Books: The horrifying, and wonderful, complexities of parenthood

Palo Alto moms write about the dirty secrets of parenthood in 'If Only Someone Had Told Me'

Chara Burnett and Helen Waters are close friends, co-authors, professionals and Palo Alto mothers who pull no punches. Their new book, "If Only Someone Had Told Me: Wickedly straight talk about parenting kids 0-5," lays out their views on the less pleasant aspects of parenting.

The book is playful and generous in its sharp honesty, much like Burnett and Waters themselves.

"We don't like to wear those rose-colored glasses," said Burnett, an independent contractor who has lived in Palo Alto for 13 years. "I like to know exactly what hell I'm going to be in and how hot it's going to be."

The 190 page book, which the two began working on more than three years ago, is written like a survival guide. Chapter titles include "Your Vision of Parenting -- #onebighallucination," "Work/Life Balance: The Joke That Gets No Laughs" and "Head Lice Aren't Nice. And They're Probably Crawling On Your Scalp Right Now." The book is available on Amazon.com in both print and ebook editions.

In an interview with the Weekly, the authors said they sought to balance out the dreamy conversations people have about parenting with the equally important but perhaps less appetizing experiences.

"We spoke a lot about what we wanted this book to be, and we said we wanted it to be the shocking, the unmentionables, the silent but deadly things that no one wanted to talk about," Burnett said. "Parenting is a little bit of a religion. It's sacred; you don't want to go after it -- (so) it's a little irreverent for us to do this."

When Burnett's two kids got lice, she thought the outbreak was completely abnormal. She was stressed out for days that if she did not solve the problem fast, her children would become known as "the kids who gave Palo Alto lice" -- until she found out that other families had lice too; it was just that no one was talking about it.

Both authors said they and their husbands felt lonely while raising children from birth to five years old, because other parents were not sharing their struggles openly.

"It's just a total shock," said Waters, who works in integrated facility design at Stanford and also has two children. "And it's not that you don't want to have children, but nobody ever covers those little nitty gritties with you."

The book came naturally out of the friends' evolving conversations, making it a document of their personal experiences. They had many long, exhaustive evening talks, which both provided them catharsis and served as a process of documentation.

"We would drink wine late at night and have these meetings," Burnett said. "We didn't have structure; we didn't say, 'On this day we're going to talk about this.' It was just very natural; we just documented like a stenographer."

The first year, they talked and documented. The second year, they focused on the book's story line; the final year entailed editing and sharpening the prose.

"Most people go into business together and break-up; we were equally close day one as three and a half years later. It's magic," Burnett said.

Now that the book is in print, Burnett and Waters have received overwhelming feedback that the material resonates with other parents. They would like to continue the conversation through one-on-one sharing, potentially some more writing and by speaking at book clubs or parents groups. They have already been asked to speak at a mother's club in the area.

Though the authors recognize that the book is specific to their lives, they also feel they are breaking the silence on behalf of other parents.

As Waters put it, "We're just saying that it's very, very hard, and you're probably very, very tired. You likely feel very, very discouraged and you're probably very, very broke. So are we. Welcome! We're all here together. We're here to talk about things openly. There's nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of. Please don't let that weigh you down on top of everything else. Just be real together."

Maev Lowe is an editorial intern at Palo Alto Weekly.

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Like this comment
Posted by Betsy Taylor
a resident of another community
on May 15, 2015 at 5:35 am

What a fantastic gift for young parents, who often believe they're all alone in their challenges -- even when everyone is right there telling them what to do and how to do it. It's good to know that other people are (behind the scenes) literally tearing their hair out. My "child" is all grown up now, but I sure wish I'd had this book next to Dr. Spock's book!!

I will be giving a copy to the adult child of a friend, who has a two-year-old son (and a good sense of humor)!

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