Imagine if you will, a mother guilt-ridden. The distress and grief on her face at the thought of letting her child down is palpable. She said she couldn't fulfill a promise she made to her child. How could she make amends? How much therapy was her child going to need later in life because of this?
Her child was 18 months old.
This is an actual question that was asked to Jennifer Senoir, the author ofAll Joy and No fun-The Paradox Of Modern Parenthood, and she opens her talk with this story to a laughing crowd. But it's a knowing laughter. Because we parents know all too well the crazy making conflicting studies, advice columns, child care books, and tyrannical standards set up for the modern parent. Especially the modern mom, but we'll get back to that later.
Senior, a contributing editor at New York Magazine, has written a book that is so important to read and fully digest in this day and age. And I'm certainly not alone in thinking so. All Joy and No fun spent 8 weeks on the New York Times best seller list, and it's popularity has not slowed down. She's been all over TV and radio (my favorites being NPR and Colbert), and offers potentially contentious findings such as, and I am definitely paraphrasing here: Parents should think about themselves more, stop pushing the goal of "happiness" on their kids, and stop worrying so much.
What? Sacrilege! When her book first came out, I thought she was going to be pounced on by the parenting community, like Ayelet Waldman was in 2005 for writing the essay about loving her husband more than her kids. Many were ready to eat Waldman alive, while also heartily recognizing that putting your marriage first is healthy and good for the kids! But I've noticed no such vitriol with Seniors book. Even in my parenting groups, discussions of the book have been, well, surprisingly cordial. Perhaps we are so beyond tired of this racket we're in that we are finally ready to listen/read a parenting book that's not about how parents affect their kids, but a book about how kids affect their parents. Permission to exhale, mom and dad!
Full disclosure, I'm a big fan if you couldn't tell. I pre ordered her book, and I'd been looking forward to her visit and talk for months. If you've seen any of her TV appearances or marvelous Ted Talk, you know she does not disappoint. Funny, genuine, affable, and wicked smart, she explains the frustrations of modern parenting perfectly. From division of labor (forget date night, talk about who will do what and when, early and often ya'll!), to anxiety about our children's future (it matters not if your child gets into an Ive League school, it matters if they applied there in the first place). Steeped in sound research and wonderful anecdotal stories, her talk leaved me feeling like I'd been commiserating with a good friend for an hour. I arrived home feeling warm from shared laughter and tears, and with much to think about.
Like this. Moms: Maybe take a cue from the dads and try to mono instead of multi task, and don't try to live up to anyone else's standards but your own. I can't explain it any better than this quote from a review of her book by Marisa Bellack of The Washington Post:
"While Senior doesn’t set out to offer parenting advice, the Minnesota dad [that she interviewed] comes close to what seems to be her concept of a model parent. He’s attentive to his kids yet doesn’t obsess about keeping them stimulated every moment, he takes care to preserve some time for himself, and he’s confident in his parenting decisions, declaring, “I am the standard.” He is the antidote to the problem with parenting today, as Senior sees it."
Wow. Being confident in our parenting decisions. Let that concept sink in for a minute!
What resonated with me the most, however, was when Senior started talking about the words Joy and Happiness, and how finding Meaning in life may be a better, and a more attainable goal in life. Joy: Profound and deep connection. Our kids happiness: " [and self esteem] can be the byproduct of other things, but they cannot be goals unto themselves" as Senior says in her Ted Talk. Happiness, she says, is an unfair burden to make yourself responsible for, and for your children to try to achieve. Far better to teach them to be productive, and find meaning in their lives, and happiness maybe could be a byproduct of that. Because here's the thing; some children, because of the temperament they are born with, will never be happy. But, teach them to be productive, helpful, kind, and fine some satisfaction in their work, maybe they've got a better chance at it.
This may sound a bit dire to some in our Reach-For-The-Stars culture. But we are stressing ourselves out, and I do believe we are setting our kids up for some disappointment when we make happiness such an all important goal. There's all this pressure to be happy all. the. time. It's not realistic and it's too ephemeral, too dependent on circumstance. It's okay to feel sad, mad, or dissatisfied. It's the human condition. It's The First Noble Truth in Buddhism: In life, there is suffering. Second-Forth Noble Truths: There is a way out of suffering, and one way is to accept the ups and downs of life, and cultivate non attachment and non grasping of pleasurable feeling states, like happiness. It comes and goes. Making a point of doing something of value everyday, that's more in our control.
Last night we were watching Finding Nemo with our son. We got to the part when Marlin, stressed out daddy fish, is talking to Dory and is so mad at himself, thinking he's let his son Nemo down. I felt Dory's response, in a way, sum's things up nicely:
Marlin: I promised I'd never let anything happen to him!
Dory: Hmm. That's a funny thing to promise.
Dory: Well, you can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.
Exactly. Not much fun for us parents, either.