Laugh, Cry, Love: Kimberly Harrington on Motherhood

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We love writer Kimberly Harrington—a regular contributor to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the co-founder of parenting humor site RAZED, and a creative director (and friend of Mamava, who helped us make this video). Harrington can make us laugh and make us cry—often with the very same sentence—and much of her material focuses on motherhood.

So when we learned Harrington was publishing a book, we knew we wanted to share it with you. Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words isn’t just about being a mom—it’s about being a woman and being a human. It’s laugh-out-loud hilarious, sob-audibly poignant and, above all, honest. And for mamas fumbling through the fuzzy days of those first couple of years, it offers parenting, and life, perspective from the other side. Harrington’s kids are now “closing in on 12 and 14.”

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NM: How would you describe this book?

KH: A collection of essays and humor pieces loosely tied together by the thread of motherhood. Mostly I think it’s an accidental memoir, a portfolio of scathing sarcasm, an honest barf fest of my faults, and a few things to cry or cringe over.

NM: In the book’s first essay you write, “A worker with a job has always been the sharpest and most cleanly defined part of my identity. While the other girls were playing house, I was playing office. Working hard was my thing. Until living hard challenged it to a duel.” How has your self-identity remained the same, and how has it changed in the years since you became a mother?

KH: Above all, “a worker with a job” is still very much my identity. I started working when I was thirteen and I have never not worked. I can’t even wrap my head around what my life would look or feel like if I wasn’t working, it’s just so inseparable from how I see myself. But after becoming a mother I would also add “crybaby.” Anyone who knows me or follows me on social media can confirm that I cry at the drop of a hat. I was never like that before having kids. I feel like having children just broke some sort of defense mechanism in me and I feel things intensely—perhaps entirely too intensely at times. Like for example, public times. In restaurants, movie theaters, school events, you name it.

Also, you know how when you have your first kid you’re sort of thunderstruck that you’re a mom? That feeling hasn’t gone away for me. Every once in awhile I’m like, “I can’t believe I’m in charge of these two people! How did that happen?

NM: The hilarious “having it all” piece will likely resonate with working mothers, perhaps this line in particular: I have the perseverance to pump breast milk eleventy times a day while on a weeklong business trip and the denial of expensing the cost of shipping said breast milk home…Can you describe your work/home “balance” life in those early days, particularly what it was like to be a full-time working and breastfeeding mama?

KH: I think any discussion around “balance” when you have very young children, especially babies, really does moms a disservice. I think if we were just honest and said, “Look, you’re going to get thrown to the wolves for a few years and then you’ll just go back to being regular crazy,” it would be more helpful. Or if we at least framed it in a less heady way and just asked moms, “Are you getting any time at all to be alone?” it might seem like a less intimidating concept. I remember it took so little alone time back then for me to be happy. A walk, a bath, a nap. I wasn’t asking for the moon.

To actually answer the question: HA HA HA HA there was zero balance. None. Zilch. I think it’s utterly pointless at best and setting-yourself-up-for-failure at worst to expect balance when you have a tiny baby and are breastfeeding. You have another living creature that is 100 percent dependent on you to stay alive. I mean, no pressure.

But, as the saying goes, it really doesn’t last forever. And as crazy as this may sound, although pumping was disruptive to my day (I’d feel in my work groove and then—gah—time to go pump again) it probably worked a bit like meditation does for me now—a built-in short break that really allowed me to just pause and center myself. These days I prefer to enjoy my mental pauses with my shirt on. Mostly.

NM: A lot of the book captures that the passage of time with kids is bittersweet but you often depict, in a really human and often hilarious way, how hard parenting can be in the moment. Why it is so important to share the full spectrum of the parenting—pleasant and not-so-pleasant? The fun and the straight-up scary?

KH: I think it’s a delicate balance. I really do understand younger women who are like, “Argh I never want to have kids because moms just write about how awful it is!” I really understand that being the takeaway. I think all of that writing is in reaction to the lack of honest portrayals of motherhood that we and older mothers had. So we’re all a little crabby that we didn’t know what to expect (And, no, What To Expect When You’re Expecting DOES NOT COUNT. Like, AT ALL.) But perhaps that reaction pushed the dialogue too far to the negative side of things. I don’t think there’s enough honest writing about parenting because writing honestly about it is scary. It means admitting disappointment or fear or frustration. You worry your kids will read it one day and feel unloved when, really, you’re just expressing normal human emotions and thoughts. And being honest about any level of unhappiness when it comes to parenting really opens you up to the internet comment hate machine. People want to hear that mothers are happy, happy, happy. That’s just not realistic. Are dads happy, happy, happy all the time? They most certainly are not. But they also aren’t expected to be.

