Ah, the Motherhood Industrial Complex. It is vast and all-consuming, between all the books, blogs, hashtags, internet forums, pins, pictures and Facebook posts. Some entries are fascinating and funny, but almost all leave the reader with a bad case of the “less thans.” As in, “I’m less funny than…,” “Less full of love than…,” “Less sober after a hard day’s parenting than….”

Catastrophic Happiness is not that. Actually, it’s what all those other mothering books and blogs wish they could be. But be warned: you may find yourself reading it in a coffee shop, surrounded by people on all sides, all of whom slowly edge away as you laugh maniacally and cry helplessly. Also, be careful reading it at night after a hard-won bedtime. You may find yourself drifting, wraithlike, toward your kids’ rooms to wake them up and hug them. And you know how well that’s going to go.

Catherine Newman
Catherine Newman ’90. Photo by Ben Newman

Newman is a master of the form: confessional, funny, reflective, observant and full of love for her kids while still able to see and laugh about the insanity of their beings. The prologue, “It Gets Better,” is eight pages of balm for the exhausted, frantic bodies and souls of parents with young children. “One day,” Newman writes, “whenever you arrive somewhere, you will all simply get out of the car and walk inside! You won’t be permanently bent over to deal with the car seat / seat belt / shoes / socks / sippy cups / diapers / turds on the floor.” If you live in this state of permanent stoop, this line washes over you like sunshine after weeks of rain.

Catastrophic Happiness book cover

The book opens when Newman’s children, Birdy and Ben, are 2 and 6 and ends when they are 12 and 16. The chapters are short (so you can feel accomplished about having read two whole chapters before you fall asleep with the lights on at 8:30!), and each reads like a day with a kid. The day starts full of love; insanity ensues, followed by yelling, headshaking and some hilarious comment; and it closes with more love—the kind you feel fully only when your children are asleep, blissfully baby-faced in their beds. She runs through the gamut of modern parenting: tantrums, illnesses, tea parties, peer pressure, guilt, boredom (both yours and theirs), talking to your kids about sex and, of course, poop. Oh man, the poop talk. It’s both heartening and dismaying to realize that yours are not the only ones obsessed.

In a chapter on foraging for food, Newman risks a dip into that pool of smugly satisfied moms who make their own jam, do regular DIY projects and still manage to keep a beautiful home and rear clean, well-mannered children. Just when you think you might murder this woman you previously thought was your new best friend, she writes: “I’m this kind of mother, I think happily, and then immediately flush with shame over my own vanity and falseness, given that I am also the kind of mother who lathers up her hair with one hand so that she doesn’t have to put her beer down in the shower.”

This business of parenting, especially in our current age of anxiety, is hard. Most parenting books or blogs serve only to make it harder. Catastrophic Happiness won’t necessarily make parenting easier, but it will make you feel less alone. And it will remind you of the joy, love and inanity of every moment with small kids, without making you feel like a jerk for those (many) times when you forget.


Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne ’01 is a writer based in Cambridge, Mass., and the mother of three young children. She is at work on her first novel.