Why having kids is like going through puberty: "I really feel like I regressed"

Salon talks to author Kimberly Harrington about her new book of essays and why parenting is always "Amateur Hour"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 30, 2018 6:59PM (EDT)

"Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words" by Kimberly Harrington (Isaac Wasuck/Harper Collins)
"Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words" by Kimberly Harrington (Isaac Wasuck/Harper Collins)

In a world supersaturated with "mommy bloggers" and groaning bookstore shelves full of competing memoirs on childrearing takes a brave person to go down that well-trod road. But Kimberly Harrington is one tough mother. The essayist and copywriter's new collection, arriving just in time for Mother's Day, reveals itself right from the title: "Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words."

Filled with the blunt, witty observations that have gained Harrington a following for her McSweeney's contributions, "Amateur Hour" is a candid look at both the joys and horrors of family life, including pregnancy loss, marital strife and the guilt and exhaustion of "work-life balance."

Salon spoke to Harrington via phone recently about motherhood, Facebook and other confounding things.

There are so many books out there about motherhood and there are even so many funny books out there about motherhood. How did you say, I’m going to do it and I’m going to do something different?

I started putting some personal essays out there on Medium and McSweeney’s. Not all the pieces were about parenthood, but there was definitely an intersection, because that’s what’s going on in my life. When my agent reached out to me, it was for one of my pieces on McSweeney’s, "Please Don’t Get Murdered at School Today." Then it just took shape from there, where it seemed, “OK. This is the thread that’s going on in your life right now. You're approaching it from this serious, crybaby angle.”

I wasn’t like, "I want to write about motherhood all the time and I want to write about parenting all the time." When the book was announced, it was announced under "parenting." If you spend any time with me, you know I should not be writing a parenting book. That would be apparent to anyone.

It’s so interesting because it follows a narrative. There are things that you reveal along the way. It’s a collection of essays that also really functions very effectively as a memoir.

When my editor went through it the first time, she had comments along those lines. I thought I was just writing these individual little building blocks that would hopefully make sense and would be friends when I put them all together. When she said that, I feel like something shifted in my head where I understood it a bit better, and I let go of my hangup over being under this theoretical "parenting" category. It ended up being much more these different angles on that experience of not just parenting or motherhood but my life. When I got into proofreading and all the really nitty-gritty details, it was the first time I realized I actually hadn't set the stage with my kids’ names or anything.

And it works out because you tease out these details. You don’t see those things necessarily coming early on in the book. It’s like, “Hold on. I think that I’m reading a memoir.”

This is total trickery for a book. Actually, only a month ago I was really struggling about it with how it’s going to fit together, especially, with the conceptual humor pieces. I think there is the memoir part of it that made sense for me, and then I looked back and realized, “Oh, it’s a portfolio.” It’s like, "You basically made what you’ve spent your whole life doing but just in a book form.”

It reminds me of Shirley Jackson’s essays on motherhood, where she’s also in this house in Vermont talking about the chaos of it. It’s very funny, but with this through line of the honest-to-God bleakness of raising a family.

My approach is that I feel really superstitious about complaining about parenting. I really don’t care what people think about me or think about my parenting, but probably because I had a miscarriage with my first pregnancy and I had a miscarriage in between my first and second child, I just have this superstition built in where it’s, “Do you really want to complain about it? You wanted it.” I think that there’s always this fine line that I’m trying to walk in terms of recognizing that it grinds you to dust just on a fundamental level. I look at my friends who chose not to have children, it’s like, “You guys look really young.”

I’ve aged like a two-term president since I had these kids. It is very cliché. I hate even that I’m saying this out loud, but I can’t imagine my life without my kids either, because it’s just given form to what I’ve done since. What mother hasn’t tried to write about that? I do think that the huge challenge in any sort of writing about parenting is that writing is a huge outlet for mothers, especially now that everyone can write and put stuff out there.

You also experience it to a degree in marriage. It’s like you become part of this community that is really most of the world, and yet you are also in a fortress with walls around it.

I really had this experience where I struggled with both kids when they were infants, especially when they were both really little. They were two years apart, and that was just all hard. I finally realized that the last time I felt this hormonal, that I felt that insecure and unsteady, and that I didn’t know what I was doing, was puberty.

Everyone thinks they're having a very unique experience. Maybe that’s why they don’t talk about it, or people don’t want to feel like they're failing, which again reminds me of being in middle school and high school. You don’t want to talk about what makes you sad, or what you're angry about, or what you're upset about, or what makes you feel bad about yourself because you’ll feel like a loser with your friends.

At least for me, I really feel like I regressed to that level of, I don’t want to be a loser who doesn’t know how to do this and is complaining about it or is crying about it. That’s a really vulnerable place to be when you're a grown-up.

