Recently, a listicle started proliferating on my Facebook page, as listicles are wont to do. It was titled "31 Things No One Told You About Being a Parent," and it informed me that becoming a parent means gaining weight, living in filth, and never having time to read the news.
The listicle's title was wrong, however. Thanks to the Internet, everyone tells me these things about being a parent, all the time. My Facebook feed is an endless stream of blog posts and status updates depicting the messy, tedious, nightmarishly life-destroying aspects of parenting. I've gawked at "15 Unbelievable Messes Made by Kids," "All the Birth Control You've Ever Needed in Six Pictures of Ponytails" (which appeared on a blog called Rage Against the Minivan), and a uterus-shriveling post on how "You will not get anything done when you are home with a baby."
For overwhelmed parents, I imagine the relentless stream of realtalk is comforting. As a possible future parent, it's utterly terrifying.
The pissed-parent genre follows a reliable template: My life is a waking nightmare and I've lost all that I once held dear, but it's the best thing that's ever happened to me! A popular post titled "So, You Would Like to Have Three Children" published last summer on the site Short-Winded Blog is a fine specimen of the form. The writer offers a "disclaimer" that her three children are "a blessing." Then she launches into 2,000 words on the logistical trials, financial impossibilities, and emotional traumas of caring for three children at once.
Publishers are increasingly finding ways to tap into the new let-it-all-hang-out pose. There's Go the F**k to Sleep, and the book version of the massively popular Twitter account Honest Toddler, written in the voice of a toddler who says things like "There are no more carefree nights and weekends. You signed up for a child not a mobile phone." The Tumblr Reasons My Son Is Crying, to which parents submit photos of their screaming tots accompanied by descriptions of their absurd laments ("The ocean is too loud"), will also be turned into a book soon.
My Facebook feed goes wild for this stuff. "So true!" my friends write over and over again, because apparently parents never get their houses clean, never have sex, never read books or have adult conversations, never shower, and never, ever have a moment to themselves. (Somehow they do find the time to blog.)
Obviously a lot of this is hyperbole, for the sake of humor and self-deprecation and commiseration. But for me, a childless woman, the cumulative effect of all of this "honesty" is a growing sense of dread. I've known since I was a child myself that I would like to have kids someday. I've also never been under the illusion that parenting is easy. But it's another thing to see the drip-drip-drip of horror stories from parents who spend hours each day getting stubborn children to sleep and cleaning up pee. As the writer Emily Gould tweeted a few weeks ago, "At this point I'm expecting Guantanamo but worse, based on the parenting blogs I've scared myself with."
This is not a call to return to the days of pressure and pretending. And parents are sort of in a no-win situation here — damned if they overshare their misery, damned if they are thought to be bragging and preening online. (One friend confided in me that the website STFU Parents has made her afraid to post anything nice on Facebook about her son.) But the cumulative effect is that the Web is now flooded with "honest" anecdotes, and "brave" confessions about less-than-perfect parenting.
Then there's the fact that the parents writing these stories are, almost without exception, very capable women. These are not the "worst moms ever"; they are competent, loving parents who occasionally feel overwhelmed. They are parents who think and read and write about parenting. Almost by definition, they are doing just fine.
Yet, culturally, we applaud their "bad" parenting while becoming less and less tolerant of actual bad parents. This is a country that is increasingly willing to prosecute pregnant women and young mothers for their mistakes with drugs, or for leaving their children home alone in moments of desperation. In a middle-class parenting subculture in which self-acceptance is a bedrock virtue, it's impossible not to notice a disconnect.
• • •
If becoming a parent "changes everything," as everyone says, then what is its promise to those of us who are already happy? If those changes are primarily terrible, as so many voices online seem to agree, then it had better have some serious joy to offer. Is anyone writing about joy? Is there a way to do it without seeming obnoxiously smug or totally dishonest?
My friend Amy's Facebook page makes her life as a parent look genuinely rewarding. Not perfect, not spotless, but joyful. I emailed her about my complaint that online portrayals of parenting are terrifying to nonparents.
"Parents of young children don't give a f**k because they are too exhausted and tapped out to care about people without kids. Ha!" she wrote back. "You don't have kids because you think they aren't going to spend many years being a**holes; you have kids for other, more inexplicable reasons. ... If a bitchy tweet could change someone's mind about having a baby they probably just don't actually have that crazy strong desire for a baby that some people do."
That's fair enough. And no one would ask parents not to talk about parenting on parenting blogs, or on their own Facebook pages. Parents, do what you need to do to get through the long, exhausting days! Commiserate away! But if you can manage it, consider occasionally sparing a thought for the nonparents among you who are eavesdropping on your online conversations: We're over here, sleeping through the night, taking long quiet baths, and going out to eat on the spur of the moment. If you can find it in your full but weary hearts to pity us, try.
Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.