How Bad Parenting Became Cool
In the new books about childrearing, it’s OK to be negligent and inept as long as you admit it with charm—and aren’t on Welfare.
One time, in a real fix, I strapped my 3-year-old daughter into her car seat, drove to the Sheraton Carlton for a press conference, and handed Courtney off to the valet parker. I left her with a juice box and an Elmo coloring book, gave the valet a twenty and the doorman another twenty to watch him. I ran in for 15 minutes and then went for ice cream to quiet the bad-mother police within.
There, I've said it. Now can I have a book contract? Probably not. As is often the case, I'm a little late to spot a publishing trend.
The current rage in kid-lit is to admit what a bad parent you are with a dollop of disdain for those grinds still following Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and pureeing their organically grown peas. June Cleaver and Father Know Best are relics, but so is last year’s Broadway hit, God of Carnage, which won the Tony for Best Play. It's about parents turning childish themselves as they obsess over a fight between their offspring at the park. Under the new guidelines, the parents in that play would have quickly cut the mommy and daddy stuff and started networking.
You’re 2, the thinking goes, isn't it about time you changed your own diaper?
The leitmotif of the new vogue in bad parenting is that keeping the marital buzz buzzing trumps the children. Writer Ayelet Waldman ( Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crime, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace, published this spring) wrote a column a few years back describing the ways in which she put her children second because she loved her husband more. It set the Internet aflame and got her a nice book contract. Now the lovey-dovey Obamas are driving couples everywhere insane. It's easy to have date night and hold hands when you have a butler fetching your drinks on a silver tray and grandma lives in.
In the new version of "whatever" parenting, you get to remain the center of the universe while accessorizing your life with little versions of yourself who can get along with so much less than previous generations thought. You’re 2, the thinking goes, isn't it about time you changed your own diaper? One mother confessed to a top-this bad-mommy chatroom that she has used paper towels and scotch tape rather than making a special trip to buy more Huggies.
Of course, not everyone can get away with the attitude that everyday childrearing is beneath them. Let someone on Welfare repeatedly knock a child to the floor to encourage crawling over walking (and get a "nasty thrill" from it) as Lisa Moricoli Latham admits in the blog-turned-book True Mom Confessions and the child-welfare service would be at the door.
Only those with high intellect, a fast-track career, and an A-List social life (Waldman is married to famous author Michael Chabon) can admit to subpar parenting. And among that crowd, the best is surely Michael Lewis, the successful author on finance and sports, who has turned his attention to child-rearing in the whiny but hilarious Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood.
If he weren't such a deft storyteller, Lewis could hardly get away with the old saw about sending a child to school dressed like a clown or win any sympathy for "his fatigue, his worries, his tedium, his disappointment at the contents of hospital vending machines" as he witnesses the "horror" of childbirth. Like Waldman, he has an interesting celebrity spouse (Tabitha Soren, formerly of MTV) who endures a severe postpartum depression after the birth of their third child. This leaves Lewis to deal with the other two children, who've become like "convicts in a Soviet gulag," already stripped of every possible privilege for bad behavior yet they "continue to subvert the authorities."
He decides they think he's weak. "They want to play hardball; they don't know what hardball is. They will now learn. Yet another generous neighbor has brought us yet another extravagant dessert: a ginger and molasses cake, topped with whipped cream. But they are grounded: No desserts for a week. In better times, I might sympathize with their predicament. I might toss them a crumb. At the very least I would sneak my cake later, alone. Not now. I cut myself a large piece and crown it with whipped cream, all the while feeling two pairs of eyes tracking me around the kitchen. Heaping great dollops of molasses and whipped cream onto my plate, I sit back down. Their own sad plates are decorated with cold, half-eaten vegetables.
Lewis discovers he's newly sympathetic with the worst father in British literature, Auberon Waugh, who ate his three daughters’ ration of bananas in front of them, with cream and sugar, just after the war.
These books that present parenthood as charming and effortless would be more useful if they served as an antidote to the compulsively scheduled child of last decade, pushed about in a $500 Bugaboo with a clothing budget equal to the GDP of a developing country. But I'm afraid English prams roll on for these casual parents, just not at the expense of adult toys such as a $1,000 espresso machine or the second honeymoon. What these parents spend less of is time—on worrying about being a good parent, and not being one. They are liberated from that anxiety, that Judith Warner in her 2005 bestseller, Perfect Madness, describes as a "caught by the throat feeling" that mothers (and fathers) are "always doing something wrong" even when they are sacrificing mightily to get it right.
The self-deprecating literary competition to be the worst parent on the block take much of that away, but fortunately not all. What would life—or psychiatry—be without the Bad Mother and, now, Father? There's lots of ways to raise kids. They survive most mistakes. Ask Courtney Carlson.