Introducing a column that will review the best of recent advice and self-help books every other month.
How does one become a better parent? A cottage industry exists for those experts who guide anxious parents through the treacherous shoals, offering advice on everything from nursing a newborn to living with a truculent teen. I've perused plenty of these, looking for help in raising my own children, but I can't think of one book as entertaining or refreshingly honest as Faulkner Fox's "Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life."
"Who should I be, now that I'm a mother?" is the question Fox poses. In answering, she describes her journey from single, footloose 20-something to middle-aged married mother of two. The fantasy of marriage she had when single bears little resemblance to her current married-with-kids reality. There are no romantic meals eaten in a pristine house, with a view of the ocean, while a calm, self-possessed 4-year-old quietly clinks Legos somewhere far, far in the background. Her home in Austin is a mess, featuring a "panoply of toys . . . dirty socks . . . junk mail, mangled sippy cups with no lids." And her two boys are hardly passive spectators. How is it possible that she got things so horribly wrong? More to the point, is the disparity between reality and fantasy somehow her fault?
This book examines guilt, specifically the guilt mothers feel. Fox argues it is brought on by external and internalized cultural pressure. Guilt seeps in as soon as pregnancy is confirmed, driven by the tone of self-help pregnancy guides. These books offer the newly vulnerable mother-to-be guidelines on sleep patterns and general physical care. After all, you're eating, sleeping, and pretty much living for two. According to Fox, this whips women into a state of constant anxiety, causing them to indulge in "deeper and deeper, or more trivial and more trivial, levels of self-scrutiny." She terms these guides "evil," the bar they set impossibly high. Yet Fox is even harsher -- in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way -- on herself: "Quick, someone lock me up -- I'm drinking herbal tea! Haul me off for child abuse!"
For Fox, pregnancy is only the beginning of the ride on the guilt train. When her second son is whisked away from her at birth, she tortures herself, thinking she's missed a crucial chance at connection. Perhaps this is why he seems to prefer her husband. And guilt is in the air when she walks home from the library, carrying a stack of books. Passing a mother watching her two young children, Fox castigates herself for taking time off to work, and leaving her own brood in the care of a baby-sitter.
There's a gulf between the real Faulkner Fox, a working poet and mother with diverse interests that don't include breast-feeding till your child is old enough to request a feeding, and the woman she feels society expects her to become, "someone cheerful, selfless, and aggressively devoted to my children's enrichment." Fox's refusal to conform is heartening, as is her reasoning: "Denying myself -- of a career, a sex life, good nutrition, sleep -- is no guarantee of anything for my sons, other than a less-than-happy mother." More power to her!
If you're looking for a more traditional parenting guide, I'd recommend picking up Laurence Steinberg's "The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting." Steinberg offers sage advice as well as pragmatic steps to follow, in the hopes that you can learn to become a more "mindful" parent. To paraphrase, yes, you must set limits for that errant toddler, but no, don't constantly grill your teenager or compulsively check his e-mail. Your child deserves and needs a little privacy. Steinberg's tone is unequivocal: "You should never spank, hit, slap, or otherwise physically punish your child. When I say never, I mean never." According to the good doctor, if you follow the rules he lays down, you'll raise a happier, healthier child. Much of what he says makes sense, in particular Principle 10, "Treat Your Child With Respect." A lot of parents I know could use a reminder on this one.
Speaking of disrespectful parents, there are plenty populating the pages of Dale Atkins's "I'm OK, You're My Parents." Written in a breezy style, this guide is intended for adults trying to gain a little peace in their nonstop battle with their difficult elders. These bad parents belittle, critique, ignore, compete with, and berate their hapless full-grown offspring. Atkins's strength is in suggesting ways to rewire your relationship, though her scripted dialogues are often stilted, and some of her suggestions a little too hands-on for my taste. She advises role-playing with friends (they play Mom, you play yourself), repeating silent mantras when you're about to lose your temper, and even tape recording your unsuspecting parents to clarify the ways they push your buttons. If your parents drive you up the wall, there's plenty here to help you. And the cost of the book is definitely cheaper than therapy.
Naomi Rand is an author whose latest work is "Stealing for a Living" (HarperCollins).