All funny writers want to be Erma Bombeck, Jean Kerr, or Shirley Jackson if they're writing about family life. Bombeck, Kerr and Jackson cut their teeth on domestic humor and took a bite out of genteel femininity and the cult of American motherhood, laughing all the way to the bank.
The arena dominated by these three successful American humor writers was parenthood.
Bombeck’s wildly successful bestsellers were based on her daily newspaper columns. Kerr wrote for both literary and ladies’ magazines (they were considered by many to be separate), was one of the most successful playwrights of her day, and founded what might be called the "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" franchise, since she was the writer on which all things Non-Daisy-Eating was based. Shirley Jackson, best known for her horror stories and tales of the supernatural (including The Haunting of Hill House and “The Lottery”) funded her literary ambitions by writing for magazines about her haphazard parenting and housekeeping habits. The very funny “Raising Demons" and “Life Among the Savages” have, indeed, been recently re-published.
New collections of essays on the subject of child rearing and surviving life is a parent are, of course, published every year—and I often believe they have Bombeck, Kerr and Jackson as their inspiration.
And so I read a new volume titled "But Did You Die? Setting the Parenting Bar Low" and discovered that it includes some terrific echoes of earlier great writers--some of the contributors were new to me and some were cheerful familiars.
The premise behind the title, as editor Jen Mann explains in her introduction, is based on the idea that no one is ever the perfect mother or father—and that keeping a child upright, healthy and occasionally entertained is plenty. As the comic Roseanne used to say in her early stand-up routines, “Hey, if the kids are alive when my husband gets home at 5, I’ve done my job.”
What’s interesting about the collection is that several of the most significant essays are focused on the subversive elements of what we’ve been taught to regard as conventional parenting or, for that matter, conventional life.
For example, when Jeff Terry writes in his essay "The Cure for Parenthood” "Parenthood is a contagious disease… It's like smoking. Even though we can witness, firsthand, the devastation caused by parenting, it spreads. Because parents try to hide how miserable they are, and babies can be cute, bubbly creatures in the daylight, parenting might look cool to an outsider. Like something you could try." Terry also talks about the freedom he remembers from of his own childhood when, as Hara Estroff Marano might put it, we were not living in a nation of wimps but in a world where risk, adventure and almost limitless boundaries were part of the gift of childhood. Terry writes "As an adult I understand those (freedoms) were my parents freedoms, too. They threw the door wide and trusted that I had the sense to avoid major disaster or change for the payphone if I didn't… It's not that the world was safer back then, it was just quieter."
Other writers deal with the realities of a less-than-perfect childhood. Mandy Brasher, in her essay titled "The Best Way to Deal with a Bully, Ignore Them" focuses on the real pain of being tormented when you're supposed to be a good girl and never to speak up, stand up or fight back.
In an essay called "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger" Linda Wolff writes with honesty and wit about small and large acts of courage: "I was so fixated with worry that my son would grow up thinking girls didn't do bold things, And that my daughter would think she couldn't do them either, that I made myself miserable trying to prove what they may or may not have even been thinking was wrong."
And, finally, in a surprisingly funny essay that unapologetically announced itself as "Parenting Advice from the Childless Voice of Reason," Aussa Lorens writes about what parents need to stop doing-- and explains why. For example, Lorens addresses how parents need to stop insisting that their child is going through a phase because "They're not ‘going through a phase’… Stop saying stuff like this ‘I'm so sorry; he's not usually like this. He must be tired/hungry/going through an Oedipal phase where I must ignore my husband and devote myself exclusively to my offspring. Remember all those times you helped your drunk friend home from the bar after $3 Wine Wednesday? It's time to put those skills back to use. Your growing bundle of joy is basically a miniature sorority girl who can't figure out how to use her Uber app and just wants someone to give her French fries and tell her she's pretty."
Bombeck, Kerr and Jackson would agree.
“But Did You Die? Setting the Parenting Bar Low” is written (and I quote) “By A Bunch of Know It Alls” and was published in 2017 by Throat Punch Media.