Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Q&A with author Jennifer Senior

Jennifer Senior is the author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. She is a contributing editor at New York magazine, and she lives in Brooklyn.

Q: Did you expect this topic to hit such a nerve and get the publicity it did, both with the book and, before that, the piece for New York magazine?

A: With the magazine piece, [initially] no. I had to invent what the magazine piece looked like. There was a lot of information on how parents affect kids, but not on how kids affect parents.

I had to dive into every silo of social science. The more I did, I realized there was so much here! By the end, I thought this was pretty interesting. I had some inkling that this was an unusual piece, and I was feeling very proud of it—I had a wacky idea that paid off!

With the book, you’re in a black velvet bag. There’s no feedback. You’re alone with it. I was terrified that there would be a backlash or that no one would read it, or that people would discuss it without engaging with the material.

I was very careful to fly all around the country to do case studies, not just look at neurotic New Yorkers or Angelenos or [people in] D.C.

I knew that coming out in January was helpful; it’s a dead time media-wise. You sell fewer books because it’s cold out, and this was during the Vortex. On the other hand, you have slow news days, and you have a better chance of being talked about in a slow news month.

I was pleasantly surprised that everyone was willing to be open-minded, and that people believed it wasn’t just a padded magazine story, that it was something completely different. 

Q: You mentioned your case studies. How did you find the people you interviewed for the book?

A: I wanted a sample that would pass muster with social scientists. I thought I would call university labs [to get names], but the people who participate sign confidentiality agreements. It was naïve of me.

I kept calling academics, and Bill Doherty at the University of Minnesota said he was an advisor to a parent education program, and that I could sit in on a week of classes.

Then, for elementary school kids, I was talking with my colleague Emily Nussbaum, and I knew I wanted [to talk to people in] the South. She said, go to Texas—it’s interesting! You don’t have to be as systematic as you think.

I called a friend. She said to go to [the Houston suburbs of] Sugar Land or Missouri City—they’re diverse, they’re changing. The census numbers [show that] Houston is bursting with families with kids under 18.

I ran out of time and money, and I knew New Yorkers were going to buy this book. I had to give a nod to my natural constituency. My colleague is a soccer coach, and [through him] I found a community of public school teachers [in Lefferts Gardens in Brooklyn].

Q: What do you see as the difference between joy and fun?

A: The definition of joy comes from George Vaillant, who is a psychiatrist with the soul of a poet. He wrote a book, Spiritual Evolution, [where he describes] joy as deep connections to others….bondedness. It doesn’t speed up the heart, it slows the heart.

It’s a very hard emotion to tolerate in some ways. If you truly open up to joy, it opens you up to the possibility of loss. It made so much sense to me. When a parent hears about something like Newtown, it makes [the parent] feel sick. [Vaillant] had another aphorism I found astonishing: Joy is grief inside out.

Fun is not outwardly focused. It’s a more narcissistic pleasure, a gratification of the moment, like eating ice cream or taking in a great show. It’s an ephemeral pleasure, an intense pleasure, but in the moment.

Q: You look at parents of young kids, of elementary-school kids, and of teenagers. Were you more surprised by the information you found from one of these groups than the others?

A: I found the stuff from the parents of young children to be the least surprising, because I had a young kid.

[But] when Clint [one of those interviewed in the book] said “I am the standard” [about how he handles things at home] it was a huge “aha” moment for me. It made me realize men are not tyrannized by the same ideals of fatherhood. They are lucky in some ways because they have a clean slate to work from. That happened to come from the parent of a young child.

I was surprised by the fact that the Texas parents were even crazier than New York parents. They are so insane about sports, giving muscle milk to kids, and their anxiety—I was surprised by their panic over these kids [of middle-class Indian and Korean families] taking over the schools.

Being a New Yorker, I’m used to taking cues from the latest successful immigrant group coming in. It was interesting to me to see people in less diverse suburbs becoming uncomfortable with this.

Among the teenagers, everybody’s story is so different that everything’s interesting.

Q: You mentioned that a comment from a man gave you an “aha” moment—did you expect the book to be more focused on women than men, and has the book appealed more to women than men?

A: It became more of a women’s book than I thought it would be. In retrospect, I wish I had more from dads. It’s more feminist than I had expected. I have a ton of male readers; the numbers [between men and women] were pretty close. When I do readings, there are lots of women. On Twitter, I hear from men all the time.

Q: Are you thinking about writing another book?

A: I have two ideas and they’re both imperfect. One is similar to All Joy and No Fun—it asks a question in reverse. Not how parents affect kids, but how kids affect parents—a reverse-angle book.

I’m doing a lot of public speaking now. I do have [future] book ideas, but I need to do serious research and serious refining.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Jennifer Senior will be participating in the Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the JCC of Greater Washington, which runs from November 6-16, 2014. For a previous version of this Q&A, please click here.

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