A Million Meals

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Breaking Through Fear: A Manifesto for Parent Writers

Why is it so hard to write truthfully about being a parent?

Perhaps it's having taken a break from writing for several weeks, or perhaps it's this blog's imminent one-year anniversary (though saying I'm "blogging" still feels embarrassingly age-inappropriate)--or maybe it's the big birthday that's looming for me next month--but I find I'm becoming increasingly impatient with much of the writing out there about parenting. Parent lit has become a bona fide genre, with its plethora of subcategories: Mommy Blogs, Daddy Memoirs,Rotten Parent Romans à Clef, etc. It's a genre imminently well-suited to this time and place, when well educated parents with great (if not infinite) resources fret over their babies' every burp and spit-up; when the best-intentioned parents endure critical judgments at every turn; when parenting has become both excruciatingly lonely and exhaustingly overshared. Reading about parenting (or being parented, in the 1990s' iteration of the genre: see Burroughs, Augusten) has become a kind of voyeuristic guilty pleasure: the parent porn of our time: Is she really saying she loves her husband more than her kids? Ooooooh! Did he honestly write about his son's descent into drug-addiction and crime? Yikes! It's simultaneously real and removed from the lives of workaday parents, and it's addictive, if only among those whose relative privilege and resources allow them the time to immerse themselves in others' parenting experiences, rather than struggling merely to survive their own. Yet for all the richness of the topic, there's a certain sameness to the genre that is beginning to irk me, and I find myself chafing under its constraints as well.

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The many possible pitfalls lying in wait for unwitting parent-writers range from saccharine clichés on one end of the spectrum to self-centered bitterness and moping on the other; but the one that's currently bedeviling me, both as reader and writer, is fear. Writing about one's children is truly terrifying, on many levels. There's the fear I will somehow betray them by writing too honestly about their/my trials and tribulations; or perhaps one day they'll track down a passage I wrote about them and be pissed. This anxiety plagues all writers, so some extent, but it feels particularly keen with regards to children, who really have no recourse should they feel betrayed...and even if they do, won't know they feel that way until years from now. Furthermore, the wrath of our (teenage) children is something we parents of under-tens are anticipating with dread already; the last we want to do is prematurely stoke the inevitable fires of resentment.

There's also a heightened fear of critical readers when it comes to writing about parenting. And that's perhaps the biggest stumbling block, against which I find myself and so many writers (more often mothers, interestingly-what does that say about gender and the ability to weather criticism?) painfully and repeatedly cracking our shins. Both in my own writing and that of better writers, I see a lamentable tendency to hedge bets, to present two sides of an argument--cogently and carefully, mind you--but ultimately fail to take a real stand. And this ambivalence can be deadly to good writing. However reasonable it may be to fear the slings and arrows that inevitably target provocative ideas on parenting, this fear kills the writing as well as the thoughts behind it. And I am depressed by how often I and others have, however subtly, compromise before the pressures of the imaginary critics we fear.

Parenting in general has done wonders for my ability to face down my fears and take unpopular stands (that's parenting in a nutshell, no?), yet I still aspire to write less fearfully about it. Let's be bloody, bold and resolute, and stop timidly rehashing the same anodyne ideas and gentle clichés in writing about kids and parents. The best conversations about parenting are always the ones that leave niceties and apologies at the door--I would like to read, and maybe even produce, some writing about it that does the same.

What I cooked this week:

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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