I spent the first decade of my life in a small city in the Midwest that is so average it's held as the arbiter of all things middle class. I lived in a not-so-expensive neighborhood walking distance to a small university, and the neighbors included large working class families and professors just starting out who already had a kid or two before the age of 26. Everyone was married, and everyone's mother was a stay-at-home mom, and moms maybe sold Tupperware or Avon for a little extra cash. Kids delivered papers, mowed lawns, and shoveled snow for spending money.
Sounds like a neat little slice of mid-20th century America, but I'm not that old and things weren't that great. Title IX and organized sports for girls was just a dream, which was good because most families only had one car and Dad took it to work. Every mother ironed, and having the ironing board out in the kitchen during the day was a source of pride. Mothers that actually boiled clothes in starch, hung them up to dry, and then ironed - well, that was the gold standard of housekeeping. Expensive vacations were out of the question - wherever you went, it had to be drivable. Who could afford to fly 2 or 6 or 8 kids to Disneyland?
Things have changed drastically for middle class parents since then, as Jennifer Senior explains in "All Joy and No Fun" (2014). Over 64% of mothers with children under the age of 18 work now. Conversely, Moms and Dads actually spend a lot more time parenting - 30% at least - than parents did more than a quarter century ago. There are less white shirt boiling and ironing, and more soccer practice, piano lessons, and Chinese classes.
Senior discusses a lot of statistical, peer reviewed studies on parents and parenting, including the idea that as parents, we are happier than our own parents were as a whole. That is the "Joy" part of the title. Personally, I don't find being a housekeeper fun, which seems to be a lot of being a parent. (Don't believe me? Try sending your 4th grader to school wearing dirty jeans more than once . . .)
I do enjoy - and find joy - in my kids. I'll remember them them in my arms as babies long after I forget my own name. My parents enjoyed me, but their joy was tempered with an early 20's nervousness. I was 10 years older as a first time parent, and I was more sure about what I was doing. I had Velcro diaper fasteners and car seats, not large pins and a swaddled kid in my lap. That's another important point Senior makes: we are older and more educated than our parents were, and overall, life is a lot safer for everyone - kids included.
Senior takes the Malcolm Gladwell ("David and Goliath" 2013; "Outliers" 2008) approach to sociology: she collects groups of related research; gives it a name; and presents it in a coherent, cohesive way that resonates with 'the public'. Senior, like Gladwell, starts an important conversation - but, like Gladwell, she doesn't condescend by pretending to know all the answers.
Senior does the narration herself, and she's got a bit of a Demi Moore/"St. Elmo's Fire" (1985) huskiness going on.
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The morning of December 14, 2012, I had a long drive and intermittent NPR stations, so I continued to listen to "Far From the Tree". The printed book is 702 pages long, and it's about 40 Audible hours. I was on Chapter X, Crime.
The book is beautifully narrated, and author/narrator Andrew Solomon's pronounciation of difficult terms is flawless. Even so, it's a difficult listen.
I have often wished that Audible had a true Table of Contents, and never more than with this book. The chapters are (with thanks to Amazon print) I. Son; II.Deaf III. Dwarfs IV. Downs Syndrome V. Autism VI. Schizophrenia VII. Disabilities VIII. Prodigies IX. Rape X. Crime XI. Transgender XII. Father.
Each section could, on its own, be a separate book - with the exception of I. Son and XII. Father - combine those two, and those would make a book.
Dwight Garner and Julie Meyer, writing separate reviews for the New York Times in November, love the book unreservedly. After listening to "Columbine", I was thinking of using a credit for this new book. I purchased "Far From the Tree" right after reading Meyer's rhapsodic review.
I am the mother of two teenagers who would not be in any of Solomon's chapters, but each and every section made me ache with my love for them. The challenges of normal teenagers, with raging hormones, lightning fast mood changes, and their sudden bursts of astounding clarity pale in comparison to what Solomon's families face. I am a better parent to them knowing that they are 'normal'.
I'm not a physician, sociologist or therapist - I'm just a Mom. I gained real confidence in trying my best to be a good Mom from this book. It was the best 'parenting' book I've read since "What to Expect When You're Expecting" by Heidi Muroff and Sharon Mazel. The books are entirely different, but reading them has the same effect. I am more (not less) confident about my mothering because of these books.
Which brings me back to December 14, 2012, the day of the Newtown/Sandy Hook mass murder. I have been wondering since then whether Sue Klebold, if given the choice, would have rather have been in Nancy Lanza's position - killed before she knew what her son did. I suspect not, and I hope Solomon can answer the queston for us.
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