I’m getting a little tired seeing the piles of parenting books filling the shelves of big box bookstores, often in special “Mothering” sections. We’ve become a lucrative niche market for a publishing industry that’s doing everything it can not to perish. Those books obviously sell and it’s parents, mostly mothers, who are buying them. But do they (and we) really think our kids are all we ever think about? All we want to read about? Our minds really do still have a life.
OK. Now that I’ve gotten on my intellectual high horse, I’m dismounting to urge everyone to run right out, preferably to an independent bookstore, and buy afterbirth: Stories You Won’t Read in a Parenting Magazine. This is a terrific book for two reasons. First, most of the short essays it contains are funny. Really funny. Laugh out loud funny. Many of the contributors are or have been either comedy writers or stand-up comics or actors, and it shows. Christy Callahan, doesn’t quite get it when she agrees to go along with her Jewish husband’s desire to circumcise their son; Deborah Copkagen Kogan relives her nightmare twelve hour road trip, “just me and the terrorist” - her two year old son - to see her 13 year old in a camp play; Brett Paesel, contemplates all manner of dark revenge on the fifth grade bully tormenting her second grade son; while Melanie Hutsell, in an essay called “Disco Fever,” manages to be funny and terrified and poignant all at once as she confronts both childbirth and a cancer diagnosis at the same time. These and the others you’ll meet in this book are mothers you’d love to know.
But the second thing I love about afterbirth is that lots of the pieces are written by men. James Braly comes to terms with his son’s love of pink, even when the little boy insists upon a pink bicycle that his father knows will make him a target for teasing. Tom Shillue’s piece on helicopter parenting goes hilariously over the top to remind us that children weren’t always “America’s most precious resource,” but were once seen “by and large as pests” and should be left alone a little. You’ve got to feel for Mark Hudis, who worries about being an excruciatingly sensitive “ gay straight dad,” a straight guy who has happily seen “Sex and the City “ twice and would go cheerfully again, but who’s having comical difficulty meeting the emotional challenges of parenthood. And you’ve got to love Matthew Weiner, struggling in the opposite direction to become a “sensitive man,” different from his own father, who, while recounting his failures nonetheless describes his two year old son as “a delicious blob of fat that smelled like pee.”
Not every piece in the collection is funny. Several are quietly affecting, particularly one in which Joan Rater struggles for two years as the daughter she adopted from China learns to trust. In her prologue, editor Dani Klein Modisett, explains that she asked people to write about “the moment you knew your life changed forever, becoming a parent” and then mounted a show featuring those pieces. She suggests that readers keep the book handy, so that “you will never again feel isolated and alone in the specific way in which you are screwing up your children.” Enough said.