Yesterday I read Ta-Nihisi Coates’ latest piece in The Atlantic on my iPhone. Midway through the first paragraph, I felt my ears warming up (certainly turning red) and my breath quickened in that way it does when raw emotions — anger, fear, heartbreak, outrage, a confused mix of all of them — start to boil up in my gut. Coates met and talked with Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, and he took his 13-year-old son with him. Coates brought his child, he says, because 13 is “about the age when a black boy begins to directly understand what his country thinks of him.”
By the time I reached the end of the piece — mindful and reading McBath’s parting words over twice and slowly — I had to set my phone down on my lap so it wouldn’t slip from my sweaty hand. McBath, this mother without her only child, turned to Coates’ son and, before giving the boy a hug, said:
“You exist. You matter. You have value. You have every right to wear your hoodie, to play your music as loud as you want. You have every right to be you. And no one should deter you from being you. You have to be you. And you can never be afraid of being you.”
This shook my spirit, because I have been thinking a lot about when I will have to tell my own brown-faced boy the same words, assuring him of his clear and true value, despite what the world is trying to convince him about himself. I’ve been thinking a lot about when I will have to have The Talk, about what others assume about him, about his life, about his intentions as he browses through a store or when he hops in a car with his friends — music blaring — or when he strides down the night’s sidewalk. You have to be you.
Then this morning I woke up to see that two years ago today, February 26, Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman. And it all comes back fresh. Another black mother without her child. Another family destroyed because one man didn’t understand or care that “the idea of feeling threatened is not the same thing as being threatened.”
This erasure story — the one about the unarmed black boy dusted away like pesky lint — cannot continue. It simply cannot. But the real outrage is … it does and will continue. It is happening on loop, just with different cities, different details, different juries — same verdict. I don’t know exactly how to move the needle, how to reshape the ending to this horrific story, but something must change. Because our black babies’ lives literally depend on it. Because we need to be able to look them in the eyes and say with conviction: You have to be you.
Late last month, I asked if you — like me — felt that parents have gone from clever to snide. It just seems like there’s a proliferation of posts, listicles, essays, new studies, and opinion pieces basically saying that having kids is the living worst.
Then a few weeks ago came this piece on Slate by Ruth Graham, a childless woman who says that all of these realtalk-parenthood-is-the-pits pieces is a lot to process. (The five links in Graham’s first few paragraph alone — Lordy!) And the cumulative effect on ”a possible future parent, it’s utterly terrifying.”
Over the weekend, NYTimes Op-Ed Columnist Ross Douthat also wrote about this parental pity party, as he called it, and the “internet’s ever-expanding Book of Parental Lamentations.” Douthat wonders why even he has become such a whiner about fatherhood, too eager to tell it like is and ostensibly scaring potential parents off. He also touches on Jennifer Senior’s book, All Joy and No Fun (which I’m reading right now, and very much enjoying), as good place to find some explanations for why parents feel so utterly doomed. And he added this angle to things:
“The ‘look how impossible my life has become since I had kids’ genre is a way of passing judgment, on people who have opted out of the parental mission altogether.”
I linked to Douthat’s op-ed on MMM’s FB page and to my Twitter, asking if folks agreed with the “passing judgment” part of it. This launched a really great conversation between two other moms and me on Twitter. One of the women, a mother of a teenager, said she’s had enough of the “woe is me” complaints from parents because it felt like the same voice over and over — a privileged voice.
I can see that. Working class parents aren’t out here moaning about how much they miss long, leisurely brunches now that #thembabies entered the scene. They’re typically focused on more pressing matters, like, making ends meet and keeping their families fed and under a reliable roof.
That “same voice” issue could also be an offshoot of the emergence and popularity of the raw truth brand of mom blogger. (Dooce‘s Heather Armstrong is often dubbed the godmother of this style of blogging; she’s been doing it successfully for the past 13 years.)
And there there’s social media, where everyone is either trying to climb on top of the noise to post the funniest, most frank and ribald thing about life in the parenting trenches — in under 140 characters — OR they’re showing you how Instagram-filtered perfect their families’ lives are. Honestly, it all starts to melt together into a singular, repetitive sound. One voice.
