Parenting memoirs from Ayelet Waldman and others.

Keeping an eye on kids and parents.
May 13 2009 1:48 PM

Parents Who Talk Too Much

What do "bad" moms and slacker dads have to tell us?

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For a more slapdash version of hell-with-a-halo, there is the blog-turned-book by Heather B. Armstrong, whose potty mouth (along with her very pretty self, I suspect) has helped make her Web site, dooce.com, such a big success that her husband has quit his job to help run it. This first-time mother summons boundless energy to riff, especially on her daughter's dirty diapers and her own plumbing issues (among them the resumption of a "certain procedure" with her "hot geek" husband after a long post-childbirth hiatus).

These are not diaries of mad housewives, furious at men and eager to fly the coop. They are diaries of medicated mothers, professionally diagnosed with "badness"—bipolar disorder in Waldman's case and postpartum depression in Armstrong's—yet doing their endlessly guilty, giddy best to deal in the down-and-dirty trenches and share it with the rest of us, all without betraying a hint of humorlessness. And, ideally, without hurting the kids: "I always share what I'm writing with them," Waldman tells us. "I check in to make sure they're not uncomfortable and don't feel exposed." Armstrong slips in Hallmark-style notes to baby Leta as she develops—"What a great month, little one. We are having so much fun together. …" Years from now, it seems safe to say that big Leta and Waldman's brood, looking back, won't feel particularly violated. But I can't imagine they'll consider their mothers liberated, either.

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So if mothers are taking aim at Good Mommy sanctimony, only to end up sounding rather like angels with attitude, how—and what—are fathers doing as they join now in the vogue of confessional parenting? In part, not surprisingly, they're out to challenge the Slacker Dad myth, which is still alive and well. If that mission sounds enviably—unfairly—easy, it is, up to a point. Merely by demonstrating they can write about domestic experiences with firsthand vividness, father memoirists outshine their hands-off predecessors, hiding in clouds of cigar smoke.

Yet you won't catch father diarists vying for a goody-goody image either, and that isn't just because it would be wimpy to sound more conscientious than naughty mommies do. It's because, as Michael Lewis disarmingly admits in the first sentence of Home Game,claims to being thoroughly reformed wouldn't be credible. The "gift for avoiding unpleasant chores without attracting public notice," inherited from his father, isn't readily relinquished—and plenty of guys would surely agree.

Besides, what would born-again fathers look like, exactly? Even the rarer men deprived of slacker ancestry, like Sam Apple—reared by his father (his ill mother was incapacitated throughout his childhood and died when he was 14)—have no idea what the rules for a new role might be. "The American father," Apple writes, suffers from "the longest-running identity crisis of all time." Lewis agrees that "[t]here are no standards," noting that within a few miles of his Berkeley, Calif., home there are people who consider him a Neanderthal and others who rate him a truly modern man. Sure, it's confusing. Still, why get all worked up trying to resolve the identity crisis or codify standards? These fathers see the trap mothers have fallen into and wisely say, "No thank you."

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That doesn't mean they reach for margaritas. It means they muddle along, confiding their perplexity as they go, pretty sure we'll listen if they can get us laughing—with and at them, and at their kids and wives, and the experts, too, as everyone proves surprising and strange at some point or other. Their wit aside, debonair Lewis and Apple, sweetly dorky and full of worries, couldn't be better evidence that fathers don't conform to generic expectations. Nor does, or should, the rest of the family, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise: These guys don't lecture, but that is the lesson they converge on from different directions.

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Lewis is an insouciant raconteur who can spin out even standard dad stories (about, say, sending a kid to school dressed outlandishly) without making them sound stale. On the contrary, his memoir deftly freshens up an old-fashioned notion utterly at odds with the current helicoptering ethos: "It honestly never occurred to me," as he puts it at one point about his firstborn, "that I should in some way be shaping her." It definitely does occur to anxious Apple, but he is cured by a quirky exploration of expertise that aims to shape us. Digging into assorted techniques that variously promise to ease pain, instill calm, promote child perfection—Apple unearths the Stalinist origins of the Lamaze method!—he discovers a retinue of peculiar proselytizers whose zeal leaves him highly dubious. As emboldening insights with which to embark on adulthood, I'm not sure a kid could do better.

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