The worst parents in the world

Screw Gymboree and breast-feeding! New confessional memoirs by Ayelet Waldman and Michael Lewis join an ever-growing genre lashing out at our expectations for today's mommies and daddies.

By Rebecca Traister
Published May 6, 2009 10:52AM (EDT)

The bad parents are running amok! They're everywhere you turn, talking about postpartum depression, confessing that their kids are addicted to SpongeBob, throwing their breast pumps in the garbage!

As per Mothers' and Fathers' Day marketing traditions, new volumes are spilling into bookstores by the minute. But this year, they are titles like "True Mom Confessions," a compilation of anonymous online admissions of "mommy misdemeanors" from people who find themselves wishing that their dog would lick up their kid's vomit, or who look forward to getting gasoline because standing at the pump is the only "me time" they get, or who cry all the time. In that vein, there's also "It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita," by Heather Armstrong, the cyber-guru behind, the most successful blog in the history of the mom-o-sphere. And then there's "Afterbirth: Stories You Won't Read in a Parenting Magazine," the book version of Dani Klein's series of performances that she's dubbed "The Vagina Monologues for the stroller set." Next year, plans to release a collection of stories called, succinctly, "Bad Parent."

Taken together, there is a loud and lusty temper tantrum being thrown by American parents. And who can blame them? They are finally rebelling against the judgments and assumptions and expectations and slings and Bjorns and blogs that get hurled at them while they are "parenting," the term that has, in recent years, come to indicate a full-time, harshly judged, cutthroat vocation, rather than simply something that some adults do partway through their lives.

Parents, as they say, are going through a stage.

Leading their red-faced, wailing charge are two big kids who have been at this contrarian caretaker thing for a while. First, this week, comes Ayelet Waldman's "Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace," followed in June by Michael Lewis' "Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood."

Waldman and Lewis make an improbably perfect set: Both live in Berkeley, Calif. (an epicenter of holier-than-thou parenting crunch), both have partners of public repute (Lewis is married to former MTV newscaster Tabitha Soren; Waldman is blissfully mated for life -- and don't you forget it! -- to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon). Both got their start in the bah-humbug baby business eons ago, provoking gasps by penning Scroogey essays about their family lives for competing online magazines, Slate (Lewis) and Salon (Waldman), way before everyone and their nanny was on a lactation listserv.

Here's the part where you will expect to read that no matter how similar the cultural and socioeconomic molds that produced these two writers, their books are worlds apart, since one is a mom and one is a dad.

Indeed, reading the books back to back, it is possible to see all too vividly how gender divides play out, not necessarily when it comes to raising children, but certainly when it comes to writing about raising children.

Woven into every sentence of "Bad Mother" is the sense that Waldman's punishing parental reckoning was unavoidable. Why wouldn't it be? Mothers, after all, are evaluated all the time, by themselves, by their friends, their family, and by strangers on the street.

In one of the many anecdotes in "Bad Mother" that makes one never want to be a parent (and one that Salon readers might remember), Waldman describes the torture of trying to breast-feed her fourth baby, who was born with a palate abnormality that made it impossible for him to suckle. She goes to special nursing clinics, pumps constantly and painfully for months, joins support groups. One day, while standing on line at a bakery, just as little Abie has begun to take his bottle of expressed milk, the woman in line behind Waldman leans in and says, "You know, breast is best." Waldman writes that the correct response would have been "a stern rejoinder to mind her own business." To my mind, the correct response would have been to clock the lady in the jaw. But Waldman does neither. Instead she bursts into tears and spills all her breast-feeding trauma to the stranger. Perhaps this is because she herself is prone to making similar mommy interventions, once approaching another mother in the grocery store to lecture about the mercury dangers of the tuna fish she sees piled in her cart.

Lewis, for his part, aims hard for a "Who me, parent?" attitude of casual paternity that he fondly hopes will recall his own father, a man who learned of Lewis' birth by telegram, jokingly bragged that he never spoke to his son before he went to college, and from whom, Lewis announces, he has inherited the gift for "avoiding unpleasant chores without attracting public notice." Never mind that writing an entire book about actually doing unpleasant chores attracts quite a bit of public notice. Lewis is determined to behave, from his title forward, as though the fact that he has written a tome about fatherhood is pure, passive happenstance. "The reader will quickly see that I didn't set out to write about new fatherhood. I set out to write about Paris, but Paris was overshadowed by a seven month old baby." The fatherhood part -- like the baby itself -- just overtook him, the same way the decision about whether to have a third child happened: "[Tabitha] had already made up her mind. It was up to me to prevent it, which is to say that it was only a matter of time before it happened. And that was that." Were it not for these babies, showing up and casting their shadows over major European capitals, Lewis might just as likely have penned a treatise on motorcycle repair! Or unicorns!

