035: Parenting: All joy and no fun?

Today’s episode is about a book I read way before I started the podcast, called All Joy and No Fun (Affiliate link) by Jennifer Senior. I actually got a question from a listener recently asking me whether there’s any research on whether and how her divorce might have impacted her son’s development. It turns out that there is, and quite a lot – so I decided to make a series out of it.

We’ll have one episode on how divorce impacts children, and a second on single parenting and step families, and we’ll open the whole lot up with this one on All Joy and No Fun, which is basically about the idea that if you ask a parent what is their greatest joy they will invariably say “my kids,” but if you ask them moment-by-moment if they’re having fun with their children then unfortunately the answer is pretty often “no.” I know that a lot of factors can lead to divorce but surely “all joy and no fun” is among them, so it sort of seemed like it fit with the other two topics. Since I first read the book several months ago I’ve had a chance to think about it a bit, so I’ll start as usual with the research and will end with some ideas on how we can change our approach so we can have “some joy and some fun too.”


Campos B., Graesch, A.P., Repetti, R., Bradbury, T., & Ochs, E. (2009). Opportunity for interaction? A naturalistic observation study of dual-earner families after work and school. Journal of Family Psychology 23(6), 798-807. DOI: 10.1037/a0015824

Cherry, K. (2016). What is flow? Retrieved from: https://www.verywell.com/what-is-flow-2794768

Cowan, C.P. & Cowan, P.A. (1995). Interventions to ease the transition to parenthood: Why they are needed and what they can do. Family Relations: Journal of Applied Family & Child Studies 44, 412-423.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., Abuhamdeh, S., & Nakamura, J. (2005). Flow. In A. Elliot (Ed.), A Handbook of Competence and Motivation. (pp. 598-698). New York: The Guilford Press.

Doss, B.D., Rhoades, G.K., Stanley, S.M., & Markman, H.J. (2009). The effect of the transition to parenthood on relationship quality: An 8-year prospective study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychiatry 96(3), 601-619. DOI: 10.1037/a0013969

LeMasters, E.E. (1957). Parenthood as crisis. Marriage and Family Living 19(4), 352-355.

Mitchell, T.R., Thompson, L. .Peterson, E., & Cronk, R. (1997). Temporal adjustments in the evaluation of events: The “Rosy View.”  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 33(4), 421-428.

Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2001). Dlow theory and research. In C.R. Snyder, E. Wright, & S.J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology. (pp. 195-206). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rossi, A.S. (1968). Transition to parenthood. Journal of Marriage and Family 30(1), 26-39.

Senior, J. (2014). All joy and no fun: The paradox of modern parenthood. New York: HarperCollins. (Affiliate link)


Read Full Transcript


Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo Podcast.

Before we get going today, I’d like to ask you for a favor.  I’ve been doing some reading about goal setting lately and I’ve read that if you set a goal you should both tell other people about it and ask for help in achieving it, so I’d like to do that today.  I’ve set a goal for myself to double the number of subscribers I have to this podcast – subscribing doesn’t cost anything at all; it just means that new episodes show up in your podcast feed when they’re released on a weekly basis, so you don’t have to remember to go and look for them.  Weekly podcasts on science-based parenting advice delivered straight to your feed?  What could be better?  The trick here is that if you subscribe through iTunes, I’m afraid I can’t count that as meeting my goal – iTunes never actually tells podcasters that a person has subscribed or how many subscribers I might have in iTunes at any given time.  Let’s just say it’s yet another way that iTunes doesn’t help podcasters out.  So to count toward my goal, new subscribers have to go to my website at YourParentingMojo.com, enter your email address in the box at the top, and hit ‘subscribe’ – you actually get a gift for doing it that way too, which is a package of seven relationship-based strategies to support your child’s development – and maybe make life a bit easier for you.  So if you haven’t yet subscribed to the show on my website I’d be grateful if you wouldn’t mind doing that, and if you have already subscribed then would you consider telling a friend (or perhaps many friends) about the show?  I’ll let you know when I reach my goal – thanks so much for your support!

