Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Review of Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words

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Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words
by Kimberly Harrington
Harper Perennial, 2018; 320 pp; $15.99 (paperback)

In one of the first essays in this first book of essays, Kimberly Harrington sets her tone with "Job Description for the Dumbest Job Ever":




This position manages to be of the utmost importance and yet somehow the least visible and/or respected in the entire organization. You will enjoy a whole bunch of superficial attention and lip service from culture, advertisers, and politicians but will never receive a credible follow-up in the form of a concrete plan for advancement, support, benefits, or retirement. Please note: although you will coordinate, plan, and do almost everything, you should expect to crash face-first into bed every night feeling like you've accomplished basically nothing. Welcome!

Welcome indeed.

Motherhood and middle age, so often intertwined for women, create the most complex of invisibility cloaks. In the perception of many, they often serve to erase competency, intelligence, sexuality, and desirability even as they lead to heightened societal judgment on parenting, working, and spousing. A frequent contributor to McSweeney's Internet Tendency and The New Yorker and the co-founder/editor of Razed, a humor site about parenting, Harrington is not shy about breaking down the bullshit. She delights in the perfectly punctuated profanity, yet another way to flout old-fashioned ideas about what women should sound like and what words belong in our mouths.

These essays cover a lot of ground, and though they are ostensibly about motherhood, Harrington is smart enough to know that motherhood is simply an entrance to personhood. Thus, her own anxiety, her experiences in the realms of work and relationships particularly as a middle-aged woman, as well as her parenting, become fodder for essays that are by turns snarky and full of sentiment.

She breaks the book into multiple sections: "First," "Jobs," "Vows," "Showdowns," "Schools," "Bodies," "Freedoms," and "Last." Between them she offers a short "Time-Out," generally to lighten the mood and offer some acerbic commentary on cultural norms. In "What Do You Think of My Son's Senior Picture That Was Shot by Annie Leibovitz?" she mocks all the parents keeping up with the Joneses, bankrupting themselves and using their kids as status symbols. In "Just What I Wanted, a Whole Twenty-Four Hours of Recognition Once a Year," she writes,

If I could just feel mandatorily appreciated for no more than a day and in all likelihood about two and a half hours max, all of these exchanges with incompetent school administrators, humorless hard-ass teachers, and genuinely helpful and lovely people who are having their love of working with children slowly drained out of them by the system, it will all have been worth it.

And here we are.

What day is Mother's Day again? A Sunday? You mean a day everyone else has off anyway? Of course. Perfect.

While these shorter "Time-Out" pieces offset the more serious essays, a lot of the substantial understandings come from these denser, less satirical pieces. For example, in "Undone" Harrington acknowledges her own type-A tendencies, which manifest in the making of endless lists of things to do. Motherhood freed her from that tyranny: "This was no place for to-do lists, because everything we needed to do was always right in front of, on, or next to us." The full-contact sport of parenting released her from the constant need to better herself, her situation, her everything.

In "Let's Have the Wedding Later," she chides people for celebrating hope and ignorance with a party. What do the young and in love know about the reality and compromise of a long-term relationship? Instead of sending off the newly infatuated, she writes, "We could write real vows based on real experience; they would sound like a cross between a eulogy, a performance review, and a thank-you card…We would smile on both our past and present good fortune rather than moon over airy promises of future perfection."

One of the funniest pieces in the collection, "The Super Bowl of Interruptions," has Harrington in a conference call as a creative for a Super Bowl ad, the highest of stakes. The kids are home ("They don’t want to professionally destroy you of course, yet are biologically compelled to do so.") and have been given the standard rule—"If you interrupt me, you had better be bleeding." Then, in the midst of the call, her frantic daughter enters, and an equally frantic mother waves her away, until the child comes back with a note in all caps—"HE'S BLEEDING." Harrington's subsequent response is truly laugh-out-loud funny.

Though Harrington is frequently amusing, she also explores the ways in which her children have unwittingly encouraged introspection. "Do You Have Faith in Me?" makes sense of the way that parenting can bring our own anxiety to the forefront. When her son, who has autism, experiences anxiety, she suddenly understands a long-standing pattern in her own life. She also comes to view each room she enters as he might—the potential pitfalls of social situations.

In "Tiny Losses," a particularly moving essay, she writes about her miscarriage and the profound, lonely sadness of it. Like many women, she kept it a secret, eager to reveal the pregnancy at the end of the first trimester. An ultrasound revealed the death of the fetus and forced the couple to consider how to handle their grief. They opt to tell people, slowly, individually, and are met with painful platitudes. "Sometimes," she writes, "the people you counted on the most are the same ones who actually say the most hurtful, unbelievable shit imaginable." Harrington conveys that heavy grief and the lengths she went to in order to release it.

Harrington also enters the political fray without blinking. Having been both a working mom and a stay-at-home mom, she knows that nobody wins in the mommy wars. She takes on school shootings in "Please Don't Get Murdered at School Today." She mocks the PTO and their bake sale snobbery; she scoffs at the airplane parenting experts whose child would never cry when their ears popped—if they had children. Participation trophies get ground beneath her foot, as does the utterly destructive notion of having it all. In "I Am the One Woman Who Has It All," she writes: "I have breadwinner status and lead-parent status. I have so much status."

Snarky, self-deprecating, introspective, and revelatory, Harrington may be the leader of the lady tribe so many women want and need in their lives.


Camille-Yvette Welsch is the author of The Four Ugliest Children in Christendom and FULL. She is a Teaching Professor of English at The Pennsylvania State University where she directs the High School Writing Day at Penn State. She also participates in the Poems from Life program, which links local writers with senior citizens to write poems about their lives.

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