Who’s afraid of the big bad non-representative parent?

written by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Deesha Philyaw’

The bad parents are running amok! They’re everywhere you turn, talking about postpartum depression, confessing that their kids are addicted to SpongeBob, throwing their breast pumps in the garbage!”

“…there is a loud and lusty temper tantrum being thrown by American parents. And who can blame them? They are finally rebelling against the judgments and assumptions and expectations and slings and Bjorns and blogs that get hurled at them while they are ‘parenting,’ the term that has, in recent years, come to indicate a full-time, harshly judged, cutthroat vocation, rather than simply something that some adults do partway through their lives.

“Screw Gymboree and breast-feeding! New confessional memoirs by Ayelet Waldman and Michael Lewis join an ever-growing genre lashing out at our expectations for today’s mommies and daddies.”

I read these snippets in a recent Salon article entitled, “The Worst Parents in the World”, and I’ve got questions:

Whose expectations have created this “backlash”?

Who compromises this monolithic “today’s mommies and daddies”?   Does it include a new mom who can’t afford to take advantage of unpaid family leave from her job, much less afford Gymboree?  Does it include a dad who works two jobs and just barely keeps a roof over his family’s collective head?

Since when is talking about postpartum depression considered “bad parenting”?

And these so-called “bad parents” are everywhere?  Really?


What we have here, folks, is a media/publishing-fueled “backlash” created in response to another media/publishing-fueled “backlash”.  Why? To promote and sell books and generate website hits, of course.  

The formula seems to go something like this: A relatively small subset of parents (typically white, typically  middle-class-to-well-to-do, and/or typically professional writers) write about their parenting experiences.  Said parenting experiences may resonate with or mirror some angst or concern experienced by some other parents.  That resonance and that angst are magnified and overinflated to the level of a parenting “trend” or “backlash”, and–voila!–potential readers are informed that there is a “Mommy War” being fought, or that “perfect parenting” is the new black, or that “bad parents” are “everywhere.” “Everywhere” defined here as “a blogosphere drowning in bad mother confessionals” or perhaps “the PR materials accompanying advance copies of the latest memoir held up as an exemplar of this ‘trend’ and/or ‘backlash’.”  Circular much?

(Note my excessive use of quotations marks throughout this essay to indicate my belief that while real parents do indeed struggle with real parenting and work-family life balance concerns, the “wars”, extreme angst, and “trends” reflected in much of the media related to these concerns is exaggerated.)

Remember the “over-involved/perfect parenting” and “Mommy Wars” genres from over the previous decade or so?  Well, it seems those “phenomena” have run their course, and now it’s time to sell parents on the “backlash” against those “phenomena”, in the form of the manuals for a brand-new parenting “trend”, “bad parenting”.

The Salon article referenced above focuses on the gendered differences between two recent and forthcoming books written, respectively, by Worst Parents in the World Ayelet Waldman (“Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace”) and Michael Lewis (“Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood.”) Waldman’s “chronicle of her shortcomings is a study in self-flagellation” in which she “rehashes in miserable detail not only the private intrusions of strangers in bakeries, but all the public vitriol that was unleashed at her for some of her earliest gasp-inducing parenthood essays” written for Salon.  Conversely, Lewis’ book is a study in “self-appreciation” and a “big-dicked dirge for the lost world of detachment fathering” as he boasts of his parenting “gift” for “avoiding unpleasant chores without attracting public notice.”

Now, lest this column comes back to bite me in the ass when someday I’m shilling my forthcoming co-parenting book all over the Internet, at book signings, and on Oprah (it could happen!), let me say this: I’m not mad at these authors for wanting to promote their work.  More power to them.  What irks me is the macro-level problem of how these these parenting genres (“Mommy Wars”, “high maintenance parenting”, “bad parenting”) are hyped up and overstated.  A spotlight is shone on a subset of parents whose reality is nothing like that of many parents across race and class lines, and–here’s the irksome part–this subset is then held up as representative of “American Parenting” when in fact it is not.

