When a mother in my Butts, Guts, Tris and Thighs class told me about a mock kids’ book called Go the Fuck to Sleep, I knew right off I would love it. A day later, when she emailed me the PDF, I laughed aloud. In the book, by novelist and dad Adam Mansbach, a father silently rages at his obstinate toddler, desperate for the child to go down so he can watch a DVD with his wife. I loved the irreverence of the sentiment. I thought the trippy LSD-inspired illustrations by Ricardo Cort’s worked perfectly with the text. I related to the underlying message – that all parents need breaks from their kids. Then I closed the PDF, read a few articles about GTFTS‘ #1 Amazon ranking and 300,000-copy print run, and thought, Why didn’t I write that?
Like Mansbach I have used parenting as fodder in my writing; my most recent novel, Prospect Park West, is about four aggrieved mothers in Brooklyn. Like him I take pride in my lack of sanctimony as a parent. Like him I have lain for forty minutes next to an awake toddler and felt, “My life is a failure/I’m a shitty-ass parent.” And like him I have to keep writing books to support myself and my family.
So I began to wonder what would have happened if I really had written that book. What if a mom had beaten a dad to the punchline and published a book called Go the Fuck to Sleep? As much as I want to believe that “Funny is funny” and it would have been a runaway success regardless, I can’t help but think that things might have gone down differently.
A mom who even thinks the word “fuck” around her kid? A mom who can’t get her child to sleep or is unwilling to co-sleep to do it? A mom who isn’t more lovable than caustic, always and forever? I can’t help but think the Internet masses on parenting sites like this would have a field day with it, raking me over the coals for the same sentiment that is so funny when expressed by a dad.
– If you hate being a mom so much, why did you have a child in the first place?
– Clearly your daughter can’t rest because you work.
– You have an anger management problem and you’re giving your kid ADHD.
– You need Zoloft.
– I pray that you bring no more children into the world because it will spare another individual the years of therapy he will need to get over the trauma of having been raised by such a selfish and insensitive person.
And, of course: That book is so lame, I could have written it.
While modern edgy mothers have been writing about their experiences at least as long as Heather Armstrong announced her pregnancy on Dooce in 2003, it has taken an edgy dad to create a runaway bestseller. That’s not a coincidence or a fluke. While a mom who even thinks, “Go the fuck to sleep” is seen as morally lacking, unfit, unhinged, deranged, and hostile, a dad who thinks it is someone we want to have a beer with (or in my neighborhood, have on our bocce team). He’s the real deal, he’s the man, he’s cool, he’s even gangsta. (Mansbach, a rap aficionado who talks like G Love, was drawing from the hip-hop tradition in lines like, “Fuck your stuffed bear. That’s bullshit. Stop lying.”)
Though Heather Armstrong is the most famous, many other mom bloggers use irreverence and edginess about motherhood in their writing – Catherine Connors‘ Her Bad Mother, Rebecca Woolf‘s Girl’s Gone Child, and Kristin Chase‘s Motherhood Uncensored, to name a few. And yet these women, some of whom have been blogging nearly as long as Armstrong, still get flak for the most minorly-edgy admissions. This flak comes from the very same moms buying GTFTS by the truckload. Connors was lambasted for admitting to spanking, Chase for not returning a toy her young toddler had taken from Old Navy, and Midwest mom Meagan Francis for admitting she uses a housekeeper. And we all remember the tongue wagging that Ayelet Waldman received after admitting in the New York Times “Modern Love” column to loving her Pulitzer-winning husband Michael Chabon more than her children. (Hello? We all love Michael Chabon more than we love his children.)
Apparently, even though we’re in this age of How Much Parenting Sucks and How Hard It Really Is, the Good Mother archetype still reigns supreme. As Connors puts it, “Any woman that exposes the uglier side of parenting or even humorously disparages motherhood gets a lot of blowback. There’s this powerful idea that mothers should be good. Dads are not held to that same standard so they have more leeway to be irreverent and dark and ridiculous.”
All those voices ‘fessing up on the Internet for the past decade haven’t changed much about mothers’ perceptions of themselves and each other. “In the view of most readers,” says Babble contributor John Cave Osborne, “it’s OK for a dad to write a book like Go the Fuck to Sleep but not a mom. People think a clueless or inept dad is funny. That shtick still works, even though dads have come a long way since Ward Cleaver.”
When mothers do write comedic, GTFTS-style books, the most provocative line of humor they seem willing to employ is “I need wine at night.” Christie Mellor’s The Three-Martini Playdate is a fake 1950s housewife guide advocating alcohol as an antidote to sanctimony. Stefanie Wilder-Taylor wrote the funny momoirs Sippy Cups for Chardonnay and Naptime is the New Happy Hour – and sadly for her readers (and more sadly for her) later admitted to being an alcoholic. The first of Lisa Brown’s Baby, Be of Use parodic board-books was Baby, mix me a drink. Even those books sold few copies compared to the 50,000 Mansbach’s publisher sold before the book went to press. Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks 75% of retail book sales, puts The Three-Martini Playdate and Sippy Cups at under 50,000 copies each, and Baby, mix me a drink at under 10,000. It’s telling that a parenting parody published in March called Let’s Panic About Babies, by popular bloggers Alice Bradley and Eden M. Kennedy, seems to have been overshadowed by GTFTS, its Onionesque strand of humor perhaps a little too intelligent.
Women like Mellor, Wilder-Taylor, and Armstrong paved the way for a man like Mansbach but he’s the one laughing his way to the bank. Yes, yes, maybe it’s just because he thought of the line “Go the fuck to sleep” first. Maybe it’s because, as Mansbach would put it, that shit is just funny.
But maybe it’s because as a father riffing on bedtime, he’s fresh, new, and appealing. Moms that mine their experiences for fodder are exploitative; dads who do it are original. As Connors points out, “In the early 21st century, discourse around family has been the domain of mothers. So when fathers engage in it, it’s seen as a sign of attentiveness. They are automatically admirable because they’re paying attention to the family.” On Today when Matt Lauer asked Mansbach what response he had gotten from the book, he answered, “A lot of thanks from parents around the globe: ‘I feel less alone,’ ‘This is really cathartic,’ ‘This is exactly what I go through every night.’” Because the bar for paternal involvement is so much lower, a dad who is trying to put a child to sleep is a likable protagonist from page one. Mansbach is the literary equivalent of that lone father in the playground with his child, surrounded by mothers and nannies: We love him just for being there.