“Ninety Percent of Parents Expect a Marital Decline” (book review)

My year of reading more books than ever continues to plow along unabated like the winter winds of Ohio.  Neither the turning of the pages or falling of the snowflakes can be stopped by mortal forces.  Except that the seasons will change and kids will vomit.  Other than that my reading can not be stopped.

In all serious though, reading has become habitual this year, if I’m ready to read.  That is, when I have a good book queued up on my Kindle or I sit down with a good hardback. I’ve also taken Stephen King’s approach of reading in grocery store lines and parking lots when a spare ten minutes presents itself.  My default, hey I’ve got a few minutes is now to read.  And one of those books is about parenting

The full quote from the post title is, “Ninety percent  of married couples expect a decline in marital satisfaction after the birth of their first child” and comes from All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior, a book that I drooled over when first seeing it.

This book was it.  It looked like the book that would answer all my questions about parenting.  It would be a page turning panacea that would help me figure out the maze of parenting.  Except that it wasn’t.

It turns out that parents expectations are often true. Kids rob you of your sleep, deep hair color, and peace of mind.  Senior reports that 80 percent of mothers think they don’t have enough friends and 67 percent say they are multitasking most of the time.  I can anecdotally support both of those figures.

She also figured out that the gap in well-being due to lack of sleep is severe.  Parents who sleep for more than seven hours and make $30,000 have the same well-being levels of parents who sleep less than six hours but make $90,000.  More sleep and more money both make you feel better.

It hasn’t always been like this though.  Senior travels through history to find that “children went from giving money to the family to getting it.”  Children used to help with the family trades or go to work slinging newspapers or fruit, not anymore.  Now kids are studying physics, participating in sports, and playing saxophone.  As parents we think these things will lead the kids to happiness and success.

Preparing kids to be happy is about as easy as teaching them to play Battleship in real life.  We can offer some best guesses, but we really don’t know.   Our best guesses are to keep them busy with lessons and classes and tutors because these are all good things for their development, but these guesses lead to a new problem:

Kids sense that they have the power to make their boredom their parents responsibility.

I see this with my own five-year-old.  She comes up to me and says that she is bored and sometimes I’ll dutifully trot out an art set or coloring pages or set up her doll house.  Like a butler in Downton Abbey, I serve her every whim.  As a culture we’ve been doing this too, I see it with the college students I work with.  They’ve been raised on rubrics and standards and like mice in a maze, need to know what they are searching for and how quickly to find it.

That’s the paradox that Senior brings up and addresses.  As parents we want to help our kids, give them a better life.  Senior makes the argument that we don’t quite know how to do this though.  Throughout most of history, parents helped their kids get the same jobs they had.  Blacksmiths formed blacksmiths, aristocrats refined aristocrats.  In America our options are so much larger than this, and we want to give our kids the world. Which of course, we can’t.

Throughout the book Senior presents idea after idea that I found myself nodding my head with. Yes they do that, yes they do this – and while it was comforting to take residence with my fellow soldiers in arms, I wanted to know why I loved my kids amid all the grief they cause.  My life can feel like a hurricane of negative emotions, but too often I think about being in the eye of the storm where things are calm despite the swirling winds.

Like an astronomer looking for a new star that he knows must exist, I wanted to find that shining light about why I loved my kids.  It never comes.   This book was like going behind the scenes at my favorite restaurant and seeing the long hours, the loads of preparation, and the high tempers but never seeing my favorite dish was made.

It turns out that the joy we feel for our kids can’t be measured.

Every parent in the book gushes over their children despite everything that happens.  George Vaillant shared this quote about being a parent to his autistic son.

When my son was six I had to button his buttons for him. And tie his shoes. And that was a chore, but so is, when the grass is long, pushing a lawnmower. And how else are you going to have a lawn?

Our moments of enlightenment, when our kids fill us with joy aren’t things we know how to report, sort, and graph. Even the mothers covered in the book say this at the end, or rather they don’t. Senior has to explain the looks, smiles, and tears of happiness they feel. And that’s the truth.

I had one problem with the book, and it was a personal one. I wanted the chapter about fathers like me or even stay-at-home fathers in general. The people Senior mentioned in most of the book were mothers and that’s fair because the child-rearing role is mostly done by moms. I recognize my minority roll and accept it, but in the 250+ pages I found myself identifying with the mothers. Senior uses the mother moniker but for many of the statistics and situations, that was me.   I wonder how this will change in the future, if it ever will.  The trend is that more women graduate college than men and that more men are staying at home with the kids.


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