Skinny Review Week: All Joy and No Fun

Title: All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

What's it all about, briefly? Senior explores, basically, how having children may be a recipe for fulfillment (sometimes), but it is certainly no shortcut to happiness. She emphatically puts the focus on how parenting affects the parents, which was kind of a welcome change in a book about parenting, to tell you the truth. Early chapters focus on baby- and toddler-raising and issues like sleep deprivation, while later chapters explore the pressures parents are under when their children are in school and are teenagers. Throughout she considers the effect of children on parents' self-perception, work, and relationships (to mention just a few).

Representative quote: "Men and women may, on average, work roughly the same number of hours each day, once all kinds of labor are taken into account. But women, on average, still devote nearly twice as much time to 'family care'--housework, child care, shopping, chauffeuring--as men. So during the weekends, say, when both mothers and fathers are home together, it doesn't look to the mothers like their husbands are evenly sharing the load. It looks like their husbands are doing a lot less. (Indeed, in another analysis of those 1,540 hours of video data, researchers found that a father in a room by himself was the 'person-space configuration observed most frequently.'" (p. 56.)

The Skinny: Worth a read, for the different focus alone. Senior has a pretty nice, streamlined writing style that made this a quick read, and she draws on many interesting sources (scientific studies, personal interviews, books and articles).

Don't have time to read the whole book? You can try Senior's New York Magazine article on the same subject.

Dinner: A Love Story (skinny review)

Well, CR3 is nicely settling in to the family's routine (or are we settling into his?), leaving me just a bit more time for reading. However, I am still struggling to find the time to blog, and the books are getting ahead of me just a bit. So I thought this week I would run some "skinny" reviews--like sub sandwiches at our local Milio's shops, where you can buy just the meat and bread in a "skinny" sandwich--these reviews will have just the basics, folks.

Dinner: A Love Story: It All Begins at the Family Table, by Jenny Rosenstrach

What's it all about, briefly?: This book started as a blog, in which Rosenstrach, a publishing professional, posted about her family's nightly dinners (all of which she tracked in a notebook for years). The book covers the years when she was first married, had small children, lost her job, and other life changes.

Representative Quote: In her section on how non-cooking spouses and partners can support the cook: "#5. Take control of the heart sinkers. By this I mean, take care of all the things in the kitchen that routinely make the Cook's heart sink: discovering the dishes in the dishwasher are clean but unloaded, realizing just as you sit down to dinner that no one has anything to drink or that the soy sauce/ketchup/napkins are not on the table." (p. 108.)

The Skinny: An okay read, but the recipes aren't super practical unless you can stop by the big-city grocery or organic co-op on the way home. Beautiful photographs, though.

Thank God; I was worried I was starting to like everything.

It has been a very good year for me, fiction- and nonfiction-wise. By which I mean I have been enjoying reading almost everything I have brought home (although some titles do get home and back from the library without me having read a page of them; you just run out of time). I was starting to worry, in fact, that I was becoming some sort of easygoing, non-judgmental, easy-to-please reader.

And then I started the book Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm.

I only got about 45 pages into this one, so no, I probably didn't give it a real fair test, but I am done reading it. It's a woman's memoir of going through a divorce, amicably share custody of her three sons with her ex, and trying to keep a farm running through all of it. To be even more fair, I should point out that I really had no reason to expect this book to appeal to me: I only got OFF a farm when I was eighteen, and I never, ever want to go back, and I don't even want to think about divorce and trying to raise children separately (it's exhausting to try and do it together, after all).

Why did I check this book out? Well, when I read Emily Matchar's Homeward Bound, she listed a bunch of "back to the farm"/homemaker memoirs, and this was among them; I don't read a lot of these types of memoirs, but for some reason I thought I would give one a try. It quickly became apparent, however, that this was not going to be a memoir for me:

"They're all mine now, and this is how I will raise my boys: on cheerful summer days and well water and BB guns and horseback riding and dirt. Because I'm claiming our whole country life, the one I've been dreaming of and planning out and working for since I was a little girl.

Last night the full moon hung low and close, like a glistening teardrop on the earth's dark eye, threatening to spill. It didn't, though, and neither did I. A month is a bill cycle, a mortgage cycle, and may become a child-support cycle, but a month is also a moon phase and a growing phase. Our financial lives, our emotional lives, and our cosmic lives are irrevocably intertwined." (p. 13.)

Yeah, cosmic lives. When I start seeing phrases like "cosmic lives," I'm pretty much done with a book.

There seems to be a lot of crafting in the new domesticity.

I am a terrible homemaker.

Really. I don't even like to apply the term "homemaking" to what I do. I'm an average cook, I hate cleaning, I refuse to "decorate" in any way (my current TV table is the same $15 plain wood table I bought from an outgoing student for my dorm room, oh my god, over twenty years ago now), I'm not really very good at playing with the children, and when I hear the word "crafts," I reach for my revolver.*

So why would I read a book on the "New Domesticity"?

The first thing I should probably do is define the term for you. Or, more accurately, I should let Emily Matchar, author of the book Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, define it for you:

"The motivations behind New Domesticity are varied: an interest in self-sustainability; concern for the environment; the need for flexible, child-friendly work; the desire to remain connected to older generations. But the common thread seems to be this: my generation--those of us in our twenties and thirties--is longing for a more authentic, meaninful life in an economically and environmentally uncertain world." (p. 5.)