But these differences in attitude come down to long-held expectations: We expect women to write about motherhood, even if their early careers were spent as criminal defense attorneys, as Waldman's was. And until very recently, men were supposed to write about sports and business (as Lewis has, to great acclaim), politics, literature, space, sex, dinosaurs, mechanics, theater, poetry, cooking, history, archaeology, parenting in Spock-ian prescriptive terms, or pretty much any topic in the world except for parenting in personal terms.

The sense has long been that women would always have to answer for their crimes or brag about their successes in the only arena in which they were truly expected to be experts, while men would always be let off the hook from ever having to think a single thought, let alone utter a single syllable, about the merits of Baby Einstein or Ferberizing. These are assumptions that undergird many of the other predictable differences between Waldman and Lewis' books.

Waldman's chronicle of her shortcomings is a study in self-flagellation, while Lewis' in self-appreciation; Waldman cannot stop writing about the magnificent -- and munificent! -- presence of her adored husband. Lewis barely mentions his wife except as a kind of ill-tempered, justifiably irritated milk machine for each of the three kids whose births he chronicles. He even, horrifyingly, thanks her in his acknowledgments for being his editor, fact-checker and "incubator of the source material."

Waldman rehashes in miserable detail not only the private intrusions of strangers in bakeries, but all the public vitriol that was unleashed at her for some of her earliest gasp-inducing parenthood essays. Even as she defends herself from their attacks, Waldman still feels the need to reprint some of the nastiest letters she received from Salon readers in response to her columns here, which included memorable lines like "Ayelet Waldman is, in layman's terms, a FREAK. I hope Salon's remittance goes directly into some kind of trust fund to pay for her poor kid's future psychotherapy" and "[P]leeeaassseee pleeeeeease take her awaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyy: she's RUINED Michael Chabon for me. I'll never read another of his books, EVER. I won't be ABLE to -- just THINKING of him married to HER makes me ILL." (I don't want to get all "You're So Vain" on you, dear Salon readers, but if you think this book is about you, then you're partially right.) She also writes about the wrath she incurred with her infamous New York Times "Modern Love" essay about loving her husband more than her children. In that piece, as in parts of "Bad Mother," Waldman had a vital, important point to make: that the over-focus on mommying combined with the common inequities of domestic responsibility have left many mothers resenting their husbands, and transferring their feelings of romantic love onto their children. But while the "Modern Love" piece contained a solid, sterling truth, Waldman had wrapped it in taffeta, poured gasoline on it, and struck a match. The result in that case was an appearance on "Oprah," during which one mother lunged at her across the stage, snarling, "Let me at her."

Lewis, for his part, radiates a panting desire for someone, anyone, to accuse him of negligence or sexism or lunge across a stage to throttle him. His stories are all about parental feelings and behaviors he seems to think are radically inappropriate, or at least radically inappropriate to voice: He hates the Parisian Gymboree class to which he sometimes takes his infant daughter; he sometimes gets out of parenting duties by rushing off to his study to work; he dresses his toddler daughter unfashionably. The reason he wrote the book, Lewis relates, was because of "the persistent and disturbing gap between what I was meant to feel and what I actually felt" about child rearing. "Expected to feel overcome with joy -- 'It's a boy! You must be so happy!' I often felt puzzled. (I shouldn't be just as happy if it was a girl?) Expected to feel outraged, I often felt secretly pleased; expected to feel worried, I often felt indifferent. ('It's just a little blood.')"

But neither Waldman nor Lewis is really as bad as they fear, or wish, that they were. While their genders certainly put an exclamation point on disparities in responsibility and attitude, their chronicles of parenthood are just simply different sides of the same process, one in which the gap between what it means to be a mother and what it means to be a father is, slowly, incrementally narrowing. Like it or not, parenthood is -- at a snail's pace, perhaps -- evolving from an activity that is purely feminine to one that is a shared joy and a shared burden. As Lewis himself admits, with some obligatory sulk against the dying of the patriarchal light, "Obviously, we're in the midst of some long unhappy transition between the model of fatherhood as practiced by my father and some ideal model, approved by all, to be practiced with ease by the perfect fathers of the future."

It's still far (very far) from an equal proposition, sure; the tolls of domestic work still find their most scarily apt description in Arlie Hochschild's 20-year-old book "The Second Shift." But as I was reading Lewis' book on the subway one day in April, I overheard across from me a meeting between a 6-year-old girl and a 3-year-old girl, accompanied, respectively, by one's mother and the other's father, a young man with a yin-yang symbol tattooed below his ear and a juice box held carefully between his knees. Watching the two parents talk, I thought of Lewis' baleful passage, about how "women may smile at a man pushing a baby stroller, but it is with the gentle condescension of a high officer of an army of a village that surrendered without a fight. Men just look away in shame." Lewis is an elegant and funny writer; his point here is hilariously self-pitying. But as I listened to the subway mom and the subway dad talk about public schools, the comparative age of fairy-princess obsession, and where they bought their daughters' similar matching striped tights, I searched for shame or condescension and I really, truly found none. They were just two parents shuttling their kids around on a Tuesday afternoon.

