Today's parenting books are more rough guides than how-to manuals—full of humor, shared wisdom, and heartbreak.
"Kids change everything," the saying goes, and every parent says it. My father spouted this chestnut to me just before my identical twin boys were born, and I’ve now been their SAHD, or stay-at-home dad, for almost two years. These kids certainly have changed me in ways my father—who never made a bottle or changed a diaper in his life, and who was gone for weeks at a time before he finally moved out when I was thirteen—couldn’t begin to understand.
I’ve happily endured endless days and sleepless nights of feeding, changing, bathing, and rocking, and I’ve learned to live with the fact that virtually any plan or commitment I make is subject to last-minute cancellation by an ill or ill-tempered child. The effect childcare has had on me is similar to the state Buddhists strive for: a total annihilation of the self. In fact, parenthood, I’ve found, is like a Zen koan—an absurd riddle that breaks down rational thought; sloughs off the old self; and reveals life to be an empty circle, a nothingness that’s complete in itself. Buddhists can spend their whole lives trying to achieve what they call “satori.” With the arrival of my twins, I experienced it after about, oh, six weeks.
Perhaps this is how it should be. Parenthood, says Yale University law professor Anne L. Alstott, requires real moral and emotional maturity. In No Exit: What Parents Owe Their Children and What Society Owes Parents, Alstott offers an insightful assessment of the ways children alter— or should alter—their parents’ lives. “We learn to be more generous than we thought we could be to another human being,” she writes. “We feel newly mature; we are the grown-ups now. We give more of ourselves than ever before, knowing we are doing the right thing.”
Society has always expected, and needed, parents to provide their children with what Alstott calls “continuity of care.” Every child deserves a committed parent, and our social and legal institutions convey this message in what amounts to a simple rule: “Do not exit.” But parents are now expected to spend more time and money on their kids than ever before. Once a financial bonus to parents, kids no longer grow up to work the farm and contribute to mom and dad’s nest egg. As parents face unprecedented economic peril, writes Alstott, child rearing has become a “one-way obligation” that parents enter “without expecting much other than love in return.”
As society increasingly expects more of parents, it also does less to assist them. The government’s budget offers few programs for parents, and these provide limited financial resources only to certain families. Alstott calls for a new social policy that takes care of parents who take care of their children, providing grants and insurance to lighten the burden and make child rearing “a life stage, not a life sentence.”
The heightened demands of parenthood may be behind the rise in recent years of a new literary genre: the parenting memoir. My mother’s generation read works by authors like Doctor Benjamin Spock, parenting books that explained how to raise kids. Today’s parents want more than childrearing manuals; they want books that explore the experience of being a parent. They want honest accounts of home life that articulate their own frustrations and shortcomings, and answer the almost universal question among parents today: How do other people do it?
The question on the mind of Sports Illustrated staff writer Austin Murphy, after he decided to become a full-time parent, was more like: How does she do it? Having traveled constantly for his job, Murphy finally realized one day that he’d been on the road for half his marriage and half his kids’ lives, and that he was missing out on the most important part of his own life—his family. So he offered to switch places with his wife, Laura, assuming her responsibilities for the home and their children, eight-year-old Willa and six-year- old Devin. Murphy would do all the laundry, shopping, cooking, carpooling, and play date arranging, while Laura would fling herself into her own shelved writing career. This “experiment,” as Murphy called it, would last six months, after which they would resume their previous roles.
In How Tough Could It Be? The Trials and Errors of a Sportswriter Turned Stay-at-Home Dad, Murphy records his adventures and misadventures as a SAHD, a journey on which he embarked, he realized, much as Ernest Shackleton set off for the Antarctic—“spectacularly ill-equipped to survive it.” Murphy quickly finds that he is sublimely ignorant about the simplest of domestic duties, from firing up the outdoor grill to paying the bills. He admits that he lacks organization, patience, and discipline—the keys of successful housewives—but notes that, to his credit, he’s a quick study and, for what it’s worth, “I’m in good shape.”
He’s also determined to become an über dad, and the way in which he throws himself clumsily, yet wholly, into his new job makes for some hilarious reading. His first attempt in the kitchen, for example, is a near disaster—he misjudges the roasting time on a chicken by an hour and his kids stage a mutiny, tearing into Milky Ways and taco shells—but his attitude remains positive. “What the hell: If Grandma Moses didn’t get serious about painting until her mid-seventies,” he writes, “who’s to say I can’t pick up cooking at forty-one?”
Murphy eventually masters cooking, as well as most other household duties, and, for the first time, he begins to understand the challenges and frustrations of running the household on a daily basis. Nowhere is he more eloquent on the trials of parenthood than when he muses on tiredness. “I thought I knew from exhaustion,” he writes. “I’ve pulled hundreds of all-nighters for [Sports Illustrated]; gone weekends without sleep during adventure races … None of those ordeals has matched the sustained, profound weariness I feel as Laura’s replacement, sinking down at nine p.m., a marathon of work behind me, only to realize that I am sitting on compressed laundry, the folding of which leads me to despair. This is how one’s identity slowly ebbs away in the gulag of these thankless, mindless tasks.” After one particularly long day, he confesses to Laura that he’s experiencing a “euphoria deficit.” Spending all this time with his children, he thought, would give him more moments of bliss. Laura responds with one of the truisms of parenting: It is inherently frustrating because so much of it is reaction. “You’re not following through on plans so much as you are reacting to emergencies,” she says.
