The Brilliant Book Club read All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior this month. I had been so excited to read this book- the subtitle is “The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.” If I could sum up my favorite subject for writing, reflection, and discussion, in a nutshell it would be, “the paradox of modern parenthood.” So you can see why I was dying to read this book. I’ll be honest- I am savoring it slowly and haven’t even finished it yet. I stretch out each section so that I can absorb it more completely. But I find myself nodding and highlighting like a fiend with each page I turn.
A few months ago I read a fantastic post from HerStories Project contributor Lindsey Mead about how she is moving into a different season of parenting. She used Laura Ingalls Wilder’s term, “the happy golden years” to describe the stage of parenthood that I am currently in with my seven-year-old and two-year-old daughters. I often have the fear that I am wasting these “happy golden years” with my young children by being distracted, too busy, and experiencing irritation at the chaos and mess of it all; then I experience a knee-jerk reaction of repentance, and I vow to be more present with them, even if only for the sake of my future self, ironically.
All Joy and No Fun has a different take on these supposedly “happy golden years”. First of all, it proclaims to not be a book about children, or even the effect that parents have upon their children. Rather, it discusses the impact that parenthood has upon the often bewildered adults who have found themselves thrust into their new roles with a sometimes graceless lack of transition. The chapter titled “autonomy” describes the longing of parents for some of the benefits of their former lives and as Senior puts it, the “heightened sense of contrast- before versus after.” The rich body of research Senior uses to explain some of these phenomenon manages to be both informative and comforting to the parent (me) who feels guilty for their ambivalent feelings. “That makes so much sense- validating and practical!” I wrote in one of my notes. And the further Senior delved into the parental autonomy puzzle, the less alone (and crazy) I felt.
Senior profiles and spends time with several individual parents she met during Early Childhood Family Education classes throughout the book; the first mother she writes about has two small children and works from home. The mother makes a reference to a fantasy she had when she went out to meet a girlfriend one night. “What if I just keep driving?” she pondered on her way home. I think the “keep driving” metaphor is the perfect one to sum up the polarity parents often feel. Don’t we all occasionally entertain the fantasy of what would happen if we ran headfirst back into a life free from parental obligations, aggravations, and anxiety?
During one of my recent parent-child music classes, I happened to glimpse a snapshot of this paradox as enacted by two of my favorite moms while I sang and played the song “Puff the Magic Dragon.” The kids in class always love this song- they wave and toss scarves while I play it, and the parents usually sing along. I came to the part of the song that occasionally results in mothers openly weeping:
“Dragons live forever, but not so little boys. Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys. One grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more, and Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar,”
I looked over at two families seated next to me. Both were moms of three kids, ranging in age from three years old to elementary school-aged. One of them had her two youngest kids on her lap, and she was smiling wistfully while she sang along. I could almost read the invisible thought bubbles as she fondly stroked her daughter’s head. She had been overtaken by sentimentality and that bittersweet knowledge that this stage of life is fleeting.
The woman next to her was leaning back awkwardly with a slightly agitated grimace as her son whipped his scarf in front of her face. It was a classic visual, and the juxtaposition of the smiley-happy nostalgic mom with the “get the hell out of my face, kid” mom seemed to encapsulate everything about motherhood in one tidy snapshot.
On both of their faces was written the reassurance/warning: “This too shall pass.” Hang in there- your kid won’t always be a wild animal who is pummeling you in the face without any regard for your own comfort or wellbeing. And also hold on tight- your kids won’t always want to snuggle in your lap and let you kiss the tops of their heads a hundred times a day.
It seems we can’t escape the paradox of parenting- the trap that warns us not to take for granted these precious years but also forces us to endure having most of our personal dignities stripped away by our unappreciative children. We can’t win.
And we also can’t be exclusively one or the other “mother” every second of the day. There is no way for us to spend every waking moment grasping the magnitude of the work we are doing- raising and protecting small human beings. The weight of that, the beauty, terror, and responsibility of that is too much to be perpetually mindful of- it settles upon us periodically as we go throughout the day, whispering occasionally in our ears, “Look what you are doing. You made this people.”
But were it not for those moments, when we are gifted with the awareness of just how incredible it is to share our lives with the small people with whom we have been entrusted, the other moments would drive us insane. If we spent all our time wrestling with annoyance, exhaustion, and the frustration that comes with too few of our personal needs being met, there’s no way we could avoid that impulse to get in the car and keep driving.
Senior uses the palpably vivid descriptions, “bursts of grace,” and “bunker years” to describe the highs and lows of this stage of parenthood. Within two measures of a Peter, Paul, and Mary song, I simultaneously observed both a “burst of grace” and “bunker” moment. It was beautiful, humorous, validating, and real. Within that fleeting song lyric was the paradox of parenthood in all its glory.
Please go check out the perspectives of the other Brilliant Book Club bloggers!
Sarah from Left Brain Buddha: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Parents: 5 Ways To Make Parenting More Joyful
Debra from Urban Moo Cow: Reasons To Keep Your Toddler Around
Jessica from School of Smock: Coming later this week!
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