Is Michael Lewis, for example, really representative?  If a black dad or a construction worker dad wrote so glibly about scheming to get out of being an involved father, would he get a publishing deal?  Or would we tap into our handy-dandy bag of stereotypes and dismiss him as just another deadbeat or patriarchal relic?

I’m all for “confessional memoirs”–I might pen one myself one day, under a pseudonym–and I’m sure books like Waldman’s and Lewis’s are good for some knowing parenting-related laughs, but can’t they be marketed as simply that, and not as the voice of the “new” trend in parenting?  (I mean, American Parenting)?  To hold these books up as universal and reflective of parenting “norms”,  is to be dismissive of the real lives and struggles of a lot of parents, and to characterize them as “other” and less significant.

Further, if the “bad parent” trend is supposed to be a backlash against the unrealistic expectations that a judgmental “we” (whoever “we” are) previously had of this monolithic group called “American parents”, then why are “we” also using loaded, judgmental language to define “our” new genre?  Oh, right.  To sell books.  “Michael Lewis is indifferent when his child bleeds” isn’t nearly as provocative as “Bad parents are running amok!”

At the risk of sounding like someone’s grandmother, I have to say that there used to be a time when a “bad”  parent was someone who abused or neglected their kids.  There have always been women who opted not to breastfeed.  There have always been parents who employed electronic babysitting.  There have always been dads who shirked domestic duties.  Why would this all of sudden be deemed as “bad”–except to bolster these claims of a “trend” in order to–wait for it–market books and generate website hits.

We live in an age where practically any and everything can be marketed to us.  But I’m wondering,  “Chicken or egg?” here.  How much of the market for these books existed before the marketing of the book (including the articles discussing them)?  Is the marketing creating the market?  If I read three articles that declare bad parents are running amok, I might start to think that bad parents really are running amok, reality be-damned.

With regard to ye olde “Mommy Wars”, the non-sexy reality is that most moms who work do so out of necessity, and most moms on both “sides” of the “war” don’t begrudge other moms making work-related choices that differ from their own.  Similarly, with respect to the “bad parent trend”, most parents are too busy trying to take care of their own families, especially in this economy, to give a flying fig whether or not their neighbor is pumping breastmilk, feeding her kids mercury-laden tuna fish, or loves her husband more than she loves her kids (as Waldman once confessed).

The Salon article praises Waldman as “an invaluable answer” to the insufferable and astonishingly hypocritical Caitlin Flanagan, “the silver-tongued specter of maternal servility.”  I won’t debate whether Waldman’s “bad mommy” body of work serves as “an invaluable answer”, but I am going to venture a guess that Caitlin Flanagan might get cussed out, once, (or at best, ignored) if she tried to tout her brand of “maternal servility” to a group of working-class moms.

As the Salon article notes, both Waldman and Lewis have been writing as “contrarian” parents for a while.  Both have also successfully published other books.   But it seems their latest books had to be saved until they could be presented as representative of a well-timed “backlash” against previous “trends” that I’m not convinced even registered on the radar of most parents.  There’s a certain amount of privilege that comes with being able to write about parenting for a large public audience (present company included).   While some parenting-related themes may cut across lines of race, class, and gender privilege, the privileged position is, by definition, not a universal one.

On page 2 of the Salon article, the author notes: “But neither Waldman nor Lewis is really as bad as they fear, or wish, that they were.”  But, again, why let a little thing like reality get in the way of a New! Parenting! Book! Genre! Trend! Backlash!

[Editor's note: Hear Deesha and I discuss "bad parenting" lit on The Best of What Tami Said.]

Deesha Philyaw is a freelance writer who has written for Essence Magazine, Wondertime Magazine (a Disney publication), and The Washington Post. Deesha holds a B.A. in economics from Yale University and a Master’s degree in teaching. In her pre-mommy, pre-writing life, she was a management consultant, briefly, and then an elementary school teacher. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Deesha currently lives in Pittsburgh with her two daughters. Deesha blogs at Mamalicious! and Co-Parenting 101.

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