So yeah, I'm in my thirties (just barely, but I'm enjoying it while I still can), and yes, I stay at home as a pretty stereotypical housewife, with some freelance work on the side. I do many of the things Matchar talks about her interview subjects doing--raising the kids, trying to earn a little "pin money" on the side, and making the food. But I can safely say, after reading this book, that I do not approach domesticity with the zeal that Matchar's subjects do; many of them are actively "homesteading" and doing things like trying to raise their own meat animals and live off the grid.

Matchar's book is interesting (if a bit repetitive), and she actually does a nice job of keeping her tone pretty even-keeled. She seems generous to her subjects, willing to believe the best about their desires to DIY and remove themselves as much as possible from the factory food system, but also questions how realistic those desires are, and how they developed from and represent the last fifty or so years of feminism. She covers a wide array of topics, from domestic bloggers and Etsy crafters to DIY food culture, parenting to the politics of the New Domestics. And every now and then she comes across with a pretty nice flash of insight:

"Today parents are expected to be the total authorities in their children's lives. Parent are taught to question everything they hear and make sure it 'feels right' for their particular family. This can be empowering but also exhausting--every vaccine and preschool and baby-food brand must be rigorously vetted by Mom or Dad (usually Mom)." (p. 126.)

One thing I do feel the book was missing (as I feel most books of this type miss) was any realistic disussion of how on earth anyone can "homestead" or go without a job (or a spouse with a job) with health insurance. Unless you're the Pioneer Woman, no one is making enough on blogs or crafts to quit their day jobs, much less pay for any kind of health insurance on their own.

It wasn't the fastest or most fascinating read of the year so far, but I'll say this: it held my interest even after several 2 a.m. feedings (sometimes I have a snack and a chapter of something after nursing CR3). And that's usually the mark of a pretty well-written book.

*Not really. But I will always remember that phrase from the promo copy on Jim Knipfel's fantastic book Ruining It for Everybody: "and when I hear the word 'spiritual,' I reach for my revolver."

Yet another parenting memoir.

I know, I know, you're saying, good lord, how many of them ARE there?

A lot, it turns out. (I've been addicted to them this year.)

Today's entry in the canon is Leanne Shirtliffe's Don't Lick the Minivan: And Other Things I Never Thought I'd Say to My Kids. This title wins points right off the bat for a fun title and for at least starting off with a bang: Shirtliffe had twins while living in Bangkok, which gives this Mommy Memoir a more international flavor than most (books telling American mothers that French mothers do it better notwithstanding). Later chapters find her family moving back to her home country of Canada and settling into a more typical routine: balancing kids and work; starting the kids in school; traveling with kids and family visits and stories.

This didn't become one of my favorite memoirs, but it did grow on me as I read it. I went into it expecting something a bit more hilarious, but that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of very funny bits here. One of my favorites didn't even have to do with parenting, but with Canada:

"We were driving through Saskatchewan, which is like North Dakota, but with fewer people and straighter roads. The directions for driving across the Prairie Provinces are this: Drive in a straight line until you want to slit your wrists; you're 10 percent there." (p. 119.)

There's also a very nice bit of hilarity between Leanne and her husband, when they have some fun with kids' books, playing a game they learned on the TV show "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" The idea is to add "if you know what I mean" onto everything you say:

"We both grabbed a book and opened up to a random page.

I grabbed a Doreen Cronin book, opened up, and read, 'Bob had all the pigs washed in no time, if you know what I mean.'

We laughed.

'How about this one? Chris said, picking up The Cat in the Hat and opening to a random page. 'And then something went BUMP! How that BUMP made us JUMP, if you know what I mean.'" (p. 171.)

The author, who blogs at, also includes "parenting tips" (my favorite tip? "Misbehave during prenatal classes. Nothing is going to go according to plan anyway.") and letters to her children as sidebars.

As far as Mommy Memoirs go, it's a solid read. And extra points just because you know I love all things Canadian.

Writing on pregnancy...from the economist's point of view.

As with most books about our American health "care" system (which I would say breaks down to about 5% "care" and 95% "system"), I can't say that I really enjoyed reading Emily Oster's Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong-And What You Really Need to Know. But I can say it was quite interesting.*

Oster is an associate professor of economics at the University of Chicago, so she may seem like an odd choice to write a book about pregnancy and obstetric care. But she researched and wrote it for a very good reason: she became pregnant, and as an academic who works with a lot of numbers and research herself, she found herself frustrated by recommendations from doctors who assume all pregnant women have never been in the same room with critical thinking skills.

Oster covers the entire process, from conception through labor, and tackles many subjects on which there are conflicting guidelines and theories, including ingesting coffee and alcohol, all the prenatal tests women are expected to undergo without being given time to ask questions about them, and what is now standard operating procedure even at "low intervention" hospital births.

Of course the only thing that anyone can talk about in reviews or mentions of this book is how Oster suggests that, indeed, having a glass of wine every now and then, particularly during the second and third trimesters, has not been proven to be detrimental to the fetus (and how dare she?). And yes, you may not want to take all of your pregnancy health and safety recommendations from an economist. But what I liked best about this book was her approach to information gathering and decision-making, which she explains by explaining how she starts teaching her economics students:

"Ultimately, this is what microeconomics is: decision science--a way to structure your thinking so you make good choices.

I try to teach them that making good decisions--in business, and in life--requires two things. First, they need all the information about the decision--they need the right data. Second, they need to think about the right way to weigh the pluses and minuses of the decision (in class we call this costs and benefits) for them personally. The key is that even with the same data, this second part--this weighing of the pluses and minuses--may result in different decisions for different people. Individuals may value the same thing differently." (pp. xii-xiii.)

