Flow and compliance within the sphere of parenthood

As you may know, 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.

As we try to blend semblances of our pre-parent selves with our parental realities, many of us feel stretched taut; multitasking becomes an ever-greater need and an ever more flow-inhibiting manacle. "We don't process information as thoroughly when we task-switch...that information doesn't sink into our long-term memories as deeply...We also lose time whenever we switch tasks, because it takes a while to intellectually relax into a project and build a head of steam."

Mom-brain anyone? Feelings of guilt? And how about the sensation that you've only just settled down when you realize the time and that you'd better hurry to pick-up.

Senior's second big theme and one that makes lack of flow even more difficult and pronounced constellates around child compliance. Basically, the research* shows that American parents spend huge amounts of time every day trying to get their young children (toddlers/preschoolers) to do something and that their kids spend about as much time resisting those efforts. Because, generally speaking, American mothers spend more time with their children than fathers, they experience more of these "aversive interactions (69);" up to twenty-four times an hour, according to one study.

It doesn't take a genius to see that stat alone and think: EXHAUSTING. Talk about mental enervation. Just managing the process of eating breakfast and getting ready for school is deeply taxing, emotionally, for me some days. The sheer amount of questions ("what do you want for breakfast?"), pleas ("please sit down to eat," "please brush your teeth," "no really, brush your teeth"), demands ("if you don't brush your teeth you're going to lose a privilege"), and mediatory efforts ("do not throw cereal at your brother," "do not use your mean voice; I've asked you to brush your teeth 85 times so far") is unbelievable. "I do so much for them" ergo "they'll honor my basic requests" feels like it should be basic and true but often just isn't actuality. You end up arguing about the stupidest stuff and it can be both mind-numbingly dull and profoundly upsetting. And that's just breakfast and chores!


For those of us who enjoy setting goals and reaching them, parenting can make us feel stunted at times because it's a long-form marathon in which the "end" is an unknown. When I mix flour, butter, eggs and vanilla, I'm going to get something delicious in a half hour or so. Raising a person is completely the opposite; in addition to there being no recipe, you don't really know all the ingredients with which you're working and the final product is decades in the making.

Senior's discussions of flow/lack of flow as well as the effects of repeated requests for compliance (geared towards teaching and urging positive or right behaviors) being denied or needing to be reissued helped me better understand just what is so very hard about the constant job that is parenting. And because the parenting landscape appears to have changed so dramatically over the last century, we don't have many of the norms we once had that help people orient. Where once children were had to serve as economic assets for the family, the aims of many parents today are much more nebulous: when we prepare to have children, what is the why? Is it for our own fulfillment? Is it to raise and turn out productive and beneficial members of our larger society? What do we want from and for them? Happiness? Success? And how do we "make" those things happen? How do we square what that might take with what we feel we can and want to give?

Interesting, huh?!

*I'm assuming most studies so far have focused on heterosexual couples because Senior's language is very mother/father-oriented versus that more encompassing of various family structures.