An excerpt of Drew Magary’s new memoir about modern fatherhood. It’s profane, but funny and insightful. If you’re bothered by cussing, stop reading now:
When I was single and saw parents losing it with their kids, I used to frown at them. I’ll never be like that, I promised myself. But single people are pathetically naive. They don’t know what it’s like to spend fourteen consecutive hours with a child. They don’t understand how that massive span of time allows for every single possible human emotion to be bared: anger, fear, jealousy, love … all of it. More to the point, they don’t realize what little assholes kids can be. They have no idea. When I was in middle school, they brought in a lady who had traveled to the South Pole to speak to us. She told us that, at one point during the trip, she became so cold and so desperate for food that she ate an entire stick of butter. We all were disgusted. But she was like, “Yeah, well, if you had been at the South Pole, you would have had butter for dinner too.” Parenting is similar in that you end up acting in ways that your younger self would have found repellent because the circumstances overwhelm you. What I’m basically saying is that having kids is like being stuck in Antarctica.
I’m not sure any group of parents has ever been subjected to as much widespread derision as the current generation of American parents. We are told, constantly, how badly we are fucking our kids up. There are scores of books being sold every day that demonstrate how much better parents are in China, and in France, and in the Amazon River Basin. I keep waiting for a New York Times article about how leaders of the Cali drug cartel excel at teaching their children self-reliance.
And it’s not just books shitting on us. We hear it from our own parents, who go to pathological lengths to remind us that we hover too much, or that we let the kids watch too much TV, or that we’re letting our kids eat too much processed dogshit. We’re SOFT. That’s the stereotype. We’re soft parents, and our kids will grow up to be free-range terrorists because of it. We see the stereotype in movies and ads and TV shows and on the news, in study after study that says our kids are getting dumber and fatter and angrier. We’ve ruined everything. Collectively, all this empirical evidence of our shittiness is destroying our confidence, our ability to handle our kids with any measure of assuredness.
The funny thing is that I think the evidence is probably wrong. Fifty years ago, spanking and other forms of corporal punishment were far more widespread. Fathers were distant and uncommunicative. Everyone smoked in front of their kids. Seat belts were for pussies. And if parents had any kind of problem with their child, they didn’t have the Internet on hand to help find a solution, or at least a sympathetic ear. We have that now, and it makes us better. No parents I know suffer a kid’s shitty eating habits for long. They’re willing to look for help right away, and they can find it, and that matters. That counts for something. We’re not that bad, I swear. But the stereotype shrouds all of that.
We even hear the stereotype from fellow parents. We’re constantly judging and grading other parents, just to make sure that they aren’t any better than us. I’m as guilty as anyone. I see some lady hand her kid a Nintendo DS at the supermarket and I instantly downgrade that lady to Shitty Parent status. I feel pressure to live up to a parental ideal that no one probably has ever achieved. I feel pressure to raise a group of human beings that will help America kick the shit out of Finland and South Korea in the world math rankings. I feel pressure to shield my kids from the trillion pages of hentai donkey porn out there on the Internet. I feel pressure to make the insane amounts of money needed for a supposedly “middle-class” upbringing for the kids, an upbringing that includes a house and college tuition and health care and so many other expenses that you have to be a multimillionaire to afford it. PRESSURE PRESSURE PRESSURE.
And the worst part is that none of those external forces can begin to match the pressure I bring to bear on myself. The fact that I had resorted to grabbing and spanking and willfully inflicting harm on my own child made me feel like a criminal. I felt like, if someone had videotaped the whole episode, I would have been thrown in jail forever. Maybe I deserved to be there. Maybe everyone else was good at keeping their shit together and I wasn’t. I alone was the Worst Dad on Earth—the kind of dad that gets entire memoirs written about him by his kids, about living with him and his horrible demons. Maybe I was an abuser. Even telling you this story now, I feel like I’m edging off the details because I’m terrified of admitting how hard I grabbed my daughter’s arm. As a matter of fact, I smacked her once. I can’t tell you where or why because it makes me feel ugly and I don’t want you reading it and demanding that my kids be taken from me. I don’t remember my dad ever smacking me. He may have yelled a few times, but nothing that dramatic. Why was I so much worse of a parent? Why didn’t my kid respect and fear me the way I respected and feared my old man? Why did my children always require one more minute of patience than I had? And why was I losing my shit at a 5-year-old for acting like a 5-year-old?