That approach in a nutshell is what seems to be missing in obstetric care particularly, and in health care generally, although I realize doctors mostly don't have the time to explain stuff to us like we have brains, and frankly, a lot of people don't have the time or interest to look into their own health issues or options for addressing them.** A case in point: when I had an ultrasound when I was pregnant, the doctor who spoke to us at the end spent about 30 seconds telling us they didn't see any evidence of chromosomal abnormalities, but then spent another five minutes telling us the test doesn't see everything and, as an old mother (or a "geriatric pregnancy," to use their charming terminology), I still had a high risk of Down Syndrome or other issues. Even for a "cover your ass" disclaimer, it was really long and disconcerting. On the other hand, if he'd just shown me the chart Oster showed me, on p. 100, I could have seen for myself the Down Syndrome odds (like at 35 the risk is 1 in 374; at 40 it's 1 in 106). He could have saved us all some time and just made that fairly basic information available. But I digress.

As you would expect from an academic, the book has a lovely and informative section of endnotes and an index, as well as handy charts and informative tidbits throughout. If you're looking for a slightly less combative book about pregnancy than Jennifer Margulis's The Business of Baby, this might be the one for you.

*And should by all means be read by both women AND men, although I'm sure no man will touch it with a ten-foot pole.

**As a friend of mine, an ER doctor, once told me, laughingly, after I asked him some questions about patients and whether they ask him questions based on their reading or research: "CR, people don't read." (This same lovely doctor also provided the insight that most people who come into the ER with a hangnail scream "30!" when asked to rate their pain on a scale of 1 to 10, so, when you go to the doctor, don't downplay your pain, as doctors just aren't used to that sort of thing.)

I found the funny women!

A quick reminder: please comment on my Stacy Horn giveaway post if you'd like a chance at winning a copy of her latest book, Imperfect Harmony. The deadline is tomorrow (9/13)!

A while back I complained that it seemed Daddy Memoirs were funnier than Mommy Memoirs.

And then, my friends, I found the book Let's Panic about Babies!! Written by two women!

The fact is that this book made me snort with laughter so loudly that I almost woke up my sleeping three-year-old (which the authors of this book would NOT condone) many, many times. It masquerades as a parenting advice manual, but of course it's the best kind of manual: not really meant to be taken seriously, but very very accurate nonetheless. The first half of the book covers pregnancy, and the second half covers "caring" for the baby. And these ladies (Eden Kennedy and Alice Bradley), in a bid to win my heart, are not afraid to swear:

(Seriously, if you don't like swearing, don't read this next quote from the book):

"CHAPTER 8: This Pregnancy Shit Is Getting Old

The eighth month is also known as the Really Goddamn Over This Pregnancy month. You feel like you might explode and you cannot fathom staying like this for another goddamn month. GODDAMMIT. Incidentally, you are now swearing like a dockworker. Even if you were born and raised a plainspoken Mennonite who never so much as used the word 'gosh-'-because everyone knows which Almighty is being blasphemed by that cuss-substitute--you're now a salty-language connoisseur. Every time Baby pummels your ribs at 3 A.M., you let out a stream of expletives that sends your partner scurrying for the village exorcist." (p. 97.)

To say this book is very, VERY amusing would be selling it very short. I'm still laughing every time I turn to the page where the authors have suggested that pregnant ladies make pictures of what they want their birthing experiences to be like--complete with a sketch of a baby flying out of a kneeling lady and heading toward Santa Claus, ready to catch it with a catcher's mitt (I'm describing it badly, but the idea is, of course, to display the birth as mythically wonderful and easy).

Ah, swearing and sarcasm. Now THIS is a Mommy Memoir, even if it's not a memoir as such.

Ranking of the Daddy Memoirs.

Dad Is Fat
by Jim Gaffigan

Well, I finally got Jim Gaffigan's Dad Is Fat from the library.

And I really, really enjoyed it. I've always thought Gaffigan was funny (thanks to a friend who turned me on to the Hot Pockets bit, which, as Gaffigan admits, is what people mostly know him for), but now I just plain like him. The book is a collection of very short chapters; anecdotes about Gaffigan's experiences parenting five children. Or, more accurately, being in awe of his wife's skill in parenting five children.

That's right: five children.

As you can imagine, Gaffigan has a lot to say about having five kids: how they put five kids to sleep in a small fifth floor walk-up two-bedroom Manhattan apartment (one of my favorite chapters); how people look at their family when they go out to restaurants; how they rent an actual bus sometimes when Gaffigan heads out on tours to do comedy shows so they can all be together.

I bookmarked a lot of bits in this book that got me to laugh out loud:

"Toddlers are a virus's best friend. Viruses are usually spread by close contact and saliva. If you look up the definition of toddler, the first thing it should say is 'close contact and saliva.' Toddlers are always the contagion. Our home becomes the CDC every winter." (p. 92.)

And, being Catholic myself, I REALLY loved the Catholic bits (both Gaffigan and his wife are Catholic). In the chapter on how he still takes his family to church: "I empathize with my children. If you've never been to a Catholic Mass, don't worry, it's still going on, you still have time to catch it." (p. 169.)

I also enjoyed his attitude toward selling chocolate as a fundraiser for his daughter's school: "A three-year-old is not going to go around selling chocolate bars. I certainly am not going to go around selling chocolate bars. The solution? Write a check, and Dad eats a case of chocolate bars." (p. 217.)

