She procrastinates on Twitter. More from this author →