Things to Read - 7 Books About the Experience of Parenting (not the instruction manual type)

Lately, I've been reflecting on books that have shaped how I view parenthood. Not the instruction manual books, with their advise and goodwill, but fiction and memoirs that have stuck with me over the years. Plots and characters I can't let go of, for better or worse. Here are my top 7 (click on the book's picture to link to Amazon):

The Road
- This is probably the most depressing novel I've ever read. I stayed up all night to finish it, not because I particularly liked the book but because the plot disturbed me too much for sleep. In the morning, upon finishing, I threw The Road at the wall - frustrated, sad, and scared. But the story has never left me, it's "sticky" as Malcome Gladwell would say. The novel takes place in a future post-apocalyptic setting where food is scarce - crops can no longer grow (something has ruined the soil) and livestock is pretty much nonexistent. Mankind's survival depends on old canned food (where one can find it) and cannibalism.

McCarthy never explains how mankind ended up in this situation, rather he tells the story of a man and his young son walking "the road" in hopes of making it to the ocean, not even knowing if the ocean will offer any sort of refuge or change. The mother in the novel kills herself after realizing the bleakness of the situation, but the father carries on against all odds, convincing the boy that they are the "good guys", who refuse to submit to cannibalism and evil. Why does the father go on? Obviously out of love for his son, but where does this get them? What can this love accomplish in a world with no future? What would you do in such circumstances? Would you keep living in such horrendous conditions or "quit" like the mother? What would the "good" parent do?

The Short Story Trilogy - Chance, Soon, & Silence - from Alice Munro's Runaway
- In some ways, this trilogy disturbed me even more than the Road, due to the realism of the tale presented. The three connected stories all occur at different points in one woman's life. The first story tells of the random, somewhat ominous, encounter through which she meets her partner. The woman, Juliet, is confident in so many ways, though awkward regarding her studiousness. The second story occurs when Juliet travels to her childhood home to introduce her baby daughter to her aging parents. The health of Juliet's mother is slipping and her parents seem different than she remembers, less quirky and independent. In the final story, the baby daughter is now grown and seemingly random/odd/complicated events lead to her estrangement from Juliet. It's awful - reading about how this woman, who you've now glimpsed through the years, loses the opportunity to meet her grandchildren. To live without that part of life. To go on. It gives me chills. The fragileness of human connections and our endless capacity for loss.

American Pastoral
- My dad loved Philip Roth and though I'm not the author's biggest fan (to put it mildly) this book, recommended by my father, has always stuck with me. My dad called it The Parents' Book of Job (a wonderful five word summary). Seymour Levov has it all - he's charming, good looking, a college star athlete who marries Miss New Jersey. Plus he's a nice guy. And he loves his daughter - his awkward, unpopular daughter. Who slowly destroys Seymour's life. Eventually Seymour's daughter, in protest against the Vietnam War and the "system", plants a bomb in a local post office and the resulting explosion kills a bystander. Thus ruining the "perfect life" Seymour has created. Unlike the other books about parenting, I think this book remains important to me because at its core it presents child-rearing as something much more out of our control than parents of young children want to believe. Kids will be who they will be, even when showered with love.

Life Among The Savages
- Shirley Jackson's memoir of raising children in the 1940s is the list's only "happy" book. While some of the anecdotes are so dated as to make you cringe (smoking on the way to the delivery room) the majority of the book tells of experiences shockingly similar to life today - navigating department stores with children and their imaginary friends, the furnace going out, disagreements with elementary school teachers. Reminding me that life with kids is life with kids, regardless (in some ways) of time and place.

Revolutionary Road
- One of my friends said she couldn't finish this book because it hit too close. Like a kick in the gut. The whole book (also a movie) is about parental discontent during the 1950s. The wife in the novel never really adjusts to life as a housewife (or SAHM in today's vehancular), the dad doesn't like his job, their social life is static and boring. They long for greatness but aren't sure how to find it. At the end I cried and reflected on my own lack of greatness. Which (I must admit) does seem even larger since I've had children.

This Beautiful Life - The plotline of this Beautiful Life comes straight from the headlines. A family of four (with a kindergarten-aged daughter and a teenage son) moves to NYC for the father's new job, a big step up for him career-wise. One night the teenage boy, a "good" kid for the most part, goes to a party, gets drunk, and starts making out with a younger girl whom he does not find particularly attractive. Though the girl wants to go further, the boy heads home, somewhat disgusted with himself for hooking up with her in the first place. The next day the girl sends him a sexual video she made, dancing to Beyonce's "love to love you baby". Very sexual. Not sure how to handle the whole thing the boy forwards the video to one friend, his best friend. Who (of course) forwards it to a few other friends. You see where this is going. By the end of one weekend the video goes viral. The school suspends the boys, lawyers are hired, the father's job (which involves school oversight) is put on hold. And the reader watches a family slowly unravel.

The unraveling is where the book really hit me. The author does a beautiful job creating characters who are complex and confused and real, making it hard for the reader to cast judgment. And if there is blame, where does it lie? With the girl? Who should have known better. With the girl's parents? Apparently absent and rich. With the boy? Recipient of a gift he never wanted. With the boy's parents? Who somehow forgot to teach him how to handle such a situation. With the lawyers? Who make everything into a battle. With the school? For needing to find fault somewhere.

I don't know the answers. And Schulman doesn't give them to you. Rather she lets you hash it out for yourself, trying to figure out where we go wrong when, as the boy's mother says, "we love our children too much."

Blue Nights - Joan Didion's bitterly honest reflections on the unexpected death of her adopted daughter and on her own aging process (at age 75) read like a well-written diary of loss. Actually maybe diary isn't the right word, the book reads almost as if the reader can hear the thoughts in Didion's head, giving it an intensely personal feel, similar to eavesdropping. In this memoir Didion reflects on modern parenting - "[t]he very definition of success as a parent has undergone a telling transformation: we used to define success as the ability to encourage the child to grow into independent (which is to say into adult) life, to 'raise' the child, to let the child go" - adoption, and, most prominently, fear - "[o]nce she was born I was never not afraid. I was afraid of swimming pools, high-tension wires, lye under the sink, aspirin in the medicine cabinet . . . rattlesnakes, riptides, landslides, strangers who appeared at the door, unexplained fevers, elevators without operators and empty hotel corridors." A reminder that once you have a child thoughts of him or her will continually occupy your thoughts and days, regardless of whether or not the child is alive or dead.

Other "Parenting Books" That Have Stuck with Me (but that I'm too tired to write about):
*A Short History of Women: A Novel
*Sophie's Choice (an obvious pick)
*The Awakening

What about everyone else? What books have really affected your views on parenting?

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