It's a very different parenting memoir than Drew Magary's Someone Could Get Hurt, which I really enjoyed, but I think this book just edged it out. So what I'm going to do is start a ranking of parenting memoirs and see how it all shakes out. Here's what we have so far:

1. Dad Is Fat, Jim Gaffigan

2. Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of Twenty-First-Century Parenthood, Drew Magary

Daddy memoirs, part two.

Before I read Drew Magary's Daddy Memoir Someone Could Get Hurt, I chanced across an interview with him* that made me want to read the book. When asked about the biggest challenges of parenting, the first one he listed just made me laugh: "Off the top of my head, money. Like, you need five billion dollars just to prop up one lousy kid. Every day, I'm thinking, "Christ, I need to accrue more money or else these people will end up living among hobos."

The week after I got his book from the library and devoured it, I also saw an interview with comedian Jim Gaffigan. Again, consider me completely charmed. So now I'm waiting for Gaffigan's Dad Is Fat memoir from the library as well.

All of this got me thinking about different parenting memoirs I've read. And this got me wondering if daddies get to be funnier than mommies. I've really enjoyed some Mommy Memoirs, but when I think back on it, most of them have had a darker edge** (and at least two have steered onto the topic of abortion at one point, which is really a laugh-killer). So what do you think? Do fathers get to write about parenting with more detachment and more humor than mothers do?

*The interview's at the bottom of that page; scroll all the way down.

**Oh no, I forgot about The Three Martini Playdate, written by a woman. That book was hilarious, although not really a "memoir" as such.

Are daddies funnier than mommies?

Be aware, I don't really think that headline is true. I just thought it would be a nice incendiary way to start the week.

I did have this thought, though, as I was reading and enjoying Drew Magary's Daddy Memoir Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of Twenty-First-Century Parenthood. Magary has three kids, and this book consists mainly of quick vignettes of his parenting experience. (He's also a magazine and fiction writer, which means his writing is pretty snappy and very easy to read quickly.) It's not perfect, but I actually laughed out loud at it in several places. I love to laugh, but I am not really a laugh-out-louder while I read, so this book took me by surprise.

Evidently I must be experiencing motherhood from a more male point of view, because so many little things Magary threw in appealed to me:

When his wife wanted to call the doctor to ask if loud music (they were at a concert) would harm the fetus: "'She might get pissed at me for calling.'

'Screw that,' I said. Doctors go to great lengths to guilt-trip every patient into not calling them outside of office hours. They have the whole trap set. They have that voicemail message that tells you to call 911 first. Then it says, 'Well, if you really have to talk to the doctor, leave a message on our answering service.' They give you every opportunity to feel like shit for bothering the poor doctor during dinner. It's a process designed to weed out the faint of heart. I refused to be cowed. 'Don't feel bad about calling her,' I said. 'You pay those people hundreds of dollars every visit. Call the shit out of them.'" (p. 15.)

Tee hee. Of course, you'll notice another part of the appeal of Magary (to me, anyway): He swears a lot. I find this appropriate, as parenting does seem to induce some level of swearing (which you try to keep quiet, sometimes successfully, sometimes not) on a daily basis.

And then there was this bit, which was more serious, but actually made me feel vindicated for some dark thoughts I had when CRjr was tiny and crying in the middle of the night and I was so, so tired:

"She kept on crying and jerking her head around. Eventually, she gave me a full-on head butt and I recoiled in anger. I remember being furious with her, which is insane because how mad can you get at a baby? Oh, but you can. Late at night, when no one is watching, you can get obscenely angry at a baby. You stupid fucking baby. Sometimes you read about babies dying from shaken baby syndrome and you wonder, Why would anyone want to shake a baby? How is this such a widespread problem? And then your child head-butts you in the dead of night and suddenly there's a little voice in your head whispering to you, Go ahead, shake that baby. Maybe shaking it gets all the tears out! You just want the child to snap out of it and calm down, and you're willing to consider anything, even the stupidest idea. You feel like a monster merely for having the thought." (p. 26.)

I give him points for honesty there, and for understanding that terrible feeling in a way my husband never did, because I nursed and was mainly in charge of nighttime care. He was amenable to me waking him up to relieve me, but I don't think he ever experienced that exhauasted, 3 a.m., "you've been fed and changed and rocked and you're still crying, why?" frustration in quite the way I (and evidently Magary) did.

And last but not least, a lighter bit:

"I'm not sure any group of parents has ever been subjected to as much widespread derision as the current generation of American parents. We are told, constantly, how badly we are fucking our kids up. There are scores of books being sold every day that demonstrate how much better parents are in China, and in France, and in the Amazon River Basin. I keep waiting for a New York Times article about how leaders of the Cali drug cartel excel at teaching their children self-reliance." (p. 137.)

I've already gone on too long in this post; a bit more tomorrow on all this. In the meantime, if you're looking for a funny, quick parenting read, you could do a lot worse than this one.

Downer Book Week: The Business of Baby

As I told my mom, the great thing about expecting very little from the American medical establishment is that you're not particularly shocked when you read books like The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don't Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line.

So yeah: Margulis has a lot to say on a broad array of topics surrounding pregnancy, childbirth, infant care, and cultural norms in this wide-ranging investigative book. But was I particularly surprised by any of it? Not really. If you read this book, you'll find a lot of tidbits like this:

--"When I ask [Dr. Michael] Klaper why obstetricians don't emphasize the importance of nutrition during pregnancy, he chuckles. 'No one tells us it's important!' he exclaims, shaking his head. 'We go to medical school to learn how to work in the body repair shop--which is what hospitals are. If you break your body, go to the hospital. They'll fix it. But then get out of there. No one is going to mention nutrition to you before, during, or after, because no one mentions it to us.'" (p. 9.)

