The Perfect Baby Blog

The New Yorker decimates the “bad parent” stance

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

In an enthrallingly smart, clear-headed essay in this week’s New Yorker, Jill Lepore slams the “bad parent” movement into historical context.

PERCEPTIVE: But not dressed appropriately for yoga class.

PERCEPTIVE: If not dressed appropriately for yoga class.

Lepore’s immediate target is the current bestseller Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace by Ayelet Waldman—the book that triggered a million mommy-blog posts in the dramedy vein (“Oh, thank you for inspiring me to confess my own failings over the next 4,000 words! I’m bad, too! LOL!”), followed by an inevitable backlash (“Hold on, isn’t this outpouring of amusing self-condemnation a bit narcissistic? Is anyone looking after the kids?”).

Lepore, a professor of American History at Harvard who seems almost bored by her own perceptiveness, pinpoints the paradox in Waldman’s book:

[She] insists that how any woman rears her kids is nobody’s never-you-mind. “Let’s all commit ourselves to the basic civility of minding our own business,” she writes. This puts a reader in a tight spot: can I or can I not skip the chapter in “Bad Mother” wherein our author confides her regret over her breasts’ lost buoyancy?

Lepore then shifts, with far more zeal, into her real mission: Tracing the self-conscious obsessiveness of today’s parents back to the 1926 launch of Parents’ magazine. Her dot-connecting is overlong, but brilliant and fascinating. You may want to be an inattentive parent long enough to read it. This bit, naturally, particularly intrigued me:

Middle-class mothers and fathers turned out to be a very well-defined consumer group, easily gulled into buying almost anything that might remedy their parental deficiencies. In 1938, Parents’ peddled a correspondence course: “Add Science to Love and Be a ‘Perfect Mother.’ ”

PS. Just how bad a mother is Waldman, a former lawyer? Her book’s Amazon sales ranking is unintentionally hilarious:

#1 in Books > Entertainment > Humor > Lawyers & Criminals

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