You talk also about miscarriage, you talk about marital problems, you talk about anxiety. You talk about wanting to have your career and being good at your career and loving your career. These are all things that are often shrouded in tremendous taboo.

The career stuff I actually felt uncomfortable with, which surprises me because I’m not shy about what I do and I’ve always wanted to work. I think the anxiety one in particular, it was helpful that I had shared an early draft of that piece. I remember feeling really nervous about sharing it. To me it’s very similar to being vocal about miscarriage. I felt like a very similar sort of reaction — which is you think you're the only person and then you realize it's quite literally everyone you know.

Our culture really likes to just have pleasant chitchat and no one wants to be a downer in conversations and there’s a lot of quirky things I think amongst women in general: If I am just having cocktail party chitchat and I talk about being anxious, then where the hell is that conversation going to go? I think sometimes — and I certainly have this experience as a reader — when I read a piece that really connects, I feel like you give you permission to then have that dialogue. I find the evolution of sharing and feedback really interesting as this book took shape.

I’ve interviewed Brene Brown a couple of times, and she talks so much about how we as a culture admire when someone steps out and says, "This is who I am, this is my experience." But when it’s your own experience you feel, I don’t think so.

I think that I was able to step back a little bit and realize that there were certain conditions in my life that made it possible for me to say whatever I wanted without fear of fallout, even though once it was shared I would be sitting at meetings with people who knew me and I knew they probably had read [my] pieces. I think we all talk a very big game about how vocal we want other people to be on our behalf.

You talk about miscarriage, you talk about mental health, but honestly your essay about your relationship as seen through the prism of Facebook was the most painful thing.

Social media becomes a mirror for what's going on with your life, or what you're insecure about. Everyone at a certain degree is trying to pretend like they have it together.

Every now and then I try to imagine the possibility that someone looks at my life and thinks, well, she’s got her shit together.

That’s how it works. I think it’s all of us walking around pretty much knowing that in one way or another no one has her shit together. Then we all think everyone else is killing it on some level.

I almost can’t remember what my life was like before social media. How did I compare myself negatively to other people?

I actually was just talking about that the other night in terms of the phases of my kids’ lives. When they both were born there was no iPhone, no social media. I'm really, in hindsight, grateful for that.

The upside is if I had had to see people posting about their sleeping babies I would have lost my shit for good. I was barely hanging on both times, and I think that would’ve done it. I have a lot of empathy for new mothers who are dealing with that because to me that is a really toxic combination when you're that vulnerable and hormonal and really in the thick of comparing of yourself with everyone on every level. It’s not just you, it’s what your baby is doing and is your baby sleeping and is everything normal. I’m sure there’s a support level too that’s really counter balances.

I interviewed this actress a couple of months ago and she talked about being in a private Facebook group for women going through postpartum depression. That was huge for her. But then the other day in my Instagram recommendations I found this woman with pictures of her adorable perfect infant and a puppy and a 2-year-old, and I thought, screw you, lady.

There’s no way I could been creating a Van Gogh situations with either my kids because they never slept. Every time I see those napping baby with puppy pictures I need a trigger warning. I think that’s the next phase of my lady life is transitioning fully from the trauma to the "That’s adorable" again.

My daughter was a horrible, horrible sleeper. She didn’t sleep through the night till she was like a year and a half old. I remember clearly this one night — and we’ve all had a million of these — where you can’t believe you're still alive but you're so exhausted that you want to cry. Her crib was in her room and I got up to try to get her to fall back asleep. I was basically slung over this crib trying to sleep standing up. I had this conscious thought which was, sear this moment into your brain right now if you ever consider wanting another kid. I can remember still to this day. She is almost 12. I remember that feeling of just like, don’t ever forget how broken you are right now as you're trying to sleep standing up. It’s been highly effective, I have to say. It's something that’s like sending future messages to yourself because, yes, you’ll forget.

I have done the same thing where I’ve had moments in my life where I’ve thought, don’t you romanticize this. Don’t you ever romanticize what it’s like to have to push a stroller through the snow.

Don’t get me wrong. Once these kids got to a certain age they were delightful. I love hanging out with them. It was still hard. I look at pictures of them being little kids and there are aspects I miss about it. I think a lot of mothers, and dads for that matter, miss the all-in on loving you dynamic that you lose over time. I like talking to the people they are now. It was just laugh out loud funny when I finally realized this is what I’m struggling with — I can’t deal with not knowing what you want. For all the challenges of middle school, I thoroughly enjoy being able to just talk with them like human beings. It’s intense, but we just do the best we can.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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