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How Friday Night Dinner Can Save Us All

When I spoke to Jennifer Senior, author of the new book “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood”, I told her that my experience reading her book felt much like the state of being she describes in the title. As a mother of 15-month-old, I am still in denial about the long term struggles inherent to this whole parenting thing and it was often painful to accept her smart analysis of the topic.

The book looks at all the reasons we are less happy than we’d like to be, or at least thought we would be. Some of these, like the fact that toddlers are incapable of rational thinking, we can only battle through acceptance, while others are things we can actually do something about. The one that stood out to me was the decline in community, best known as the “bowling alone” phenomenon, and how the resulting isolation only works to make parents’ lives even less fun than they need be.

I spoke with Senior about why parents are so much lonelier these days and how Shabbat dinner might save us all.

Elissa Strauss: So why are we spending so much less time together these days?

Senior: Well, family time, the time we spend as a whole group together, has gone down. That is a function of how over-scheduled kids are these days and all the time we spent together but apart, like watching our IPads or on our gadgets.

Also, while the number of Americans who move on account of their work has been in decline, it is unambiguously true that those with college degrees are much more likely to be living away from their parents.

And, we have fewer close friends now, which is really sad. Neighbor socializing is down too. Our houses are spread farther and farther apart, and we are panic-stricken about letting our kids out, even though crime against children is at a historic all-time low, but we don’t seem to be reassured by this statistic.

There has been talk about how some of this social capital has been replaced by social networking. Facebook is good, but you need some body contact too. Sometimes virtual ties lead to real ties, and Facebook can be great if you just want to howl your despair and get a response back, or send out an SOS and ask how to treat third degree burn. But that is no substitution for running to your neighbors house at 3 pm and having someone sitting there with you and showing you how do it.

How does this affect families?

There is a paradox going on. On one hand we are spending less time together, but on the other hand mothers are spending more time with their kids than mothers in the 60s did. So today we have more one-on-one time and less family time. But that one-on-one time is more about getting your kids to Gymboree or soccer practice instead of doing things that knit the family together.

At end of Chapter 4, I quote a parent who told me that “homework is the new family dinner.” She called her dinner table a “homework station.” I don’t think someone has to cook dinner, I’m all for take-out, but you can do it as a family. Homework shouldn’t be the family the dinner, dinner should be the family dinner.

The other major culprit is our pervasive busyness. Where did this come from, and what exactly are we all doing?

If you look at American Time Use survey we supposedly have more time than we used to. But for parents it is fractured, stolen moments. We always have that feeling that the pot is going to boil to over. So our attention spans become fractured.

Also, we don’t have etiquette yet for new technology, about how fast we are supposed to respond to emails. And in many ways emails are more enjoyable, and easier to deal with than a toddler. So we are feeling distracted.

Do mothers experience all this differently than fathers?

According to American Time Use survey they do twice as much childcare than men. Dads do way more than they used to, but women are still doing twice as much. And moms’ time is also different, they are the one whose shot clock begins right when they walk in the door. They think about dinner, making sure their kid is doing his homework, limiting screentime — they are more likely to be the disciplinarians. Home life is like a video game for them, and they are constantly dodging asteroids.

Women today are more likely to experience that shift from working with adults to spending time alone with young children, which is hard. And because more women work in general now, if you are the one staying home with your kid there are fewer women out there to see. This is a good thing, we like women working, but if you make the choice to stay home you will have a smaller cohort to hang with.

Though things get much better for women once kids enter nursery school. Your social network thickens up again, it may not be the same as your old network, but you do have a network in place.

Any relationship between how religiously observant a family is and how isolated they are? (Did you stumble upon any research that specifically looked at Jews?)

Religious people are happier in every well-being study. One of the most fascinating things I found when I looked into this is the happiness is not based on your beliefs, but church or synagogue attendance. It is how much you attend that is connected to well-being. You don’t have to believe.

Okay, now I am digging for some personal advice. Your book inspired me to start a Friday night dinner group with some friends to break the monotony and loneliness of life with young children. Based on all your research, you think this will bring a little more fun into all our joy? Anything else you suggest?

Yes! Making a conscientious effort to keep social ties intact and even broaden them will definitely help. The other thing I suggest is to keep in mind the difference between our experiencing self and our remembering self. We need to optimize our remembering selves [since they tend to be happier than parents among remembering selves]. Even if it just a matter of getting in a bed at night and looking at photos on your cell phone, this can help remind us of the joy.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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