--"Data collected by the United Nations shows that while the vast majority of countries reduced their maternal mortality rates (for a global decreace of 34 percent), the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. doubled between 1990 and 2008, from 12 to 24 in 100,000 births." (p. 50.)

--"Another report found that women at for-profit hospitals were 17% more likely to have a Cesarean, despite having fewer risk factors, than women at nonprofit hospitals." (p. 87.)

I'll admit that the chapters on health care (and especially how the American system differs from systems in Europe) held my interest more than chapters on how the formula and diaper industries are conspiring to get mothers to buy their formula and diapers. My interest perked back up for the chapters on vaccinations and well-baby visits, though, and I read much of it with that feeling you get when you've experienced what an author is talking about:

"Every well-baby visit begins with charting a baby's height and weight against a standardized curve. But because pediatricians are usually so rushed, this quantitative evaluation is often done without taking the particular context of the baby's family into account, and without consideration to the problematic nature of the growth charts themselves." (p. 232.)

All I can say is: been there, heard that.

To say I enjoyed this book would be all wrong. But it was informative (particularly a lot of the information about vaccinations (there's a chart on p. 264 that lists how many vaccines Norwegian children get, as opposed to their American counterparts, that's pretty shocking). I did feel it was a little short on helpful future suggestions or policy ideas (although she does list resources in an appendix and inspirational stories throughout), but it was not really that kind of book. All in all, I think I still preferred Jennifer Block's book Pushed: The Painful Truth about Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care (which I read a while back) overall, but this book did provide a larger viewpoint on more issues surrounding having and raising children.

Imperfect in so many ways.

The slim book The Imperfect Mom: Candid Confessions of Mothers Living in the Real World has been sitting on my table for at least a month now, which indicates, I think, a lot about the imperfections going on in the house of this mom. Procrastination? Check. Poor cleaning routines? Check. (I promise you this book hasn't been moved or touched, even to dust around, in at least four weeks.) Poor time management and lack of regular blogging? Check.

I don't see that big picture turning around any time soon, but it is time to get this book out of here. I got it from the library, of course, because of the title, and it turned out to be a collection of mostly engaging essays on the practice of imperfect mothering (which I am perfecting over here). I see it's got a bunch of bookmarks in it--let's see what I thought was interesting enough, at least a month ago, to bookmark, shall we?

The entire chapter by Jenny Rosenstrach, titled "Take Back Your Stereo," about the inanity of "children's music," and how to get around it: "We'd listen to our music with two sets of ears asking ourselves, 'Would this make a good Phoebe song?' It was amazing to discover and in some cases rediscover the songs that did. Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits had probably been in the CD case for ten years without airtime when Andy decided to play track 14 in the car. It was love at first listen. For three months straight we'd barely be out of the driveway before the rapid-fire questioning would begin:

'Cecelia, Daddy?'" (p. 75.)

I enjoyed that because we just listened to that song the other day and CRjr rocked out. It's a good question: is there anyone who doesn't like the song "Cecelia"?

And this, from the opening essay:

"I should have eliminated caffeine completely from my diet during the first trimester of my pregnancy with Katherine. Maybe that was the cause of her irregular heartbeat. And why did I fly with her when she was a wee two months old? Did I really think her immune system could fight off the nasty bacterial infection she caught on the plane, which almost had her hospitalized?" (p. 4.)

Whenever I hear women saying their pregnancies made them feel stronger, I just marvel at them. Have you seen the list of what pregnant women either flat-out can't eat or "should avoid"? It's ridiculous. Being pregnant made me feel like one huge crisis waiting to happen.

And this, from an essay on a woman's pre-term labor, particularly her reactions to her husband's and doctor's reactions:

[After feeling her water break and trying to rouse her husband] "'Don't pregnant women have bladder issues? Maybe that's what it is,' he said.

'I think I would know if I had only wet my pants,' I growled, my irritation increasing exponentially.

'Yeah, but I remember reading something about...'

He noticed my hands moving to wrap around his neck.

'I'll get ready to go."

Just then the phone rang. It was my doctor. As I was explaining what happened, he interrupted me and asked to remind him how far along I was.

'Thirty-two weeks.'

'Are you sure?'

Oh, gee, now that you ask, ha, ha, silly me, I thought it was December, not February--of course I'm sure, are you kidding me?

'Yes, I'm sure,' I said with great restraint." (p. 24.)

I really got a kick out of that, because CRjr was a high-risk pregnancy, and trust me, you are not only counting weeks, you are counting days. Days to being closer to being full-term, days to being closer to bringing that baby in "safe." And how many mothers HAVEN'T had these conversations with doctors? Honestly, doctors. I know they care and try and we need them and all that jazz, but it feels like I have had to stop myself from saying, "Look, asshole," in more of my conversations than not with doctors.

So: I found a lot to relate to in this one, and I enjoyed it. I liked the variety of viewpoints, and it was refreshing to hear other mothers tell stories about how they had muffed things (and yet everything turned out fine, or at least workable). I always think this is the sort of gift, along with perhaps The Three-Martini Playdate: A Practical Guide to Happy Parenting, that someone should get for mothers-to-be at baby showers, just for a change of pace.

Year of Learning Dangerously

Earlier this past summer I was having a hard time finding any nonfiction I wanted to finish. So when I stumbled across Quinn Cummings's homeschooling memoir The Year of Learning Dangerously, I was pleased not only to start it and enjoy it, but to finish it as well.

