Jacob Sager Weinstein has two kids, and has written for The New Yorker and McSweeney’s, and is a former contributor to The Onion, but what he really wants is to take a shower every once in a while without somebody throwing half-eaten bits of bagel into it. His new book is HOW NOT TO KILL YOUR BABY, a parody of every crazy-making, fear-inducing pregnancy and parenting book you’ve ever cringed over. Theodore spoke with Jacob via the miracle of instant messaging, and got the scoop on his book and parental neuroses.
Theodore: First question: did you ever come close to in fact killing your baby? Falls? Drops? Poisoning?
Jacob: The time I was carrying my daughter across a patch of ice, and I slipped and did a 180 and dropped her, I was too busy falling to see how she landed, so I choose to think she landed on her feet with the perfect grace of a cat, even though she was about one at the time. At any rate, she survived, and she’s brilliant (objectively speaking) so I’m fairly confident she didn’t land on her head. I think that was the scariest moment, in terms of paternal negligence.
Theodore: If that’s the case, and you are in fact, not lethal or possibly lethal as a father, then tell me why you wrote this particular book? It’s very funny–but why turn the attention of your humor to this specific subject?
Jacob: A friend of mine (and fellow comedy writer) named David Feldman once told me that all comedy comes out of anger. I don’t think that’s universally true– “Singin’ In The Rain” is full of brilliant one-liners and it’s the least-angry movie ever made– but I do think that it’s often true. When my wife was pregnant, I read a lot of pregnancy and parenting books, and a lot of the advice was delivered in a condescending and/or crazy-making way, or was just plain bad, or contradicted the book I had just read. At the time I didn’t know enough to get angry– I figured, hey, these books are written by experts. They must know what they’re talking about, even when they’re contradicting each other. But once I got more experience as a dad, I starting getting retroactively angry with a lot of these books, and because I’m a comedy writer, that anger turned to mockery pretty quickly.
Theodore: That’s interesting, because I didn’t really read anger in it. To me, the subtext of the book was about how fears of parenting are unfounded and absurd, and that we should just worry less. Are you just totally pissed off in person, and it doesn’t come across on the page (or via IM, I should point out)?
Jacob: HOW DARE YOU ASK ME THAT!!!!!!!!!!!!! (Better?)
Theodore: Very good.
Jacob: Seriously… I think that’s a very reasonable way of reading the book. What angers me most about certain parenting books and products is that they seem aimed at exploiting the natural but ludicrous fears we all have as parents. And so if I’m satirizing that sales approach, I’m naturally poking fun at those fears. Also, I tend to be a pretty easy-going guy, so the anger that sparked the book probably dissipated itself pretty quickly once I started making myself giggle. But I think you can see it poking through in certain sections. I’m going to thumb the book and look for one while you’re writing your next question.
Theodore: On to an incredibly important question: You and your wife as parents: Helicopter or Benign Neglect? (Full Disclosure: I already wrote my questions. I’m incredibly well prepared!)
Jacob: OK, first, I found a passage that I think is about as close as I got to expressing my anger– and it’s right at the beginning of the book, in the Introduction. This tends to support the theory that my anger dissolved on impact, leaving behind only a residue of pure goofiness. Here’s the passage:”Dear Parents-to-Be, Ever since you received the good news, you’ve been subjected to an endless barrage of bad news, from dire warnings of dietary health risks to incessant pressure to follow the latest trendy parenting fad. This book is written in the commonsense belief that, no matter how much pressure society puts on you, it’s always possible to add more. Tonsmore. Hundreds of pages more, plus illustrations. So, read on. Unless you’re some kind of baby-hating creep who wants to parent all wrong.” OK, on to the helicopter/benign neglect question.
Theodore: Nice self-quoting, btw.
Jacob: I think we’re somewhere in between. So instead of helicopters, we’re hovering over our kids in those crazy James-Bond jetpacks that never work quite as well as they’re supposed to, and half the time we’re right above them, and the rest of the time, we’re shooting around in the clouds desperately trying to get back down in time to pick them up from school before the teachers call the Child Welfare office on us.
Theodore: That sounds about right. Unfortunately my colleagues here at DadWagon (not me) tend more toward a form of not-so-benign neglect. Sad but true. Next question. i think another interesting element of the book is that it’s gender neutral, with COMPLETELY useful advice for both Mom and Dad. Did you have concerns about coming across as a sexist pig while writing sections like “How not to Kill your fetus”? I mean tips from a man about how to read a pregnancy test is practically screaming for a kick in the nuts.
Jacob: The nice thing about writing a humor book is that if anything seems offensive, I can just claim I was parodying something offensive, and I completely share your outrage about those awful people who did the original thing I’m parodying– Look! They’re right over there! LET’S GET THEM! (Actually, in this case, I can make that claim with some honesty. Part of what annoys me about a lot of pregnancy/parenting advice is that it’s written by men who seem to think pregnant women would just roam their houses drinking cleaning fluids if there weren’t some PhD-equipped male to explain why it’s a bad idea.)
Theodore: Last one, and then I won’t take up more of your time. You live in London. Does your kind of humor about parenting hold there? Or are the local fears/insecurities different? Or, as we are led to believe of the French, are English parenting problems completely non-existent? (Please add something about being slender and smoking and chocolate.)
Jacob: Right now, I don’t have a UK publisher for the book, so I can’t say for sure. (Although maybe the fact that I don’t have an English publisher answers the question already.) But I think that parenting fears and insecurities are mostly the same the world over. Still, you just gave me a million-dollar idea for my next book: “Stiff Upper Lip: How British Parenting Techniques Can Transform You Into A Queen Mum.” The central thesis will be that requiring children to put that extra “u” into “flavour” teaches them patience, and swapping the last two letters of “theatre” teaches them to think outside the box.