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?

Now that my children are on the brink of adulthood, I have a fantasy of writing a 21st-century bildungsroman about a daughter, or maybe a son, whose coming-of-age story is a variation on The Truman Show. As she's leaving for college, my character will suddenly discover that ever since gestation her existence has been chronicled in public, beginning with an in utero baby blog narrated by a rapt parent-to-be. Then follows an exhaustive new parent blog. By preschool, the mode has shifted to irreverently indiscreet columns—full of family chaos—written for a thriving online magazine with a big audience. Finally, the voluminous output gets shaped into one of the "bad parent" memoirs that have lately become so popular.

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This portrait of family dynamics in the Internet era could skew toward the dark or the comic as the poor kid copes with the exposure—and above all with the figure who hogs the spotlight: her secret-spilling parent. But the current crop of uninhibited memoirs—Ayelet Waldman's Bad Mother, Heather Armstrong's It Sucked and Then I Cried, Sam Apple's American Parent, and Michael Lewis'Home Game —suggests one key determinant of the tone. Make the outspoken chronicler a mom, and the legacy may be claustrophobia. But give the kid a confessional dad, and the son or daughter just might leave home feeling, if not exactly liberated, unexpectedly in love with our endlessly examined and exhibited family life these days.

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At its birth many decades ago, the domestic exposé was of course explicitly aimed not at kids—nor at fathers, tuned-out behind their newspapers or off playing golf. The audience for this anti-sentimental portraiture, the sort midwifed by Betty Friedan and Erma Bombeck, was other mothers: Angels in the House fed up with mythologized motherhood and ready to bond over their inner bitches. The most successful mothers-turned-memoirists have stuck with the consciousness-raising formula ever since: Evoke the emotionally incorrect muck and panic of life with clamoring kids and (here's an apt verb) milk the subversive humor for what it's worth—which is ideally to ease anxiety and build female solidarity. To hell with what the rest of the family might think.

But a curious fate has overtaken the maternal debunkers of sweet domesticity: They have become, well, domesticated. As I wrote on the occasion of Judith Warner's 2005 contribution to the cause, Perfect Madness(which earned her prime blogging real estate at the New York Times), if there is a contemporary myth of motherhood, it is that we continue to mythologize self-sacrificial maternity. Decades of disgruntled nurturers, culminating in self-proclaimed slacker moms busy at their keyboards, have given "mommy mystique" new meaning: These days, naughty-mom blogging seems to have become a parenting accessory almost as essential as Baby Björns to the with-it-mother set. Don't you dare judge me; I'll incriminate myself, thank you—now pass the margarita.

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The irony isn't lost on Ayelet Waldman, one of the genre's star practitioners. At the start of Bad Mother, assembled from pieces she wrote for a variety of places, she points out that the warts-and-all exhibitionism is no longer so fresh—and takes you only so far. This Berkeley mama of four (and wife of novelist Michael Chabon) is astute, and honest, enough to acknowledge that her tell-all crowd has ended up with its own judgmental style: "[W]e bad moms are happy to confess our sins because we're confident that those who come closest, and with the most sanctimony, to emulating the self-effacing, self-sacrificing, soft-spoken, cheerful, infinitely patient Good Mother are the real Bad Mothers" whose kids are fated to be uptight prigs. And she admits the anti-sanctimony isn't really all that cathartic. Just beneath the surface lurks the same old insecurity: "As happy as I am to crown myself Queen of the Maternal Damned, part of me still believes that my children would be better off with June Cleaver."

The upshot is a peculiar inversion of the old maternal predicament. Where pre- Feminine Mystiquemothers wore forced smiles as they coped frenetically in their lonely cul de sacs, today's Internet-era confiders have their own hypocrisy: They swear freely and reveal their serious psychological disorders while telegraphing to millions—mainly, but no longer only, other mothers—their passionate, deeply trusting attunement with husband and kids and the work-at-home lives that nurture it. Look closely at the new badges of bold badness and tell me the mothers wearing them don't in fact exude an up-to-date (which means an antic, not at all sedate) angelic aura.

Waldman, for example, revisits the stir she created—she was pilloried on Oprah—when she proclaimed in a New York Times Style section piece that she loved her husband even more than she adored her children. She also flaunts such sins as raucous family dinners and bedtime bedlam borne of special routines for all four kids. In her most moving chapter, she reveals her deep attachment to the genetically abnormal fetus she decides to abort. Move over, June Cleaver.