Monday, December 10, 2007

Laughter Reviews, #11

Time for a tandem book review, with the focus: funny or not?





The lengthy titles are self-explanatory. Though ‘Momstown’ is directed at stay-at-home moms regardless of offspring age, and ‘Girlfriend’ is directed at moms whose offspring are no longer tiny but not yet out of school regardless of maternal work status, the content of these non-fiction volumes overlaps enough for comparative review.

What Works
Apparently, modern moms are a group in dire need of advice. These guides are only two of many strategy collections in print, broadcast and online which provide pointers on ‘having it all’ for women feeling the pressure of expectations to excel in multiple arenas. Ground covered includes such topics as making peace with a body that will never go back to pre-pregnancy dimensions, accepting that there simply aren’t sufficient hours in the day to be superparent/supercareerwoman/supercommunityperson all at once, carving out intimacy with one’s spouse amid eternal junior needs and desires, and the constant battle with guilt about practically everything. These concerns are so common that authors in the field are virtually guaranteed to find an audience that responds to their particular approach among the vast audience of stressed women out there.

What Doesn’t
Many common-sense elements considered necessary towards the goal of a balanced mom life (including sensible nutrition, reasonable exercise, therapeutic effect of pursuing a rewarding hobby, benefits of keeping up with friends, being understanding with one’s mate, etc.) are contained in both books. How they differ is in presentation and strategy style.

The Girlfriend Guide (which was preceded by the Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy, Baby’s First Year, and Toddlerhood), takes a predictably friendly, lowkey approach, grouping stories about what worked and what didn’t for the author and her acquaintances around each key issue. This is skillfully done, in a manner which appears laidback and nonjudgmental, acknowledging slip-ups amid good intentions in a way that takes the pressure off and also demonstrates how the slip-ups often really aren’t worth stressing about in the long run. Girlfriend often ends chapters with a top-ten list of do’s and don’ts, but these are either firmly tongue-in-cheek (e.g. “Top Ten Fashion Items Mothers Don’t Need: 10. Different little matching bags for her outfits. We must pack to survive, as well as keep our arms free to pick up little people or to hold their hands while crossing streets. 9. Pierced belly buttons to show off under our shortie tees. 8. Shortie tees…) or else (and this is essential) - outline a general principle and trust that the reader has the intelligence to figure out how/whether to apply to her personal life. The basic underlying message is that some Girlfriends will arrive sooner and some later at the insight that we will never, ever get our groove back if what we mean is our life exactly as it was before arrival of the juniors, but that with a positive attitude, flexibility, and a few concessions to biology and time management, the new groove we create for ourselves can be equally good.

The Momstown Guide, by contrast, attacks the same material with a take-charge, semi-bootcamp, business-management trainee kind of way. Momstown promotes a ten week Program outlining a concrete action plan with invented terminology applied at regular intervals. Besides the ‘Momstown’ label, the term ‘gal’ (Getting a Life) pops up a lot, involving ‘gal truths’, a ‘gal mantra’, a ‘gal identity’, ‘gal shopping’ ‘three core values of galdom’ and ‘gal starter tools’. The first such tool is making a gal commitment to yourself, the second is making your bed.

When Apprentice Writer first encountered the latter ‘tool’, she thought it was some kind of metaphor. And in a way it is, symbolizing (as any Gentle Reader can guess) starting off your day feeling good about a completed project and restoration of order. Up to that point, no argument, but it started to break down with the statement “…even if you think you know how to make your bed, follow our basic instructions…” and the almost painfully broken down step-by-step directions (#4: “Make hospital bed corners on the sides”). Matters only grew worse with a testimonial from a mom described as “making her bed every day for the past six months” who reported that she “…used to avoid going into my bedroom because the bed was not made.”

Apprentice Writer likes to believe that she makes sincere efforts to avoid criticizing other women and what works for them. This statement was a severe test of her commitment. All she could think was “What tremendous good luck that this book was written, or that poor woman would still be avoiding her bedroom because nobody else told her to make her bed!” In the chapter on getting organized, a list of tips on how to keep clutter under control includes the statement “If your dishwasher is full, run it”. Wow. Running your dishwasher when it is full. What a brilliant idea. Another tip states “As soon as you make doctor appointments for your kids or you, write them down”, another “Shower after making your bed” and “Put some effort into your eyebrows.”

To be fair, not all Momstown suggestions are so patronizing or doggedly concrete, and in general the information presented can be useful. But do moms really need to spend their meager slivers of free time reading such self-evident ‘advice’? Even if Apprentice Writer were of a mindset that found this type of guide useful (and according to the Momstown authors, they have many newsletter subscribers, online visitors, and radio listeners who have made the Program work for them), she would fear re-aggravating an old repetitive strain injury. Life in Momstown involves copious writing; gals commit to keeping a thrice-weekly diary, carrying a gal organizer (calendar [broken down to fifteen minute increments], grocery list, appointment book, etc), a schedule, a running task list, an anti-clutter list, an exercise log, a dream log, a financial goals list, a spending plan, and a daily fifteen-minute financial check-in on top of daily homework sessions designed to mentally or physically address various lifestyle or home organization topics.

Apprentice Writer completely acknowledges her lack of correct galitude (real term from text) when she admits that the extreme variety, number and specificity of instructions to be carried out on the Momstown Program do not, in fact, help her feel as though she is getting more in control of her life. On the contrary, the Program requirements make her feel even more tense and swamped with Things To Do. For moms who are invigorated by this approach – you have Apprentice Writer’s admiration.

“Every person is unique.”
“Certain experiences linked to modern motherhood are very common.”

Each of these statements is true; the Girlfriend’s Guide leans towards the first, trusting in positive attitude, tolerance through ability to see the humor in situations, and the reader’s intelligence to apply concepts to her individual circumstances as the qualities which will ultimately help women get their groove back and feel satisfied with their life. The Momstown Guide leans towards the second statement, convinced that determination, time management, and environmental control via strict adherence to specific types of behaviour will ultimately help women “get it all” and makeover their life.

The question is not which approach is right or wrong, but which works better with the reader’s personality.

But does it make you laugh? YES (in a good way) / YES (in not such a good way)
The Girlfriend’s Guide uses wry self-awareness, real-life humorous situations, and not-taking-itself too seriously as an effective vehicle for getting it’s more thoughtful points across. By describing real women’s successes and shortfalls the message given is about how the motivation, effort, and encouragement of other girlfriends (and girlfriends-in-training) are a more powerful means of grooving than end results or unattainable perfection.

The Momstown Guide uses a Program with a capital P, that has ‘serious’ dripping from every page. Testimonials and advice collections are presented so earnestly that it seems the authors really don’t perceive how unintentionally funny some of the text can be.


julia said...

'The Girlfriend's Guide' sounds fun. Could even be fun for a non-mom who still needs to get her groove back. Great review, and I love your wrap-up question - but does it make you laugh?

Amy Ruttan said...

I have the Momstown Guide. I haven't read it ... but I like to think fondly of the idea of having a perfect balanced life. *snigger*

M. said...

Julia - good point. thoughts on balancing your life aren't the exclusive property of moms

Amy - i'd love to know what you think of momstown - was I right? wrong? and do you have galitude?

Wylie Kinson said...

Great review/s as usual, M.
I don't have either book - which is probably why
A) I'm completely disorganized
B) haven't got my groove back (and am left wondering if I every had groove in the first place
C) don't make my bed. Which I might start doing, but no way on the hospital corners!

It was great seeing you at the TRW social last week!