The prologue of Catherine Newman’s new parenting memoir Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood’s Messy Years, evocatively called “It Gets Better,” is a tiny tour-de-force that should probably be required reading for all new parents. In it Newman pinpoints just what is exhausting/frustrating/beautiful/terrifying/exhilarating about young children, and assures the reader that parenting is difficult for everyone. She writes:
You know all those things you thought would be fun with kids but secretly kind of aren’t? Going to museums, making biscuits, watching the Peter Sellers Pink Panther movies, ice-skating, swimming, singing in the rain— they all end up in tears and pooping and everybody needing to be rocked to sleep in the sling?
Every moment of motherhood, Newman notes, is not actually transcendent and treasureable…even when it kind of is. Newman’s voice—honed over her years as a magazine columnist and parenting blogger—is heart-zingingly precise, honest and self-deprecating—the heir of her funny foremothers Erma Bombeck and Shirley Jackson. Yes, that Shirley Jackson.
Famous for her widely-anthologized short story “The Lottery” and her gothic novels of haunted houses and disturbed women, Jackson paid the bills by writing short, funny tales of motherhood and housewifery for women’s magazines in the 1940s and 50s. She was a kind of ur-mom-blogger, telling unsentimental, keenly observed yarns about her chaotic family of six and their falling-down farmhouse.
Anne LeCroy notes that although the “frazzled mom” persona featured in Jackson’s humorous essays (collected in Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons) is indeed an exaggerated persona, “the accounts [the essays] present are undeniably funny and often quite realistic reports of domestic crises and situations.” Like Newman, Jackson “pokes fun at herself, her husband, and children ‘in the clear, unadorned, conversational style’ of a chatty letter writer sharing the ups and downs of her home life with an old friend.” And though they were ignored by the literary critics of their time, Jackson’s “funny mom” books are enjoyable, nuanced, and bristling with social satire. (The story of “Charles,” her son’s “school friend,” is unforgettable enough to justify reading Life Among the Savages in its entirety.)
It seems that not all that much as changed since Shirley Jackson wrote, “Sometimes in my capacity as mother, I find myself sitting open-mouthed and terrified before my own children, little individual creatures moving solidly along their own paths…” Motherhood is still assumed to be the goal of any ordinary woman, it is still assumed to imbue a life with deeper meaning, and as any mother can tell you, it is still a strange and unsettling process—part love affair, part identity crisis. And so it is still comforting to read an irreverent, honest, darkly funny voice like Jackson’s, or like Catherine Newman’s: “I feel about the children sometimes the way I used to feel about our tabby cat, Tiny. I used to look at him…and I’d think Why is he even living here with us? We have so little in common.”
How is one to face life populated by these odd creatures? With a sense of humor, of course.
Studies in American Humor, New Series 2, Vol. 4, No. 1/2 (Spring/Summer 1985), pp. 62-73
American Humor Studies Association