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.

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.

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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