At Christmas, I was discussing children with my brother-in-law and sister. They related how many people were trying to get them to “join the club,” and I remembered how awful that was before we had Henry. I didn’t want to have a child because I wanted to be part of a group, I said to my sister. I wanted to have one because… well, I didn’t really know why. Not because I thought it would make my life better. Far from that. I knew firsthand how hard it would be to have a child, even as I listened to parents tell me I’d never truly know until I had one of my own.
“But it’s easier than you think it will be,” I heard myself saying, even though those weren’t the words I wanted to use. ”There is a joy to it. A reward you can’t define.”
I suppose that is the reason I had a child: because I knew that reward was there. I just didn’t know how it would manifest. And I suspect that is part of the reason Jennifer Senior wrote this book. The other part is that collective teeth-gnashing all parents seem to participate in online, in storytime, at coffeehouses, no matter how old their children are. What causes us to participate in this ritual, besides the cold reality of passing our genes along? Why do we torture ourselves with sleepless nights, mommy wars, endless researching on how to be a better parent? This book covers the effects of parenting on parents, along with a history of where parenting has been and a view of where it is now.
I was compelled by Senior’s accounts, chapter by chapter, of parents at each stage of their children’s lives: babies, young children, school-age, and teenagers. She profiles individual parents and puts them in context of the greater picture. For instance, we get a glimpse into the life of Jessie, a mom of three who works from home, and her frantic quest to keep up with everything. As we see her multitasking, Senior intersperses research on how parents of young children today are constantly pulled in so many directions. I was reminded of my friend Stacy, who balances her son on her hip while on a conference call on mute – and then I remembered that earlier today, I tried to hide while on a conference call of my own, but was thwarted by Henry suddenly learning how to turn a doorknob.
Senior’s chapters on school-age and adolescent children spooked me big-time, but I could understand exactly where they were coming from, since I see those kids in the library every day. Those parents are even more stressed out than those with kids my son’s age. They’ve got kids who are used to being coddled and distracted their whole lives, unable to amuse themselves independently. They’re creating activities for those kids and helping with daunting homework assignments (and sometimes even doing the assignments for the kids). Then, when those kids become teenagers, the teenagers have underdeveloped prefrontal cortices, and they’re mouthy and rude and more willing to take risks. Parents, after sacrificing so much for so long, are exhausted. No longer are teenagers an investment for the family, able to go out and work to earn the family money. They’re a liability, getting ready to cost the parents so much both emotionally and financially (college, anyone?)
Granted, Senior only studied the middle class in America, and there are whole books that could be written on parents in different circumstances around the world. But for a snapshot of that life, at least the one I’m living here in Northeast Ohio, this is a particularly accurate and definitive one. When she gets to the last chapter, she gets back to the joy in the title, that reward I can never seem to put my finger on, and it’s astonishing.
I can say till I’m blue in the face that my son won’t be x or y. He won’t be overscheduled, he’ll be accountable for his actions, blah blah. The truth is, that’s not the case. My son will do things that will surprise me, both for the good and for the bad. That’s where the reward lies. I know who I am, and I know where I’m going. I’m happy and grateful for my life and what I’m doing with it. I’m a writer, a musician, a wife, a librarian. A servant, a worker, a woman, a friend. I am both someone apart from my family and bound up in it. I’ve learned my lessons, paid my prices, confronted my own mistakes over and over again. But Henry hasn’t. He’s learning to be human. His eyes light up, and he says, “Oh, wow!” when he encounters something new; I ask him, “Where’s Mommy’s toes?” and he grabs for my feet. Those moments are my rewards.
Senior’s gem of a book helped me to realize these things and more, more than I could sum up in a review. It is what I wish I could tell everyone who thinks about going on this journey.
Cover image does not belong to me and is used solely to promote the author and her work.