As much as both Waldman and Lewis are making what they believe to be splashes -- and were big splashes when they first began tackling these subjects -- there are so many currents roiling the pool that their ripples may barely be noticed at this point.

Like Hillary Clinton, who proposed healthcare reform that made her a pariah in 1993, and 15 years later found herself campaigning against half a dozen candidates using her ideas as a model, Waldman may have found that her outrageous reputation has been eclipsed by a blogosphere drowning in bad mother confessionals. But she is still a true lightning rod, and her new book is generously studded with Ayelet-astic grenades. She writes of aborting a baby at a comparatively late stage because of a genetic abnormality, and in her ensuing grief and guilt, wreaking havoc on other women suffering similarly by joining their online "heartbreaking choice" support group and then insisting that they use the word "abortion" to come to terms with what they had done. Waldman writes about how she gave up her beloved criminal defense job not because she was anxious to slough off her professional responsibilities or because it was a pragmatic necessity, but because she was jealous of her work-at-home husband's days alone with their baby. She writes about her disappointment at the fact that her children are not exceptionally gifted, and the stages of denial, grief and anger upon learning that one of her kids had some learning issues. She confesses her surety that she will one day be jealous of her son's wife, and her fears that her kids will inherit her bipolar disorder.

Waldman remains an invaluable answer to Caitlin Flanagan, the silver-tongued specter of maternal servility. From the first, she admits to escaping the doldrums of her self-determined stay-at-home motherhood by developing her writing career, something Flanagan rarely cops to in her profitably published paeans to opting out. Where Flanagan flogs her formula for marital bliss, which is that if you serve your husband hot meals, keep his house, raise his kids and give him blow jobs, he will repay you by remaining faithful and caring for you through illness, Waldman's considerably more appealing equation is that if your husband cooks a hot meal, does a load of laundry and shoulders his half of the childcare, he will get a blow job.

Lewis's big-dicked dirge for the lost world of detachment fathering, meanwhile, has dinosaur written all over it. Lewis both knows and kind of loves this. While it is surely challenging for modern men to reconstruct their masculinity in relation to a diaper genie, it is also an inherently gallant act. If mothers voice ambivalence about a baby, it is a failure of maternity and femininity, but if fathers do, then in some ways, they must be congratulated for voicing anything at all. Or, as Lewis puts it upon tallying up his childcare hours after the birth of his son, "I expected to be chastised for doing so little but instead found myself appreciated for doing anything at all."

It's actually hard not to give him credit, even as (and perhaps because) he rants about the emasculation of his paternal post. The stories he's telling are about sitting in a hospital room sucking mucus from his sick son's nose and mouth, taking his daughter to school and to Gymboree, and dancing like Salome with garbage bags to entertain an infant as he sings to her in the morning. As far as I'm concerned, Lewis can talk a big fratty game, be the swaggering, knuckle-dragging drunkard horse-race gambler of his dreams. He can talk about the changing attitudes about fatherhood being a sex-sapping drag. Whatever gets him through the night. Because he's right about the process, of which he and his book are a part. If he's stressed about money, work, his children's development, the happiness of his partner; if he gets bored by his own offspring and is sometimes proud of their bad behavior, and admits that bonding doesn't always come as easily as he'd been told, and he wants to write all that off to being a man, then that's fine. What he's actually describing is parenthood, as it has been experienced and expressed by mothers for generations. And as long as he keeps trucking everyone to Gymboree, he can kick his feet about it all he wants.

The affection and pride that Lewis feels for his children, and for his role in their development, actually comes off of his prose in waves, even as he tries to put distance and humor between him and the scene of his last reading of "Mommy Laid an Egg." It doesn't hurt that he has composed perhaps one of the funniest and most tender anecdotes about parental pride that I have ever read (it involves a resort swimming pool, sailor-caliber profanity, and a 3-year-old).

Perhaps, after enough years of enough men doing all of this crap -- bitching and moaning about how their penises are shrinking with every bump of the Bugaboo Frog -- we will be able to truly attend to the task of un-sexing parenting, of readjusting the definitions of our daily lives, so that baby care is no longer purely feminine, and moneymaking is no longer purely masculine, and those who cross over -- whether they're apologetic and guilty for both wanting just motherhood, and wanting more than just motherhood, like Waldman, or whether they're vaguely embarrassed by the lengths to which they've traveled to be full partners in the raising of their kids -- can stop kvetching about it and just go on doing it.

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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