I found it to be a really fun little book, which didn't set out to be any big manifesto, but rather Cummings's thoughtful consideration of her year spent homeschooling her daughter Alice. Cummings decided to homeschool Alice after her daughter proved too successful at gaming her teachers, convincing them she didn't know how to do long division so they wouldn't then go on to teach her anything harder.

Cummings does offer a brief history of the American homeschooling movement and includes a chapter on the most frequent challenge to homeschoolers (but what about the socialization?). She also spends some time investigating a wide variety of homeschooling methods, including "unschooling."

This is not really a how-to book or even a serious philosophical consideration of homeschooling, but it is a very enjoyable memoir. I really, really enjoyed the author's voice--smart, questioning, funny, but still kind of no-nonsense. This is how she describes a moment at the unschooling convention she attends:

"That morning, one of the speakers had told us that human beings come from one of two places: fear or love. If those were the only sources of human motivation, I knew where I got my mail. But in my case, I swear fear and love are joined at the hip: I love you so deeply that I fear all the possible things that might happen to you." (p.83.)

And her thoughts on the ever-present "socialization" question are the best. In the following paragraph she describes a moment at her daughter's co-ed water-polo game, as she watched all the boys in the pool keep the ball away from the girls:

"All of a sudden someone bellowed, 'That is some seriously sexist shit!' From the number of parents suddenly staring in my direction, I was led to understand the bellower was me. 'Sorry,' I whispered to no one in particular and attempted to shrink under a towel. Alice continued with water polo for another month, but that night marked the beginning of the end. The next time she asked to quit, I let her. Which circles back to the question, 'What about socialization?' I guess the most accurate answer would have to be: Alice is doing quite well. I could use some work." (pp 135-136.)

Good stuff. There's an ever-increasing number of homeschooling memoirs out there, but this one's a keeper.

Re-reading a classic: The Three-Martini Playdate.

I did a lot of re-reading this summer, both fiction and nonfiction. Sometimes I was just lazy and wanted to enjoy something I knew I'd already enjoyed, and sometimes I wanted to see if something I remembered liking held up in the re-reading. One nonfiction title that held up (it got better, actually), was Christie Mellor's fun little guide The Three-Martini Playdate: A Practical Guide to Happy Parenting.

I originally read this slim little book before I had a kid,* and it struck me as funny and quite pragmatic then. Now that CRjr is around, this book strikes me as pure genius. Here's some of the chapter headings: "Saying No to Your Child: It's a Kick!", "Bedtime: Is Five-thirty Too Early?", and "Self-Esteem and Other Over-Rated Concepts." Those are good, but the text is even better:

"There is no shame in explaining to your children that they should go and find Something to Do, that the grown-ups are having grown-up talk, that they, the little children, need to go somewhere and be little children. Whether you would like to share a portion of your time with one grown-up or a party of them, or simply enjoy a moment alone, it is time to exert a little autonomy and encourage some in your child. This book explains how. It's time to warm up the ice cubes, curl up on the sofa, and send darling Spencer into the other room to play by himself. Mummy and Daddy need a little break." (p. 13.)

At last! A parenting book I can get behind. And lest anyone think Mellor is simply calling for ignoring one's children, this paragraph appears a scant few pages later:

"I am not espousing a return to the era when children were seen and not heard--a lofty goal, but one which is now simply impractical. In fact, one should have conversations with the children from time to time, so that they will learn how to speak with confidence and enthusiasm, should a grown-up wish to have a thoughtful exchange." (p. 32.)

Mellor can also be quite practical. In a later chapter she discusses what you absolutely need when you go to make visits with your baby, and the list is simple: 3 to 5 diapers, a small blanket or two or an extra sweater or hat, a small tote of cars, a coloring book, or reading materials (depending on the age of the child), and "a nice bottle of wine for your hosts, which should be opened upon arrival." (p. 48.)

Loved this book then. Love this book now. Find copies of it anywhere you can to buy and take to the next baby shower to which you're invited.

*Don't ask me why. I like to read stuff that is age- and situation-inappropriate, for whatever reason. I read a lot of dating manuals after I got married, and I read a ton of parenting books before I had a kid.

God bless Rachel Cusk.

I am a big fan of Rachel Cusk.

She's better known as a novelist (although she's somewhat notorious for her earlier memoir on parenting, titled A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother), but I've never read any of her novels. I really, really enjoyed A Life's Work, largely, I'll admit, for its contrarian viewpoint, so when I heard her new book, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, was coming out, I was very excited to read it.* I was pumped when it finally came in for me at the library, and as it clocks in at a mere 146 pages, I thought I'd be able to fly through it. This was not the case.

The first time I started it, for some reason, I had a very hard time keeping track of what she was saying in the first chapter. The second time I started it, I was in Door County enjoying a very nice mini-vacation with my family and my brother's family, and it just wasn't the right atmosphere in which to read this book. The third time I started it, I found it really interesting, and re-read the first chapter so I made sure to get it all. And the fourth time I started it (starting with the second chapter), I couldn't put it down, and I made CRjr look at his own books for a while in the afternoon so I could keep reading it ("Mom's reading her book, why don't you just look at the pictures in your animal book? Please?" Child neglect, thy name is CR.)

There's no way for this not to be a sad memoir. It is about the breaking up of a marriage, with all that entails: fights and disagreements and the destruction of shared history with one's ex; worries about the children and how they are taking the new living situations; the messiness of trying to move forward with new and different relationships. It is, unfortunately, not a great book. (And here's two reviews explaining why it is not, better than I ever could.)

