There may be no cognitive dissonance quite like parenthood. There’s the rapture of it, yes. The transcendence of it, yes. The unbounded love you hear about and hear about and hear about, until you think that it’s all got to be some kind of well-orchestrated breeders’ propaganda to conscript those who have not yet procreated, and can thus still stay up late on Saturday and sleep till noon on Sunday and go to Paris for a four-day weekend simply because they can.
But you enlist at your peril, because you’re entering a frightening world — one of preschools and day camps and Cheerios ground into the carpet; a world in which there’s no dinner out unless it’s in a restaurant that has paper tablecloths and a children’s menu, where the entire mealtime conversation will consist of one parent or the other repeating over and over again that if you put that bread stick in your sister’s ear one more time we are going home this instant.
Meantime, there’s the always-present knowledge that your old world is still out there, the beautiful people and their cocktails at 8:00, but it’s on the other side of a pane of glass — childproof glass, of course. All you, with your babies in tow, can do is rage against the gathering darkness — and pinkness and blueness and general pastelness — of your life, and wonder how you got here.
So it can be kind of a mixed bag.
It doesn’t help, of course, that the folks who make money selling stuff to anxious parents — I’m looking at you especially, book-publishing industry — acknowledge all of this only in the most earnest of ways. There’s plenty to read about keeping your sanity while raising children, but it’s all common-sense stuff about task division and taking breaks and the relentlessly repeated magic of date night with your spouse. What’s missing is some ‘tude. What’s missing are books by parents who love their kids, who cherish their kids, and who are probably doing a fine job raising them, but who will commit to print the primal scream of every parent, which is, loosely translated: Was I out of my mind?
And then, once in a great while, a book like that comes along. In 2004, it was Christie Mellor’s The Three-Martini Playdate, which actually offered real advice about how to preserve a little corner of your life as your own, but also asked a wonderfully outraged question: if parents were here first, how did the kids wind up taking over? Last year, it was the bestselling Go the F**k to Sleep, which was better in concept than it was in execution, but was still sublime for the catharsis it provided.
Now there’s Sh*tty Mom: The Parenting Guide For the Rest of Us, and while it may make less-than-original use of the strategically elided letter, it is smartly, brashly, nearly criminally funny. It also — no small thing — carries a powerful message to all parents, but especially moms, that distilled to its essence is this: chill.
The mere existence of the book is an improbable achievement, since it was written by no fewer than four moms: Laurie Kilmartin, Karen Moline, Alicia Ybarbo and Mary Ann Zoellner, two of them TV producers, one of them a journalist and author, and one — Kilmartin — a stand-up comic and writer for Conan. The mix of communication skills and mommy smarts shows.
The book’s chapters serve as something of a cook’s tour of every single forbidden question, thought or fear a parent has ever secretly had and wondered why it should be forbidden at all: “How to Drop Your Sick Kid Off at Daycare Before the Teacher Figures It Out,” “Yes, The Babysitter is Judging You,” “It’s Come to Your Attention That Your Kid is Merely Average.” There’s the universal cri de coeur of the parent traveling with kids: “M*therf***king Babies on a M*therf***ing Plane” (no coy asterisks actually used in this chapter). There’s straight-up advice: “‘Your Daddy is a Cheating F***kbag’ and Other Sentiments You Should Keep to Yourself” (this one either). There’s even literary commentary: “Worst Children’s Book: The Giving Tree vs. Love You Forever.” And unlike, say, The Onion, which sometimes commits the all-hat-no-cattle crime of a lacerating headline followed by a labored story, the Sh*tty women generally deliver the goods. Take the chapter on older moms — or, “Hey Look Who Had One Good Egg Left”:
Congrats, old gal, you did it. You had a career and you had men. Lots and lots of men. Maybe even a woman. You ignored all that “biological clock” crap and partied on, postponing motherhood until the last possible second. And then — when every women’s magazine said your forty-four year old womb was finished — you cranked out a shorty. You beat some insane odds … Your life was awesome. And now it’s over.
Now and then, the text reads like repurposed stand-up, which it may well be given Kilmartin’s experience. But there are no individual bylines so it’s impossible to know — and it hardly matters if the stuff kills. Take the riff on animals that need to be fired from their jobs at the zoo:
Monkeys are triple threats. They fly, they swing and they masturbate. They hoot, make creepy eye contact and lick their lips salaciously. Monkeys live the life a sex offender can only dream of.
But the value of Sh*tty Mom — or any book of its species — is in more than the gags and even the real advice that sometimes comes wrapped inside them. It’s the reminder that we are all, in some ways, sh*tty moms — and sh*tty dads and sh*tty aunts and uncles and grandparents too. Kids are anarchy writ large. They’re loving and they’re narcissistic; they’re adorable and they’re monstrous; they’re housewreckers (literally), marriage wreckers (sometimes), and wholly, utterly, from-now-until-the-end-of-your-natural-life demanding. The great universe of parenting books acknowledge that reality, yes, but often buried so deep in the sentiment and sobriety surrounding the task you’re undertaking when you raise a child that it feels somehow grudging. (If you’re the type who would resent your child, well, we’re not here to judge you.)
Sh*tty Mom is, oddly, as real a parenting book as many of the others, but, as its authors readily concede, it’s “about shortcuts and parenting with 40 percent effort. It’s about doing a half-assed job, but doing it well enough that no one but you notices.” But there’s wisdom in that. With a smart, calm, don’t-sweat-it attitude, a truly responsible and devoted mom can leverage that 40 percent effort into a much bigger result.