Athena's Head

On Writing, Parenting, and Pop-Mom Culture

Martha Nichols

Martha Nichols
Location
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Birthday
March 18
Title
Editor in Chief
Company
Talking Writing
Bio
I am Editor in Chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine. I'm also a contributing editor at the Women's Review of Books and a freelance journalist in the Boston area. Martha on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Athenas_Head (I cross-post most OS entries on my website Athena's Head. I am not paid a cent for any reviews or product references—these opinions are mine alone.)

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MAY 9, 2011 10:52AM

Why I’m Sick of Mommy Writing—even by Tina Fey

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It hit me suddenly on Mother’s Day. My son and husband brought me breakfast in bed and a vase of roses. My nine-year-old son made biscuits, one shaped like a heart. My husband brought me a bowl of malted milk balls with my morning coffee. On this day of days, I was allowed to loll in bed, reading Tina Fey’s Bossypants.

Bossypants coverIs this not heaven? I asked myself.

Some of you may be asking why heaven involved precious moments alone with a trashy book. Most of you will know the answer. And that’s my problem: middle-class motherhood has become a cliché.

I’m sick of mommy writing. I’m not a mommy blogger, but I have on occasion perpetrated this form of writing—especially the lightweight, kids-are-so-cute-and-annoying-and-aren’t-they-the-most-precious-geniuses-that-utter-the-darnedest-math-formulas style of column that has been in vogue since Hints from Heloise,* Erma Bombeck, Dooce, and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

Caveats: I am not talking about wonderfully written literary essays that involve children. I love children, and there are many serious—and genuinely funny—things to be said about the gender wars and contemporary constructions of motherhood. What I am talking about is an argument that’s really as old as the crone hills: Are we writers or “women writers”?

Some of you may believe this rant has been brought on by reading Bossypants and eating malted milk balls all day—and I am aping Tina Fey’s style here—but you would only be partially right. It’s more about my late-to-the-table realization that the term “mommy blogging” is demeaning to women writers and yet has now become the yardstick against which all moms—including witty celebrity moms—now write about the experience of parenting.

If you google “mommy blogging trend,” you’ll come up with all sorts of hits about what the current trends in mommy blogging are—including snarky complaints about the FTC guidelines requiring said bloggers to reveal when they're paid for product endorsements or other forms of viral marketing. But this trend has crested, and in a disturbing way that feels too familiar:

Shocking News! Mommy Bloggers Are...Working Mothers!

There's the inevitable backlash, which is hard to pick apart and analyze when moms themselves are agonizing about their choices. In "Trends Amongst Mom Blogs," Heather of Home to Heather writes:

"We’re no longer chastising each other over taking work via PR—or not. Pretty much everyone is doing it, it’s just that we’ve figured out how to do it well and within our own terms.  Now we’re chastising each other over getting paid—or not"

It was ever thus. Motherhood is apparently still all about self-sacrifice and love, though these days we have permission to be ironic. This attitude now extends to writing about motherhood, because blogs are personal, not anything like women's magazine articles or an actual J-O-B that takes mom away from her little babies, even if she works at home in her pajamas. See 1970s feminist arguments in favor of wages for housework.

This is where Tina Fey could have claimed more high ground for the rest of us humorless women—and there are some hilarious set pieces in Bossypants. I wanted to love a book that kicks off with observations like this:

"[E]ver since I became an executive producer of 30 Rock, people have asked me, ‘Is it hard for you, being the boss?’ and ‘Is it uncomfortable for you to be the person in charge?’ You know, in that same way they say, ’Gosh, Mr. Trump, is it awkward for you to be the boss of all these people?’ I can’t answer for Mr. Trump, but in my case it is not.”

Right on, sister. And if you enjoy slumming with network TV, what’s not to love about back-stage Saturday Night Live anecdotes and how 30 Rock came to be? (Well, a few things—like, how do I know if any of this is true, because it all sounds like one-liners? But I don’t want to be completely churlish.)

What disappointed me most about Bossypants were chapters like “Juggle This” and "What Should I Do with My Last Five Minutes?", which involve standard-issue hand-wringing about whether Tina, with her fabulous dream job, should have a second child, and you know, bossing around a nanny is so challenging—because me, I’m just a regular person—and maybe I should quit my job to spend more time with my daughterhey, just kidding!

It reminds me of the mid-nineties, when some stars paraded around in fake glasses carrying prominently displayed issues of the Economist.

Believe me, we have heard this all before (except the usual upper middle-class mom dream job doesn’t involve working with Alec Baldwin). For some, a celebrity book that waves even the vaguest of feminist flags may seem daring. For me, these sections are self-serving filler that do not advance the working-mom argument anywhere beyond 1985.

That’s not why I lolled around all day reading Bossypants, of course. But what that mini-binge made clear to me is how boring this particular feminist discussion has become.

And that’s a dangerous thing, moms.

 


 

* Heloise has a blog—"Real-life Adventures of America's Premier Hintologist—with one recent entry titled "Another Use for Toilet Paper?"  As she claims, "My life has been a Reality Show for over 40 years." Okay, pass the malted milk balls....

