Why Do Parents Make Parenting Sound So God-Awful?

Snapshots of life at home.
Feb. 6 2014 8:45 AM

“My Life Is a Waking Nightmare”

Why do parents make parenting sound so God-awful?

Real Family Life
Welcome to your doom.

Photo by Page Phelps/Thinkstock

Recently, a listicle started proliferating on my Facebook page, as listicles are wont to do. It was titled “31 Things No One Told You About Being a Parent,” and it informed me that becoming a parent means gaining weight, living in filth, and never having time to read the news.

Ruth Graham Ruth Graham

Ruth Graham is a regular Slate contributor. She lives in New Hampshire.

The listicle’s title was wrong, however. Thanks to the Internet, everyone tells me these things about being a parent, all the time. My Facebook feed is an endless stream of blog posts and status updates depicting the messy, tedious, nightmarishly life-destroying aspects of parenting. I’ve gawked at “15 Unbelievable Messes Made by Kids,” “All the Birth Control You’ve Ever Needed in Six Pictures of Ponytails” (which appeared on a blog called Rage Against the Minivan), and this uterus-shriveling post on how “You will not get anything done when you are home with a baby.” There’s this one on how you’ll give up on your values, your body, your style, and your hygiene after you have kids. There’s that British comedian’s stand-up routine, which has been viewed more than 4,700,000 times on YouTube, about how even leaving the house is a miserable odyssey of screaming and fighting. Ha ... ha?

For overwhelmed parents, I imagine the relentless stream of realtalk is comforting. As a possible future parent, it’s utterly terrifying.

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You can trace the genre of charmingly harried parenting writing back to women like Erma Bombeck and Jean Kerr, whose best-selling 1957 book about raising four boys, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, became a movie starring Doris Day. (Kerr’s essays, with titles like “How to Decorate in One Easy Breakdown,” would translate seamlessly to a “mommy” blog.) But the direct mother of this style of parenting writing is probably Heather Armstrong, the blogger who writes under the name Dooce. Armstrong has been writing down-and-dirty posts about her family life for more than a decade now; the New York Times suggested a few years ago that she likely earned at least $1 million a year doing so.

When Armstrong’s style of ribald parenting blogging took off in the early 2000s, it must have been genuinely refreshing to parents who found themselves frequently bored, exhausted, and beleaguered, but unable to say so. Writers like Armstrong are pushing back against a long and damaging history of mothers having to pretend that parenting is nothing but bliss, that they are completely fulfilled by it, and that they are able to work, parent, and maintain a tidy home and a thrilling marriage without batting a perfectly mascaraed eyelash. It’s a trend that is still going strong on Instagram and certain smug corners of Facebook. And yet, the backlash to it has perhaps encouraged a little too much honesty.

The pissed-parent genre follows a reliable template: My life is a waking nightmare and I’ve lost all that I once held dear, but it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me! A popular post titled “So, You Would Like to Have Three Children” published last summer on the site Short-Winded Blog is a fine specimen of the form. The writer offers a “disclaimer” that her three children are “a blessing.” Then she launches into 2,000 words on the logistical trials, financial impossibilities, and emotional traumas of caring for three children at once. The 850 comments on the post reinforce this narrative. As one commenter put it, in a phrase that is the unofficial motto of the form: “[A]s crazy as things get, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Advertisers and publishers are increasingly finding ways to tap into the new let-it-all-hang-out pose. There was this Argentine Coke ad, in which a couple’s work, home, and sleep routines are destroyed by their growing child, and yet they are inexplicably happy when they get pregnant again. There’s Go the F**k to Sleep, and the book version of the massively popular Twitter account Honest Toddler, written in the voice of a toddler who says things like “There are no more carefree nights and weekends. You signed up for a child not a mobile phone.” The Tumblr Reasons My Son Is Crying, to which parents submit photos of their screaming tots accompanied by descriptions of their absurd laments (“The ocean is too loud”), will also be turned into a book soon.

My Facebook feed goes wild for this stuff. “So true!” my friends write over and over again, because apparently parents never get their houses clean, never have sex, never read books or have adult conversations, never shower, and never, ever have a moment to themselves. (Somehow they do find the time to blog.) Obviously a lot of this is hyperbole, for the sake of humor and self-deprecation and commiseration. The parents who write these posts get that. The parents who “like” these posts get that. And I get that.

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