But to me Rachel Cusk is never strongest in the aggregate. I love her for the brief shining moments of insight, the lines she gets totally right. These are a few of them:

"To act as a mother, I had to suspend my own character, which had evolved on a diet of male values...I was aware, in those early days, that my behaviour was strange to the people who knew me well. It was as though I had been brainwashed, taken over by a cult religion. I had gone away--I couldn't be reached on the usual number. And yet this cult, motherhood, was not a place where I could actually live. It reflected nothing about me: its literature and practices, its values, its codes of conduct, its aesthetic were not mine. It was generic too: like any cult, it demanded a complete surrender of identity to belong to it. So for a while I didn't belong anywhere." (p. 19.) This is in the opening chapter on the early days of marriage and parenthood and the sorting out of roles, with a discussion of her childhood adoption of her father's ways and more "male" values of seeking individual success and financial security.

"Pain is strong and huge and relentless, and 'normality'--that was the word he used, wasn't it?--normality is the fine balance life achieves in the absence of disruption, is the blank register of events and their aftermath, slowly re-stitching and reparing itself after a pebble has been thrown in. Normality is capable of resisting nothing and can outlive almost anything." (p. 31.) This is perhaps the clearest description of pain and the absence of pain that I've ever read.

"Later, at the train station before she leaves, my sister says to me: you have to learn to hide what you feel from the children. They will feel what they think you feel. They are only reflections of you.

I don't believe that, I say." (p. 72.) I don't know how I feel about this. I'd like to discuss it in a book group or something, actually.

So there you have it. A disjointed review of a book I found to be somewhat disjointed. It may have been hard to understand in bits; it may not have divulged as much actual information about why a marriage ends as I might have wished; and at the end of the day Cusk is not the sort of author I wish I could call up and ask some questions. But I'm still not sorry I read it. Not at all.

*Although I was not happy to hear she was having marital troubles. No fun for spouses, and definitely no fun for the kids.

Let's catch up, y'all.

So what did I read this past summer?

Well, I think we should start from the beginning (as Maria von Trapp would sing: "a very good place to start"). In early June I had a little health issue* that preoccupied me for a while, and that sort of thing always makes it hard to read. (At least it does for me.) Shortly before that I was reading a fantastically hilarious little book titled Life among the Savages by Shirley Jackson. You may know Ms. Jackson better as the author of the infamous short story "The Lottery," which was required reading for most high schoolers for many, many years. She is primarily known as a horror author, as she also wrote the book The Haunting of Hill House, which was a popular book that got made into a movie (several times).

Life Among the Savages is not a horror book, unless you consider the idea of raising four young children horrifying (and many people do, and no one can blame them). It is in fact a nonfiction memoir, published back in the days before they called them memoirs, about Jackson's life raising her kids, which she did in between writing, taking ridiculously good care of her husband (more on this later), and trying to function as a regular member of their community. It's somewhat similar in tone and writing style (and era) to Jean Kerr's also very popular parenting memoir, Please Don't Eat the Daisies, as well as Erma Bombeck's books. (I'm guessing that all of these books, when they were published, were maybe considered Humor? I don't think publishing categories were as prevalent or important back then.)

The important thing is: it's hilarious. At least it was to me. Jackson's voice is wonderfully pragmatic, and she seems to have a knack for really describing her children's experiences and lives without making them sound too twee. At the point when I read this book, I wasn't keeping notes or marking pages, so I don't have any exact quotes for you. But I can tell you one of the huge reasons I loved this book: it was such a product of its time (the 1950s). When describing how it came time to have her third child (I think; it could have been her fourth), Jackson was living in a house in a small town in Vermont with no car. (Can you imagine that today?) So on the morning she gave birth, she heated up some coffee from the night before, then called a cab to take her to the hospital, and in the back of the cab she had a cigarette. Oh my God. I just sat in pure wonderment at the difference between childbearing then and childbearing now. (Oh, and after all that, and having the baby, she got to stay in the hospital for more than a week, resting, while others looked after the other kids. Not because she had a c-section or anything, just because that's how they did it.) When I finished that chapter I thought, hey, even I might have been able to have four babies in THAT kind of childbearing environment.**

So I'd really, really suggest you look into this book. It's fascinating on its own and as a little window into the fifties (it was first published in 1952, and considered a fictional grouping of stories based on her real life). More on all of this tomorrow.

*I'm fine now, no worries.

**Of course: no I couldn't have. Even with a mug of coffee and a cigarette to bolster me I could never handle four kids. Four kids and a really needy husband.

Bringing up Bebe

Sorry: a quick administrative note. I'm getting hit with all sorts of stupid automated comments that are somehow making it through the spam filter, so I've had to enable comment moderation for the time being. Hopefully when these comments dry up I'll be able to take that back off. In the meantime, please comment away and I'll moderate and add your comments as soon as I can!

In honor of Mother's Day coming up, I think I'll just post about parenting books all week. The last one I read was one that's getting lots of press-- Pamela Druckerman's Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. (I originally got it from the library because I saw the author on the Today show, actually wearing a beret, which seemed so ridiculous it almost made me like her.)