Now on to today’s episode, which is about a book I read way before I started the podcast, called All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior.  I actually got a question from a listener recently asking me whether there’s any research on whether and how her divorce might have impacted her son’s development.  It turns out that there is, and quite a lot – so I decided to make a mini-series out of it with one episode on how divorce impacts children, and a second on single parenting and step families, and we’ll open the whole lot up with this one on All Joy and No Fun, which is basically about the idea that if you ask a parent what is their greatest joy they will pretty much invariably say “my kids,” but if you ask them moment-by-moment if they’re having fun with their children then unfortunately the answer is pretty often “no.”  I know that a lot of factors can lead to divorce but surely “all joy and no fun” is among them, so I’m going to lump these three together in a sort of mini-series.  Since I first read the book several months ago I’ve had a chance to think about it a bit, so I’ll start as usual with the research and will end with some thoughts on how we can change this idea to “some joy and some fun too.”  And because I think I’m an especially interesting case study for this phenomenon, I’m going to illustrate today’s episode with some personal experience.  Because, why not?

Before we get going I should pause and say that if you are not a family that looks like a mother and a father with children then I’m sorry, but there is not a ton of research on your kinds of families which does suck.  I imagine it’s possible that one of you might work longer hours than the other and take on the more “father-ish” role and the other works shorter or no hours and spends more time with the kids that looks like a more “mother-ish” role.  If so, there will still be plenty here for you.  And even if not (and if you really do split everything evenly then you should send me an email and you can be a guest on the show), if you’ve ever found yourself wishing there was as much fun as joy in your life then there will still be something for you to learn.

A sociologist named Alice Rossi was one of the first people to study the effect of parenting on the parents, rather than just on the child.  She describes four factors that inhibit our abilities as parents: firstly that preparation for the role of parent is virtually non-existent, in large part because our educational system provides for children’s cognitive development, but not for emotional development or the subjects most relevant to successful family life, which Rossi says are “sex, home maintenance, child care, interpersonal competence, and empathy.”  I’d say this was doubly so for me because I never really liked children that much, so while I had few opportunities to engage with children as a teen and young adult I actually went out of my way to avoid those opportunities I did find simply because I wasn’t interested – and anyway, babies cried whenever I held them.

Secondly there is limited learning available during pregnancy – I was among the lucky ones here in the U.S. to have health insurance that provided a couple of prenatal classes, so I had actually changed a diaper on a doll before my daughter’s birth, even if not on a real baby.  I spent a great deal of time reading about pregnancy and labor and delivery and was determined to have a natural birth for two reasons – firstly because I was afraid I would struggle to bond with the baby and secondly because I wanted to do a 10-day backpacking trip around Mont Blanc a few weeks after the delivery, which would have been impossible if I’d had a C-section.  So let’s just say that I was highly motivated to avoid that recovery from surgery, but that means I spent virtually no time trying to think through what it’s like to be a parent.  I figured I had 18 years to work on that part, although I will say that I don’t have too many regrets in parenting so far, but one of the few I do have is that I didn’t find the idea of respectful parenting until my daughter was about four months old, and I now look back on those first few months with a bit of sadness that I wasn’t able to begin our relationship in a way that really respected her needs rather than just assuming that no crying = good, so do whatever you can to stop the crying.

The third of Rossi’s four factor is the abruptness of the transition to parenthood – there simply is no internship for parenting as there would have been in our society in centuries past, or that still exists in other societies today where young adults see others in their families with young babies and can ‘practice’ their own skills in advance, and today more than ever our lives totally and permanently shift when we have our first child, and I would argue are irrevocably changed once we have two.  My husband and I had a pretty nice life before we had our daughter – we rode bikes on mountains or on the road most weekends during the summer and skied 15-25 days over the winter, and I hiked a lot, and I did yoga classes pretty much whenever I felt like it.  Life was busy and full and pretty fun.  In fact, even though it was my husband who wanted children whenever I would ask him “are you ready yet?” he would say “let’s just get through bike season first” and then at the end of bike season he’d say “let’s just do one more ski season first,” so finally I said “if you keep saying that, there’s never going to be a baby.”  To which he responded “well then I’m ready now” – famous last words, as it turned out.  With one child we are still able to do some of these things; one of us can cover while the other goes out for a road ride, although we haven’t mountain biked in months.  I’ve been able to do a lot of hiking with our daughter on my back, although now we’re at the unfortunate age where she is too heavy to carry and also won’t walk in a straight line.  But if we had two children as I know many of you do, so I’m probably preaching to the choir – the chances of you being able to engage regularly in things you used to find interesting and enjoyable are pretty slim.

Fourthly, there is a lack of guidelines to successful parenthood, by which Rossi means that it isn’t too hard to figure out what are nutritional and clothing and medical needs and follow the general advice that a child needs loving physical contact and emotional support, but what else is needed to help a child develop into a successful adult?  Surely there must be something?  Well it turns out that there are just one or two things, which is a major reason I started this podcast in the first place, to fill that gap between all the books about how to support an infant’s growth and development, and the changing skillset a parent needs once the child becomes a toddler and preschooler.

