Like the apocalypse, signs indicate that we might be reaching a critical turning point when it comes to our generation’s obsession with perfect mothering. It seems possible that we are even on the verge of a backlash that will celebrate mistakes in the care and feeding of little Max and Sophia.
I’ve been waiting for this shift, because, unlike many of my peers, I am convinced that my husband is at least as good as, if not better than, I am at caring for our two adorable (and well-behaved, thank you) children, Primo and Secunda.
From the earliest days of Primo’s life, when his dad’s chest hairs were matted with spit-up for days on end and he never got dressed beyond his boxers, to his years as the self-crowned “Class Asshole” on the playground, my man stepped up to the plate and delivered.
It doesn’t seem fair that he’s so much better at it than I am, though, when the expectations are so much lower. In the 13 years since I crossed the great divide from person to mother, I’ve had countless opportunities to notice just how bad I’m supposed to feel about not living up to my duties.
I once left sleeping baby Secunda in her car seat, parked outside the plate glass window of a lonely upstate New York diner so that I could feed 4-year-old Primo the French toast he was wailing for, crucially without waking his sister. I picked a table overlooking the car, but within 15 minutes, the waitress informed me that she and the cook had taken notice and were preparing to call the state police to have the neglected infant permanently removed from my care.
That was not the only occasion when I tested the alacrity with which the world will cry “J’accuse,” rather than assist a harried mother. One holiday season, I was racing through a crowded airport loaded down with baggage, running between planes. Secunda was then a precious blond 2½-year-old, who, though tiny, disdained a stroller and preferred to walk. Fine by me.
On this afternoon, she was trailing some 10 feet behind me, moving as fast as her legs could go among the crowd, when a gaggle of kids, by the looks of them homeward-bound from Baptist college, engulfed us. One of the boys kindly pointed out to me that my kid wasn’t keeping up, and then actually called me a bad mother before scooting off. I believe the stream of invective that reflexively issued from my mouth included the words “You fucking cracker …”
Only when Secunda and I were settled into our seats did I realize what had so enraged me. There was a time—Jimmy-Stewart mythical, perhaps—when a strapping, Christian college boy like that would have been trained to courteously assist an overwhelmed mother with an offer to lug luggage or carry child. Instead, this kid was raised to blame a mommy for not doing it all, and not well enough.
The whole culture has been making moms feel like crap for a generation, so it’s fitting that Sh*tty Mom: The Guide for Good Enough Moms, a slim volume of comic sketches about bad mommy moments from the playground to the play date, is grazing the bottom of the Times’s best-seller list.
The book, and the blog that goes with it—a virtual confession booth for child-rearing gaffes—include advice on how to drop off your sick kid at day care, whether to stop texting when another mother yells at you and how to diss the helicopter mother in the playground. From the chapter headings, such recently verboten concepts as: “Stop Looking for the Perfect Babysitter and Settle for the One That Shows Up” and “How to Hand Off the Newborn Who Just Filled a Diaper.” Some of the examples have a teensy whiff of mom versus mom, rather than the camaraderie of bad-dad entertainment, but old habits die hard.
Up to now, the big entertainment money for the last 30 years has been on crummy dads, from the ’80s movies Parenthood and Three Men and a Baby all the way up to Zach Galifianakis with the baby in the Bjorn in 2010’s The Hangover. NBC just struck out with Guys With Kids, Jimmy Fallon’s half-hour sitcom about three Manhattan dads who hang out at a local bar with bright-eyed homunculi strapped to their chests, wash babies in sinks and keep them on retractable dog leashes while their wives play it straight.
Guys With Kids fails, but it’s just one flop on a conveyor belt of Hollywood spectacles squeezing laughs out of hapless daddyhood, in which the mere presence of a baby in a man’s arms is a sight gag.
Hollywood has typically seen dads as joke-worthy, while mothers are as comedically off-limits as drawing the Prophet. Finally, Sh*tty Mom does for motherhood what Chelsea Handler does for female scatology. It’s a long-overdue little burst of honesty from the supposed minority of mothers who are, in fact, not that maternal. And, since three of the four co-authors work in television—two of them at the Today show—the book stands a good chance of taking really bad mommyhood into the big-time. It’s already been reviewed in Time and People and on Babble, among countless blogs.
On parenting sites, Tumblrs and even T-shirts, “bad mommy” has become a badge of honor. Instead of cowering in the car feeding our babies formula from a (gah!) plastic bottle, we are finally able to tell the sanctimommies to screw off. After learning over the course of our lives to feel bad about our bodies, our sex lives, our hair and our intelligence, moms are refusing to also feel crummy about the cupcakes we made for the school bake sale. Or didn’t bake at all. Sorry!
It’s gotten so bad that one desperate mother recently wrote to Slate’s advice columnist fearing excommunication from a play group because she couldn’t afford to buy organic vegetables. “If your vegetables aren’t good enough for them,” Dear Prudence advised this mother, “their group isn’t good enough for you.”
Amen sister. After a generation of supermoms one-upping each other in dead earnest on playgrounds and schoolyards, the emerging mass appeal of Sh*tty Mom is a welcome relief. When a woman in a bar with a baby in a Bjorn and a cocktail in each hand gets a laugh track, we’ll know we’ve really arrived.