This piece was originally published in Slate on Feb. 6, 2014.
Recently, a listicle started proliferating on my Facebook page, as listicles are wont to do. It was titled “31 Things No One Told You About Being a Parent,” and it informed me that becoming a parent means gaining weight, living in filth, and never having time to read the news.
The listicle’s title was wrong, however. Thanks to the Internet, everyone tells me these things about being a parent, all the time. My Facebook feed is an endless stream of blog posts and status updates depicting the messy, tedious, nightmarishly life-destroying aspects of parenting. I’ve gawked at “15 Unbelievable Messes Made by Kids,” “All the Birth Control You’ve Ever Needed in Six Pictures of Ponytails” (which appeared on a blog called Rage Against the Minivan), and this uterus-shriveling poston how “You will not get anything done when you are home with a baby.” There’s this one on how you’ll give up on your values, your body, your style, and your hygiene after you have kids. There’s that British comedian’s stand-up routine, which has been viewed more than 4,700,000 times on YouTube, about how even leaving the house is a miserable odyssey of screaming and fighting. Ha … ha?
For overwhelmed parents, I imagine the relentless stream of realtalk is comforting. As a possible future parent, it’s utterly terrifying.
You can trace the genre of charmingly harried parenting writing back to women like Erma Bombeck and Jean Kerr, whose best-selling 1957 book about raising four boys, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, became a movie starring Doris Day. (Kerr’s essays, with titles like “How to Decorate in One Easy Breakdown,” would translate seamlessly to a “mommy” blog.) But the direct mother of this style of parenting writing is probably Heather Armstrong, the blogger who writes under the name Dooce. Armstrong has been writing down-and-dirty posts about her family life for more than a decade now; the New York Times suggested a few years ago that she likely earned at least $1 million a year doing so.
When Armstrong’s style of ribald parenting blogging took off in the early 2000s, it must have been genuinely refreshing to parents who found themselves frequently bored, exhausted, and beleaguered, but unable to say so. Writers like Armstrong are pushing back against a long and damaging history of mothers having to pretend that parenting is nothing but bliss, that they are completely fulfilled by it, and that they are able to work, parent, and maintain a tidy home and a thrilling marriage without batting a perfectly mascaraed eyelash. It’s a trend that is still going strong on Instagram and certain smug corners of Facebook. And yet, the backlash to it has perhaps encouraged a little too much honesty.
The pissed-parent genre follows a reliable template: My life is a waking nightmare and I’ve lost all that I once held dear, but it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me! A popular post titled “So, You Would Like to Have Three Children” published last summer on the site Short-Winded Blog is a fine specimen of the form. The writer offers a “disclaimer” that her three children are “a blessing.” Then she launches into 2,000 words on the logistical trials, financial impossibilities, and emotional traumas of caring for three children at once. The 850 comments on the post reinforce this narrative. As one commenter put it, in a phrase that is the unofficial motto of the form: “[A]s crazy as things get, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Advertisers and publishers are increasingly finding ways to tap into the new let-it-all-hang-out pose. There was this Argentine Coke ad, in which a couple’s work, home, and sleep routines are destroyed by their growing child, and yet they are inexplicably happy when they get pregnant again. There’s Go the F**k to Sleep, and the book version of the massively popular Twitter account Honest Toddler, written in the voice of a toddler who says things like “There are no more carefree nights and weekends. You signed up for a child not a mobile phone.” The Tumblr Reasons My Son Is Crying, to which parents submit photos of their screaming tots accompanied by descriptions of their absurd laments (“The ocean is too loud”), will also be turned into a book soon.
My Facebook feed goes wild for this stuff. “So true!” my friends write over and over again, because apparently parents never get their houses clean, never have sex, never read books or have adult conversations, never shower, and never, ever have a moment to themselves.
(Somehow they do find the time to blog.) Obviously a lot of this is hyperbole, for the sake of humor and self-deprecation and commiseration. The parents who write these posts get that. The parents who “like” these posts get that. And I get that.
But for me, a childless woman, the cumulative effect of all of this “honesty” is a growing sense of dread. I’ve known since I was a child myself that I would like to have kids someday. I’ve also never been under the illusion that parenting is easy. But it’s one thing to understand on an intellectual level that parenting is, as Jennifer Senior’s new book puts it, “all joy and no fun.” It’s another thing to see the drip-drip-drip of horror stories from parents who spend hours each day getting stubborn children to sleep and cleaning up pee. As the writer Emily Gould tweeted a few weeks ago, “At this point I’m expecting Guantanamo but worse, based on the parenting blogs I’ve scared myself with.”
This is not a call to return to the days of pressure and pretending. And parents are sort of in a no-win situation here—damned if they overshare their misery, damned if they are thought to be bragging and preening online. (One friend recently confided in me that the website STFU Parents has made her afraid to post anything nice on Facebook about her son.) But the cumulative effect of a Doocified world is that the Web is now flooded with “honest” anecdotes, and “brave” confessions about less-than-perfect parenting. Is it really “brave” when honesty is what’s getting the book deals these days?
Then there’s the fact that the parents writing these stories are, almost without exception, very capable women. These are not the “worst moms ever”; they are competent, loving parents who occasionally feel overwhelmed. They are parents who think and read and write about parenting. Almost by definition, they are doing just fine. Yet, culturally, we applaud their “bad” parenting while becoming less and less tolerant of actual bad parents. This is a country that is increasingly willing to prosecute pregnant women and young mothers for their mistakes with drugs, or for leaving their children home alone in moments of desperation. In a middle-class parenting subculture in which self-acceptance is a bedrock virtue, it’s impossible not to notice a disconnect.
Another disconnect: As I read these parenting posts as a way to peer into my possible future, there is one question that plagues me the most. If becoming a parent “changes everything,” as everyone says, then what is its promise to those of us who are already happy? If those changes are primarily terrible, as so many voices online seem to agree, then it had better have some serious joy to offer. Is anyone writing about joy? Is there a way to do it without seeming obnoxiously smug or totally dishonest?
I emailed my friend Amy, who wrote a 2013 novel about a depressed, exhausted stay-at-home mother. Amy’s Facebook page, on the other hand, makes her life as a parent look genuinely rewarding. Not perfect, not spotless, but joyful. I asked her about my complaint that online portrayals of parenting are terrifying to nonparents. “Parents of young children don’t give a fuck because they are too exhausted and tapped out to care about people without kids. Ha!” she wrote back. “You don’t have kids because you think they aren’t going to spend many years being assholes; you have kids for other, more inexplicable reasons. … If a bitchy tweet could change someone’s mind about having a baby they probably just don’t actually have that crazy strong desire for a baby that some people do.”
That’s fair enough. And no one would ask parents not to talk about parenting on parenting blogs, or on their own Facebook pages. Parents, do what you need to do to get through the long, exhausting days! Commiserate away! It’s not your responsibility to promote the parenting brand. But if you can manage it, consider occasionally sparing a thought for the nonparents among you who are eavesdropping on your online conversations: We’re over here, sleeping through the night, taking long quiet baths, and going out to eat on the spur of the moment. If you can find it in your full but weary hearts to pity us, try.
Update, Jan. 16, 2018: I’m a parent, now and (sorry to disappoint) I still stand by everything I wrote here. Parenthood is messy and tedious—no surprise—but it’s more often hilarious and heart-expanding. I recommend it!