Q&A: Jennifer Senior on Parental Misery

July 9th, 2010  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  2 Comments

This week, my colleague Jennifer Senior at New York magazine published a spectacular cover story that falls deep into Dadwagon territory. Headlined “I Love My Children. I Hate My Life,” it’s a complex piece of reporting about something parents don’t easily admit: that, in study after study, they are noticeably less happy than their childless neighbors. And on behalf of Dadwagon, I was also able to arrange our very own IM interview with Jennifer Senior, wrangled through the complex technique of going over to her desk and asking her.


4:40 p.m.: Christopher Bonanos:

So, Ms. S.: Congratulations, first off. BIG score this week. Are you getting much hate mail along with all the love?

4:42 p.m.: Jennifer Senior

Not sent directly to me, thank God. (Except in one instance.) But there are more than a few ad hominem comments on our website now, all of them basically saying I must be a miserable person and they pity me.

4:43 p.m.: Christopher Bonanos:

Which brings us to the question everyone’s wondering about: Do you think you, personally, are unhappier since your son arrived?

4:46 p.m.: Jennifer Senior

Well, I think I’m a good example of exactly the distinction I make at the end of the piece. I know I’m having less fun. But I also know I’m much, MUCH less depressed. Before I had a kid, I remembered thinking to myself: Is this what my life is going to be? About going out to dinner? It’d be one thing if I’d been using all of my child-free years really imaginatively or altruistically–covering wars, living in unusual places, working for NGOs, whatever. But I wasn’t. I was right here, writing, day in and day out. The fact that I wasn’t making sacrifices for someone else really embarrassed me, at a certain point. And depressed me. Though the irony, of course, is that I had to create the person for whom I’d be making the sacrifices–so it all started with a very selfish act.

4:49 p.m.: Christopher Bonanos:

Interesting! I would’ve said “well, I’m not any MORE depressed.” Which is a considerably less ringing endorsement, but not bad either.

4:49 p.m.: Jennifer Senior

I just did a spit-take, reading that.

Maybe it’s because I, as the woman, do more work than you, as the guy?

Keeping busy eases depression a lot, as you know. Especially if you have no choice.

4:50 p.m.: Christopher Bonanos:

That makes sense. I probably am the slacker in our house.

Though the urbanite-careerist aspect of what you say is interesting… does the phenomenon you describe have a class aspect? That is, are two-income professional couples likelier to find themselves depressed when they have kids?

4:52 p.m.: Jennifer Senior

Yes. In fact, I think it’s one of the ‘s better critiques of my piece–that this is really a story about the self-invented misery of the middle class. The thing is:

1. Just because there’s a class basis to it doesn’t make it any less of a problem, just a slightly more rarefied one, and

2. This is a problem that is certainly trickling down: There are lots of dual-earner families out there don’t make much money but feel intense pressures to aggressively cultivate their children in their spare time, though they don’t have much of it.

But to just circle back to your original point: I think the longer you wait to have children–which the middle class is more apt to do–the more startled you are by the contrast between the before and the after. And the contrast is fine, of course. But expectations have to be adjusted. You can’t think that children are going to be an extension of your old life. You’re raising them because it’s your duty, and you want THEM to be happy.  I think about my mother: For her, having a child at 22 was an act of independence. (She had no money, btw.) But by the time I had my kid (at 38, with more means), I thought I’d lost a good deal of independence.

5:00 p.m.: Christopher Bonanos:

That’s completely plausible. Because, in the end, it’s largely an economic issue, isn’t it? To live an urbanite’s life these days, you need two largish incomes. To do that, you have to work like a mule. And to do THAT and have children, you are essentially committing to a decade and a half of constant crazed busyness.

5:01 p.m.: Jennifer Senior

Right. And don’t forget that more than half the globe now lives in cities. This is the lot of many, many, many people.

5:03 p.m.: Christopher Bonanos:

Plus, as you say in the story, Americans always overdo it, because we want our kids to have every possible leg up. So (for example) we can’t just feed them whatever is in the freezer–it has to be the best. Which means organic-local-sustainable free-range cruelty-free radishes that can be got only from one farmer at the Greenmarket on alternate Tuesdays, necessitating a special errand. That’s two hours that could’ve been spent zoning out.

5:05 p.m.: Jennifer Senior

Totally. I have a friend who I would have assumed was totally immune to that kind of thing, but she got very upset at the first sign of sleep trouble with her child, and called in a sleep consultant. And I was like, Whoa, that exists? A sleep consultant? You have a BABY. By definition, isn’t a baby’s sleep a little hinky?

5:07 p.m.: Christopher Bonanos:

Everything has to be high-performance.

5:07 p.m.: Jennifer Senior

Which is sort of crazy. Because let’s face it: Babies are pretty low-performance.

5:07 p.m.: Christopher Bonanos:

So is there a solution to this? Anything parents can do to minimize their misery? Even if it’s just a matter of gaming their expectations?

5:10 p.m.: Jennifer Senior

Well, I’d say ignore most of the books and gear, for starters. I remember trying to make it through Weissbluth’s book about sleep, and halfway through, I decided to toss it, and I was a much happier person, not least because my kid isn’t a generic kid, but a particular one, and seemed in no way to demonstrate a single tendency this man seemed to be discussing. I also indulged in buying him a fancy toy–one of these big bead mazes made from recycled wood, blah blah blah–and his favorite game, it turns out, is filling cups in the sink. So, you know. Improvising has its virtues. And more generally speaking, thinking of your children as people who fit in, rather than run the show, will help everyone. It’s jut a sense I have. I say this as much as a step-parent to older kids as I do as a biological parent of a younger one. Letting a child know that the world’s bigger than him- or herself is a good thing.

5:12 p.m.: Christopher Bonanos:

That sounds extremely sane. By the way, did your stepkids have anything to say about this?

5:18 p.m.: Jennifer Senior

Ha. Nope. Neither’s in New York at the moment. But if someone calls their attention to it. I’m guessing they’ll be fine. If they’re not, I can always point out that they’re free to freeze me out once they start paying their own rent.

5:19 p.m.: Christopher Bonanos:

And what do you think your son will have to say, when he eventually grows up and reads this? (Or the book that this could very well become.)

5:20 p.m.: Jennifer Senior

If I write a book? That he was the rare 21st century child who MADE his parents money.

5:21 p.m.: Christopher Bonanos:

I think that’s a nice place to end this. Thanks again.



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