BringingDruckerman relates the tale of her whirlwind romance and marriage, and how she eventually found herself in Paris, raising a baby girl (and later, twin boys). Her account is chronological: the account of her love affair, the experience of giving birth in France, breastfeeding, getting her baby to sleep through the night, and so on. Along the way she describes how the French method of child-rearing differs from the American; for example, most French women don't breastfeed, but yet they manage to get their babies to sleep through the night much earlier than American parents. Of course French parents pay much more attention to the food their children eat, and they also tend to send their children to daycares (state-funded, mind you) much earlier, and to try and instill more independence in them. Druckerman also noted that children in France seem much more self-sufficient and well-behaved, meaning that French parents can all get together, along with their kids, and still maintain an adult conversation at the same time.

It's not nearly as annoying a book as you might think; it's actually quite interesting in parts. (I was particularly blown away that French mothers receive both abdominal/core and pelvic rehabilitation therapy services after birth--now THAT's a good idea. Or you could, as my oh-so-helpful OB/GYN suggested, "just do some crunches." Thanks for all the high-level tips, doc.) But the fact of the matter is, as my sister would say, you raise your kids like the parents around you do. I can just see if you tried to give up breastfeeding in America, or have coffee* with other mothers and chat with them about adult things rather than all of you just following your toddlers around and attempting to teach them how to share with each other.

I read the whole thing, and it was okay. But unless I move to Paris (and the attention Druckerman says everyone pays to their appearance in Paris pretty much assures me I will never bother to visit Paris, much less live there) there wasn't much for me to learn or use here.

Reviews: New York Times; NPR

*Or have coffee at all, when you're pregnant or breastfeeding. You monster!

Parenting books, yet again.

Here's a shocker: I continue to read parenting books.*

I don't know why I can't look away from them. (Like one of my favorite lines from the short-lived Canadian sitcom An American in Canada: "It's like watching a car crash. Into puppies.") If I hear one being talked about on the radio, I must get it from the library--same deal if I see it being promoted on morning talk shows.

CuskNow, as if there aren't plenty of current parenting books out there to drown myself in, I've started to re-read parenting books I've already read. Oddly enough, I first read Rachel Cusk's A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother long before CRjr came into being. I don't know why--I think I heard the press about it, much of which was negative because this is not, emphatically NOT, your usual touchy-feely positive mommy memoir, and because I love negative people, I looked it up.

Because I have a child and my memory and brain have been shot ever since giving birth, the nice part of re-reading this book was that I really couldn't remember it. The sad part was that I can't even remember what I thought of it when I first read it. I think I found it interesting, and enjoyably (and honestly?) un-sweet, but I didn't have a kid then and it was all slightly more theoretical. Passages like the one below, I think, must make a lot more sense to me now.

"I did not understand what a challenge to the concept of sexual equality the experience of pregnancy and childbirth is. Birth is not merely that which divides women from men: it also divides women from themselves, so that a woman's understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed. Another person has existed in her, and after their birth they live within the jurisdiction of her consciousness. When she is with them she is not herself; when she is without them is not herself; and so it is as difficult to leave your children as it is to stay with them. To discover this is to feel that your life has become irretrievably mired in conflict, or caught in some mythic snare in which you will perpetually, vainly struggle." (p. 7.)

There's tons of other quotes I wanted to share but I'll let you discover them in her book, on your own,** if you're so inclined. It's definitely a different take on the subject than you'll find in most other parenting books.

*And I don't just read the fuzzy, memoirish types of books. I find myself going to my copy of Caring for Your Baby and Young Child about twenty times a day, looking up things like baby teeth (patterns of emergence), pinkeye, when to switch to a booster seat from the highchair, etc. For most of the medical-type questions I'm usually just overreacting to some imaginary symptom; mercifully, CRjr is very healthy. Some women turn to other suburban mommies; I turn to my book. It's just the way it's always going to be.

** Okay, just one more. "A health visitor came to see us in our embattled kitchen. She produced sheaves of leaflets and laid each one lovingly on the table for me to study while behind her the baby looted her handbag undetected. Have you taken her to toddler group, the health visitor enquired. I had not. Like vaccinations and mother and baby clinics, the notion instilled in me a deep administrative terror." (p. 166.) Ha!

Parenting book tidbits.

Because I am now one of those boring suburban women who count "parenting" as among my interests*, it naturally makes sense that I am dragging home a lot more parenting books. So just in case anyone out there is looking for quick parenting book reviews, I thought I'd start posting tidbits about what I learn. Not full reviews--I rarely read these books cover to cover--just quick impressions.

Let's start with Athena P. Kourtis's Keeping Your Child Healthy in a Germ-Filled World. Let me save you some time on this book and give you the pertinent information: Wash your hands. Wash or make sure your children wash theirs.

The End.

GermWell, there's more info here than that, but you get the idea. Turns out there's really not much in the way of magic bullets for helping your kids avoid germs.** There's chapters here on food-borne germs, germs in school, sports germs, pet germs, outdoor germs, travel situations, and STDs, as well as information on common methods of fighting illness, including antibiotics, vaccinations, breastfeeding, and supplements and herbs. It's all quite logically written and organized, so if you're looking for a basic introduction to the subject, you could do a lot worse.

However, and this is an important caveat: if you are at all a Nervous Nelly or a germophobe-in-training, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK. It will just freak you out further without providing much in the way of additional knowledge. Take it from this Nervous Nelly.

*Well, it's not so much an interest as it is something I do now. And, as per usual, I am better at reading about it than actually doing it. Sigh.

**This book is of course also hugely positive on vaccinations, but I take all that with a grain of salt. I don't trust doctors at all, and because doctors are so, SO pro-vaccination, in all cases, I tend to view vaccinations with distrust, although CRjr does get most of what they recommend, because I am too weak to fight the system.