Our take on the great Alternadad debate of '07.
Last spring, when we at Nerve Media were just starting to put Babble together, a friend at New York magazine (where I used to work) called to ask me, then five months pregnant, if I wanted to be in a photo shoot for an article about urban parents. As I suspected New York‘s position would be that the subjects were in some way making fools of themselves and I had marathons of Law & Order to watch, I declined.
When the article in question came out, it featured pages of pictures of parents and pregnant people dressed in sneakers and hoodies, T-shirts and jeans. They were labeled “grups” – Adam Sternbergh’s Star Trek-derived designation for parents who haven’t grown up themselves. Other designations: “yupster (yuppie + hipster), yindie (yuppie + indie), and alterna-yuppie.”
The article’s argument: There’s no more generation gap, because people in their forties like the same fashion and music as people in their twenties. Urban-dwelling people of procreating age who dress down at work and like indie music are a new kind of grown-up, one with some combination of too much money, fanatical musical taste and a disregard for authority.
The implication: much of this new generation of urban parents is vain, shallow and ch ildish – ill-equipped to provide their progeny with anything but an appreciation for Bloc Party, a collection of $34 Ramones onesies and a sure future as the most straight-laced 9-to-5ers since Alex P. Keaton.
In his quotes for the New York magazine story and in his new memoir, Alternadad, Neal Pollack has positioned himself the grup poster child. Pollack has bragged about his toddler son’s High Fidelity-worthy musical taste (he likes the Hives). “There’s no shame, when your kid’s watching a show, and you don’t like it, in telling him it sucks,” Pollack told Sternbergh. “If you start telling him it sucks, maybe he might develop an aesthetic.”
Babble’s December 12th launch included nothing, we hope, snickering or posturing or alternative like Sternbergh’s stereotype. Shalom Auslander did write about hating Maisy the Mouse, but for him the goal wasn’t building an aesthetic; rather he hoped to preserve his son’s sense of wonder and joy in spite of his own cynicism.
Kori Gardner, of the wonderful indie band Mates of State, writes Babble’s travel column “Band on the Diaper Run” about how she and her husband / band mate, Jason, take their daughter on tour. Reference is made to encounters with, yes, Death Cab for Cutie, among others. You don’t get hipper than that, but there’s nothing arrogant about that utterly endearing column.
Also in Babble’s first days: Walter Kirn wrote about his kids’ fear of death. Jennifer Baumgardner wrote about doing everything wrong as a mother. Steven Johnson wrote about how the city opens up when you have a kid. Hardly a litany of adolescent whining. But, yes, Babble does uphold the grup stereotype in one way: Sternbergh writes, “Being a grup . . . is about reimagining adulthood as a period defined by promise, rather than compromise.” It is true that our generation wants to live rich adult lives and to be good parents at the same time.
Babble has been equated with Alternadad repeatedly (in USA Today, for example). It makes sense: Generation X is having kids – here’s the book about it; here’s the magazine. We asked author and new parent Steve Almond, who does the Babble blog “Baby Daddy,” to review Alternadad. He declined, citing conflict of interest.
Lisa read the book and, well, hated it. Last week, we ran her essay, “The Ironic Thing: Why I hate parenting memoirs like Alternadad,” in which she says some harsh things about Neal Pollack, the writer and man (to be fair, he has conflated the two throughout his career), and some (we believe) profound things about our generation’s efforts to write about parenting. For example:
“As a generation (X), what we know for sure is how to be sarcastic and irreverent. Parenthood is bigger than that. It inspires thankfulness, humility, rage, unfixable guilt over what we may be doing to our children, unfixable sorrow over what we now understand for sure was done to us when we were their age, wonder and a quiet sense of sacredneNeal and Lisa are like our very own Trump and Rosie.ss. These emotions are so foreign to us, it took me twelve years (that’s how old my eldest is) to even realize that’s what was happening. Figuring out how to translate these new feelings and outlooks into literature, and still keep it amusing and intriguing and true, will probably take me another twelve. In the meantime, how pathetic to try to use the tools of yesterday (irony, dirty words, random reference to sex and gross things) to try to tell the story of this new kind of relationship and life we find ourselves in.”
The feedback board lit up, mostly with readers defending Pollack’s book.
Neal, too, emailed us to express his displeasure. We said we’d be happy to offer him space to respond. He quickly crafted “The Ironic Thing II: In Defense of Alternadad.” An excerpt:
“I think ironic humor is a perfectly acceptable mode of expression when it comes to describing parenthood. When the first thing you do in the morning is deal with the fact that your son has just pissed in his Barrel O’Monkeys, is there any other way to respond than with irony and humor? I’m sorry, but ‘unfixable sorrow over what we now understand for sure was done to us when we were their age’ doesn’t apply here, and ‘thankfulness’ is also, certainly, out of the question. I’ll give Carver a small dose of “rage,” but as for a “quiet sense of sacredness,” well, I’ve never been particularly quiet in any situation, and I don’t hold very much sacred.”
So there you have it: the great “alternaparent” debate of ’07! Neal and Lisa are like our very own Trump and Rosie.
To play Barbara Walters for a second, I have to say, I think Lisa said something that really needed to be said: “It’s not ironic to have children.”
The irony label (like “grup”) is dismissive and cheap. We in our twenties and thirties and forties having kids right now have plenty of issues, very few of which have to do with iTunes or Bugaboos: issues like the pressure to breastfeed, the quest for domestic happiness and the miseries of sleep-training. The rush to cry “hipster” undermines the opportunity to talk about what’s thrilling and funny and lonely and scary about having kids. So let’s get on that. Please leave your thoughts in feedback.