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Parenting: The Awful Truth

<i> Heyes is an overworked mother (you'll pardon the redundancy) who has found personal happiness in parenthood and professional balance in part-time employment. </i>

I wish someone had told me just how much time and energy it takes to care for a newborn.

I wish someone had told me how long it takes to heal after giving birth.

I wish someone had told me how depressingly isolating new parenthood is.

Naaah, not really. If anyone had told me those things--had really made me understand --I would probably not be a parent today.

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So it is that Nina Barrett’s I Wish Someone Had Told Me (Fireside/Simon & Schuster: $9.95; 237 pp.) is the book new moms have been waiting for--and a work not for the consumption of those still looking forward to their first child. For the latter group probably will see here a collection of horror stories, frightening tales too gruesome possibly to be real. The former, on the other hand, will laugh out loud at least once in each chapter--not because it’s funny, but because it’s so true.

“I Wish” is one of several parenting-related books being released this Mothers/Fathers Day season. Not that there has been any shortage of manuals on parenting, in all its complexities and permutations, since the 18th Century, when an infant’s survival was the parents’ main goal. Nowadays, baby care advice takes on such meaty topics as bathing, nightmares and pacifier use.

What’s often missing, though, is realism. “Prepared childbirth” instruction (usually developed, incidentally, by men, as Barrett points out) fosters the expectation of labor without excruciating pain. Breast-feeding manuals show women in smart suits sitting at desks and nursing while calmly handling business calls. Renowned authorities matter-of-factly describe the One Foolproof Way to teach babies to put themselves to sleep at a parent’s convenience.

I haven’t met a mom yet who has found any of the above to resemble real life.

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In letting more than 60 mothers tell their stories, Barrett bares some awful truths. Labor hurts. Nursing and getting any kind of work done are incompatible activities. Child care experts--brace yourself--don’t have all the answers. And more: Dads (who can go to the office and get some rest) practically have to be beaten over the head before they begin to see how hard moms (who stay home all day) are working. With no performance evaluations, grades or raises as feedback, a full-time mom often feels as though she’s accomplishing nothing. And when it’s time to hire child care help, there is no Mary Poppins--usually (and this point is skated over much too lightly, in this reviewer’s opinion) not even close.

It’s the kind of stuff a new mom is hungry to read, balm for the frazzled spirit who is certain that 1) she is crazy, 2) she is a miserable failure as a mother, and 3) she is the only mom in the history of the world who has been unable to cope effortlessly with the isolation, exhaustion and relentless demands of motherhood.

Such collecting of real-life stories seems to be a trendy way of compiling a how-to book. Many writers today appear to have become “experts” on whatever they are explaining by virtue of having done it themselves and having interviewed others who have done it. Charlene Canape’s The Part-Time Solution (Harper & Row: $18.95; 254 pp.) takes this approach.

Canape’s “Solution” attempts to lay out a strategy for getting from here--whether here is non-employment or full-time employment--to there, happy part-time employment. That is, working part-time at a paid job and managing a career while preserving enough time and energy to enjoy a family.

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The women Canape interviewed have managed this brilliantly, winning promotions, raises and other signals of career advancement while working part time. These lawyers, bankers and managers are terrific role models and give us nifty things to aspire to, but a skewed and not always reassuring or realistic overview of how the world works.

Journalist Canape conducted her own survey by seeking respondents with ads in parenting publications. She has organized her results into a plan that theoretically can be adapted to various situations.

Among her best advice: Consider the three S’s--salary, status and satisfaction--in evaluating a job opportunity. Don’t kid yourself that working at home is a substitute for child care; it is not. Think through each career move for its short-term and long-term benefits.

One of her most insightful comments, on keeping up with responsibilities at home, hints at an underlying problem: “What you really need is a ‘wife.’ ”

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Ha, ha.

But why is this booked aimed only at women? What about the dads? Wouldn’t some fathers like to cut back on their paid work and have more time for their families? Have any tried it? Have they succeeded?

To write a manual of this nature and blithely exclude fathers is a grave disservice to all parents. As Canape and other researchers have confirmed, the paths to part-time work for professionals have to be hacked clear one company at a time, often one job at a time. Why should mothers be expected to bear the whole burden of wreaking this change in the workplace? And why should mommies be the only ones to whom such a track is open?

Joining the ranks of old-fashioned I’m-an-expert-that’s-how-I-know manuals is Everyday Parenting: The First Five Years (Penguin Books: $6.95, 256 pp.), by Robin Goldstein, a parenting consultant, educator and mother.

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Goldstein hits on many topics, most of them all too briefly. Her descriptions are reassuring: Yes, other parents do worry about foul language, discipline, sex identification and shyness. But feeling OK about having these worries is just the beginning, and in contrast to the writers of “classic” manuals, she offers relatively little advice on actually solving the problems of these early years.

This book’s great virtue is in its emphasis on how things look from the child’s point of view. A young child may beat up on a pet not out of deliberate cruelty but because the child is incapable of putting himself in the pet’s position. He may torment his parents with when-will-we-be-there questions because he doesn’t have an adult’s sense of time. He may neglect to say “please” and “thank you” away from home not out of rudeness or a wish to embarrass his parents, but because he can’t generalize that the rules he learned at home apply in other places too.

What in an adult would signify stubbornness, bad manners or meanness, Goldstein repeatedly points out, is just the normal and appropriate immaturity of childhood.

That’s a good perspective to keep in mind when you feel the words “You bad kid!” bubbling to your lips. Your child is good--admit it, the kid is delightful--but he is struggling to understand a set of grown-up standards he didn’t create. Maybe it’s time for a manual that tells the poor kids how to handle us.

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