I’m hoping to bring a different tone to this ongoing conversation about parenthood. It’s hard, what we’re doing here. Yes, it’s challenging raising these tiny humans. And you’ll regularly need to hear Amens from the choir, the congregation and — listen — the preacher too. So …
Go ahead, vent about the smashed flat screen.
If You’re in the Throes of Postpartum Depression, reach out, speak up, find community, get support, talk it through.
I’m not saying parents need to pipe down about their struggles. Not at all. I just hope we can ease up on playing the MY LIFE IS RUUUIINNNNEDDDDD track on this inspired album so much. The CD is kinda scratched.
Five years ago, he joined us, moved into our world.
Nestled against my chest, he immediately claimed his space deep in my heart.
He’s our proof, breathing proof, that love is real,
love is here,
and love is all that we will ever need.
There are moments when I look at my son, him sitting at the kitchen table dutifully crunching up cereal while staring at a picture of a sea turtle, and I feel this surge of warmth and joy and love. It’s overwhelming, and I often clutch my chest because my heart feels like it may just expand beyond what it made to bear or cave in on itself. And sometimes, acting on that swirl of pride and adoration, I reach out for his little, caramel face, and I kiss him over and over and smell the crook of his neck and nibble his cheeks and rub his nose with mine until he bursts out in a fit of giggles.
I love this child with everything that I am, everything that I have, and then some more.
Then, when he randomly looks my way, me helping him unzip a stubborn coat zip, slicing his tuna sandwich in fours or just minding my own biz reading a magazine sitting next to him, and he says, “Mom, I love you. I love how you were made,” that everything-love takes over again. It’s sweet and beautiful and something I hope every human is fortunate enough to feel.
I thought about that everything-love while reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest book, The Lowland. There’s a chapter where a daughter is talking to her father. They are lying in her bed at night just before she’s to go to sleep, when she holds her father’s face in her small hands. She asks her dad, “Do you love me?” He, of course, tells her yes. She responds:
“I love you more.”
“More than what?” the dad says.
“I love you more than anybody loves anybody.”
Here Lahiri writes: He wondered how such powerful emotions, such superlative devotion, could exist in such a small child.
I read the section twice, because I often wonder the same thing — but both ways. How could such powerful emotions exist in this little kid, and also in me? I guess the simple answer is, That’s just how love works. And all of it could fit under the Joy of Parenthood category.
But then there’s the flip side to this golden coin: those moments when my son is not being sweet. Instead, he’s being crabby, whiny, stubborn like that coat’s zipper. Obviously, I still love him in those moments, but I’m definitely not feeling pangs of joy. I’m annoyed. I’m frustrated. I’m rolling my eyes. I’m frowning. I’m repeating myself for the 40th time (fine! Nagging. I’m nagging!)
I’m not joyful. I’m parenting.
This paradox — the joy and strain — is what Jennifer Senior’s new book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, talks about. Senior, a journalist and mother of a young son, drills deep into what it means to be a parent today. Through impressive research and honest interviews with a group of middle-class parents, Senior delivers an engrossing snapshot of the hard, “high cost, high reward,” overwhelming job of raising children.
I’ve read nearly all of the reviews of this book (there have been many; all glowing) and I’ve also listened to several interviews with Senior, and the consensus from these early readers is clear : This book will make you think differently about parenthood and parenting.
I’m. all. in. You had me at Jennifer Senior, frankly. I’ve long been a fan of her work for New York Magazine, where she is a contributing editor. In fact, MMM just featured her last cover story for NYMag all about the stress that is raising teenagers.
I haven’t been this excited to get my hands on a parenting book since Madeline Levine’s Teach Your Children Well two years ago. Looking forward to my copy coming this way soon.
Actually, maybe you should get a little excited too, because … GIVEAWAY TIME! That’s right, one of you good people will win your own copy of All Joy and No Fun. And here’s how you can enter this All Joy, All Fun giveaway …
Do one or all of the follow:
- Leave a comment below about the paradox
- Like Ms. Mary Mack’s Facebook page* (This one is mandatory.)
- Tweet about the giveaway (limit: once a day)
Good luck! Maybe we can read it together.