…and other things you should've thought of before writing your gender-stereotyping books
For Christmas this past year, a well-meaning relative bought my husband and me the books 1001 Things It Means to Be a Mom and 1001 Things It Means to Be a Dad. They were stocking stuffers, cute little gift books given with the best of intentions.
So you can imagine our surprise when, in flipping through them days after, my husband and I realized that our rage levels were off the charts.
Who knew gift books could be so controversial?
The books, written in 2008 by Harry H. Harrison Jr., are meant to be inspirational or humorous, I'm sure, designed to be tossed on the coffee table or in the guest bathroom. They don't claim to be comprehensive road maps or guidebooks for parenting. However, the portraits they paint of motherhood and fatherhood disturb me a bit because below the surface of the "life's little messages" motif lie some not-so-little judgments and stereotypes.
1001 Things It Means to Be a Mom, wrapped in a Pepto-Bismol pink cover, is filled with trite stereotypes about women in general, painting mothers as saints and slaves, thankful for the sheer bliss of doing laundry. The pregnant women here never drink alcohol or caffeine lest they be shamed for it. The mothers never complain about making dinner or helping with homework.
In the counterpart book, 1001 Things It Means to Be a Dad, we get these dazzling gems: "Being a dad means being a man. In all situations." And "Being a dad means secretly panicking after hearing the news your wife's pregnant, accompanied by feelings of nausea, doom, and the need to hold on to the remote control."
I will say that some of the observations are pretty spot-on (such as the one about taking your child to Gymboree even though "you'd rather stick needles in your eyes"). But overall, I am uncomfortable with a lot of the assumptions playing out here.
In the mom version of the books, there is a section of observations for "Single Moms," while in the dad version, that section is called "Divorced Dads." Many of the items under the "Single Mom" category are about getting your ex to pay child support or lamenting on the incompleteness of a one-parent home. One of my favorites: "Being a single mom means teaching your children that not all men leave."
In the dad book, the assumption is that all divorced dads are living away from their kids, dating many women, and really need to focus on paying their child support. It also spouts such perplexing wisdom as: "Being a divorced dad means remembering you're not Mr. Mom. You're Dad."
You may be thinking, "Chill out, Tara. These are just dumb gift books." And you'd be right, except that in light of our country's political situation, in an era where voters champion sexism and misogyny and many of our leaders challenge women's rights daily, these books take on a more sinister tone.
It seems extra creepy to read the mom version especially, written by a man who freely admits on the back cover that he knows nothing about being a mother — or, it seems, a parent. It seems gross to champion age-old gender stereotypes in our mothers and fathers about what it means to "be a man" or "be a woman." Passing down these conscious and subconscious messages — especially, I would argue, in such a seemingly harmless package — does even more damage and demeans the roles that individual family members take on in this modern day.
There is no one way to be a mother, a father, a family. The fact that these books in no way reflect the changing demographics of our country and the world or take into consideration the diversity and shared responsibilities of many parents makes them seem tired and dated and useless.
If you are interested in reflections on motherhood, fatherhood, and the ups and downs of parenting, I have some books and blogs to recommend. Some of these are ones I read frequently, and others were recommended to me by moms and dads I trust. The parenting section of the Washington Post often has provocative essays and articles about the challenges of raising kids. I also just discovered JustBEParenting, which offers lighthearted, honest, and non-judgmental essays and tips on parenting.
But my heart belongs to the snarky realists. I love the Scary Mommy blog, and she has a few books out, most notably Confessions of a Scary Mommy: An Honest and Irreverent Look at Motherhood - The Good, The Bad, and the Scary. And It's Like They Know Us might be the funniest Facebook page I've ever stumbled across.
For dads, check out Dadspin (warning: some R-rated language), which includes some pretty funny views on parenting and one of my favorite series, "Why Your Children's Television Program Sucks."
These books, blogs, and websites go beyond the lazy stereotypes and strictly gendered assumptions and instead celebrate the many complexities, joys, and (sometimes gross and painful) realities of parenting.
Tara Laskowski is author of the short-story collections Bystanders and Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons. Since 2010, she's been the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly, an online flash-fiction publication.