Thursday, May 8, 2014

Parenting is Painfully Funny: Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro

Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro
St. Martin's Press
Hardcover: 336 Pages
Publication Date: May 13, 2014

Everyone warned me when I was pregnant – your life will never be the same, your life is about to change forever, etc.  Did I believe them? Really believe them?

No. Of course I didn’t. Does any first time parent not use denial as psychological armor to lessen the trauma of transforming from a self-centered narcissist to a self-abnegating caregiver? I survived the transition, as most everyone does, though there were some close calls – it was not a graceful passage.

At the time I was still trying to climb the corporate ladder but was consumed by jealousy for everyone who was able to find a way to leave the paid workforce to become a primary caregiver. The years since I’ve come to realize that as difficult as juggling work and parenting are, becoming a stay-at-home parent has tradeoffs and sacrifices I never fully understood.

It’s not just the constant focus on the care and feeding of a helpless being, it’s not just the sleepless nights and new worries that every bang and scrap and virus will wreak serious havoc. There’s the grappling with how to explain your life to everyone who knew you based on your career choice or avocations, choices they shared or respected, and by which they still define their lives. There’s also grappling with the uneasy work of renegotiating the terms of your relationship with your partner, which is never smooth sailing, even if both of you fully support the change in roles. Becoming a stay-at home parent may seem like a luxury, but while it can be rewarding and fulfilling, it is also complicated and oftentimes isolating.

Because face it, going from talking about the complexities of law, finance, literature, marketing, etc. to coaxing a small person to eat another bite of broccoli and negotiating screen time is a shock. What can you do to avoid having entire days where your only conversation with another adult is in the supermarket checkout line?

You join a playgroup.  You bond with the other parents in the group because they are experiencing many of the same emotions, concerns, and experiences that define your day-to-day existence. But, guess what? Playgroup relationships are just as complicated and political as a life in the diplomatic corps.

Julia Fierro’s fierce and funny new novel, Cutting Teeth, exposes the delicate lattice of assumptions and negotiated allowances that bind together a seemingly idyllic Brooklyn based group of parents and children. On the surface the families are poster children for the new hipster/yuppie urban cultural juggernaut that Brooklyn has become. There’s Nicole, a novelist; Rip a stay-at-home father with a successful banker wife; Susannah a lesbian who has just married her long-term partner, Allie; aristocratic Leigh; and Tiffany, the high maintenance group member who runs toddler music classes.

As Cutting Teeth opens, it’s Labor Day weekend and Nicole is preparing to host the group at her parents’ ramshackle house on Long Island. That’s if Nicole’s extreme anxiety, only partially controlled by a daily dose of marijuana, doesn’t lead her to cancel the whole thing.

The recipe is classic: take a group of loosely tied people with hidden agendas, insecurities, secrets and longings, place them in an enclosed hotbed environment, shake and wait for the explosion. The results can be either farce or tragedy, but in the stage and film variations that Fierro’s novel brought to mind – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Big Chill, even The Breakfast Club – the interior thoughts and longings are not be mined as effectively as she manages here.

The weekend’s events unfold in a series of brief chapters told from the alternating perspectives of the playgroup members, as well as Tenzin, a Tibetan nanny who has left her own children behind in exile in India to care for other people’s children, and Susannah’s wife Allie. All of them have secrets and vulnerabilities that they hide from one another with varying degrees of success.

Nicole fuels her obsessions by trolling online parenting boards and attempts to get her writing back on track by stopping her medications.

Leigh tries to cope with a son who suffers from a sensory input disorder while nurturing her infant daughter whose longed-for birth was only possible via IVF, the cost of which was prohibitive given the impact of the financial crisis of 2008 on her family’s circumstances.

Rip, who has only felt successful in his role as a parent wants another baby, but his wife doesn’t.

Susannah pregnant for the second time, as a surrogate carrying Allie’s fertilized egg, wants to move out of the city to raise their family in the suburbs while Allie, who is ambivalent about motherhood, is entrenched in the New York art scene and doesn’t want to move, ever.

Tiffany has scrambled to remake herself in light of a past that the other members can sense, but cannot understand, is hoping to get her daughter into an elite private school and wrest Tenzin away from Leigh to give her more time to build her business.

Tenzin, meanwhile watches the swirling mess of rivalries and shifting affections among the group, loves the children without reserve, and hopes to maintain her own peace of mind and find a way to bring her family to the United States.

As deeply flawed as these characters are, and despite their selfish and self-destructive ways, they are easy to relate to and root for. I cringed at their missteps and cheered when they achieved greater insights and took baby-steps towards maturity. This playgroup may be filled with Brooklyn hipsters, but they are also emblematic of any group of middle-class parents struggling to define themselves while navigating the unstable shoals of adulthood.

The action builds, as you might expect, to an alcohol fueled climactic party scene that will change the group forever in some ways I could foresee and in others I didn’t expect. There are no simple resolutions and as the weekend ends little is fully resolved, but a tidier conclusion would feel overly contrived and veer what is a sharp and affecting book into the realm of the cute. I do admit that I was confused by the epilogue as it is written, or perhaps its ambiguity is intentional. The fault may be mine and my confusion may be swept away upon re-reading, which, given how much I enjoyed this novel, I plan on doing soon.

This is the perfect book to throw into your bag as you head off for a relaxing Memorial Day weekend, unless you are planning a getaway with your playgroup. In that case, you’ll want to wait until you get back.

P.S. Check out the Tumblr Julia’s novel begat: It’s the perfect spot to vent if you can’t spill the beans to your playgroup!


  1. This sounds like a really interesting novel! I've added it to my TBR list :)

    1. Yay! I'm glad I sparked your interest in this book -- it's fun, smart and discomforting in its insight (in a good way).


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