Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself

Like many modern mothers, Ylonda Gault Caviness started out with a “self-flagellating, all-consuming obsession to raise a child in a fashion akin to a recipe-perfect soufflé.” 

I was far, far away from family who could support and ground me. Had I been back in Buffalo, Sugar—Mama’s best friend and my godmother—would’ve simply sat me down and said, “Baby, you need JESUS!” Instead I thought I needed T. Berry Brazelton’s Touchpoints: Birth to Three and a baby monitor with audio and motion sensors. At the time, I was simply trying to raise my kid in a more enlightened fashion.

But then she realized something. Her own mother’s dismissive response to children’s entreaties, “Child, please,” had been all about boundaries: “Without saying so, she let us know we kids could sometimes rock her world, but we couldn’t be her world.” That “not studying you” method isn’t just acceptable, Gault Caviness decides, it’s better at fostering independence and self-reliance in children and emotional wholeness in mothers.

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Child, Please is a memoir of the backstory and unfolding of this epiphany. 

In it, Gault Caviness transitions with ease from the heavy and potentially inflammatory to the trivial and universally relatable. Ease, in fact—an assertive ease—is what characterizes her tone. She’s the straight shooter you can trust to be as loving and open as she is tough and opinionated: “White parents are punks,” Gault Caviness writes, before consoling a few pages later: “I have seen for myself that many of you are not at all punks. You are, to be sure, far more, um, flexible, than most black parents. We simply have different expectations and discipline styles.” 

Race is always relevant in Child, Please, and yet, in some ways also completely irrelevant: “Somewhere in my idyllic view of life with a nice family, a nice life, I pictured myself being happy. At the very least approaching a modicum of contentment. Instead, most every day I feel like I’m not enough of this, too much of that.” Gault Caviness acknowledges dissonance between suburban mom life and blackness, yet simultaneously rejects it. In her words, the two coexist: “I find visits to joints like the Container Store to be near-orgasmic experiences.” 

I developed a bit of a friend crush on Gault Caviness, I’ll admit. Who wouldn’t want to hangout with this mama? 

One of them will start in with something asinine like, “We don’t have any orange juice, Mommy?” And I’ll have to just snap. Both good humor and good sense will momentarily take leave and I’ll scream, “Do you SEE any orange juice? Do I look like a Florida citrus tree to you? Do I? Well, it looks like you’re in for a day without sunshine, boo. Okay? Deal with it!” Of course, their eyes will get all big and spooked and they will be emotionally scarred—for life, or at least until I apologize fifteen minutes later. Dang. I really hate it when this blues comes on me. It is in these moments that the cat is let out of the proverbial bag. And my children know, really know, their otherwise loving and devoted mother is all kinds of cray-cray. I should probably lie down. That would help. I need, um . . . honestly, I don’t know what I need. But sleep does work wonders.

It’s not me, kids, it’s you. Okay, fine, actually maybe it is me. (But also it’s you.)

But Gault Caviness doesn’t just describe the condition of feeling not “like a mother so much as … the sum of my to-do list.” She doles out an answer:  

My ultimate Me Time fix involves a simple little flip of the switch I do in my head from time to time. It’s handy-dandy and needs no scheduling, planning, or calling in favors…. When various and sundry people get in your ear—kids, spouses, coworkers, family—about their needs and wants, pay them no mind. Repeat as needed. 

What could be better than a friend whose company you enjoy even as she points out your flaws and bosses you around?

A truncated version of this review first appeared in the Golden Gate Mothers Group Magazine.

Motherhood So White

Nefertiti Austin, a college instructor and writer, got tired of “white privilege’s erasure of Black parenting perspectives and insistence that the word mother automatically meant white.” In Motherhood So White, she tries to produce the book she could never find as a “Black mother[] liv[ing] in a different America from white mothers,” especially as one addressing “how to handle … becoming a single mother in a country where the term single mother was code for Black, welfare mother” and normalizing an adoption journey when “the available literature excluded us.”

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It should come as no surprise then that while Motherhood So White has a wealth of information from which white mothers can learn, it’s not written for me. Austin’s edge is not dulled, her punches not pulled, to make white people more comfortable. Deal with it, and white folks like me can learn something. 

The memoir side of Motherhood So White tells, with a matter-of-fact sparseness, of Austin’s father who “never kicked his drug habit and was hooked on heroin when he was murdered in 1991,” of her emotionally and physically distanced mother, and of Austin’s adoptive parents, her grandparents, for whom she expresses a love as solid as the couple were. It includes universal insights about dating (e.g., “I was chasing my elusive, irrepressible, warm-and-fuzzy father, but expecting men to behave like my dependable grandfather”) and human nature. In one of the most moving passages in the book, Austin writes:  

If only my parents understood how brave their parents were to ride that wave into the unknown, moving from the segregated South to the west and never looking back. If only my grandparents understood how brave their children were for directly challenging the man and standing up to an unjust, racist, sexist world. The only thing separating them was style. How wonderful it would have been if the four of them could have met in the middle. I guess I was the middle.

