Let’s be clear: I do not “do” parenting books.
I don’t read books about how to be a better mother (or, for that matter, how to follow a menu plan that will make me feel 10 years younger, or how to know God better). In my experience, self-help/advice books don’t really change me for the better. What kind of books do change me? Absorbing novels. Beautifully written, honest memoirs.
My favorite writing about motherhood is about as far from self-help as writing can get. Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions, Catherine Newman’s Waiting for Birdy along with her many poetic and hilarious blog posts, and Kelley Corrigan’s eloquent memoir on being both parent and child in The Middle Place, for example.
So I’m about to do something out of character, in honor of Mother’s Day this Sunday. I’m going to recommend a book about mothering that, if not quite a self-help book, definitely has one foot in the “here’s some advice for being a happier parent and raising well-adjusted kids” camp.
Given my aversion to parenting books, I would not likely have picked up MOMumental: Adventures in the Messy At of Raising a Family if I saw it in a book store. Or, I might have picked it up, but only to feel the cover and figure out how on earth they managed to make the spilled milk and Cheerios look so real. But I wouldn’t have bought it. I wouldn’t have read it.
But I did read it, for one reason. It was written by a friend and colleague whom I both admire for her wisdom and just plain like for her wit, warmth, and honesty. I picked up Jennifer Grant’s latest book because I knew it would allow me to enjoy her way with words while also peeking behind the scenes of life with her husband and four children.
Once I started, though, I kept reading MOMumental because I really liked it. Really liked it.
The book’s basic structure is simple. In each chapter, Jen starts with an anecdote from her family’s life, ranging from her son’s tendency during toddlerhood to see everyone else’s pain through his own self-absorbed lens (“On the bwight side,” little Ian would say, “it wasn’t me who….” fell down, lost my toy, threw up) to a family road trip with her tweens and teens that was devolving into grumpy chaos before a serendipitous stop at a coffee shop in Amish country. She then broadens whatever small (but huge) lesson her family anecdote taught her to apply to other families, bringing in research (on the importance of family dinners, for example), additional anecdotes, and large doses of humor.
Jen tackles topics including the importance of having a family culture, complete with its unique lore; raising compassionate kids; and not mistaking kids for mini-adults. I particularly loved that last section, which reminds parents not to either assume that your young daughter’s pettiness with a sibling means that she is going to become an axe murderer, or that your young son’s way with crayons means that you should start saving up for art or architecture school.
Like my favorite mommy writers and bloggers, Jen is utterly honest about her shortcomings as a mother. This book does not leave you feeling inadequate as the author waxes eloquent about how easy it is to get your kids to stop pining for TV; all you have to do is come up with creative nature crafts to fill their time every day after school! But is also honest about her striving to do her best for her kids. Yes, they do give up TV for a while. And put great effort into having family dinners. And look for opportunities to model and foster compassion for people who are struggling. This combination of honesty about our failures combined with an earnest striving to do better is the balance we need to strike as parents.
It is nearly impossible to live in today’s culture without absorbing plenty of parenting advice via playground conversation, Facebook, and trending news stories. I pay attention to very little of it. But perhaps the best piece of advice that I’ve heard, and would offer to other parents, is “Don’t judge parents whose children are older than yours.”
I would amend that advice to read, “Don’t judge parents whose children are older than yours, and occasionally, listen to them, because they might know things that will help you the next time you are sure you have ruined your child forever.”
Nothing teaches us what works and what doesn’t, what is important and what is not, than living with our children, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, as they grow from babies to toddlers to school kids to tweens to teens. We learn that they are not a project to which we can apply lofty principles, but full-faceted human beings, full of dark and light, bringers of heartache and happiness.
Jennifer Grant has many years of mothering experience behind her, and quite a few more to come. Beyond her years of experience, she possesses humor, a gift of expression, and the ability to share her hard-earned wisdom with self-awareness and without being snarky or self-righteous.
To all mothers who strive to be the best mother possible for their children despite knowing they will sometimes fail, and who are willing to both give and take advice gleaned from the hardest moments of loving little people—Happy Mother’s Day.
And check out MOMumental.