Flow and Compliance Within the Sphere of Parenthood

Over the past couple months, I’ve been enthusiastically reading Jennifer Senior’s recent book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. It explores the effects of having and raising children on their parents, the only or one of the very few works in that genre. I’ve long thought Senior is an exceptional journalist -her pieces for New York Magazine over the years are usually my favorites- and when she came to DC last month to present All Joy, I went to hear her. I’m nearly done with the book and have enjoyed it tremendously, not least because so much of it resonates deeply with me; at times I’ve felt like Senior is a hyper-articulate mouthpiece directly from my brain. I tweeted her to let her know this. She very kindly wrote back and said she’d worked SO hard on the book. I can tell!

In any case, I’ve been thinking much and often about many of the points she drives home via her own conclusions gleaned from hours and days spent with parents around the country and from the skeins of data she analyzed in order to provide both an historic and current state of the parental union, so to speak. It’s all quite fascinating really. For example, she demonstrates compellingly that the way we parent today -modern parenthood- is vastly different, oceans, gulfs, worlds apart from the ways in which children used to be considered, valued and raised.

In the 80 years or so since this evolution began in earnest, there have also been important changes and shifts: the way many parents today really can’t tell their kids to “go out and play and don’t come home until dinnertime” like they once could and did; and, the impacts on our -kids’ and parents’- ways of life in light of the hurtling advance of technology.

What has stuck with me most, made the most sense to me and helped me better understand my own experience as a mother have been the following two points that arise, repeatedly, throughout the book:

  1. The lack of flow in most parents’ lives; and
  2. The number of daily aversive interactions we experience due to repeated compliance requests.

What’s flow? Senior defines it as “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.” (p. 30) Most of us know how marvelous that feels. How zen, how therapeutic, a sort of high really. Consider a book in which you’re so enrapt that you completely forget the time. Or a project at work or home that is so utterly enjoyable and fulfilling that you neglect to eat lunch or that you miss when you step away from it. Or, personally, the way I lose myself in my garden when I’m working hard in it alone during the day. That feeling is flow.

Senior found, and what I feel acutely most days, that a large majority of parents feel a regular lack of flow. Sometimes a full absence of flow. Childrearing’s basic logistics require logical thinking and time-management to the nth degree but, by and large, that’s manageable. Perhaps you even knew that ahead of time and expected to work around naptimes, differing school drop-offs, sleepless nights and tag-teaming. I did and those things have felt par for the course.

What has been infinitely more challenging than those organizational efforts are the frequent, sometimes frantic, surprising, nonsensical, unexpected needs and demands of children in daily life. And that cadre of urgency is the baseline, the norm, before an illness or developmental snafu or intrasocial ado comes into play. These fits and starts, ebbs and flows, ons and offs of most parents’ now-quotidian existence act as constant inhibitions to flow. It’s why you can meet another parent for the first time and immediately commiserate about never finishing a complete sentence with another adult unless you’re alone with them or your kids are zombies in front of the tube. It’s why so many projects remain half-finished efforts, why many of us feel so mentally enervated so regularly.

Especially those of us who, prior to parenthood, took great pride in and derived a sense of identity from all that we could and did accomplish. Even in the happiest moments of raising children, I have found -personally and in conversations with many friends and other parents- that there is a definite sense of loss associated with the loss of flow. It takes getting used, these changed norms, expectations and understanding of self. You have to cut yourself some slack which is not always easy. You have to let some of the old ways go which can be wonderful but also awfully bittersweet. Add to this the constant finger-poking that is technology -social media, the sense that anyone is never more than an email away- and flow can really slow.

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