But the bulk of Motherhood So White is a manifesto-cum-cultural anthropology lesson. 

  • In my new skin as mother of a Black boy, I had to think through how we would navigate a world set up to challenge his very existence…. It broke my heart to tell August that no one would look at him and assume he was a train aficionado or catcher for the championship Cardinals. The opposite would be true. White people would see a Black boy and judge him according to their preconceived notions…. [A]s Cherish grew older, she would learn how to carry herself with class and dress age appropriately (and that was not always enough), because Black girls were overly sexualized at a young age and vulnerable to rape and human trafficking. Knowing that microaggressions were not just reserved for Black boys, she would learn to express herself, so as not to be accused of having an attitude or being an angry Black woman for simply rolling her eyes…. August was a Black boy, assumed to be less innocent than he was, and Cherish was a Black girl, thought to be less beautiful, less smart, less kind, less everything.
  • My parents got a Black divorce, which meant they physically and emotionally went on with their respective lives, but neither legally filed for divorce. This arrangement was common in the Black community, because a formal divorce involved lawyers, which meant a lot of money had to be spent to make a separation legal. If kids had been produced during a marriage, divorce was a direct pipeline to family court and child support, which could result in a father going to jail for missed payments. Many Black women did not want to see their child’s father imprisoned or buried in so much debt that he couldn’t contribute financially or emotionally to his kids’ lives, and an inherent distrust of the justice system throughout the community made it preferable to handle separations in a more informal way.
  • As an adult, I realized that culturally Black people do not question the details of a family’s dynamic, as long as everything was going well.
  • When school resumed, I went to the school psychologist. Once again, I was going against the grain, breaking ranks with cultural norms about how Black people handled family drama. White people put all of their business in their street, Black people did not. We’d rather self-medicate with marijuana or alcohol or sex or shopping or perfection or food or suffer in quiet desperation than bare our soul to strangers, especially white ones. That was a no-no, but I had nowhere else to turn. That was not me acting white, it was me trying to untangle my feelings.
  • Sometimes I argued back, but mostly my responses were sotto voce. There was no point in engaging foolishness, bless their misogynistic hearts. In addition to getting clowned at work, I got mansplained at the barbershop, which was an environment bursting with diverse male energy…. Now an observer in the ways of men, I surmised that if more Black men had a chance to just be boys during their childhoods, our community would be further along, more cohesive, and self-hatred would have less of a foothold. I was determined that August not become one of those shut-down men or become unapproachable to please an archaic ideal of manhood.
  • Too many Black girls dabbled in self-hatred due to a lack of Black female protagonists in literature, television shows, and movies.

Austin indirectly offered me an education, but she also served a lesson straight up:

For my white sisters, Black mothers have a lot of child-rearing experience and plenty to say about the state of preschool, family leave, healthcare, nutrition, bullying, video games, and our socioeconomically segregated school system. If we coalesced around even one of these issues, it would ease the emotional and financial burden of parenting we all experience. Also, be aware of your privilege and seek to build community with all mothers, regardless of race, religion, or socioeconomics.

Stop acting like motherhood is white, she tells us. It isn’t now. It never has been. And it’s much stronger that way. 

A truncated version of this review first appeared in the Golden Gate Mothers Group Magazine.

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

Dani Shapiro is an accomplished writer who accidentally discovered, one June during midlife, that she shares no DNA with her idolized, deceased father. By conceiving with a sperm donor, her parents had done something radical during a time when “religious leaders of every faith decreed donor insemination an abomination…. It was often considered adultery, and the child a bastard.” To say the news throws her for a loop is to say nothing of Inheritance, the book that chronicles, in painstaking detail, how Shapiro wrestled to reclaim her identity, perhaps to truly claim it for the first time: “I had felt every day since the previous June that I now lived—exiled, forever wandering—in no-man’s-land. But the truth was that this had always been the case.”

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To a member of a blended family used to thinking of familial relationships as more brethren than blood, Shapiro’s traumatization, or at least her dissection of it, felt a bit overdone. That said, there’s no questioning her ability to form art out of words, and Inheritance provides plenty of general interest. A rabbi tells Shapiro: “You can say, ‘This is impossible, terrible.’ Or you can say, ‘This is beautiful, wonderful.’ You can imagine that you’re in exile. Or you can imagine that you have more than one home.” She later realizes: “The choice wasn’t to see it as one or the other. It was to embrace it as both.”