This suddenness of transition is the major theme in an even earlier paper by E.E. LeMasters, who found that thirty eight of forty six couples he interviewed in urban middle-class Wisconsin between 1953 and 1956 reported “extensive” or “severe” crisis, the two most severe criteria on a five-point scale, in adjusting to the arrival of their first child.  89% of these couples rated their marriages as “good” or better, ratings that were confirmed by close friends in all but three cases, and thirty five of thirty eight pregnancies in the crisis group were either planned or desired – so it wasn’t that the couples were in crisis because of an unplanned pregnancy.  The parents didn’t have major psychiatric disabilities and were, in general, of average or above average in what LeMasters called “personality adjustment,” but all of the couples in the crisis group seemed to have romanticized parenthood and felt ineffectively prepared.  As one mother said: “We knew where babies came from, but we didn’t know what they were like.”  The couples’ descriptions of early parenthood could have been lifted from any Facebook parenting forum today – the mothers reported loss of sleep, chronic tiredness or exhaustion, confinement to the home and loss of social contacts, giving up the satisfactions and income of a job, having endless laundry to do, feeling guilty about not being a better mother, being “on” 24/7 in caring for an infant, the decline in their housekeeping standards (although I have to say I wasn’t personally afflicted by this problem) and worry over their appearance (including increased weight after the pregnancy).  The fathers apparently echoed most of these adjustments and added a few of their own – the decline in the wife’s sexual responsiveness (which I’ll just leave right there without further comment), economic pressure from becoming the only breadwinner at a time when expenses are increasing, worry about a second pregnancy in the near future, and a “general disenchantment with the parental role.”  These are sobering statistics, and are among the more dire ones that have been reported – subsequent studies have confirmed the sudden deteriorations in the relationship between couples after the birth of the couples’ first baby, but have found smaller to medium-sized effects rather than the large-scale crisis event that LeMasters reported.

As several researchers have noted and Jennifer Senior comments as well, one is more likely to be happy raising children as part of a couple rather than raising them alone, and also that the level of happiness in marriages tends to decline over time whether a couple has children or not.  But at no point in a marriage does it seem to decline as far and fast as after that first baby is born, and while we can debate the extent of the decline there is little doubting its pervasiveness.

And what causes this erosion in happiness?  It seems as though there are two factors.  Between the parents themselves, there is one topic that causes more arguments than any other, and if you don’t know what it is then you haven’t been living in my house lately: it’s the division of work between parents.  Men and women work, on average, about the same numbers of hours each day but women, on average, still do about twice as much “family care” – which is defined as housework, child care, shopping, and chauffeuring – as men.  My husband would be quick to add that he commutes for 2 ½ hours a day, which is true – a situation he chose for himself over my objections for precisely the reason that I knew he would walk in the door most nights shortly before bedtime expecting the child to be fed and bathed and his own dinner on the table.  And he’s not alone – in a study that analyzed a set of video recordings of families in Los Angeles on weekday evenings, mothers were found most often in shared spaces with the children, while fathers were observed most often alone.  The least frequently observed configuration was the couple together without children.  And we all know that there’s a reason why doing the dishes after dinner, that once loathed task, is now seen as the ‘plum’ assignment over supervising bath time – it’s because doing the dishes is far mentally easier than wrangling a two-and-a-half year-old into the bath “But I don’t WANNA bath!” followed after shampooing and soaping by “But I don’t WANNA get out!”.  But most nights I end up doing bath AND the dishes anyway, so the choice isn’t so bad.  And at my house we see this pattern repeated on the weekends as well – if my daughter and I are in the living room together then my husband sees himself as “relieved” and free to read drivel on the internet at his leisure.  I will say that he may be better than most husbands at making some effort to protect a small amount of leisure time for me; he will suggest that I go out for a bike ride some weekend mornings, as long as it’s not more than an hour and I don’t expect things to be any further along at home by the time I get back than when I left – things like getting either of them dressed, for example.  He’s quite happy to just enjoy his time with her and leave the ‘chore’ aspect of childcare to me – unless I set expectations about what I’d like to have done while I’m gone, which I’ve started to do even though I wish I didn’t have to.

A subset of this first factor causing the erosion of marital happiness is the overscheduled nature of our children’s lives these days.  Recall that “family care” includes chauffeuring the kids around to various activities, often one or more each night of the week (especially when you factor multiple children into the equation).  This never-ending series of activities is apparently a uniquely middle-class affliction – it’s what middle class parents do (in the short term) to try to expose their child to a variety of experiences, and (in the long term) to give them the ‘edge’ they’ll need to get into an elite college.  And it’s exhausting for both the parents and the children.

