Americans probably analyze the nature of good parenting andtheir own skills (or lack thereof) more than other nation. There may beas many books on raising children as there are on dieting — enough said.This prompts many other Americans to throw up their hands and declare:“Just do it.” Joining the discussion are three more authors, withdistinctive touches of introspection and feistiness.
In American Parent, Sam Apple takes a journalisticand historical approach, inviting the reader on a tour of “parentingphenomena.” He interweaves genuine humor (sometimes self-deprecating),extensive research, and a sense of perennial surprise in his explorationof expensive strollers, birthing classes, water birth, colic,breast-feeding, attachment to parents, baby names — after consideration ofa number of exotic choices, he and his wife end up with “Isaac” — andcircumcision.
Apple reads books and questions experts, thinking they wouldlead him to “find order in the chaos that new parents face in themonths before and after the birth of a child,” as he writes in thepreface. He also concludes in that same preface: “Now I know better.” Ilove the way American Parent ends but don’t want to spoil thatsurprise. If the author, by virtue of his gender, attracts more males tothe ranks of involved (neurotic?) parents, he’ll have done a furtherservice.
Free-Range Kids will probably have you eitherclucking with agreement or feeling your blood pressure boil withannoyance. Lenore Skenazy’s point that American parents tend to beoverprotective, judgmental, and intrusive in the lives of other parentsmay be well taken. Maybe the notoriety she gained for letting hernine-year-old ride the subway alone was undeserved; the world isn’t moredangerous than it used to be, and the previous generation was raisedwith more permissiveness.
But there is, I believe, an underlying fallacy here. If“only” ten children are kidnapped and killed each year and only threeare hit by cars, to exaggerate the author’s data, maybe that’s becauseof the precautions parents have been taking for years. For better or forworse, statistics are unlikely to win this battle anyway. Crime may bedown, but people may still perceive urban areas as more dangerous thanthe rural or suburban ones they grew up in. Schools may be safe, butColumbine had its effect. Moreover, sarcastic dismissal of otherpeople’s fears won’t necessarily persuade them either. (A more-reasoned consideration, quoting Skenazy, appeared in the September 13, 2001 The New York Times.)
Hell Is Other Parents is something of a misnomer,since only a few of the essays in this well-written book by DeborahCopaken Kogan relate to Mommy (or Daddy) Wars. They rightly convey thedifficulties of parenting — especially in Manhattan with a third childborn during its parents’ midlives. Many will relate to the author’sexperiences as “stage mom” when her son gets cast in a “Star Trek”movie, and to the foreseeable conclusion when she takes her toddler on atrip of several hours to see that son perform in camp.
In the funniest essay, Copaken Kogan shares a hospital roompost-delivery with a 16-year-old unwed mother, who is visited by loud,drinking friends with no respect for visiting hours. The author’sformidable storytelling abilities are most in evidence here, and leastself-consciously. The breakup of a friendship between her daughter andanother child because of the other mother is movingly true to thetitle — borrowed from Sartre’s sentiment about other people in the play“No Exit.” In the essays directly about parenting, the writerdemonstrates that parenting is riskier than her previous career — warphotography.
If you’re looking for a Jewish angle on parenting, the bookthat provides the most (and then, only tangentially) is Apple’s. Amidstthe more general observation of Americans as a “peniscutting people,” hediscusses the Jewish tradition of circumcision as he and his wifesearch for a mohel. (They end up with a female OB-GYN. One of thelactation consultants they call happens to be an Orthodox Jew.)