Still, I’d hoped for a larger treatment of what it means to be family viewed through the prism of one person’s journey. Instead, I got the beautifully worded diary written on the ride.

The Girlfriend Mom

In her author’s note, Dani Alpert writes, “The story you are about to read was written over many years,” and that explains a lot. It’s unclear to the reader whether the “two little shits,” as Alpert’s dedication calls them, will end up mutually bonded with our protagonist—and whether she even wants them to—because these things were unclear to Alpert during the writing process. As a result, The Girlfriend Mom lacks a perspective to ballast the narrative. We just don’t know how to feel, who to like, and what to hope for. The result is a bumpy and fairly unflattering ride. In some ways, that’s a gift. A bravely transparent Alpert gives readers an all-access pass to the good, bad, and ugly bits of a woman who “had never aspired to be a mother,” who “yearned for fame,” instead becoming “the other mom.”  

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When she sees a photo of her boyfriend’s kids with their mother on the mantelpiece in his apartment, for example, Alpert writes:

It was my first time feeling like I was in the same room with Julian, Marie, and their kids. It wasn’t just me and Julian in our bubble. I was the outsider in a family already in progress, and a surge of sadness nearly brought me to tears…. Later I would ask Julian why he still had the picture of Marie. He said it was for the kids, which of course I understood—I’m not a monster. A week later it was gone. Everything Julian had told me about Marie had been pleasant enough, and yet I felt triumphant, like she was my opponent and I’d won this round. And no, it does not bring me any amount of satisfaction to admit this to you. 

That’s how most of The Girlfriend Mom goes: I had these shitty, selfish thoughts, and I’m admitting it and making fun of myself, which means I can’t be a shitty and selfish person, right? 

Alpert feels excluded when her boyfriend and his kids fall back on past experiences as clues during a game of charades, suffering from a sort of retroactive FOMO. Of her boyfriend’s son and his young buddy playing loudly, she writes: “They were positively feral. Why couldn’t they sit and quietly read to each other?” The statement is clearly made with tongue in cheek and yet, also not. This style of self-aware ruminating can be refreshing: “So many questions swirled in my head. Is this a lie? Am I showing up because it’s the right thing to do or because I don’t want to be left behind?

And she touches on hot pokers known to jab new stepmothers everywhere. How do you come to terms with what you give up when dedicating hours to someone else’s kids? (“I didn’t want to be reprimanding little people. I could have been … looking for work and focusing on my career. Why was I picking up empty cans of beans?”) How do you share everything with your partner when some of it can come off as a criticism of their children? (“How was I supposed to tell him that I was turning myself inside out with all of the transitions, compromises, and adjustments, and now I was ready to blow?”) Is affection a zero-sum game? (“I concluded that Julian’s attention was finite, and when the three of us were together, there wasn’t enough to go around.”) Will things ever feel easy? (“[Advances with the kids] didn’t come with lifetime guarantees. I’d learned the hard way not to pat myself on the back with a Phew, glad I won’t have to go through that again. There was always another shoe to drop.”)

But the hills she chose to die on left me unsympathetic. Alpert concedes different families handle nudity differently and yet still makes a huge deal out of her boyfriend taking a shower with his daughter nearby. She says to the young woman: “It’s just that, well, some things make me edgy, and I’d like you and Tyler to respect that and me. That makes sense, right? I’m not being unreasonable, am I? … Being in the room with your father, while he’s … It’s just not something I’m comfortable with. I’m mean, you’re getting older, and I don’t know, I don’t think it’s ….” On a plane flight, the kids—gasp—politely decline the neck pillows Alpert purchased for them, and she won’t let it go. When she lies her way into a ticket to her boyfriend’s son’s graduation and her boyfriend wonders how the boy’s mom will feel about it, Alpert responds:

What? I thought. That’s what he decided to lead with—his ex-wife’s reaction? How about how great it was that his girlfriend would see his son graduate .… Nicole and Marie spotted us immediately and waved us over to the seats they’d saved next to them. My head started spinning.  Is no one shocked to see me? Isn’t anyone going to acknowledge the ticket snafu or ask how I got my hands on one?

She concludes: “No matter how intimate the kids and I became, no matter how many graduations I invited myself to, it would never be the same for me. I’d always be on the outside.”

Me, me, me.

In one of the rejection slips Alpert includes as a forward to her book, an editor or agent wrote: “I didn’t think that Dani’s effort is quite … that book that people in these situations go to. It felt overly specific and even a bit self-centered. I didn’t fall in love here.”

