“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.
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.”