Whether you read “The Lottery” in an English seminar or binged season 1 of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, you’re probably familiar with the work of Shirley Jackson. Ritual stonings. Houses that drive occupants to suicide. The kind of stuff best unread before bed.
But Jackson also wrote the kind of stuff many of us read to reassure ourselves at the end of a long day. Jackson’s biographer Ruth Franklin names her the inventor of the mom blog: “a humorous, chatty, intelligently observed household chronicle.”
Franklin is not being entirely fair to her subject, because at no point I’m aware of did Jackson try to sell me kitchen appliances alongside her accounts of parent-teacher conferences. But in two memoirs, Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957), as well as in the posthumously-published collections Just an Ordinary Day (1996) and Let Me Tell You (2015), whose much more benign titles are not at all related to the fact that they were edited by two of her children, Jackson offers the best of parenting writing without any of the #sponcon.
“Sooner or later, I suppose,” writes Jackson in Life Among the Savages: “there must be in every mother’s life the inevitable moment when she has to take two small children shopping in one big store.” Jackson’s attempt to buy her son a pair of pants would easily be at home on Scary Mommy. Before even reaching the boys’ clothing department, and while encouraging her daughter’s imaginary friends to exit the escalator without assistance, Jackson has “the familiar and dreadful feeling” known to any mom attempting to run errands: “that of being stared at by hordes of people—salesladies, floorwalkers, mothers, immaculate children, and perhaps truant officers.” We tend to think of mom bloggers as the first to chronicle that kind of public embarrassment, but Jackson was doing it well before moms had computers.
No parenting blog is complete without a disastrous restaurant dining experience, and Jackson delivers her own version in an essay collected in Let Me Tell You. “I have four children,” she begins,
and I do not believe that parents who take children to dine in restaurants are necessarily insane. I can think of several adequate reasons for taking our children out for dinner. Perhaps the house has burned down and there are no neighbors charitable enough to take us in. Or our helicopter has crashed on the outskirts of town and the mechanic says, after the manner of mechanics, that no replacement parts can possibly be procured any nearer than Schenectady. Or dragons have invaded our kitchen and eaten everything in the refrigerator. Or I have announced, slamming the breakfast dishes around in the sink, that I am good and sick and tired of cooking meals and washing dishes and tonight I am going to have my dinner in a restaurant—although what I actually have in mind at that moment does not, of course, include the children.
Things devolve from there, until Jackson and her husband elect to sit at their own table.
Jackson’s family stories are full of low-stakes family dramas. A story that begins in negotiations about her son Laurie’s birthday party (he concedes to twelve guests, she concedes to no girls) takes a sharp turn when, as he hops out of the car to go to the movies, Laurie asks if his mom could please pick up “some old piece of junk” for his friend Joey, who was attending the party and whose birthday was also today.
Jackson, aware of Joey’s difficult home life, determines that the child should not be neglected on his birthday, and so spends the afternoon making phone calls to the other attendees’ mothers and a few unexpected errands while the boys enjoy their movie. The text reads just like any of today’s “and”-studded parenting blogs:
However, if Joey was not to receive an irrevocable setback in the process of reformation, I knew I had better get into action right away, so I settled Barry down next to a toy tractor and went into the toy shop phone booth and called Willie’s mother. She thought immediately that something had gone wrong with the birthday party and all the boys were coming over to her house, and I had to reassure her and then tell her that I had just heard that poor Joey had a birthday today, too, and none of us had known about it. She said good Lord, what a time to find out, and what was I planning to do, the poor child? I said I guessed I had no choice, the poor child, but to pick up a gift and an extra cake, since the one I had at home plainly said Happy Birthday to Laurie, and it would be next tot impossible to add a postscript in pink icing which would include Joey. She said wait a minute, she was going to ice a cake for the church bake sale, and why didn’t she decorate it for Joey instead? She could give the bake sale the apple pie and pick up something for dessert when she dropped the cake off at my house. I said gratefully that she would just about save my life, because I had enough extra candles, and Joey would never know that his birthday celebration was a last-minute affair.
Jackson pulls off the last-minute festivities, but then comes the punch line: Laurie complains that “that Joey sure gets all the luck,” because he’d had a cake and presents AND his father was taking him to the racetrack to bet on all the races that evening.
Jackson’s books are filled with practical advice, like this sure-fire way to get kids excited about bathing chronicled by Jackson’s biographer Ruth Franklin: “One day Laurence, twelve or thirteen years old, balked when she told him to take a bath. Shirley went into the kitchen, came back with an egg, and smashed it on his head. ‘Now you need a bath,’ she told him.”
Parents who need some quiet time to think might try this one simple trick offered in Let Me Tell You: offend them. This strategy, Jackson notes, is particularly effective with teenagers: “You can drive one of them out of the room with any kind of simple word or phrase—such as ‘Why don’t you pick up your room?’—and get a little peace to write in.”
Inner monologues about insufferable people
Though Jackson portrays herself as a casually-homekeeping anti-hero, she meets plenty of villains, like the realtor who comes through to survey the Hyman home and talk about all of the things she’d do to make it livable for the original owners whom, she’s just now announcing, plan to move back in soon. “I’ll see you in a day or so, then,” Mrs. Ferrier said, and of course I did not push her down the front steps.” Jackson often rewards careful readers with violent wish fulfillment.
Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons were published after “The Lottery” made Jackson a household name. The problem was that, in her household, her name was “Mrs. Stanley Hyman.” Reading Jackson’s works today is like watching Mad Men: the writing will lull you for only so long before you’re absolutely enraged on Jackson’s behalf. Jackson’s husband, Stanley Hyman, is clearly her intellectual equal, and gets many of the funniest one-liners in the books (“Who was Aristides the Just?”/”Friend of your mother’s”). But he’s largely off stage for Jackson’s child-rearing and homekeeping, as well during his possibly imagined, possibly real affairs with former students, even as she was the primary earner in their household.
Hyman reflects the thinking of his time, perfectly captured by this exchange, when Jackson presents herself at the hospital to give birth to her third child:
“Name?” the desk clerk said to me politely, her pencil poised.
”Name,” I said vaguely. I remembered, and told her.
”Age?” she asked. “Sex? Occupation?”
”Writer,” I said.
”Housewife,” she said.
”Writer,” I said.
”I’ll just put down housewife,” she said. “Doctor? How many children?”
That is one of very few mentions of Jackson’s own writing in any of her books. There’s a “spindly old writing table” she finds to furnish the dining room, but no indication that she ever writes there. There are many often futile attempts to keep her children away from the study where her husband is typing. There’s an excellent hand-written ultimatum that begins “BECAUSE OF GENERAL CONDITION OF BEDROOMS, WHINING, AND ALTOGETHER DISTASTEFUL AND INFURIATING HABITS,” ends with “All goldfish to be kept under lock and key,” and would be comfortably home on any parent’s Instagram.
There’s virtually no indication that Jackson was doing all of her writing with her young children in the house. How did she get that writing done? Playpens. Later, boarding schools.
The same trend lives on in today’s parenting blogs, where write with excruciating detail about a batch of burned cookies, except for the parts where we bribed the kids with YouTube so we could get down all the crispy details.