Neither did I.

Adult Conversation

“If there was one thing I wished I had been told before becoming a mother,” narrates Brandy Ferner’s protagonist April, “it was that even with all the immediate, whine-soaked, child-induced atrocities violating my personal space and sanity as a stay-at-home mom for eight straight years, the one person who would consistently dole out the final push over the edge would be my husband.” As this line indicates, Adult Conversation is a novel, but it’s also a manifesto. It is a serious take by someone who’s branded herself a humorist. These dualities turn out to be the book’s strength—and its Achilles heel. 

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The first two-thirds of Adult Conversation reads like a long blog post on the overwhelm and unsustainability of modern middle-class motherhood written by a spitfire: “One side of my hair hung a little longer than the other, and at a sharp angle, for when I needed to feel edgy at Bed, Bath, and Beyond,” Ferner writes. This self-aware sassiness seemed forced to me, distracting from, rather than enhancing, the frank reflections Ferner wrapped it around:

His morning routine, his leaving the house, his job, his luxury of coming home late if needed, his weekend surfing, all looked nearly the same as it did before the kids. I, on the other hand, was filling my days with wiping ass, bleaching vomit, feeling shame about conventional fruit, and generally serving as everyone else’s snack bitch.

There’s no doubt Ferner captures the mindset behind maternal burnout, complete with feeling judged by a compliment from a working mom friend and balking at hiring a babysitter (i.e., “paying somebody money to do a job that I signed up to do”). She excels in illustrating just how one can appreciate and resent a partner in the same breath: “I knew plenty of my friends’ husbands wouldn’t say yes. And yet, beneath my gratitude, there was irritation. It wasn’t directed personally at Aaron, but at the way motherhood turns even the nicest husbands into overlords…. Thank you, Aaron, and also, fuck you. For holding the cards. For making me ask.

In fact, Ferner does such a thorough job illuminating the cumulative impact of the mundane that she gets a bit redundant and neglects to provide a plot. Then, with a clumsiness that tips her hand, Ferner produces some action. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say there are oversights, little things such as, you know, how the law works. Those holes plus the unevenness in tone (I suspect Ferner too found April most authentic when making sober ruminations but then remembered she was supposed to be cheeky and tossed some of that in) combined with other pet peeves (e.g., having April toss around the words “abusive” and “disastrous,” making the only mother-of-color the lax one, and hinting at distaste for clichés while still employing them) left me unsatisfied.

Still, Adult Conversation adds value. Ferner puts the condition down on paper in a format not many have yet tried. Many stay-at-home parents will see their experience reflected and validated. More importantly, they’ll be left with a more feminist note ringing in their ears than the one struck in popular nonfiction books like How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids and Fair Play. “The frenzied framework of modern parenthood wasn’t going to change,” Ferner writes, “so we had to—he had to—if we wanted to survive it, together.”

How To Be a Family

When I heard that Dan Kois, Slate’s parenting editor and co-host of the parenting advice podcast “Mom and Dad Are Fighting,” had written a book, I assumed it would be about parenting, and it kinda is, sorta. Kois and his wife decided to take their two kids on a four-country tour over the course of a year as “a chance to control-alt-delete the life we’d trapped ourselves in,” one characterized by a disappointing squeeze play: not getting enough time together and then struggling to fight off screens and connect in what little they did. How To Be a Family is the resulting memoir-slash-travelogue. Like their trip, it’s glorious in parts but disappointingly uneven—and it just ends, without any life-altering insight. That doesn’t mean the endeavor lacks value, quite the contrary.

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First, the good parts.

Kois is almost unerringly self-aware and unabashed about both his personal failings and structural ones from which his family benefits (e.g., “It didn’t escape my notice that we were avidly seeking international diversity after making a set of educational and lifestyle choices that had mostly eliminated diversity from our American lives”). That makes for plenty of refreshing and relatable mea culpas (e.g., “We paid our wonderful babysitter … hundreds of extra dollars,” to watch the kids during snow days, he writes, “just so we could do distracted, not-very-good work during the day and then yell at our children after she left”). 

He has a related knack for producing every-man imagery, evocative metaphors without the taint of writerly pretension: “The bays carved out of the land like bites from an apple,” he writes in describing New Zealand . There, Kois and his family saw hikers with infants in front-packs and toddlers in backpacks: “One poor bastard had one of each, both of them squealing and waving their arms about; he looked like a stormtrooper being brought down by rowdy Ewoks,” he writes. In Costa Rica they encountered “[b]ig fat flies, electric blue, that hover in front of your face like Snitches” and a “beautiful purple-and-blue butterfly with the same wingspan as a mass-market paperback.”

You can see in these descriptions the magically dry wit that Kois seems to have tucked away in his pocket, choosing to sprinkle it throughout his writing and IRL conversations like fairy dust. When it comes to physique, he says, “Dutch people like to credit the sneaky healthiness of their cuisine and all their bike riding; those of us who rode bikes around Holland for three months and did not lose any weight might also gently suggest there may be a genetic component.” And then there’s the time Kois deadpans, “Quiet reflection in nature is for Thoreau, because he is childless and dead.”

Packaged thusly, Kois delivers interesting, nuanced observations about parents in New Zealand fostering independence and the Dutch making consensus-based family decisions. He reports on “a public policy in New Zealand that had a concrete effect on the way parents parent. Personal-injury lawsuits are essentially nonexistent [thanks to] a government-run scheme that pays for any injury stemming from an accident, no matter whose fault it is.” And he delves into why it’s possible in the Netherlands for bikers to safely be “helmetless, unprotected from cars except by custom, respect, and the forethought that comes from [a driver] being able to think like a cyclist.”

Pieces of chapters read like thoroughly reported articles. Other chunks, most notably “The Dance Recital,” could stand alone as expertly crafted essays. But large parts are loose, and the book’s shifting style feels unsettling. The Contributions from Kois’s wife and girls didn’t do much for me, seeming more like page filler than anything else. The same thing goes for tangents that the editor in Kois must have known needed cutting. These weren’t the only aspects of How To Be a Family that felt schticky: both the captain’s log and the Cosmo-style “I tried it for a month” bits fell flat. And while some chapters worked others felt more like a first draft with excessive road marks, dicey pacing, and trouble discerning what details hold universal appeal.

I suspect it’s because Kois slam-dunked so many aspects of the book that I felt disappointed by the parts that air balled. But at the end of the day, we get a good deal of this guy, and for that How To Be a Family is worth reading:

Thank God for cards. One problem with spending time with your children, Alia and I have discovered in this year of spending time with our children, is that a lot of the stuff you can do with children is just awful…. [But then there’s a variation of the card game a$$hole.] I can’t think of another activity in which adults can play at the peak of their abilities and kids can still prevail. Limbo, I guess. Now, as a grown man, do I actually care whether I win or lose at cards with my loving family? Of course I do. I want to win. If I must lose, I at least want my wife to also lose. But I admit that the seductiveness of card-playing with my kids goes beyond the pleasure of ascending to kingship …. It has to do with my desire, so often thwarted these days, to look at them. Back when they were babies, we could look at them all the time. There were years of my life when I felt I did nothing but look at my children, afraid that if I looked away for even one second, they would be eaten by tigers. But now they disappear into screens and schools, behind closed doors, or out in the world. Even when they’re around, I find it difficult to cadge a good long look; it is the plight of the parent of tweens to desire nothing more than to look at his kids in peace and to be rebuffed most of the time by his kids saying, correctly, “Stop staring at me, that’s weird.” But around the table, playing cabbages and kings, they’re concerned with how to get rid of that solitary six or when to spring the triple fours. They don’t notice that I am drinking in the way their faces resemble their cousins’, the ways they express exasperation, their glee at unexpected windfalls…. the game that gets all four of us around the table and, briefly, off one another’s nerves.

Dear Girls

Since comedian Ali Wong shot from employed-writer-and-actor to fame with her Netflix stand-up specials Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife, both filmed while visibly pregnant, it makes sense that her first book is styled as a series of letters to her daughters. Unfortunately, she opens them with the same mistake as Amy Poehler, confessing essentially, “I don’t really want to write a book, but I got a book deal and now I have to.” That’s not good. Fortunately, the material she begrudgingly generates mostly is.

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As her husband, Justin Hakuta, puts it, Wong takes her readers to church like a “preacher who offer[s] up profane salvation.” Plenty of one-liners made me giggle for fairly superficial reasons (e.g., “Daddy came to this lunch dressed in black Lululemon pants … with his yoga mat slung over his shoulder in a yoga mat case, like a Santa Monica trophy wife running errands.”). But Hakuta’s analogy is apt: It often seems Wong shocks and awes her audience awake so she can impart sober lessons on life’s thorniest issues.

[I]t’s important to remember that immigrant parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents took the biggest, most unpredictable risk of all: They came to America, when there was no Rosetta Stone, no Google Maps, no blogs, no Airbnb, no cellphones. Some came before there were airplanes or electricity. I could never be that brave and take that kind of risk without all of that. I straight up refuse to go to a restaurant if it’s not well reviewed on Yelp. Then again, if our relatives had been able to Yelp America before coming over, they might have thought twice. Those reviews would have been mixed: “The opportunity is on point, but they kind of overdo it with the institutional racism and the guns. 3 stars.” 

Or, you know, just to deliver a solid burn: “[Jessica Seinfeld’s] only real job is to not embarrass Jerry. And she’s very good at this job because … everything she does is as inoffensive as one of her husband’s jokes about missing socks.”

For the most part, the purposeful rambling works, but like others before her—Amy Schumer, Anna Kendrick, and Sarah Silverman, to name a few—Wong writes a book, she doesn’t craft it. Missing is the unsparing perfectionism that must have been behind her fabulous romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe and her Netflix specials. I wanted the tightness of essays written by Caitlin Moran and Mindy Kaling. I wanted Wong’s best effort.

That said, Dear Girls is a quick read that’s worth your time even if just for the maternal admonitions of a foul-mouthed foodie: “I’d rather catch you trafficking cocaine into Thailand in any number of orifices,” she tells her young daughters, “than see you eating at a P.F. Chang’s.”

Push Back: Guilt in the Age of Natural Parenting

Obstetrician Amy Tuteur, M.D. is on a no-holds-barred mission “to help women escape the feelings of guilt [attendant to] the currently popular philosophies of natural childbirth, lactivism, and attachment parenting.” Though Tuteur readily admits that aspects of these movements have value (e.g., “There is a considerable body of scientific evidence suggesting that the presence of a doula can improve the childbirth experience”) and that those who embrace them mostly mean well, she takes each phenomenon to task for using falsehoods and pseudoscience to disempower women while claiming to do the opposite.

It can be difficult to swallow Tuteur’s unflinching assessment. “You or I might imagine that dead babies would cause midwives to reassess their aversion to technology,” she writes: “Instead it has caused them to reassess their aversion to dead babies.” But Tuteur makes a convincing case that her bitter medicine needs to be taken, and I found it manageable in small doses over the course of a week or two. Any attempt at a cover-to-cover read, a bolus, in the language of medical analogy she so adeptly employs throughout, is sure to end in frustration, however. That’s because the repetition and long-windedness of Push Back are as annoying as they are reinforcing. 

I struggled throughout to decide whether I wanted Tuteur to tone it down a notch, to lay off the vitriolic gas and not flog quite so many dead horses. “Many midwives, doulas, and childbirth educators have an inappropriate level of confidence despite their own lack of knowledge, and a significant proportion of lay advocates suffer from the delusion of believing themselves ‘knowledgeable’ after having done ‘their research,’” she writes in an emblematic passage, concluding that “[t]he world of celebrity natural childbirth and homebirth advocates is filled with … ‘confident idiots.’” On the one hand, oof. On the other, she ain’t wrong.

In fact, she’s right about a lot of things. Labor is dangerous. The idea that it’s not has caused many women to internalize the message that an unmedicated vaginal delivery is both possible and ideal in all but the rarest cases. From this “glorification” of one birth method, we get the disappointment and shame that come with unmet expectations.

No one claims that if you eat with a spoon you ought to feel guilty because you aren’t eating “as nature intended.” Similarly, if you faint every time you stand up, no one claims that it wouldn’t happen if you just “trusted hearts.” So why should birth be approached so differently” with women being instructed to just “trust birth”?

As for inductions and c-sections, Tuteur writes: 

The natural childbirth literature is filled with stories of women who ignored medical advice to induce labor and their babies survived. That’s because induction is recommended when the risk rises; doctors don’t wait until that risk is 100 percent or even close to 100 percent. The same reasoning applies to putting babies in car seats.

Her defense of the medical establishment extends to formula: “The existing scientific evidence shows that breastfeeding has real benefits, but in industrialized countries, those benefits are trivial.” Nursing has nonetheless “been aggressively promoted in public health campaigns.” As a result, breastfeeding has become a moral issue in recent years, she writes, lending a little personal perspective: “Back when I was nursing my babies, breastfeeding was recognized as one of two excellent ways to nourish an infant. Breastfeeding was considered marginally better, but not so much so that it was worth hounding women.”

She keeps race and class in mind as she analyzes each of these trends: 

The dominant mothering ideology in the United States today is attachment parenting, also known, revealingly, as intensive mothering. It’s the dominant ideology not because it is the way that most people parent, but because it is the ideal held by middle- and upper-middle-class mothers who are often highly vocal on the Internet and social media.