As a counterbalance to that, I think social media sometimes gets a bad rap for parents sharing only happy moments or braggy moments. I’d argue that although some parents are super annoying and really delight in shoving a blemish-free, made-for-social-media life down our throats (um, also true of non-parents), those people represent maybe two percent of the parenting population. Every parent knows parenting is a grind. I think sharing moments of joy and achievement or silliness are necessary; they’re good reminders that we really do love these people we’re raising and, you know what, they aren’t half bad as it turns out.

NM: What advice do you have for other parents struggling through the not-so-pleasant times?

KH: I don’t remember where I heard this bit of advice but it was basically: The bad moments don’t last, but neither do the good ones. It really helped me gain some perspective when things were tough but also helped me appreciate that when things were easy or good I couldn’t just assume that would go on forever. Also, another thing I told myself when I was pregnant that ended up applying to my parenting was: If worry leads me to do something then that’s fine. But if I’m worrying just to worry, I have to let it go.

So if my concern was something I could take action over—read a book, schedule an appointment, ask for advice then great. But if I’m just trying to freak myself out, ain’t nobody got time for that. It’s just a lot of wasted energy.

NM: Advice for parents on forgiving themselves for botched moments or “mistakes”?

KH: I have made so many mistakes, I am still actively making mistakes every day. Mostly I try to be very open with my kids about how imperfect I am. That I understand sometimes they are disappointed or that I’m not doing everything they want me to do when they want me to do it but, hey, that’s life. I mean, might as well get used to it now. One thing I learned early on in my work life is that when you’re transparent about your situation it really can help the other person empathize with you. Like, I’m not asking you to finish a layout in two hours because I want to put a fire under your ass just for the hell of it, I’m asking because that’s the only window the creative director has to look at it before she gets on a flight to London. In keeping with that spirit, I’ve had to be very open with my kids about everything I have going on right now and basically tell them, look, it’s not that I’m trying to be a mess. I just am a mess. And it’s for these reasons. I’m just not going to be very available over the next month.

Emotionally I have a lot going on, mentally I am trying to keep track of 87 things in my head every single day, and physically I’m going to be traveling for my book tour. But when I’m back? It’ll almost be summer vacation and I will be ALL IN. It doesn’t make any of this easier in the short term, but I hope it helps them understand why I seem so checked out, that I recognize their emotions around that, but that it also won’t be forever.

I think also having perspective on my own childhood helps—the stuff I remember (good or bad) probably in no way resembles what my mom or dad think were the good or bad moments of raising me. We spend a lot of time trying to do magical things for our kids or we feel horrible that we freaked out and yelled at them one time but in reality, human beings are their own random little thought machines and they will pluck out the one thing as their favorite memory. You just can’t engineer it. And probably something we said offhandedly without much thought stings more and is remembered more than the time we justifiably lost our cool and threw our car keys across the kitchen. All we can do is own our actions, apologize for our disasters, maybe provide some context, and hope everyone can move on.

NM: You write about the struggles of marriage after kids and include a bit about a friend who told you she assumed that she and her ex would have looked back at the hard early-family years and laugh—but, instead, he asked for a divorce. You say you wish you’d heard that story right when your kids were born, and that you’d heard it often. How would you present this cautionary tale about connecting as partners to new parents? What would your advice to them be now?

KH: Looking back now, I think my/our biggest mistake was taking the advice about “dates” literally. Like we had to get a babysitter and get dressed up and go on a date. To be honest, we didn’t have a ton of extra money for babysitters. So we rarely went on dates. And when we did, I would have so many pent-up conversational topics that I would just basically explode over dinner. So essentially we’d pay someone else for the privilege of having big emotional conversations-slash-fights in public over food we couldn’t afford. It was so dumb. I understand taking a break from the baby and all that but, really, I think it’s about finding space for normal people conversation on a daily basis. A good friend of mine did this with her husband at nine o’clock every night. A glass of wine and just 20 minutes to connect. Seems obvious now, back then not so much.

