Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood’s Messy Years

catastrohpic happiness

The clever, self-aware, and eminently relatable Catherine Newman opens Catastrophic Happiness by assuring parents that the endless agonies of raising young children will in fact draw to a close:

One day you will cavalierly handle doorknobs and faucets and even, like a crazy person, the sign-in pen at the pharmacy. . . . You will have time to run and bike and do yoga and floss and have sex. . . . You’ll arrive at your campsite and the children will carry wood and play beanbag toss rather than cramming pinecones and beetles into their mouths before darting into the road to be run over by a Jeep. . . . They . . . won’t sob into their cottage cheese for no reason. They won’t . . . make you sing the ABCs like a lullaby, No, not like that, like this. They won’t ride the wheeled xylophone around the house like it’s a skateboard or lick spears of asparagus before leaving them, mysteriously, on the couch.

You will no longer feel an “impulsive desire to careen off alone to Portugal or Applebee’s, just so you can sit for five unmolested minutes,” she says, and because Catastrophic Happiness describes my experience as a mother thus far with almost disturbing accuracy, I believe her.

Newman writes, “I am so glad and grateful, I am. But sometimes the orchestra plays something in swelling chords of luck and joy, and all I can hear is that one violin sawing out a thin melody of grief,” and I internally shout, “Me too!” She says, “Those conversations when the kids are trying to tell me something but I don’t close my laptop long enough to look them in the eye and listen? Let me tell you how much I remember about those: nothing,” and I hang my head in commiserating shame. She writes, “The parent I want to be floats in and out of my life, and some days it speaks through me, and other days I lunge after it like it’s a shaft of sunlight I want to capture,” and I think, “Yes, those are the words for that, YES.”

Each chapter includes piercing observations like these carefully folded in with engaging narrative, beautiful wordsmithing (e.g., “Ben, this tender-hearted ten-year-old . . . still bolts into our bedroom in the dead of night, driven by a loneliness that beats in his body like a second heart”), and snort-worthy quips (e.g., “My god, can you imagine [having conjoined twins,] your kids sharing arms and legs? It’s hard enough for mine to share Laffy Taffy”), to form some of the most brilliant parenting essays ever penned. If some shine more than others, it’s only because Newman sets the bar blindingly high.

The following excerpts attempt to show how Catastrophic Happiness neither minimizes nor dramatizes the full panoply of parental emotion, validating and amusing this connoisseur of mommy memoirs in unparalleled fashion:

Birdy is newly three, and wiping her face is one of my favorite moments of the day: the way she turns it up to me like a ripe, smudged nectarine; the way I am my most tender, gentle self in this caring for her; the way I get to look at her with the kind of pure love that often, suspiciously, seems most profoundly to wash over me mere moments before the children will be asleep for twelve hours.

[Before kids, t]ravel was all about arriving somewhere else—the getting-there like a parenthetical blur of irritatedness and free Diet Coke. . . . [Then with small kids we] rummaged through our bags to deconstruct a four-hour plane trip into a thousand ten-second-long activities: mirror, keys, phone, tissues, Tampax, credit cards, lip balm. (“No, we don’t eat ChapStick. Yes, you do really want to.”) But somehow the maniac babies have become these actual people who turn traveling into a party, and you’re lucky you got invited.

When I was pregnant with her, I was so devoted to Ben that the idea of loving another baby seemed vaguely grotesque. It made excellent sense to have another baby, of course, but only so we could harvest its organs in case Ben ever needed them.

Language is tricky, because we imagine that we control it but we don’t. To speak is not to pull transparent meaning, godlike, from thin air; it’s more like composing a mosaic from a bin of used tiles, and some of the tiles are dirty or broken or not really the color you wanted, or someone has written “bitch” on one in tiny letters.

Ben is . . . as pleasant and springy as a deep carpet of moss, and has been for his entire life. When he was three, he woke us once in the night, saying loudly from sleep, “I was still using that!” followed by the quieter, cheerful “Oh, okay, you go ahead, then.” The worst thing I have ever heard him say about another person was in response to a recent question about a middle-school classmate: “Is she nice?” I’d asked, and he hesitated and said, barely tentative, “She is.” “Oh, man,” Birdy whispered to me, laughing. “She must be really awful.”

Newman writes, “I want[] everyone to like me! Everyone! . . . [N]ot only our cherished friends and family, but also my son’s orthodontist, the barista who rolls his eyes while I fumble apologetically through my wallet, the ex-boyfriend who cheated on me, and the Craigslist person who’s overcharging me for her used cross-country skis.” I’ve got two words for her: Mission Accomplished. I don’t just like Catastrophic Happiness and Catherine Newman, I revere them.

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