“Hell is Other Parents and Other Tales of Maternal Combustion” by Deborah Copaken Kogan

Recommended briefly at Entertainment Weekly and by M, who blogs at Mental Multivitamin, Hell is Other Parents by Deborah Copaken Kogan seemed like it would be a good, quick, funny read. For the most part, it is. Kogan’s essays detail some of her clashes with other parents, who at least behave very badly, if not perhaps hellaciously. One father tells her to watch her daughter more carefully. Kogan’s teenage postpartum hospital roommate won’t turn down the TV, get rid of her guests, or throw away the McDonald’s bags that are stinking up the room. A mother spreads gossip about Kogan’s daughter to other parents at school. At other times, Kogan imagines other parents are judging and disparaging her parenting choices, as when her toddler son Leo disrupts the play her older son is in:

The other parents in the room now clearly hate me. They glare at me and roll their collective eyes. What business does she have bringing a two-year-old to a performance? their pursed mouths ask. Does she realize how long it took us to get here? For that matter, what business does she have having one in diapers while the other two are going through adolescence? What’s wrong with her? What was she thinking? Okay, so maybe I’m just projecting those last three thoughts.

Maybe? I think she’s projecting not just those three, but most of the paragraph, and highlighting some tenets of parenting (and really, life in general): it’s really hard; choices are fraught; some people are jerks; others offer needed help.

Kogan is witty and her observations are sharp. She writes clearly and sympathetically of the challenges of parenting and being a working mom. She doesn’t hide her insecurities about things like her parenting decisions, the less than thorough decision making that went into conceiving her third child, and her constant worries about money as a mother of three living in NYC who makes her living as a freelance writer. But she doesn’t seem to have much insight about these, either. For example, I found it interesting that a woman who was upset when chided by her college roommates as being too concerned with money (and specifically, its lack) chose a freelance career, and wrote a book in which she frequently refers to her fears and difficulties around money.

Few will argue with the real-life examples Kogan offers of mean other parents, and I bet many could respond with stories in kind; I know I could. But this book shines when it’s relating the events of a interesting woman (Kogan was a photographer and war correspondent in years past) as she tackles motherhood and challenges like a son who really wants to act and daughter who really wants a dog, both against their parents’ wishes. As for the hellish other parents of the title, I think they’re minor when compared to the complex, fascinating mess that is the whole of parenting, and of life.

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