For many years, our three offspring requested an addition to the family clan, a fourth child to love (or so they claimed. It's possible that they only craved equality: even sides for dinner arguments and rounds of Mario Kart.). While my husband and I did not relent, we marveled at their worrisome lack of judgment. Didn't they know how hideously incompetent we were as parents? Didn't they understand that they thrived only because of well-placed bubble wrap and the sageness of their sanctified teachers?
Now, neurotic parents like us can turn to the latest book from cartoonist and writer Emily Flake for a little comfort. Flake embraces the inevitable insecurities of bringing up a baby in "Mama Tried: Dispatches from the Seamy Underbelly of Modern Parenting."
Through comically wicked drawings and down-to-earth prose, Flake pens her personal account of pregnancy, birth, and early childhood. You won't find anxiety-inducing presumptions about what to expect, or the frothing mantra of a Tiger Mom. But Flake's work still has the power to embarrass or unsettle those of us who remember the hot mess of early parenthood (and the bodily fluids that ensued). Yet, she reminds us to laugh and relax with an accompanying narrative that feels supportive and unencoded. The language is plain and the message is clear: Parenting is a weird gig and most of us just muddle through. Her writing style reads like notes passed between school girls, at times heartfelt and at times irreverent.
Flake's comics and illustrations have appeared in The New Yorker, Mad, The Wall Street Journal (as well as City Paper where she is a regular contributor), and other venues appreciative of her communion with realism and snark. She portrays children as devils, mothers as leaky milk dispensers, and toddler antics as "street theater." Often, she gets her point across in full-page, multi-staged, conceptual drawings. One, titled "Why Is My Baby Crying?" displays the tearful, turned-up faces of babies who "just realized (they) are never going back to the warm bag of water . . . " or who are, apparently, "full of broken glass."
The manner in which Flake tackles "Nanny Rejects," outing the one who "had a bit of a meth vibe," defines her offbeat sense of humor. The androgynously drawn junkie vying for the baby sitter job proclaims, "I LOVE kids, man. And cold medicine. An' antifreeze. You got any of that?" Likewise, Flake's often acerbic, handwritten lists highlight other absurdities plaguing new parents as well as the unrealistic expectations placed on kids today. Take, for example, the preschool evaluation of a young girl (who identifies as female, at least 90 percent of the time): "While able to name the letter of the Roman Alphabet, Branwyn seemed completely unfamiliar with Cyrillic, Arabic, Korean, and Bengali." Demoralization runs rampant in Flake's rants.
Flake organizes "Mama Tried" in step with the realizations that came with the gestation, birth, and growth of her young daughter. She tackles subjects from "Trying to Conceive, Sorta" to "Toddlerhood" in a self-effacing tone. On the subject of stretch marks, she leaves us wondering just how scarred her body must be. Flake draws a forlorn, frowning woman in her underwear and offers an extended caption: "Try thinking of them as lightning bolts highlighting your least attractive parts. At least you won't get them on your face! Probably." Flake also pontificates about her hypocritical love of baby gear, writing, "The smallest member of our family—the one who contributes nothing financially, and who cannot even be relied upon to wipe her own butt—she gets to travel with her own furniture. And she can't even carry it."
At the very least, "Mama Tried" offers justifications for the scattershot emotions and illogical behaviors often displayed in the moments of extraordinary love and hypercharged panic that trail every newborn. She writes, "For the first four days of my daughter's life I was carried along by what I assume was a massive, and evolutionarily necessary, endorphin rush. . . . What remained after the foam of adrenaline subsided was a raw, abraded, wounded creature. I felt like I had come out of a chrysalis too early." Although Flake doesn't pretend to offer advice, much can be gleaned from the kinship she offers. Her honest, sometimes wholesome dialogue reminds us that we are humans before we are parents. In a particularly touching introspection, she compares her pre-planned, financially stable decision to have a child with her sister's unexpected teenage pregnancy. "I think the danger for those of us who do have (choices) is that childbearing becomes another step in a curate life that you've let yourself think is important." Most children, she concludes, will never become president (or Donald Trump, for that matter), so step back, poke a little fun, and roll your eyes. And when in doubt, turn to "Mama Tried," where Flake curls her arm around the shoulders of new parents to say, hey, here is how it went for us, and our daughter is just fine.