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Babies don't come with instruction manuals.
Unfortunately, this fact hasn't stopped people from trying to write said
I get it, I get it. Well-meaning authors think that they are
doing us all a favor by penning the "What to Expect When You're a Tiger
Mom Who's Attachment Parenting Your Baby Just Like Superior French Parents
Do" books of the world. And to be fair, evidence-based and timely advice can be
useful to any mother or father.
But sometimes these parenting instruction manuals and guidebooks are a little too heavy on the "should"—all the rules we should be following,
all the foods we should be feeding our kids, all research we should be
I think we parents could use a little less "should" in
our lives. If anything, we need more of what I like to call "unguidebooks" in parenting. These are books that spend less time "shoulding" all over us
and more time revealing bigger, broader and more timeless truths.
I read this book when I was pregnant with my first
child. Honest and tender and real, Lamott's account of her son's first year prepared
me for the reality of parenting in a way that no other book or words of advice had.
I often think back to a prayer Lamott said to her son
on the night he was born. It's a prayer I say now for my own children, even
though I'm not exactly the praying type:
"Please, please, God, help him be someone who feels
compassion, who feels God's presence loose in the world, who doesn't give up on
peace and justice and mercy for everyone. And then one second later, I was
begging, Okay, skip all that shit, forget it—just please, please let him outlive me."
My original copy of "Operating Instructions" is no
longer on my bookshelf. Years ago, I gave it to a friend and encouraged her to
share it with any other parent who might enjoy it. I've heard that it's passed
through dozens of hands over the last nine years. I think that's a testament to
the power and beauty of Lamott's words.
2. "Lit" by Mary Karr
I didn't expect to read much about parenting when I
began Karr's third memoir. But less than halfway through—maybe even after the
first few pages, in which Karr writes a letter to her college-bound son—I
realized that the book's primary focuses weren't only alcoholism and sobriety and
writing and redemption. "Lit" is also about becoming and being a mother.
... Karr also captures, with incomparable poetic insight, the specific joy of parenting—a joy that begins with the first oxytocin-fueled moments with her newborn son.
Of course, there's a bleakness and gallows humor in
much of what Karr recounts in this book. Not every parent smashes up the family
car on a drunken, snowy evening. (Though some do.) Not every parent spends a
harrowing, hospitalized month getting sober. (Though some do.) But many mothers
and fathers teeter on their own particular precipices throughout the early
years of parenting. I've teetered on mine. Karr once teetered on hers.
With that said, Karr also captures, with incomparable
poetic insight, the specific joy of parenting—a joy that begins with the first
oxytocin-fueled moments with her newborn son:
"[He] squints up with dark blue eyes as if trying to
make us out through smoke, and from the instant his gaze brushes by me, some
inner high beam flips on. Never have I felt such blazing focus for another
living creature. I can't stop looking at him. Joy, it is, which I've never
known before, only pleasure or excitement. Joy is a different thing, because
its focus exists outside the self—delight in something external, not
satisfaction of some inner craving."
the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Written as a letter to his 15-year-old son, Coates's
book is as visceral as it is profound. In one of his most oft-cited passages,
he writes: "Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is
traditional to destroy the black body—it
is heritage." He does not speak metaphorically. There is more than enough
empirical evidence to support this claim.
I am a white mother of three white sons. Coates did
not write this book to, or for, me. He did not write it to, or for, my
children. And what this book means to me is far different from what it means to
parents raising black sons and daughters in the United States. But it is this
very chasm between who I am and whom the book is for that makes Coates's words
such essential reading.
My world and my children's world is built upon a
foundation of racial violence: slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, mass incarceration,
police brutality, housing discrimination and staggering social and economic
disparities. We have privileges that we've inherited at the expense of those
who came before us—at the literal expense of millions of black bodies. And if
I'm going to talk to my sons about race (which I should), and if I'm going to
refuse to let them believe sentimental myths about America's racial past (which
I should) and if I'm going to expect them to struggle actively against white
supremacy (which I should), then I first need to shut up and listen to black
writers and black thinkers and black parents like Coates.
OK, so there are a few "shoulds" that accompany any
reading of this book. But they are some of the most important "shoulds" that
any modern parent can heed.