Book Review: All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior

photoAll Joy and No Fun is the book I wish I’d had when my kids were little.

With my first child, I read T. Berry Brazelton (or B. Terry Brazelton. I can never remember), Penelope Leach, William Sears, Ferber, those terrifying What to Expect books, and—because he was the peditrician who checked my son out at the hospital—Health Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth. You can get a used copy for a penny on Amazon; I wish that were what we’d paid for it.  When we adopted our second, I also read Raising Your Adopted Child, Be My Baby, and Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew.

My husband and I were wimps. We couldn’t stand to hear our son cry, so Ferber was out and Sears was in. What To Expect should have been renamed What To Expect To Scare The Crap Out Of You. I preferred a series of books—one for every age—by Louise Bates Ames that detailed the development, temperament and all the other –ments kids go through on a fairly reliable basis. Four-year old driving you nuts? Read Your Four Year Old: Wild and Wonderful.

All of those books were perfect for learning to cope with my children but weren’t much good helping me cope with me. Every day, in addition to trying to figure out what my kids needed, I felt overwhelmed, stupid and alone. All Joy and No Fun showed me I’m not.

All Joy and No Fun is not a book about parents’ effects on their children. It’s a book about how parenting affects us. For it, the author, Jennifer Senior, visited with parents, “listening to them talk about their lives” and observing them in parenting action. She also did abundant research; the interviews bring that research to life.

With humor and honesty, All Joy and No Fun details the difficulties and the joys of rearing children. In the nearly twenty years I’ve been a parent, I’ve known only a handful of other parents who will admit to the darker side of their inner parenting life. Oh, sure, plenty of parents will tell you about sleep deprivation, discipline strategies and Ferberizing. Few will admit though, while driving to a girls night out, ‘“. . .I had this moment where I realized, This is how it feels when moms run away from their kids.”’ What a relief to know I wasn’t a monster when I fantasized it would be hours before anyone discovered that, instead of shopping, I’d signed my kid into Småland and driven away. I shopped, in case you’re wondering.

Four chapters of All Joy and No Fun are dedicated to the “no fun” aspects: loss of autonomy, strains on marriage, over-scheduling and adolescence. I will admit to jumping directly from autonomy to adolescence, my current challenge. Senior offers comfort here again—mothers do more of the disciplining and get yelled at more. Cold comfort, I know, but comfort nonetheless. It’s not that I’m a bad mother; my kids are adolescents.

And, of course, there’s the joy. Chapter three, Simple Gifts, includes a day spent with Sharon, who is single-parenting her grandson, Cameron. The day Senior spent with them was full, with a trip to the local splash pad, where both Sharon and Cameron ran through the jets, a stop at the playground (dirty feet and all), getting caught in the rain, coming home to nap. Reading about their shared fun (Senior lied a little, there is fun in parenting), brought to mind my own moments of parenting grace, like getting manicures with my daughter or watching my son play in his first rock band. These are the times we live for, that push aside frustration, sleeplessness and the unending boredom of playing Hot Wheels.

All Joy and No Fun is a must read, but particularly valuable for neurodiverse parents. Parenting is rife with opportunity to question ourselves and our fitness for one of the most important tasks in our lives. Coming at that task already questioning and doubting most everything we do, parents like us can take heart that all parents are struggling with the same insecurities.

Most uplifting for me, however, was this, quoted from Going Sane, a collection of essays by Adam Phillips:

“Babies may be sweet, babies may be beautiful, babies may be adored,” he writes, “but they have all the characteristics that are identified as mad when they are found too brazenly in adults.”

Babies, in other words—and perhaps, by extension, all children—are crazy. No wonder they often make us crazier.

2 responses to “Book Review: All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior

  1. I’m so glad you recommended this book to me. I’m only a couple of chapters in so far but everything I’ve read has completely resonated with me. As parents, it’s so important for us to be gentle with ourselves and recognize that it’s OK if we go through days or even months (or years?) feeling like we’re losing our grip on reality and ourselves.


  2. As my daughter would say, “I know, right?!” I never thought adolescence would be such a drain, but it is. It’s so hard to not take things personally, but I’m getting better at it. At least once a day, I think “was I as controlling and patronizing as he says I was” or “did I really raise my voice.” You do, indeed, begin to wonder if you’re getting crazier or if it’s dementia.


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