If you have mommy friends on the interwebs, chances are you’ve clicked on one of Kimberly Harrington’s viral parenting essays: “Job Description for the Dumbest Job Ever” (e.g., “This position manages to be of the utmost importance and yet somehow also the least visible and/or respected in the entire organization”), “I Am the One Woman Who Has It All” (e.g., “I have kids who have forced me to do everything in my life with greater efficiency and the professional assumption that I’m now less efficient after having kids”), “Just What I Wanted, a Whole Twenty-Four Hours of Recognition Once a Year,” “Are You Sure There Isn’t Something Else I Can Do Before the End of the School Year?” and “Please Don’t Get Murdered at School Today.”
Amateur Hour contains these satirical social commentaries and more. “Anne-Marie Slaughter Is My Safe Word,” which appears to be original to the book, is one of the most brilliant compositions I’ve ever read. (“Now, I know that [that safe word is] a mouthful, ball-gag puns aside, but I feel like it reflects my beliefs … when it comes to the intersection of work, parenting, and caregiving in general.”) Unlike most compilations that feature one style, Harrington mixes quirky conceptual pieces (the written equivalent of MOMA exhibits) with straight-laced ruminations on grief, aging, and marriage. Many passages spoke to my heart and/or sense of humor deeply; other bits seemed just okay. When the vast bulk of a writer’s material lands though, I tend to give the rest the treatment bestowed off-jokes by a favorite stand-up comedian: I assume someone, somewhere is doubled over.
It doesn’t hurt that Harrington is my kind of girl, an introspective nerd who takes her neuroses less seriously than her punchlines:
Maybe normal people use lists as they’re meant to be used, as a daily reminder of things that should be taken care of somewhat soon. I don’t like to do things that make sense, so I use lists as a way of outlining how theoretically busy I am while also setting myself up for an infinity loop of self-loathing over my failure to get an impossible amount of things done.
“But you don’t ever like anything I post on Facebook! You don’t even look at my page!” Those are not the words of a teenager, spitting ridiculous complaints across the room at her best friend or boyfriend. Those are the words of a forty-five-year-old woman, a mother of two, in the middle of a fight with her husband. A fight where the topic was divorce.
And before I even know what’s happening, I’m suddenly sharing worries and revealing doubts in a school hallway or on the playground. Even though I know—I know—I should stop talking, I keep trying to bury my openness with more openness. It’s like my own mouth is swallowing me whole.
Nor the way she sprinkles her stories with legitimately helpful parenting advice:
I will not be calling administrators or program directors or HR on your behalf. I will not be smoothing the way for you, although it will be so hard to resist doing just that. I will have to be the elder grown-up here, to not hobble you with my help.
When I die, hug each other with force, until no one wants to be the first to let go. I let go first a lot. I can tell you now, I regret it.
Even the Russian judges would be forced to give Harrington’s writing high marks both technically and artistically:
There are the girls in their early teens, with the gangly limbs of children and the growing bodies of women. They romp in the waves not fully realizing the complicated power their bodies possess. They absentmindedly grab their budding breasts to adjust their tops, and I put my head in my hands. They don’t even know. Or maybe they do.
I see the skin on my forearm, crinkling like birthday streamers in response to the slightest pressure. That’s the skin of my mother and my grandmother before her. That’s the skin I clearly never planned on having.
At the end of the day, Harrington’s work stands out because the humor she wields as both sword and shield produces more than a sardonic chuckle here and there; it protects and clears the way for the most poignant and penetrating of insights:
This is the year he’s noticing differences and other kids are noticing what’s different about him. And although I know he’s not the only one going through this, he does not.
[Mothers] hold ourselves to intense and impossible standards. We, of course, don’t do this alone. Our culture has set the bar so high that it’s hidden in a place where we’ll never find it. And, conversely, the bar for fathers has been set so low they can easily step over it on the way to the bathroom.