In Cutting Teeth, four privileged stay-at-home-parents—three mommies and one daddy—leave their brownstone Brooklyn neighborhood to spend a weekend at a beach house with their partners and pre-schoolers. These parents used to have professions, hobbies, personalities; now they have children. Oh, and secrets, dark secrets. And what kind of beach house would this beach house be if a weekend inside it didn’t bring all of those secrets to light?
Julia Fierro’s no-holds-barred debut is filled with cinematic scenes that pit parents against parents, children against children, and even parents against children—their own and others. Generally speaking, the children come off looking better than the adults do, since at least four-year-olds are straightforward. The adults are tied up in internal knots of self-loathing, anxiety, depression, deep ambivalence about their decisions, and the fear that they will be revealed as the people they truly are.
With the confidence of a more established writer, Fierro dips in and out of her characters’ points of view, revealing, even sometimes reveling in, the lusts, frustrations, and fears squirming beneath their piously progressive exteriors. Parenthood, Fierro posits, is the real crucible. Can you become a Mommy without losing your individuality? Can you raise a child and still retain your relationships with your partner, with yourself, with the world?
For these parents, the verdict is mixed at best. As hard as they try to civilize their children according to the cozy, organic, no-time-outs, breast-is-best dictates of contemporary upper-middle-class life, they fail to live up to their own standards. It is not as easy as adults make it sound, after all, to share or be gentle. Even when pushed to the limit—by a son who slips out of bed to escape to the woods, or a daughter who has the makings of a tyrant, commanding her spellbound compatriots to collect sea creatures for her and then smash them to bits on the rocks—the parents rally. To their credit, even if sometimes with the assistance of pharmaceuticals, drugs, and alcohol, they double down. They keep trying.
Tenzin, the Tibetan nanny who has left her own family in India to raise money and try to qualify for asylum in America by caring for other people’s kids, dispenses hugs, koans of wisdom from the Dalai Lama, and small acts of kindness to the adults and the children alike. She alone in the book manages to withhold judgment; she understands that everyone is in pain and benefits from tenderness.
For more satirical send-ups of childrearing today in New York’s hippest borough, try Amy Sohn’s Motherland and Peter Hedges’ The Heights.
For an entirely different take on the transformational nature of parenthood, try Rebecca Woolf’s memoir Rockabye: From Wild to Child.
What is your favorite book about the realities of parenting?