Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Hard Core Parenting Stories

So, I'm a newish mom and like a lot of new parents I'm often drawn to parenting memoirs that reflect on the transition to parenthood and the personal joys and challenges inherent in this experience. I've blogged a little about the subject on this site and while I don't really want to make a habit of it, recently I have come across a couple of books in the genre that really are worth mentioning.

The first is entitled Afterbirth: stories you WON'T read in a parenting magazine (2009), edited by Dani Klein Modisett, and she really means it. The authors of this collection, drawn largely from the entertainment industry (television writers, producers, playwrights, and comics, among others), share brutally honest passages from their experiences as parents. As someone who just doesn't see herself reflected in the tiresomely conventional images of motherhood that appear on the covers of popular parenting magazines, this book came as something of a breakthrough for me.

There is a trend toward confessional parenting books in which the author brags about what a bad mom or dad they are, usually to comic effect. In Bad Mother: a chronicle of maternal crimes, minor calamities, and occasional moments of grace (2009), author Ayelet Waldman argues that this is actually driven from a deep sense of shame born of the author's own perceived inadequacies as a parent. Waldman herself seems to share these feelings; reading about her simpering responses to random strangers who offer unsolicited parenting advice, I wanted to smack some self-respect into her. This is not an approach I can relate to. I had to put the book down.

I'm the kind of mom who body blocks the little beasts who try to run over and through my 19-month old at "unsupervised" indoor play parks. I call the police when drivers cut me off while I'm walking with the stroller. No random stranger has yet attempted to offer me parenting advice (though I think I'd have some fun with that if they tried). In short, a poor self-image is not my issue.

However, as a more "mature" mom (in age, at least), adapting to the dramatic change in lifestyle that parenting can bring has been a challenge. Apparently, I do not handle frustration well. There have been times when I have felt so overwhelmed by the emotion that I have pounded my fist into the floor of our apartment while the baby's back was turned. Then I read Jason Nash's chapter in Afterbirth; "Ten Months In". He's a television writer who came to fatherhood reluctantly. In his essay, Nash recalls a particularly difficult time in his life when his career was at a low point:
My son started crying and wouldn't stop. My failure, my life, the feeling that everything was finished came to a head.

I put my son down in his crib. Then, enraged, I punched a giant hole through the door to his room. One time. Boom! Again. Boom! And again. Screaming [...] each time, letting everything out. I knew I was doing it. I knew I wasn't hurting the baby, but I was so mad I wanted my wife to see my anger. I wanted to tell her, "You took my [...] life away and this is what you get. A hole in the door of your perfect baby's room, in your perfect house."

And I turned and saw my son and he was so scared. And for the first time, it clicked. That I was wrong. That I was part of something larger now. That I was being a selfish [...] and it didn't matter how my career ended up. I grabbed him, held him and just cried. The next week I went into therapy and started a massive overhaul of myself. [Expletives deleted.]
This is powerful stuff. This is the real work of parenting, when you finally realize that you're the one who needs to grow up.

The topics covered in this collection vary from how to handle a young bully ("What Grown-Ups Do"), to the obstacles of raising a boy free of gender stereotypes ("Oliver's Pink Bicycle"), to negotiating the issue of your children's privacy ("Reading Her Journal"). There is humour here. There's also plenty of honesty, insight, love, courage, and compassion.

The Library has other titles along these lines. I'd recommend The Hip Mama Survival Guide (1998), Essential Hip Mama: writing from the cutting edge of parenting (2004), and really, anything by the awesome Ariel Gore, founder of the Hip Mama zine. Also, don't overlook Sh*t My Dad Says (2010) by Justin Halpern which offers some inspiring reflections on his father's rather ... um ... blunt parenting style.


  1. Some one recently told me about this book "The Idle Parent" by Tom Hodgkinson. It sounds like it's the opposite of "hard core" but might contain some ideas for other parents who don't feel they are "reflected in the tiresomely conventional images of motherhood that appear on the covers of popular parenting magazines", or more to the point, the conventional wisdom on how to raise a child.

  2. Here's a link to The Sunday Times' review for The Idle Parent: