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.

howtobeafamily

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?

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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.

 

Women’s Work: A Reckoning with Work and Home

Megan K. Stack’s “private problems are no doubt duplicated in households all over our planet. And yet housework is seldom considered as a serious subject for study, or even discussion.” This, writes the Betty Friedan of our generation, “is an injustice on a grand scale.”

Women's Work

Women’s Work is not just about housework. Equal parts memoir and manifesto, the book uses the stories of four women who “stumbled through a house that was also a job site” to tackle motherhood, marriage, and other tidy, manageable topics like exploitation, poverty, gender, and the human condition. “Our routines were disrupted by pregnancies, abortions, miscarriages, weddings, domestic violence, funerals, sick children, and school fees. Mine, theirs. The stuff of women the world over. We lived together in the space left by men who were temporarily elsewhere.”

It is a beautiful, horrifying reflection of domesticity rendered in prose that’s just the right amount stark and ornate in turn. “Imagine you are so tired your face feels like permanent putty and you cry at the slightest provocation and, in general, you are about as raw and crumbly as the flesh of a pale white mushroom with its skin rubbed away,” Stack writes, putting words to a state known intimately to sleep-deprived parents the world over. Some of them will also be familiar with the woman described by an unflinchingly introspective Stack: “I lived in terror of waking the baby, and I shared this terror with deliverymen, houseguests, and anybody else who made the strategic error of existing in the vicinity of my sleeping child.”

Descriptions like these are where any analysis of Women’s Work must begin. “Crescent stains of fatigue hung below her eyes,” she writes. “On those long afternoons of early summer, when our rooms steamed and thickened in the slanting sun, Pooja’s sadness hung like laundry that wouldn’t dry,” she writes. She writes of “anger so hot it could sterilize a wound” and a husband “dragging his eyes from his computer with the air of a disgruntled student forcing himself to contribute to class discussion for the sake of his final grade.” She writes, and I see and feel.

I haven’t hired full-time help like Stack, just a babysitter a few hours a week and once every two someone to clean. And yet, I recognize myself and my experience in her words. I too “assumed that, to the extent that our lives would be exploded [by having children], the disruption would be evenly shared.” My family also slipped into a troubling status quo: “It began with biology—I’d been pregnant, then breastfeeding. I’d been a physical necessity, which had been a role of exquisite privilege and total destruction. And somehow my rarified status stayed unchanged even as the babies grew. The habits we’d all adopted—my centrality, the children’s dependence, [my husband’s] slight remove—had stuck.” 

Those parts of her story that didn’t bring my own past emotions rushing back still resonated deeply thanks to Stack’s ability to tell a story both evocatively and self-critically: “I didn’t even know her full name, and I don’t think she knew mine. She called me Excuse Me.” Of a housekeeper who became pregnant, Stack says: “I promised myself I would not pressure her to add to her load, and I didn’t. At least, I don’t think I did. The best I can say for myself is, I could have been worse, and she wasn’t expecting anything better.” Of the entire endeavor, she writes: “I had loved Xiao Li, and she had loved my baby. To write about her was to walk an uncertain line between exploitation and truth.”

In only a few places did this self-awareness seem to falter. “She had to work long days in my rooms, fine, but she wouldn’t let me congratulate myself as her benefactor,” Stack writes, and I cringed. (Though that may very well have been the point, as Stack repeatedly offers herself up as an effigy of white privilege.) I also found something indelicate about how Stack describes her employees’ offspring: “The children of Mary and Pooja and Xiao Li had to trade like grown-ups, and their trade was the most brutal of all: they got money, but they grew up without mothers.” On the one hand, she again acknowledges her privilege and its cost to others. On the other, the critique is firmly grounded in the American nuclear family model.

I also got the feeling Stack lost steam a little near the end, with the penultimate portion of the book less finely crafted than the rest, but these minor criticisms are offered in the manner of a diamond jeweler whose job it is to find flaws amid overwhelming brilliance. Not many people can write like Stack. Not many can step outside themselves and think like her. The two strengths together produce a must-read not just for mothers, but for anyone who has a household or who benefits from others’ leaving theirs, which is to say, everyone.

The following quotes both explain why that’s so and provide a feel for Stack’s style: 

The cold reality of my gender was dawning on me. I’d known enough, already, about harassment and domestic violence and pay differentials and the incessant, exhausting focus on how you look and laugh and talk. But it had all been basically manageable—not ideal, certainly, even enraging, but navigable—right up until the baby came. It was motherhood that forced me to understand the timeless horror of our position. The obvious, hidden-in-plain-sight reason women had not written novels or commanded armies or banked or doctored or explored or painted at the same rate as men. The cause was not, as I had been led to believe, that women had been prevented from working. Quite the opposite: we had been doing all of the work, around the clock, for centuries. 

***

[My husband and I] fought because we were both exhausted and secretly convinced the other one had the better end of the deal. We fought because we were neurotically careful not to fight in front of the baby, and that meant we almost never got a chance to fight at all, and by the time we fought the annoyances had fermented to a potency that obscured altogether their original cause. We fought because we used to baby each other and now nobody got babied but the baby. As for me, I fought because I was reeling in shock, and because Tom was hardly there at all. He had slipped easily back into his old life while I had been bombed back to some prehistoric version of myself. And I was angry that he had accepted this superior position, this lesser disruption, as a sort of birthright. And so I fought with his absence. 

***

I made no effort to discover whether her lifestyle was a grand adventure or heartbreaking drudgery, or some combination of the two. Those questions lined themselves up in my thoughts, but I left them silent. They lit too starkly the discrepancy in our positions. That I had money and would not have to leave my baby behind. That she was poor, she had not been educated, she didn’t have choices. I had the vague idea that my silence was magnanimous. I told myself I was sparing her from embarrassment. It hadn’t occurred to me yet that I was the one being spared…. If I found out too much, if the facts were too grim, then I might conclude that my domestic arrangement was fundamentally unfair. That was my formless and underlying fear: that if I understood too much, I might have to rip apart the status quo. I could either drown or I could wear Xiao Li as a life vest. There was no third choice. 

***

I’d given my time to Tom, so that he could rush off to the office that very first morning and every morning thereafter. I’d given my time to Max, who was scared and unsettled and needed a parent down through the hours…. Every outgrown pair of shoes, trip to the dentist, or preschool obligation—any crisis or errand affecting anybody in the family—inevitably devoured another chunk of writing time…. My time had been used as capital. It had been invested in the family future to improve our collective position. I paid slices of time; I paid life; maybe I paid brain cells, or a book or two. I paid and it’s gone. My babies are beautiful; my heart is whole; I’m not asking for a refund. Still it does not escape my attention that I paid in time. There is a lingering expectation that men will pay in money. But when it comes to time, it is almost always the woman who pays. And money is one thing, but time is life, and life is more. 

***

I’d already cataloged the downside of depending upon impoverished women, but never had the limitations of employment in my house been more obvious. Just as Mary was not a day care and couldn’t guarantee a steady flow of childcare, I was not a company and couldn’t offer benefits and insurance and broader social protection….  That’s why ad hoc domestic labor is, ultimately, a bunk system. It’s a jerry-rigged, flaw-riddled compromise that will never live up to its promise of upward mobility for one woman and personalized childcare for another. 

***

Tears filmed my eyes. I was deliberately manipulating Mary. I was also speaking with unfiltered honesty. Both were true, both at once. I was showing Mary my buried fears, but I was doing it strategically. I wanted to leverage my vulnerability to make her more trustworthy. 

***

These women migrant workers are crucial because they solve a conundrum: middle-class and wealthy women demand a place in the job market—or at least a measure of leisure time commensurate with their social ranking—but their male partners don’t want to do more housework…. This model for women’s emancipation depends, itself, upon a permanent underclass of impoverished women. But of course these stories are not only about women—they also scream the reality of men who manage to duck not only the labor itself, but the surrounding guilt and recrimination. All those well-meaning men who say progressive things in public and then retreat into private to coast blissfully on the disproportionate toil of women. In the end, the answer is the men. They have to do the work. They have to do the damn work! Why do we tie ourselves in knots to avoid saying this one simple truth? It’s a daily and repetitive and eternal truth, and it’s a dangerous truth, because if we press this point we can blow our households to pieces, we can take our families apart, we can spoil our great love affairs. This demand is enough to destroy almost everything we hold dear. So we shut up and do the work. No single task is ever worth the argument. Scrub a toilet, wash a few dishes, respond to the note from the teacher, talk to another mother, buy the supplies. Don’t make a big deal out of everything. Don’t make a big deal out of anything. Never mind that, writ large, all these minor chores are the reason we remain stuck in this depressing hole of pointless conversations and stifled accomplishment. Never mind that we are still, after all these waves of feminism and intramural arguments among the various strains of womanhood, treated like a natural resource that can be guiltlessly plundered. Never mind that the kids are watching. If you mind you might go crazy. Cooking and cleaning and childcare are everything. They are the ultimate truth. They underpin and enable everything we do. The perpetual allocation of this most crucial and inevitable work along gender lines sets up women for failure and men for success.

Two Homes, One Childhood: A Parenting Plan to Last a Lifetime

Bob Emery is a psychologist, researcher, professor, and mediator who has lived and breathed divorce for decades. In Two Homes, One Childhood, he speaks to every divorced parent’s deepest fears (“Is your child’s challenging behavior part of normal development or a sign of something deeper, perhaps owing to the upheaval of your divorce?”) and hopes (“Children shouldn’t be defined by divorce…. And you can make sure that doesn’t happen.”). The insights gained from his professional roles are deepened by personal experience. (He recently grabbed drinks with his ex-wife to celebrate the arrival of their grandchild.) He knows firsthand how difficult it is to construct a parenting plan that “grows and changes along with the developing needs of children”—and how essential. 

Two Homes

Emery’s tone is clear and steady with no beautiful turns of phrase but nothing to trip the reader up either. My one complaint in terms of style is the repetition, both on the sentence level and between chapters geared to different ages. Emery says, “I do this for a few reasons. I know some readers will skip around, so I raise a few key issues repeatedly so no one will miss them. I also repeat myself some, because, well, some things bear repeating.” Fair enough, but it can still grate for a cover-to-cover reader. 

Two Homes nonetheless adds substantial value by synthesizing nuanced research and offering both big picture recommendations and tips and tricks to get there. “Here is what your children need,” Emery summarizes: “a good relationship with at least one authoritative parent, that is, a parent who is both loving and firm with discipline” and “low levels of conflict between parents.” A second high-quality parental relationship is ideal, but not as important as not “living in the middle of a war zone between two parents.” When it comes to the nitty gritty, Emery is blunt: Be the adult. Shield the kids. Do your job.

With the long lens that comes with age and an academic background, Emery reminds readers that marriage is what demographers call “an incomplete institution,” one that is still evolving. So too are best practices for raising kids together outside of marriage. We know some do’s. We know some don’t’s. Emery folds them together to establish a psychological compass to help us navigate the gray areas.