 

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You got me thinking. The most uncomfortable characterizations I have received to date regarding my writing included "nice mom blog" and/or "good sitcom material." More than anything these two comments made me kick myself in the ass and shift gears.
I know, I've had various ah-ha moments like this recently, which makes me realize how easy it is for individual writers like me to be co-opted, especially when I really do believe the personal is political--and no more so than in our writing.
I tend to stay away from "mommy blogs" because for the most part, I can't relate, to these particular mothers. But I do like Tina Fey's humor - although I'd rather see it on TV than read it.
Great post. I have avoided mommy blogging--it would be a very easy trap to fall into, but in my view, the world needs less of it, not more.

Jennifer Egan just took a boatload of criticism --chiefly from other women -- for advising women writers to "shoot high and not cower." This set off yet another defense of chick lit. This article in The Millions is a great read, and speaks to some of these issues.

http://www.themillions.com/2011/04/what-we-call-what-women-write.html

That said, I loved Bossypants. I didn't think the chapters about motherhood were all that interesting, but I gobbled the rest of it up like a good hamburger...which is what it was. I wasn't expecting steak.
@Kate - isn't Egan insisting others not cower sort of like a 6'5" 300 lb football player urging a bunch of nine year olds not to cower? It's easy to be brave when you have the size - or skills - to KO anyone who challenges you.

Martha - I've not read Bossypants but this piece will make me think aobut it in a new way. I'm just so over the term "mommy" uttered by anyone except the person's own young children.
@kh3333: Not at all. I think what she is saying is that we don't have to be cheerleaders; we can be serious competitors and athletes if we have the guts to get in the game. You don't get good at the game by sitting on the sidelines. You learn the skills by taking risks.
@Kate - agreed. I'm just so in awe of her writing and imagination; I haven't read many others, women or men, who are in the same league.
Kate, thanks for that reference to the piece about Egan and the latest flap over chick-lit. Oh, Jeez, as Tina might say. Can't we all be lady friends?

Interesting coincidence: As part of my reading-in-bed binge yesterday, I attempted to start Fly Away Home by Jennifer Wiener. No way. Not happening. Bossypantslooked like filet mignon in comparison.

Regardless, I think there's room in the world for chick lit, celebrity memoirs, and A Visit from the Goon Squad--so why is it that when a writer like Jennifer Egan hits the big time, it devolves into a cat fight?

And why do mommy writers keep apologizing about working?
I just realized that was a pretty catty remark about Fly Away Home. Yep, women are doomed.
Thanks for the review. I'm planning to read the book and it's always nice to have some of the critical thinking done for me in advance.
I agree, and thank you this post. I'm sick of what I guess is the mommy cult, whether they "workoutsidethehome" or not. They infantilize women with all that cutesy stuff and ironic retro concerns. Or retro ironic? Anyway, I think it's stupid and gross and, yeah, I'm more of a second wave feminist type which probably explains why I don't care for it. Feh.
@Martha: Amen. I'm actually working (mostly in my head) on a piece about this very thing. I will let you know if and when I post it.

And I can't do Jennifer Weiner (or Jodi Picault--sorry) either.
I agree that "mommy blogging" as a genre is sometimes pretty annoying. But people do tend to write what's on their minds; some days it might be politics or literature. Other days, it's probably whatever pressing kid crisis (or hilarious kid anecdote) is front and center in the writer's day.
Thanks for keeping us all honest around here. With ourselves.
My favorite quote regaring feminism is this: "Women's liberation is just a lot of foolishness. It is men who are discriminated against. They cannot bear children. And no one is likely to do anything about that." ~~ Golda Meir
As a non-mom myself, I tend to avoid "mommy" writing in its entirety. But lately, especially after reading that piece about Dooce in the Times Magazine and all the hoopla over the Tiger Moms, I have been wondering more about the phenomenon, especially in relationship to moms and writing and working.

I don't have children by choice, and sometimes I get the feeling that people think I am a card-carrying mom and kids hater. This largely, mind you, comes from other women's reactions to my decision. As such, I feel like I'm at the front lines of the "women-on-women" cultural wars.

As an anthropologist, I realize that motherhood binds women together via a common experience and thus represents "womanhood" to a lot of people - some feminists included. But I'm interested in the "common sense" practices of writers like Fey in that they must write in a certain way in order to be taken seriously, or published at all, or read widely. I'm sure Fey didn't even really make a conscious choice to write in a certain style about subjects like working and motherhood. It's like a call and response system; it's harder to break out of the cycle and write what we want than Egan would have us believe. Partially because we're all in our own way. I don't know if men - writers or no - participate in the same amount of collective cultural hand-wringing as much. (Though with the over-hyped "death of the white male" they might start.)

OK, that's my two cents. P.S. I love your writing style.
I'm not a mom, but I've come from the opposite end of the "lady blogs" spectrum - for a while, I was blogging about being single/divorced. Two big reasons made me want to change my tune. 1) I feel like blogs, bookstores and TV programs are inundated with so much "single gal" stuff, the entire conversation has become boring, as you say.