So the second main factor I see in the decline of marital quality is more related to the children and, specifically, what it’s like to spend time with children – especially young children.  Now I have to say that I’ve been very lucky to have a relatively easy-going child, although she has just, over the last few weeks, started saying “No, I don’t WANT to [insert activity here],” no matter what the inserted activity is and how much she really wants to do it – if I want her to do it then it’s enough for her to say she doesn’t.  And a side-effect of being over-scheduled when children are young is that they don’t know how to tolerate boredom, and they look to us to alleviate it when it occurs.  While our parents were cooking, cleaning, hanging out with their neighbors, and running a network of nonprofit organizations, they would typically tell us to go clean their rooms if we were bored.  We are more likely to ship our own children off to a gymnastics class.

I want to digress here for a moment to discuss the concept of “flow” – please trust me that it will all come together in just a couple of minutes.  This term was coined by the psychologist Mihaly Cheeks-sent-mi-halyi, although the idea has existed in other forms, most notably in some Eastern religions, for thousands of years.  When you’ve achieved “flow,” you’re in the zone.  The original six characteristics of flow are: (1) intense and focused concentration on the present moment; (2) merging of action and awareness, (3) a loss of reflective self-consciousness, so you’re not easily distracted, (4) a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity, (5), a distortion of temporal experience – some people say time seems to slow down; others say it seems to speed up; and (6) an experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding.  These aspects can appear independently of each other but it’s only when they occur together that a person is experiencing flow.  Cheeks-sent-mi-halyi later added a criterion that the activity must have a clear set of goals and progress markers, which add direction and structure to the task.  Another researcher, Kendra Cherry, adds three more components of the flow experience: (1) immediate feedback on what you’re doing; (2) feeling that you have the potential to succeed, and (3) feeling so engrossed in the experience that other needs – like hunger, perhaps, become negligible).  Finally, one more researcher, Owen Shaffer, adds an element I find particularly important – the idea of having a high degree of perceived challenge, and the skills and abilities to meet those challenges.

Perhaps you can already think of an activity you do (or you used to do…) where you get into flow – I always think of a friend of mine who likes to surf, and when I asked him why he said “because I’m 100% focused on that wave” – he gets immediate feedback from the board about how well he’s doing and has the skills to be able to adjust his performance to meet the degree of challenge that the waves offer.  Flow states are actually pretty common in sporting activities, where a person really enjoys the activity and is skilled at it and is able to get into a flow state perhaps during competitions so that while the performance is extrinsically rewarded by a prize, it’s the intrinsic reward of having surfed well, or vaulted well that represents the real reward.  It’s also not uncommon at work, if you’ve been lucky enough to set up a work environment that you enjoy and are good at, as well as in video gaming (because the game designers specifically design games to maximize flow) and in music.  And, very often, these characteristics make flow a solo pursuit – something that happens in your own head, rather than something that is shared with others.

Now imagine the last afternoon you spent with your toddler or preschooler.  How much of it would you say you spent in a flow state?  Probably not very much, and you are not alone.  Jennifer Senior actually tracked Cheeks-sent-mihalyi down at a conference a few years ago and asked why he doesn’t devote more research to flow in family situations.  He actually said that he first experimented on himself when he created a new kind of sampling method, which is called Experience Sampling, where a person is given a pager that is paged randomly throughout the day; when it beeps the person is supposed to write down what they are doing as well as how they feel about what they’re doing, which was the first time anyone had tried to gauge how study participants feel in the moment rather than asking them about it afterward.  So he invents this method and tries it on himself and at the end of the week, he realized that when he was with his sons his moods were usually pretty negative – and he wasn’t even dealing with toddlers.  He said he thought to himself “this doesn’t make any sense to me, because I’m very proud of them, and we have a good relationship,” but what he realized was that the activities he was doing were about as un flow-like as you could get – nagging them to get up so they wouldn’t be late for school, or to put away their cereal dish from breakfast.  Nagging, as it turns out, is not a flow activity.  But he observed that when family life is relaxed, we find it boring.  And when it’s not relaxed, we’re dealing with a tantrum which overloads us.  And instead of clearly understanding the rules of the game so we can minutely adjust our performance, our toddlers and preschoolers keep changing the rules of engagement which makes it even harder for us to optimize our performance – bathtime wasn’t such a huge fight a month ago, and perhaps it won’t be again in another month, but who knows?