There’s certainly a case to be made that Tuteur acts as an apologist for modern obstetrics which isn’t without its flaws. But she acknowledges some of them, and her thoughts undoubtedly add value, one-sided though they may be:  

Among middle school girls, there is probably no insult more devastating than “no one likes you….” Among new mothers, there is probably no insult more devastating than “your baby hasn’t bonded to you.” That’s why lactivist and natural childbirth bullies wield it so promiscuously among new mothers. There is no evidence that bottle-fed babies are less bonded to their mothers than breastfed babies; there is no evidence that C-section babies are less bonded to their mothers than babies born by vaginal delivery. That hasn’t stopped activists from repeatedly invoking bonding to force new mothers into compliance with the ethos of the group.

And Tuteur’s bottom line is difficult to argue with: When it comes to birth, feeding, and parenting, several methods are reasonable, and it should be up to individuals to decide, unencumbered by pressure to conform to ideals of dubious origin and validity.

Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting

Anna Quindlen’s latest book offers a satisfying mix of advice and reflection, but mostly reflection, about what it means to be a grandparent these days. 

We are now the people whose names come in the smaller print in the movie credits. It’s not that we are unimportant, as anyone who has ever had a grandparent knows. After all, secondary characters are what flesh out the plot: what would Great Expectations be without Miss Havisham, or Romeo and Juliet without the nurse?

Nanaville

It comes as no surprise that the Pulitzer Prize winner nails the mechanics of her task, writing with milkshake-esque prose: it goes down easy, and it feels special but also familiar.

“And goodnight to the old lady whispering ‘hush,’” I say to Arthur, pretending to read although I am really remembering, falling down the well of memory as I speak, other children, other chairs.

Her descriptions soar in their precision and relatability, especially when she embraces the vernacular:

Nooooooo. For some reason at this moment his “yes” and “no” are elongated and the vowels oddly shaped, so that he sounds vaguely Swedish. After a while you realize that most of us use language to communicate but that that’s not always true of toddlers. They tend to roll the words around in their mouths like hard candy, repeat them over and over to show mastery.

***

It seemed like another country, getting old, when I was that age. The future seemed very far away. Now it seems very close and very narrow, the darker swath of sand on the pale beach where the water laps.

***

A big part of our grandparent job is expressing ecstatic appreciation for everything from urination to reflexes. We must always silence the irritated voice of adult competency: Okay, I get it, I get it, you drew a 3. But, honestly, a 3 isn’t that hard. A 5, now, there’s a number. And this 3 doesn’t even look that much like a 3. No. It is the greatest 3 that anyone has ever drawn. Look at that 3!

It is with this literary prowess that Quindlen’s insights about grandparenthood are packaged. She calls out parents’ “natural inability to see a child as himself alone, not hung about from the first with similarities, expectations, and assumptions like the familiar ornaments on a Christmas tree.” Grandchildren, by contrast, aren’t a reflection of their grandparents’ performance: “It’s pretty immaterial to me at what age he learns to read, whether he has a good throwing arm or an eye for color and form. I am much more capable of seeing him purely as himself than I ever was with his father,” Quindlen writes. What results is “an undemanding love.”

She highlights the benefits of the grandparenting endeavor like “seeing things from the perspective of a small person” (e.g., “bugs crawling across the pavement are mesmerizing” and ham has the texture of “a salty pencil eraser”) and being transported back to a world where “there is nothing but sensation: the water, the sunshine, the feel of both on his skin. There is no subtext, just text. Just the moment.” And she calls out the challenges as well:

You get used to wearing white pants without fear …. You get used to being able to do what you want, and then you’re back on the clock, your schedule synchronized with naps or school pickups or camp visiting days. You have finally gotten to the point where you no longer have to share: time, space, ice cream, clothes. Place the pillows carefully on the couch, and a week later the pillows are where you left them…. There are some people who want untrammeled pillows, who decide that their sharing days are done. They don’t want cocoa or crayons in their living rooms.

Each reflection is offered with the benefit of perspective, and humor is kept close at hand:

The current assumption of unconditional love would have been ridiculous to [my grandparents]. Love was purely conditional, on what you accomplished, on who you became, on how you behaved. Love needed to be earned. Otherwise, of what value was it?… Children played and tried not to bother anyone. Adults had cocktails and talked among themselves. You could interrupt to tell them one of your cousins had broken a leg in the backyard, and you might still get in trouble for interrupting.

She even tackles that big thorny issue, the one likely to get her in trouble with parent readers: “[W]hen your son becomes a father, so much that follows depends on how your daughter-in-law feels about you. I saw an article once about advice to the mother of the groom. The headline read: WEAR BEIGE AND KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT. I look bad in beige.” And though Quindlen’s approach to the topic of daughter-in-laws is colored by her role as a mother-in-law, albeit a satisfied one, she ultimately offers up a balanced take:

One young woman said to me of the grandmother of her children, “She buys them the kind of clothes that kids don’t really wear.” I happen to know her mother-in-law, who said, “I never see the kids in the outfits I buy them.” And in those two sentences was an entire universe of disconnect that I assumed would have been worked out had the two been mother and daughter instead of in-laws. 