NM: There’s much in the book about the support of strong female friendships, and a mention to wishing you’d sought out relationships with other mothers when your babies were young. Why are mama-friends so important, early on and forever after?

KH: There was a piece I was going to write for the book specifically about that but I just plum ran out of time. I experienced two full maternity leaves without any close girlfriends. It was awful. I got pregnant with my son after we had been in Vermont for only nine months. And my daughter two years after that. So I was either pregnant or on maternity leave for the first few years we lived here. Every friend I made was someone I worked with and most of them didn’t have kids. It was just hard. I remember going on a walk on the Burlington bike path with my husband, my two-year-old son and infant daughter strapped into a double stroller, and saying, “If I don’t get some friends, we’re moving back to Portland [Oregon, where we had moved from]. This is just too hard and lonely.”

After that, I approached making mom friends as if I was a second grader. “Will you be my friend?” I’m not naturally extroverted in that regard, I really don’t like feeling needy. I mean, who does? You feel like a loser. But I just couldn’t take it anymore. Something had to give. I asked moms I met at daycare to go get coffee or to get our kids together. A designer who had been re-hired at [the design studio where I worked] had just moved from LA and his wife was pregnant with their second child. I spent that entire maternity leave assuming she had a ton of friends because they had lived here before. Only when my maternity leave was done and I reached out to her did I discover, no, she didn’t have a ton of friends. She was home with a toddler and was pregnant, feeling isolated. And there I was, basically down the street, with a toddler and pregnant too, feeling isolated. I still get upset thinking about it more than a decade later! It was such a missed opportunity. She’s one of my dearest friends now and I’m so happy we finally connected, but I still regret not having had that experience of being together and supporting each other when we both could’ve really used it.

And if being at this current stage with my middle-school-aged kids has taught me anything, it's that you never get to a point where you’re like, “You know what? I no longer need girlfriends. I’m all set now, thanks.” Parenting changes so much over time, the challenges are different, the frustrations are different, and the emotional needs of you as a mom are different. It’s really important to tend to those relationships. 

If you can’t be truly open and vulnerable about the ups and downs of motherhood with your friends, keep looking until you find those friends. You really need the support, ears, experience, and hearts of women who are in it up to their eyeballs, right along with you. It will save you and help you be a better partner and mother. And just a better human being, generally speaking.

NM: Your book also gives great fathers—your husband and many of your male friends—due credit. What makes a great father, a great man, as it relates to raising this next generation to be great humans?

KH: I think dads have it hard, to be honest. Not in a “they have it so much harder than moms.” HA HA HA, no. But I think as mothers we know the bar has been set so high for so long when it comes to what being a great mom is that we know we’ll never reach it. I think for dads, the model of fatherhood has changed so much in just one generation. So they’re trying to define themselves against their own fathers and their own experience as kids being raised by those fathers, they’re trying to define what to do based on what their partners are telling (or not telling) them, and they’re trying to define themselves against what they see their friends doing or what they’re seeing happen in culture. It’s a constantly evolving mishmash.

In an unscientific study of my group of friends, I’d say the great dads I know have these things in common: They are emotionally open—they really love their friends and family and aren’t shy about it. They prioritize time with their kids and don’t need their wives to organize every last little detail about it—they have initiative, they know it’s up to them to build their own unique relationship with their child. They respect their partners—even if they don’t get 100% of what their wives are doing, they respect women, period. And they are open to changing how they do things. I feel like my husband has had to adjust his role as a father about 100 times since our son was born. At various times he's been a homeschooler, the lead parent, the only-parent-who-can-deal-with-watching-our-baby-get-shots, the camping trip coordinator, and now the lead and only chef as he makes dinner every night, among many other roles. Like I said, I don’t think it’s easy. But it’s never been easy for moms so, you know, welcome to the club. Now get to work.

NM: Parting words?

KH: Don’t listen to people who try to guilt you by saying you’ll miss the early hard years one day. Trust me, you won’t. It’s like telling someone they’ll miss being repeatedly punched in the face one day.

Get your very own copy of Kimberly Harrington’s book here.

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