Beyond 'Here's This Cute Thing My Kid Did': The Exquisite Drama of Parenting Stories

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Narratives about child-rearing have been maligned as boring. King Lear would beg to differ.

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The "rearing of children", we're told, is a boring subject. Here are some stories about parenting.

  • Lisa, a former opera singer, and her young adoptive Jewish son, Kolya, leave Kiev in 1941 with all the other "Yids" on order of the Germans, who have just occupied the city. Lisa and Kolya think they are being transferred to Palestine. In fact they are to be massacred and thrown into the Babi Yar ravine. Before they face the machine guns, Lisa realizes they are to be shot, and attempts to use the fact that she is not Jewish to escape. One guard lets her go...but will not release Kolya, so Lisa has to beg to return to the death march in order to be with her son. Later she convinces another guard to release her and Kolya—but a higher official insists they be shot so the rest of the town isn't notified of the massacre. She comforts her son as they stand before the firing squad and tells him they will be together in heaven. Then they are murdered.
  • Wonder Woman's mother, the Amazon Queen Hippolyte, looks in a magic sphere on Paradise Island and sees her daughter killed by a thug. Hippolyte races to man's world where (unable to reveal herself for obscure Amazon reasons) she impersonates her daughter. Then (wearing a mask so that Wonder Woman can't recognize her) she wrestles WW to the ground and takes her magic lasso. In the short term this makes Wonder Woman extremely petulant. In the long term—through a series of improbable events involving amnesia gas, secret war plans, and the old damsel-tied-to-the-tracks-gag—it ends up saving her life.
  • Denethor, the steward of Gondor, loses his favorite son, Boromir. Out of spite and bitterness, he sends his remaining son, Faramir, to certain death in battle. When Faramir is struck down, Denethor is overcome with grief and despair, and, as his town is besieged, lights a pyre to burn himself and his son's body. Faramir is not dead, however, and he is saved from the fire at the last minute. Denethor dies in the flames.

These stories are quite disparate. The first is a summary of the end of D.M. Thomas' 1981 novel The White Hotel. The second is a thumbnail description of the plot William Marston and Harry Peter's story from Sensation Comics #26 in February 1944. The third—which certainly seems to me to have something to do with the rearing of children, even if the children in question are now adults—is a subplot from Peter Jackson's 2003 film Return of the King, based on the Tolkien novel. All three, though, are united in that they are, as I said, about parenting—and in that they are not the sort of thing that comes to mind when you say that you are going to talk about parenting.

Instead, when people say "parenting stories," they mean more or less what Matt Gross, Theodore Ross, and Nathan Thornburgh talked about in their essays for The Atlantic. That is, they think of stories that boil down, as Gross says disparagingly, to "Here's this cute thing my kid did."

Gross suggests, contra Juliet Jacques at The New Inquiry, that with time and effort and genius, confessional parenting anecdotes can add up to more than simply cute stories—and I agree with him there. But Gross doesn't question the assumption that the way to talk about parenting is primarily, or even exclusively, through confessional parenting anecdotes. Parenting stories in this view, as Theodore Ross says, are about the "Bland, mundane, and banal...the unvarying dead weight of the ordinary." It's about changing diapers and going to playdates, not about genocide, or superheroes, or honor and tragedy.

In large part, the conversation is focused on the mundane because Jacques was addressing confessional journalism specifically, and Gross and Ross and Nathan Thornburgh were reacting to that. But I think there's more to it as well. After all, if Jacques had said, romance is boring, don't write confessional journalism about it, the instant reaction would be...wait, romance is boring? What about Anna Karenina? What about Pride and Prejudice? What about Casablanca? In short, how can you say that romance is boring when so many of the greatest and most popular works of art have been about romance?

There are an awful lot of great works of art that deal directly with parenting as well, from King Lear to the case studies of Sigmund Freud, through Lolita and Aliens. Yet while we see romance in fiction as relating to romance in life—so that, for example, lots of people see Edward's stalkerish behavior in Twilight is seen as having real-world implications, even if he is an unreal vampire—parenting is largely invisible, either as genre or trope.

Parenting is boring, in other words, not because there is something innately boring about parenthood, but because we often conceive of parenting and parenting stories in an extremely narrow way. On the one hand, we exclude fantasy—like Hippolyte as supermother, or Wendy in Peter Pan, or Jocasta, or Prospero. On the other hand, we exclude a lot of reality—the parents trying desperately to protect their children in, say, Syria, or even parents in the U.S. struggling to cope with poverty or disease or death. Surely, as Stanley Hauerwas suggests in God, Medicine, and Suffering, the death of some parent's child is not boring, but, is on the contrary, one of the most rivetingly painful narratives there is.

Why then do we persist in seeing "parenting" as a narrative in such a limiting way? Perhaps it has to do with a culture that is fascinated by individual agency and power, and so can be nervous about giving theoretical weight to stories of domesticity and children. Or perhaps it's simply the happenstance of literary history; "romance" and "science-fiction" and "detective fiction" have solidified as genres; "parenting" hasn't. Therefore, romance and science-fiction are easy to see in all kinds of narratives, while parenting is not. Whatever the reason, though, the result is that parenting is consigned to the tedious and the trivial, even as we continue to tell ourselves horrifying and triumphant and heart-breaking and fantastic stories about it. It's almost as if we're afraid to admit to ourselves how multiple, and how important, parenting can be.

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Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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