Many of these ruminations lead back to the primary nugget of wisdom Quindlen imparts, again and again, rephrased so that she’s beating fellow grandparents over the head not just with a frying pan, but with a spatula and dishcloth too:

Thank God that Christopher and I were together that afternoon at the dining table, or else I might have run the ten blocks south to the hospital and insinuated myself where I was not needed or wanted. Lesson one of being a grandmother: do not do that.

***

“Did they ask you?”

Did they ask you? When our grandson is throwing a fit and his parents are dealing with it. When he has a slight temperature and is cranky. When he wants to go in the pool, doesn’t want to go to the potty, wants a cookie, doesn’t want peas. I have opinions on all of those things to a greater or lesser extent. That boy is crabby. That boy is sick. He needs Motrin. He needs a good talking-to, a good night’s sleep.…[But] Nana judgment must be employed judiciously, and exercised carefully. Be warned: those who make their opinions sound like the Ten Commandments see their grandchildren only on major holidays and in photographs. There are really only two commandments of Nanaville: love the grandchildren, and hold your tongue.

***

[T]oday there is also a great faceless mob of strangers passing judgment, in magazines and newspapers, on television programs and online, saying that you haven’t breastfed long enough, that you haven’t chosen the right preschool, that you haven’t handled sibling rivalry or stranger anxiety or Oedipal transference properly. There are so many people giving young parents conflicting information and telling them that they are botching what they understand is the most important job they will ever have. They certainly don’t need Nana adding to the din.

As a current member of the sandwich generation, I appreciate this instruction for its deference and pragmatism. Even more so I value Quindlen’s reflections, which encourage me to attempt more mindful caretaking now while simultaneously offering the reassurance that I’ll have another swing at it later.

Motherhood So White

College history instructor Nefertiti Austin could not find a parenting book that spoke to her experience as the Black single mother of an adopted Black son. She writes, “[M]y quest for narratives about Black mothers would be like looking for a needle in a haystack, but the white woman’s story would be told over and over.” Her book is not, however, primarily a manifesto or academic take examining this form of white centrality, though it certainly does do that. It is at heart a memoir, peppered with historical and cultural knowledge, meant to fill the gap she identified and give Black women encouragement in deciding “how to curate a family.” In other words, Motherhood So White is not written for me, and every word of this review should be taken with a grain of that salt.

Motherhood So WhiteThat said, Austin also writes to “begin to bridge the racial divide that currently encapsulates motherhood.” She seeks to inform white mothers what it’s like to have the word “single” synonymized with “welfare” when you happen to be Black. What it’s like to tell your child “that no one would look at him and assume he was a train aficionado or catcher for the championship Cardinals. The opposite would be true. White people would see a Black boy and judge him according to their preconceived notions.” What it’s like to have white teachers call a boy “angry” whenever he “may have been frustrated or annoyed or irritated.” What it’s like to be denied affection and softness, inculcated into “a hypermasculine culture that would protect [an African American male] on the outside but slowly kill him on the inside.” 

Women like me need to be informed and reminded of these differences between the two experiences of motherhood, as well as our duty to “be aware of … privilege and seek to build community with all mothers, regardless of race, religion, or socioeconomics.” On the flip side, Austin seeks to remind us that “Black mothers have a lot of child-rearing experience and plenty to say about the state of preschool, family leave, healthcare, nutrition, bullying, video games, and our socioeconomically segregated school system.” If we can focus on these commonalities and “coalesce[] around even one of these issues, it would ease the emotional and financial burden of parenting we all experience,” she writes.

It is undoubtedly a worthy endeavor.

As for execution, Austin’s prose not infrequently disappoints, becoming repetitive at both the level of theme and detail. But it can sing too, especially when she reflects on her father: “He never kicked his drug habit and was hooked on heroin when he was murdered in 1991, a victim of his own misdeeds and Black men’s expendability in America.” Austin also nails her takedown of a CNN article: “Blake did what mainstream media typically did to communities of color: affixed a label and then left us holding a bag filled with scandalous statistics, half-truths, and self-loathing.”

All told, Motherhood So White is both a worthwhile read and a valuable addition to the genre, even for those sitting outside the target audience.

Gail Cornwall is a former lawyer and public school teacher who now works as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer in San Francisco.