Raising modern, indulged children for their own sake can be challenging. In the end, Senior writes, “Mothering and fathering aren’t just things we do. Being a mother or being a father is who we are.” Her most striking observations reveal this existential complexity. “How it feels to be a parent and how it feels to do the quotidian and often arduous task of parenting are two very separate things. ‘Being a parent’ is much more difficult for social science to anatomize.” Social science is especially inadequate to describe the nature of this particular joy, but Senior deploys a novelist’s sensibility in giving evidence of that privileged euphoria, insisting that it is not merely coincident with all the tedious things parents must do, but actually an outgrowth of them. “Freedom in our culture has evolved to mean freedom from obligations,” she observes. “But what on earth does that freedom even mean if we don’t have something to give it up for?”
Senior draws on the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between the “experiencing self” that exists in the present moment and the “remembering self” that constructs a life’s narrative. “Our experiencing selves tell researchers that we prefer doing the dishes — or napping, or shopping, or answering emails — to spending time with our kids. . . . But our remembering selves tell researchers that no one — and nothing — provides us with so much joy as our children. It may not be the happiness we live day to day, but it’s the happiness we think about, the happiness we summon and remember, the stuff that makes up our life-tales.” She talks about parents’ pride in their children, not only in their accomplishments but even in their basic development as human beings, their growth into kindness and generosity. “Kids may complicate our lives,” she writes. “But they also make them simpler. Children’s needs are so overwhelming, and their dependence on us so absolute, that it’s impossible to misread our moral obligation to them. . . . We bind ourselves to those who need us most, and through caring for them, grow to love them, grow to delight in them, grow to marvel at who they are.”
“Under Pressure: a review of All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior” in The New York Times by Andrew Soloman.
Complicating matters, mothers assume a disproportionate number of time-sensitive domestic tasks, whether it’s getting their toddlers dressed for school or their 12-year-olds off to swim practice. Their daily routine is speckled with what sociologists Annette Lareau and Elliot Weininger call “pressure points,” or nonnegotiable demands that make their lives, as the authors put it, “more frenetic.”
These deadlines have unintended consequences. They force women to search for wormholes in the time-space continuum simply to accomplish all the things that they need to do. In 2011, the sociologists Shira Offer and Barbara Schneider found that mothers spend, on average, 10 extra hours a week multitasking than do fathers “and that these additional hours are mainly related to time spent on housework and child care.”
When fathers spend time at home, on the other hand, it reduces their odds of multitasking by over 30%. Which may explain why, a few years ago, researchers from UCLA found that a father in a room by himself was the “person-space configuration observed most frequently” in their close study of 32 families at home. It may also explain why many fathers manage to finish the Sunday paper while their wives do not—they’re not constantly getting up to refill bowls of Cheerios.
Being compelled to divide and subdivide your time doesn’t just compromise your productivity and lead to garden-variety discombobulation. It also creates a feeling of urgency—a sense that no matter how tranquil the moment, no matter how unpressured the circumstances, there’s always a pot somewhere that’s about to boil over.
From “Why Mom’s Time is Different to Dad’s Time” by Jennifer Senior in The Wall Street Journal.