“All Joy and No Fun,” the next book Chicago parents should read

Jennifer Senior’s book “All Joy and No Fun: The paradox of Modern Parenthood” hardly needs my endorsement — The New York Times, NPR and scores of other publications have beaten me to it. But if you had it on your to-read list, I urge you to move it to the top.

It blew me away. Aside from being a feat of social science, reporting and readability, there were so many parts that had me saying “Yes! That’s how I feel!” But one of the concepts I keep returning to is her examination of ‘flow.’

I was not familiar with this psychological term before reading the book, though once explained, I recognized the feeling. She writes, “Flow is a state of being in which we are so engrossed in the task at hand — so fortified by our own sense of agency, of mastery — that we lose all sense of our surroundings, as though time has stopped.” So, colloquially, it’s being “in the zone.”

I’ve been a journalist and writer for 14 years, and I have experienced this feeling many times while working. I’d sit down to write, and three hours could pass without me being aware of it. But when I tried to remember the last time it happened, I couldn’t. It’s been infrequent since I became a parent four years ago.

Why? Because “most flow experiences happen apart from everyday life rather than in the midst of it,” she reports. Makes sense. Parenting small children can be fun and joyful, but let’s face it — it also requires a lot of nagging, menial tasks, divided attentions and, as the book acknowledges, boredom. Kids find comfort in doing the same thing over and over. Adults prefer variety and challenge. And, she says, achieving flow almost always requires that most rare commodity for a parent: Being alone.

It put a name to something I have missed over the last few years. I wouldn’t trade it, of course, and I know I’ll have more time when they are older, but I do miss the opportunity to give my work (or anything, really) my complete attention and immerse myself in it. These days, I’m defeated before I even start. It annoys me more to start something and have to jump in and out of it than to not start it at all. I can, and do, work amidst constant interruptions but it’s not the same. I still complete the work, but now the means to the same end is less satisfying for me.

A lot of parenting commentary veers toward martyrdom and/or over-celebrates the role. (Why are we always congratulating ourselves for something that we not only chose to do, but moreover, hardly invented? It’s a weird trend.) This excellent book acknowledges the good while offering brilliant commentary on the struggles. Read it, preferably after the kids are asleep. You know — for flow.

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