Still, by the end of the six months, Murphy has become a new husband and father, more willing and able to take on the actual responsibilities of parenting, “rather than just the fun part.” But he also acknowledges the limitations of his experiment. At the halfway point, his wife reminds him of the distinction between his experience and that of a real mother: “Real moms are going through their days and thinking, ‘This is my life for the next twenty years.’ You’re thinking to yourself, ‘All I need to do is hang on for three more months.’”
Hanging on for three more months is a luxury that writer and SAHD Bruce Stockler can only wish he had. He was an editor of a trade magazine and already the father of a three-year-old son when he and his wife learned that in vitro fertilization had blessed them with not one healthy fetus, but three. Who will take primary care of the expanding Stockler tribe is never a question, since Bruce’s wife, Roni, earns three times his salary. Hoping to make partner, Roni also works up to ninety hours a week—meaning that for much of the time, Stockler will be flying solo with the kids.
In I Sleep at Red Lights: A True Story of Life After Triplets, Stockler captures the joy and insanity of trying to rear three infants plus one. Compared to Murphy, Stockler was born for the role of Mr. Mom, but it nonetheless boggles the mind how even the most capable parent could, say, single-handedly bottle-feed three six-month-olds at once. Here’s how Stockler pulls it off: “I sit the babies on the floor in their bouncy seats, prop pillows on their stomachs, and line bottles up on pillows, the nipples tilted down into their mouths. I pogo around the room adjusting bottles and pillows and seats. Now I wrap Jared’s and Barak’s hands around their bottles and encourage them to copy their sister.”
Living on an average of two hours of sleep a day, Stockler tries unsuccessfully to hold onto his job. In spite of the New Age management rhetoric he has read suggesting that men can juggle work and family, his boss fires him because his home life is interfering. “Instead of a glass ceiling,” Stockler writes, “I hit the Huggies ceiling. When I made my kids a priority, my days were numbered.” And though the stay-at-home dad is a popular trend story in magazines and newspapers, Stockler finds that his arrangement makes him a social misfit. Other dads look at him with a “confusion that borders on fear,” and moms, “while boosterish in their enthusiasm for our alternative lifestyle, are unable to absorb me into their viciously organized social circles.”
While the challenges faced by parents whose children are healthy are daunting enough, the parent of a seriously ill or handicapped child faces a fate far more disruptive and burdensome. Keeping Katherine: A Mother’s Journey to Acceptance is Susan Zimmermann’s deeply moving account of her struggle to come to terms with her daughter’s affliction with Rett Syndrome, a neurological disorder that affects almost exclusively girls and gradually renders a child profoundly disabled.
For 18 months, Zimmermann writes, Katherine was a beautiful, perfect baby—alert, responsive, and playful. But suddenly, everything changed. She started crossing her eyes and stopped speaking and crawling. She cried inconsolably for hours at night. Her body slumped and her head drooped. She looked around, but didn’t make eye contact. Gone were her smiles and looks of recognition.
Zimmermann took her daughter to scores of doctors who subjected her to batteries of tests—EKGs, CAT scans, spinal taps, ultrasounds— without getting a definite diagnosis. “I held her down as she screamed and fought the needles,” Zimmermann writes. “With each test, something in me died.” For parents who find it heartbreaking to walk away from a crying child’s crib at night, the thought of having to leave one in a hospital, as Zimmermann describes, is unimaginable: “I walked away with the beeps of thermometers, the smells of disinfectant, the sounds of Katherine’s cries, the ring of metal crib bars clanging like a prison door in my head, and a horrible sense that Kat was innocent but she’d been sentenced for life and there was nothing I could do to change it.”
It would be three years before Katherine was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome, which, although it had been identified in Austria nearly two decades earlier, was unknown in the United States until 1983. Katherine’s condition would overturn the lives of Zimmermann and her husband, Paul. Before Katherine was born, the couple, both attorneys, had moved from Washington, D.C., to Denver, where they worked at downtown firms and spent the weekends hiking the Rockies. The arrival of Katherine, their first child, made Zimmermann feel complete, she writes. But as Katherine slipped away, the couple was tested in every way. Zimmermann writes with great honesty about her feelings of bitterness, frustration, and disappointment, about her conflicted feelings that she couldn’t live with Katherine and couldn’t live without her.
She blamed herself for not being a good mother, and she blamed Paul, at first, for causing Katherine’s sickness. (He had given Katherine a cup of unpurified mountain water when she was eleven months old, the same water that put Zimmermann in the hospital for a week.) “How did I deal with the horror of my husband destroying my only child?” she writes. “A cacophony of confusion: hate/ love, anger/compassion, togetherness/ distance, hope/helplessness, all wrapped in despair.” Like other parenting memoirs, Zimmermann’s book is filled with references to her child’s milestones, but they all but stop at eighteen months and become points that recede into the past: It’s been x months since Katherine last crawled; y years since she last walked. At the end of the book, Zimmermann notes, “Kat has not spoken a word in twenty-four years.” But Keeping Katherine is less about Katherine’s helpless condition than it is about how her helplessness transformed Zimmermann. “Katherine came close to destroying my life,” she writes. “Or I came close to letting my reaction to Katherine destroy my life.” What saves Zimmermann is that she perseveres and learns life’s hardest lesson: how to accept the seemingly unacceptable, “to accept those gray areas where there are no answers, no clues—just mystery.”
If there’s an underlying message to most parenting memoirs, that’s it. All mothers and fathers would like to think that the art of parenting principally involves shaping and guiding our children. But it’s really about loving our children unconditionally, no matter how wonderful or dire the circumstances. It’s about letting them shape us into being the best people, and consequently the best parents, we can be.
John D. Spalding is the (sleep-deprived) editor of SoMAreview.com.
This review originally appeared in Science & Spirit magazine.
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