Removing parents from the pedestals of World’s Best does not diminish us; it recognizes that raising children is a societal responsibility, a collective effort.
Here’s a scene: I’m at the New England Aquarium with my husband Jason, his mother, who is visiting us from Alabama, and our 17-month-old daughter, Benna, who has just pooped her diaper. We stand outside the restrooms, the diaper bag in Jason’s hand.
“Want me to change her?” I offer.
“I got it,” he says, and heads into the men’s room.
As soon as the door closes behind him, my mother-in-law turns to me. “He’s such an amazing father,” she says. The pride radiates from her face. I nod, trying to make my face reflect that pride, trying not to externalize the sigh I feel rising from the depths of my insides.
I understand where she’s coming from. I really do. Jason is a terrific father—patient, engaged, unafraid of wrangling a diaper-resistant toddler on a flimsy public changing table. I’m also about 99% sure Jason’s own father never once offered to change an infant Jason’s diaper in the men’s room where, no doubt, there were no changing tables in 1981. The sight of a man nonchalantly taking his daughter into the men’s room must be revolutionary to my mother-in-law, her son the first she’s witnessed boldly going where no father has gone before.
I’ll give the fathers of my generation credit: They are history’s most involved dads. But while I’m absolutely thrilled that I’m raising my daughter in an age where her father stays home and I go to work, I’m getting a little weary of the superlatives applied to what should be commonplace equitable life management, no matter who does what. Jason can cook an amazing mussels dinner in a tomato-wine broth; his diaper changes, however, are just plain OK. Just like mine.
As a college professor, I have seen the demonization of the C grade (even the B), and what many critics attribute as the entitlement of today’s students, I’ve begun to see as a trend of exceptionality. Call it the participation trophy syndrome, but it feels deeper than something generational. It feels fundamentally American. And as with many quintessentially American sensibilities, I sense arrogance there. Our standards for what constitutes “the best” swing both untenably high and laughably low, depending on who we are.
For parents, this notion of exceptionality may widen the divide between the experiences of mothers and fathers. In his recent New York Times expose on antenatal depression, Andrew Solomon says, “A society that glorifies motherhood while resisting basic accommodations like guaranteed extended maternity leave makes the identity shift more frightening and abrupt than it needs to be.” Solomon first became interested in antenatal depression after the birth of his son, an experience that “transformed” his depression, ushering in for Solomon “a new sense of peace.” But after conducting interviews with 24 women over the course of several years, he learned that, “Even in our increasingly egalitarian society, mothers feel the weight of parenthood’s identity shift more profoundly than fathers do; they reconceive who they are, and often do so with both delight and frustration.”
A big part of this identity shift may be connected to the superhero rhetoric our culture often applies to mothers, and, increasingly, to parents in general (again, with different standards). Superheroes don’t need things like paid family leave or affordable childcare. Most importantly, superheroes are solitary figures of exceptionality—no one can do what they can do, and because they have no equals, they can’t rely on anyone else for help. When we adopt superlative rhetoric for parenthood, we stoke the political fires that keep parents—and yes, still largely mothers—from getting the support they need. We also create a culture of competition and comparison based on the idea that parents are, first and foremost, willing to self-annihilate for their children.
I let Benna cry it out when she was six months old because I desperately wanted, needed, to sleep. I have never taken her to a baby music class. Sometimes, I say don’t hit mama when she pounds my chest to nurse, instead of it hurts mama when you hit. Some days, when she refuses to eat the well-balanced meal Jason has cooked for her, I let her eat a fistful of oatmeal cookies so she’ll have a full belly when she goes to sleep. Most days, I let her watch Sesame Street and about a hundred videos of herself on my iPhone.
I am not superhero. But most of the time, I also don’t think I’m a bad mother. The vast middle where most of us live are parenting with limited resources—physical, emotional, financial. Most people, parents or not, are exceptional at maybe one or two things in this world, and at nearly everything else, we’re just average. What I want is average to be reclassified as a perfectly desirable, and attainable, goal.
In a post on her far-above-average blog about special needs parenting, Star in Her Eye, Heather Kirn Lanier writes, “If ever I wanted to perform, to play the good and successful Mom, I can’t. Forget the Mommy Wars; I don’t even have the energy to show up for my uniform. Instead, I’m stripped down, made raw, forced to cast out any of my own bullshit and admit: I will constantly try at a hundred percent, and I will constantly fail.”
Like some of my students who struggle mightily, honorably, to write a C paper, most parents are expending enormous effort to be average, with failures that punctuate all along the way. Maybe we need to rethink the value of our failures as evidence of our efforts, which, like Lanier’s, can be immense, powerful journeys. Last semester, Maxine Hong Kingston visited my campus and gave a talk about her life as a writer and peace activist. She fielded questions about failure, about circumstances in which her writing was bad, or, in order to protect her loved ones, she would sanction violence. “It’s all just practice,” she said, “and I mean that in the true sense of trying. Trying is as close to doing it as I get.”
Lanier’s husband, an Episcopalian priest, agrees. Lanier describes his recent weeklong retreat where “participants awoke at 3am and meditated, prayed, and chanted for 13 hours a day…He says there’s no such thing as succeeding in a training period so intense. Everyone at some point will fail.”
Failing better, as Samuel Beckett has been instructing English majors for a century, is a concept I’d like to move beyond the classroom. Here’s Solomon again, this time on how mothers battling depression may help us understand the real art of failure that parenting teaches us: “Wanting to love your child is not the same thing as loving your child, but there is a lot of love even in the wanting.”
In the rural Deep South where Jason grew up, religion and economic hardship conspire to place a high premium on superhero-like suffering—the most admirable people are usually the ones who subordinate the most of their own needs for others’. But while Jason, as a man, collects accolades for diaper changes, he also tends toward a self-reliance that can come at a cost—he has trouble admitting when he needs help, and all parents need help. Fathers. Mothers. All of us. Removing parents from the pedestals of World’s Best and other superlatives does not diminish us; it recognizes that raising children is a societal responsibility, a collective effort.
It’s also time to recognize that the pedestals for superhero fathers and superhero mothers are not equidistant from the ground. One of them still towers way higher, way more unattainable, than the other.
In her post, Lanier describes a photo of a male friend sporting a “World’s Okayest Dad” T-shirt, and says she wants a T-shirt of her own: “World’s Okayest Mom.” It just so happens I own such a shirt. Two of them, actually. I hope one day I will wear them not as an inside joke, a bashful acknowledgement of my own mediocrity. I hope one day I will wear them with pride, knowing much work it takes to be OK.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.