Not long ago I saw I was included in a roundup of “top Jewish mommybloggers.” And what I felt, immediately and viscerally, was horror.
The very word “mommyblog” makes me cringe. When my children’s doctors called me “mommy” (as in “Mommy, give her this liquid Augmentin twice a day,” invariably without adding “don’t be surprised if she projectile-vomits all over the kitchen,” the schmucks), I corrected them: “I have a name.” My children are welcome to call me mommy; when adults use it, the word sounds infantilizing.
And calling all writing about parenting mommyblogs is like calling all books with female protagonists chicklit. Chicklit is a dismissive catchall term for any book dealing with young women’s lives; it implies shallowness, consumerism, pink covers with shoes on them. But of course the word is used as a slam on all stories told by women about relationships. If Jane Austen were writing today, her book covers would be fuchsia and shoe-strewn. Why must we lump together all storytelling about love and women’s lives? How will we recognize the next Jane Austen (my vote: Jennifer Weiner) if all books about women’s perspectives are treated exactly the same way (i.e., trivializingly)?
But if I’m being honest with myself, I’m doing the same thing when I flinch at being called a mommyblogger. Yes, to a degree I wince because most mommyblogs suck. They aren’t crafted. The writing is frequently a spew of gushy listen-to-the-hilarious-thing-my-child-said-today cooing and Andy-Rooney-style kvetching. And my life is short; I do not need to see little Hannah dancing to Beyoncé. But it is a truth universally acknowledged that a parent in possession of a Flip camcorder must be in want of a blog.
And yet. Why are mommyblogs more annoying to me than the countless poorly written political blogs devoted to doctrinaire spittle-flecked ranty blathering? Why do they irk me more than the gazillion dull fashion blogs, sports blogs, geek blogs, and gossip blogs out there? Why do I occasionally read daddyblogs like Cynical Dad, Daddy Types, MetroDad, and RebelDad, but so few blogs by mothers? Is it because I’m sexist? Am I as bad as the chicklit-disparagers?
I’m gonna go with no. (Shocker.) I look to daddyblogs to provide perspective very different from mine. When it comes to being a mother, I know the drill. I don’t know from being a father. Men’s challenges around recreating identity as parents are different from women’s; they have to cope with societal expectations of dad-dom, which are different from the familiar ones (to me, anyway) about motherhood. I’m interested in how fathers who choose to write about fatherhood—and they’re way outnumbered by the mommies—share their experience.
The few mommybloggers I read also provide a window into worlds different from mine. I like A Little Pregnant, a blog about childrearing after a long, brutal struggle with infertility, and Love That Max, about raising a child with serious disabilities. I read Homeshuling, by an intermarried Jewish mother sending her children to Jewish Day School.
What all these bloggers have in common is that they’re all great communicators. They can write. They’re aware of the need to provide something readers can’t get elsewhere. Kvelling about your spawn? Zzzz. News flash: All parents think their kids are fascinating and enchanting. It’s a trick of God and/or evolution designed to prevent us from hitting them with a mallet.
To be clear, I don’t think anyone should stop blogging. I have a personal blog where I rant about standardized testing, the General Slocum disaster in 1904, and the fact that Glee’s Lea Michele looks exactly like David Duchovny in drag on Twin Peaks. But I don’t expect you to read my ramblings there. So, don’t ask me to read yours.
One more thing: There’s a reason so many mommybloggers have babies and toddlers. Tiny people have no expectation of privacy. Their stories are our stories. Even the line between their bodies and ours is blurry (especially when we’re breastfeeding). Blogging about them is almost invariably blogging about us.
But when kids get older, we have to figure out how much of that conjoined story is really ours to share. I loved Anne Lamott’s book Operating Instructions, the mommyblog ur-text. It was the first book most of us ever read that spoke honestly about how hard early motherhood could be, how often we entertain the flickering, momentary fantasy of throwing the baby against the wall. But when Anne Lamott started to write about Sam as an older child and as a teenager, I started to feel uncomfortable. I could barely read the column in which she describes slapping him across the face when he sneered about washing the car. Ayelet Waldman frequently has the same “eek” effect on me. (She herself said of her mommyblogging, “A blog like this is narcissism in its most obscene flowering.”) When she wrote about her son telling her he was afraid she’d kill herself I felt queasy.
But even as I’m personally squicked out, I can appreciate their work as writers. (Most bloggers, on the other hand, produce what Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac’s work: “That’s not writing; that’s typing.”) Lamott and Waldman have craft. They’re not self-consciously poetess-y, and they’re not boring. They’re being specific rather than general. (Cue the Tolstoy “Happy families are all alike” quote.) Above all, they’re honest.
Which brings me to the heart of what I loathe about most mommyblogs: the dishonesty of not telling the full story. “Half the truth is often a great lie,” as Ben Franklin said. Most mommybloggers tacitly follow the unwritten but codified rules: Create a persona that’s exasperated but loving, pretending to be annoyed by one’s child but in a way that makes it clear that said child is a genius, indicate that you don’t sweat the small stuff and mock parents who do. This is writing as incantation, a magic amulet—it pushes the real, messy, nuanced world away instead of bringing it closer in all its terrors.
Maybe part of my scorn is fear that I do the same. I too refrain from touching certain third-rail subjects that could help other families. I try to be thoughtful and tough-minded (and yes, when something touches a nerve, I see both the risks and the rewards of true openness), but I always ask my family what I can share. (Shalom Bayit, baby, in a big extended-family way.) And self-censoring is a Franklinian half-truth.
But telling the whole truth is hard. I have infinite respect for Katie Allison Granju, another professional parenting writer, who has been blogging about her 18-year-old son’s death, in the aftermath of a brutal beating after a long battle with drug addiction. She’d been blogging for years without talking about his addiction, but when he was hospitalized, a month before he died, she opened up completely. Her posts on her own blog and in her column on Babble are raw, completely honest, heartbreaking. They’re proof that you can be a great parent and terrible things can still happen. No matter how we spin our narratives.
Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.