2) I feel like so much of what women create in the culture is about our roles as girlfriends, wives, moms, i.e, people in love with men and raising or wanting to raise children. Of course, there's nothing wrong with those ventures and they certainly define who we are. But we've got other things to say, right? I'd like to be one of those women who contributes more to the greater cultural dialogue. Will they let us?
...and thank you for not saying "child-positive" writers. I had that phraseology this weekend and gagged.
As a bachelor who has never considered children, I would have no idea what mommy-blogging is beyond what you describe in this essay. But as a writer, the dictum "write what you know" seems to apply to writers who are also mothers. It's all about the fresh take, isn't it?
Reading a mommy write about her child is about as tedious as listening to someone tell you about their dream, or their drug experience.

Unless, of course, you're the daddy of the child.
"Child-positive writers"? Lord have mercy.

Dilettante--You're right, it's call and response for a comic like Tina Fey, and I'm not blaming her for repeating the current cultural anxiety we've all been hit with. I do think we get in our own way. That's why it's so important to peel back all the hype and sugar-frosting around a concept as charged as motherhood.

Monsieur -- Yes, of course we moms write about being moms because it's so much a part of our lives and who we are, and I think there will always be fresh takes on evergreen topics like parenting, children, cultural attitudes toward children, women, gender roles, babies, doing laundry, eating a madeleine, etc. I like to write about all these things -- well, maybe not the madeleines-- but I don't want to be defined by them just because I'm a mom and a woman. Plenty of men are blogging about their kids, too, and some may even call themselves "daddy bloggers," but their professional writing selves are not defined by the role.
Gosh, I think I escaped the whole mommy-blogging thing, almost by accident (in spite of the nym) by writing about ... well, history, politics, society, traveling, the military experience. I did write about my kidlet, now and again ... but perhaps I had the advantage of beginning to blog when the kidlet was in her mid-twenties, and I had a boatload of other interests and concerns to write about. I could put the mom-experience into perspective; it wasn't the central facet of my life experience. It was one of only a number of other interests.
I stay away from "mommy blogs" because I always secretly think that those moms suck. They complain too much. That whole upper middle class female angst thing is over my head. Maybe I'm more middle than upper and that is why. r
It can be exhausting, the world of mommy bloggers. There are miserable fights going on out there in the mommy blogger world between the nursing moms and the bottle moms; the ones who grow their own food and the grocery store shoppers; the immunizers and the non. Then there are the ones who host a giveaway everyday. All I ever wanted to do was write.
Hmmm. Thought-provoking. The stat out there, last time I checked, is that there are 123 million blog sites on the internet, so much of it just daily drivel over coffee, because the medium is so accessible and so blindingly pervasive. Most of the feedback (as exemplified right here by this comment) offers little more than instant gratification to the writer -- an incentive to carry on and move forward. (Good job, by the way!)

Where all this blogging is going... well, just about anyone can say.
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OK, so now I'm slinking off ashamed of my latest post! :-)

Honestly I'm too much of a rad fem to consider myself a mommyblogger, though my kid does give me a lot of fodder for my blogging. But there is something that leaves a bad taste in my mouth if someone refers to me as a mommy blogger. Does that mean that I see mommy blogging as "less than" or that I think of myself as being so much more eclectic in my blogging? Hmmm...
yeah, I'm sick of it all too.
this is heaven..ur people respect you that;s the main thing

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great post. I am not a woman writer though. I am just a writer who happens to have boobs and hot flashes.
Right on, sister! If some moms would spend more time being a mom and less time on the computer bragging about all of the wonderful things they do, their kids would certainly be better off. There are thousands -- no millions -- of women out there who have done it all without making every sweet or funny moment with children a public Kodak moment. Unless one is a relative, and a close relative, it just isn't all that fascinating to the world at large. The phrase, "get a life" springs to mind.
Right on, sister! If some moms would spend more time being a mom and less time on the computer bragging about all of the wonderful things they do, their kids would certainly be better off. There are thousands -- no millions -- of women out there who have done it all without making every sweet or funny moment with children a public Kodak moment. Unless one is a relative, and a close relative, it just isn't all that fascinating to the world at large. The phrase, "get a life" springs to mind.
Right on, sister! If some moms would spend more time being a mom and less time on the computer bragging about all of the wonderful things they do, their kids would certainly be better off. There are thousands -- no millions -- of women out there who have done it all without making every sweet or funny moment with children a public Kodak moment. Unless one is a relative, and a close relative, it just isn't all that fascinating to the world at large. The phrase, "get a life" springs to mind.
I read an interview in the Times with Tina Fey in which she agonized about whether to have another child. The problem was not money, which she has plenty of, but that in having that child she'd be squandering her moment of peak fame. Yes, I suppose a man in her position might not have quite the same dilemma, but she did come off as a little greedy.
I love lIz Waters comment! I couldn't agree more! It's all about attention and narcism in my opinion.
I love lIz Waters comment! I couldn't agree more! It's all about attention and narcism in my opinion.