This is why the little moment can seem so gosh-darned irritating, because she’s dawdling down the hallway having just taken off her shoes *again* when we needed to be out of the house ten minutes ago.  But when we look back on the whole experience of parenting we’re inclined to see it as a joyful thing – it’s the difference between the way we think about things as we experience them and how we remember them afterward, and in psychology circles it’s called the rosy view – it’s actually been documented that people recall having a far better time on holiday than was the actual experience.  I suppose if we didn’t have this overall image of parenting being a positive thing then we’d just stop having children, which wouldn’t be much good for the species.

So what are we supposed to do about this?  Well, the experiment that I’ve been trying at home – with some success – is to create more flow-like states in everyday activities with my daughter, which is especially interesting to me because it’s very time-efficient.  It allows me to get chores done that need to get doing, while attending to her needs to develop as a person and my needs to spend more of my time in a flow-like state rather than being stressed out about all the things I need to do.

Those of you who listened to our episode on chores a couple of weeks ago know that I’ve been making an effort to engage my daughter in everyday activities around the house because it not only gets work done that needs to get done, but it actually aids in her own cognitive and social development.  If you missed that episode then you should really go back and check it out, because there’s a lot more information on how the social aspect of working together helps to engage children in doing work they might otherwise be uninterested in doing.

So let’s take cooking dinner, for example.  It’s actually something my daughter enjoys “helping” with but it’s still a chore that needs to get done every night.  What I realized is that if I just shift my perspective a little bit from “we need to get dinner on the table right now!” to “let’s just enjoy this moment together as we cook dinner,” I can get into more of a flow-like state.  I need to concentrate intensely because my daughter really does want to help, and managing that plus moving the recipe along and making sure nothing gets burned requires a lot of concentration – to the extent that I’m really not easily distracted while we’re doing it.  I have a sense of agency in that I’m a decent (although not amazing) cook myself so I know the techniques I need to use, and providing activities that are sufficiently challenging to engage my daughter while not being so challenging that she can’t do them challenges me as well.  I do find the experience intrinsically rewarding – I enjoy cooking, and I enjoy the healthy meal we get out of it at the end, and I also enjoy the fact that I know the activities are making positive contributions to her development.  There’s a clear goal at the end (dinner) and steps that must be followed (the recipe), and immediate feedback as my daughter finishes the tasks she takes on, or gets stuck, or drops an egg on the floor.

The most critical element to me is my immersion in the task in the moment (much as toddlers do all the time) – I’m not thinking about all the things I need to get done later in the evening because I know roughly how long the recipe takes to prepare and that we will have enough time for those things later, so I can put them out of my mind right now and just concentrate on having this experience with my daughter.  For this reason I deliberately pick easy or moderately difficult dishes to cook on weeknights, and save the more complicated recipes (or just recipes I am trying for the first time) for weekends when I have backup coverage, if it can be distracted away from the drivel on the internet.

Honestly, I’d say it’s working out pretty well for us at the moment.  It’s WAY less stressful for me to have to find other time during the day to do dinner preparation so I can set up some artificial “learning activity” for her when we get home from daycare.  It’s certainly not perfect, which is why I use the term “flow-like state” rather than just “flow” – on any given day one or two of the required elements might be missing.  But you know what?  I’ll take a flow-like state over a stressed out dinner preparation any night of the week.  There’s also great potential for a flow-like state while I’m grocery shopping with her – instead of just rushing through the store as fast as we can (like we do have to do on some days), we can take the time to talk about the things we see in the store, pick out new fruits to try, and weigh several different items on the scales and guess which of two items will be heavier (and, as a side note, this activity has led her to ask “how much pounds?” when she wants to know how much of any item we need or are using, including those that are commonly measured by volume, like oats and bath water).

So my challenge to you is to pick a chore that you need to do on a regular basis, preferably one that your child has already expressed an interest in helping you out with, and reorienting your mind around it so you can get into a more flow-like state while you’re doing it to increase your enjoyment of your time with your children as well as just your own life in general.  Because, really, isn’t life too short for “All joy and no fun”?

And what about those pesky chores and the fact that we tend to over-think every decision about our kids?  Well, Jennifer Senior recommends that if you don’t have a French mother hanging around to tell you to relax your housekeeping standards (luckily for me I don’t need a French mother to tell me that) or worry less about your kids, or take more time for yourself, then you should consider looking to your husband as an example – because chances are he has a thing or two to each you about these things.

If you’re interested in the references for today’s episode, you can find them at yourparentingmojo.com/joy

Also published on Medium.


About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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