Last week, I went online to learn that one of my favorite blogs had gone dark. Where I was accustomed to seeing Flickr photos of the blogger’s garden, handicrafts, and two beautiful children was a four-line note explaining that something had happened in her professional life that was wonderful for her, but made it impossible for her to maintain a blog.
I’m delighted for her, but as I scanned past the note and realized that the entire online diary had been taken down, I felt an acute sense of loss. I’ve read this woman’s words online every day for nine years, virtually the entire time I’ve been a parent. There have been stretches where she felt like my very best mom-friend, the only person in the universe who really understood the bittersweet arc of my days.
I wanted to send her an e-mail saying as much, but I have no idea who she is — formally, anyhow. I know her initials but not her name. I know her line of work but not her job title. I know the city where she has painstakingly restored a Victorian row house but not the address. I know she favors roses but not the street where her garden blooms. I know everything about her and yet very little.
She subscribes to too many home décor magazines and favors airy rooms with cottage motifs. She makes quilts for friends and family, picking through fabric ordered on the Internet from around the world to find motifs that express her feelings for the grandmother or new baby who will slumber under the finished product. She makes simple, homey foods like cobblers and barbecued chicken, taking painstaking care with her ingredients and techniques. She likes Netflix and cupcakes and Peet’s coffee.
This may sound strange given that we’re talking about a blog about domestic life, out there on the Internet for anyone to stumble across, but I think of her as an intensely private person. I get no sense that she’s presenting an idealized version of herself, as seems to be the case with so many parenting blogs. Rather, she seems cautious and deliberate about her relationships. So much so that if she hadn’t taken down the blog, I’d be reluctant to give you its URL.
Outwardly, her life looks little like mine. She is African American, a moneyed professional, a single mother living thousands of miles away. Yet I checked her blog every day because there was something comforting and familiar about the way she approached the minutiae of family life.
Over the years, I’ve had plenty of occasions to ponder the fact that one of the most intimate relationships I’ve enjoyed as a parent has been with a woman who does not know I exist. Why, I’ve wondered, haven’t I felt this kind of easy connection with any of my flesh-and-blood friends?
There are some obvious reasons why the blogosphere is enormously popular with parents. We can be catty and judgmental without fear of reprisal. We can blog or surf in short bursts as brood and mood allow. Because the Internet is tailor-made for subcultures and tribes, we have access to a limitless pool of fellow obsessives no matter whether the intense conundrum of the moment is about strollers or co-sleeping. Most crucial, we can present what we choose about our experience and no more.
For years, I observed my blogger from the voyeuristic vantage of the lurker. This had unexpected upsides, not least of which was that I got to make up the untold parts of the story myself. She occasionally hinted otherwise — and in truth I knew better — but for the most part, I envisioned her household as an oasis of calm. Mine often seemed harmonious only when every member was out cold, and I liked imagining that the experience presented in her blog was possible.
Once, when my older boy was a toddler and his brother a newborn, my blogger posted a list of the spices in her pantry. I spent several days parsing it, imagining what it suggested about her life and values, what we might have in common and what not. For me, the exercise was a little like reading tarot cards: It doesn’t matter whether my imaginings bore any relationship to reality, what mattered was what I saw in the mirror she held up. What was in my spice collection? What did I cook with it — or not — and for whom?
As I sat down at my desk the other day and tried to get into my work groove without my morning blog check-in, I realized that the very best parenting writing I’ve read has afforded me the same opportunity to look into other people’s pantries and psyches and, based on what I saw there, to think about my own. Not all of the memorable first-person stories I’ve read have been pleasant, but me, I often appreciate knowing my own dysfunction isn’t so outrageous.
In that spirit, I offer an annotated list of some of the books that have kept me company as my babies have grown from alternately cooing and shrieking bundles of unmet need to verbal warriors skilled at shredding the parent who fails to shell out for a Wii. None is new, but each covers emotional terrain every new generation of parents gets to traverse. I hope that some of the writers within their pages will come to feel like kindred spirits.
Operating Instructions, by Anne Lamott. For me, Lamott is like Woody Allen: A little of her potent voice goes a long way. But this book, a memoir of her son’s first year, was a lifesaver during those early weeks when I found myself awake and scared and alone in the middle of the night, with a fussy newborn. It was a relief to realize I wasn’t the only one who harbored two simultaneous, conflicting lines of thought — one entranced, one miserable — about the experience. At that point in my life, just the three or four paragraphs Lamott devotes to her breast pump were worth the book’s purchase price several times over.
Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood, edited by Camille Peri and Kate Moses. Compiled by the original editors of the standout parenting writing at the online magazine Salon.com, this is a soup-to-nuts anthology. There are childbirth stories and adoption stories. Stories about single mothers forced to tackle home maintenance and to admit to themselves that they don’t love their children equally. It was followed by another compilation of essays by the same editors, Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race, and Themselves.
The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth about Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage, edited by Cathi Hanauer, and The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom, edited by Daniel Jones. Talk about your voyeuristic glimpses into other people’s lives. It’s all here: Marriages of convenience; marriages shaped by infidelity, mutual loathing, recriminations, and struggles for power; and families that stay together for reasons that have nothing to do with romantic love. Edited by a husband and wife, the essays in these two anthologies are so raw some are published under pseudonyms. These can’t be characterized as feel-good books at all, but they probably will reassure you that any undercurrents simmering in your home aren’t so freakish after all.
The Mother Trip, by Ariel Gore. A collection of essays about Gore’s rollercoaster years as a teenage mother, this slim volume is a little dated. I am still undone, however, by one essay in particular. It describes her efforts to survive family court, where she weathered the ordeal of ditching an abusive ex. Sometimes, life is about picking up one foot at a time and inching it forward, and that’s enough.
Beth Hawkins is a Minneapolis writer.
Judith Warner’s “Domestic Disturbances” blog in the New York Times. It’s not the kind of first-person exposition that makes up the books here, but Warner’s blog, published Fridays in the online version of the New York Times, is a must-read for anyone concerned with the intersection of family life and public life. Warner has an inviting, conversational style and a knack for cutting through the Molotov-cocktail lobbing that permeates so much of our reporting on the family.