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Confessions of an imperfect parent

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / June 25, 2009
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There has never been a better time to be a bad parent.

Scratch that. There has never been a better time to say you’re a bad parent.

Bad parenting confessionals are all the rage these days - a trend that started in the blogosphere with the likes of TrueMomConfessions.com - and have now been overtaken by the publishing industry, which this spring produced a flurry of imperfect-parent memoirs. In “Bad Mother,’’ Ayelet Waldman details how “soul-crushingly bored’’ she was when she quit her job to stay home with her daughter. In “Home Game,’’ Michael Lewis describes eating cake in front of his kids when they’ve been punished with no dessert. In “It Sucked and Then I Cried,’’ Heather B. Armstrong refers to her breastfeeding daughter as “a bottomless possum.’’

They sell you on cynicism. Then they give you the bait-and-switch. The bad parent, they argue, may be the best parent of all.

“Bad parent,’’ after all, doesn’t mean anything close to truly bad. No one who writes one of these memoirs, or bares a cynical soul in a confessional blog, admits to being abusive, addicted, or neglectful. These are people who fret over their children’s needs, carefully catalog their activities, watch them with a writer’s rapt attention.

“That’s the baseline: I love my kid,’’ says Neal Pollack, the author of 2007’s “Alternadad,’’ a stoner-dad memoir and a pioneer of the form. “And then there’s always the ‘but.’ But I hate myself or I hate where I live or I hate my job or I’m worried that I’m never gonna have sex again. . . . Basically what you’ve got is parents trying to come to terms with their identity as adults.’’

Perhaps it’s the ultimate expression of irony, the perfect parenting stance for Generation X. Confessional parents see their badness as a way of striving to be good: less overstressed, overscheduled, and fixated on perfection than the boomer parents who came before them. And they’re arguing that more relaxed parents - slackers, stoners, slobs, oversleepers - might lead to happier kids.

Imagine how different Betty Draper’s life would have been if she only had a blog.

The “Mad Men’’ 1960s housewife, played by January Jones, is TV’s current leading example of parental identity crisis, a poster woman for maternal misery. (The runner-up: Kate Gosselin of “Jon & Kate Plus 8,’’ who was recently photographed spanking one of her sextuplets.) Draper is what today’s professional bad parents refuse to be: a parent who has given up her ambitions to take care of her kids, and strives for a perfection she can never achieve.

Confessional parenting is a clear - and often stated - reaction to the June Cleaver ideal of the saintly parent, open-hearted and even-keeled. It’s a reaction, too, to more recent trends in child-rearing: the “helicopter parenting’’ impulse to shepherd children through every conflict, the “attachment parenting’’ movement that suggests that new parents should merge identities with their babies.

As a form of protest, an outlet for catharsis, trumpeting your imperfections is much easier and safer than anything Betty Draper had at her disposal. (Her outlets were horseback riding and extramarital affairs.) And it’s more possible than ever in this age of Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and other forms of Internet self-promotion - in particular, the blog, which lends itself to long-form, self-deprecating rants.

“You can air all of these things and you can develop this community but you still feel kind of safe because it’s from a distance. It’s an interesting paradox,’’ says Christine Koh, the founder of www.bostonmamas.com and an avid reader of several mommy-confessional blogs.

Bad-parenting blogs took off, Koh said, because they created instant recognition. “Once blogs started, there was this collective sigh of relief,’’ Koh says. “Oh, I’m not alone, I’m not a bad person, I’m still a good parent. I feel imperfect and I hate that mom who always looks perfect.’’ By now, the sheer volume of bad-parenting blogs is almost overwhelming; they range from homegrown personal ones to officially sponsored confessionals, from Babble’s “Bad Parent’’ column to the “Underparenting’’ column on the new site theawl.com. The writers - particularly the professional ones - tend to have a lot in common, Pollack says. Most are happily married, work at home, with the time and freedom for wry observations about domestic life.

“It’s a comedy of manners for the middle and the upper-middle class,’’ he says.

As such, it’s filled with anecdotes about kids’ confounding and utterly kidlike behavior. In a blog he used to write for the Parents.com website, Pollack detailed the way his tantrum-prone son misunderstood the difference between “sore loser’’ and “loser.’’ In her book, Waldman writes about how her son, up to the age of 7, gave her “movie kisses’’ that “last for a little longer than usual and involve a lot of twisting of the head and moaning.’’

But at heart, these blogs are really about parents and their challenges. Armstrong’s book centers on her bout with postpartum depression. Waldman’s book includes detailed accounts of her housekeeping habits and yoga practices - not to mention her sex life as a teenager and her gut-wrenching experience aborting a fetus with a genetic defect.

Whether such honesty is good for the kids in the long run is unclear, says Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd, author of “The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development.’’ On one hand, he says, it’s good in certain circumstances to be open about your flaws, to admit that parenting can be tough. On the other hand, parents who overdramatize their own feelings aren’t necessarily the best role models.

“You can make your kids self-centered by focusing too much on their needs,’’ Weissbourd says. “You can also make your kids self-centered by writing self-involved books and articles and modeling that kind of self-centeredness and self-involvement. It’s just a repetition of the problem.’’

Bad parent bloggers and memoirists clearly see themselves with varying degrees of clarity. Waldman writes in her introduction that “My children have given me their permission to write this book. . . . I check in to make sure they’re not uncomfortable and don’t feel exposed.’’ Lewis, meanwhile, offers this warning to his kids: “If you don’t want to see it in print, don’t do it.’’

It’s an admission, at least, that confessional parenting can be entrepreneurial. Andy Jones, a graphic designer in Gaithersburg, Md., started a website called www.nontoxicreviews.com (motto: “The daddy blog that makes the mommy blogs cringe’’) in part because he liked getting free product samples.

But he also likes the notion of poking fun at those old ideals of fatherhood. Recently, on a night his wife and a friend’s wife were going to book club, they took their toddler sons on a boys’ night out to Hooters. Jones posted a video clip of the event, set to surf music, in the style of the movie “Grindhouse.’’

It was a fun excuse to play with toys, but Jones was hawking a philosophy, too: that good parents are parents who are having fun with their kids, no matter how illicit the activity might seem.

Indeed, the act of confessional parenting can create its own twisted form of community. And here’s another irony: that shared commiseration is actually old-fashioned - the sort of thing Betty Draper sometimes did with her mommy friends.

Sharing foibles is “sort of an old-fashioned way of bonding,’’ said Lenore Skenazy, the New York-based author of “Free Range Kids’’ and its eponymous blog, which promote the idea that kids don’t need to be cloistered from the world by overprotective moms and dads.

“None of us are perfect. It’s a great way to find fellow humans as opposed to whatever this ideal is that we’re worried that we’re not living up to,’’ Skenazy says.

And if the goal is to create a community of nonjudgmental parents, she says, confessional blogs could be a good start.

“All I’m saying is, let’s create it in real life, too,’’ she says. “We’ll have somebody to have coffee with inside while the kids play on the lawn. It’ll be like ‘Mad Men.’ Except we won’t be smoking.’’

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com