If you read my post on the college application life earlier this week, you know exactly what phase of parenthood I’m in. What you probably don’t know about me is that I’m not the kind of person who gets excited about a self-help-in-the-form-of-memoir-style book. None of the aspects of that excite me. The advice is usually pretty obvious, and the memoir parts are dull. I don’t know you, dear author; I don’t need to know what you had for breakfast the day you found out you were pregnant.
But a few weeks ago, I was looking for an audiobook to listen to in the car while driving a few hours to a college visit with my high school senior, and the library’s catalog suggested It. Goes. So. Fast.: The Year of No Do-Overs, released this past February. (I’m assuming you also are a very busy parent and do not mind that I’m telling you about a New York Times bestseller that is now seven months old.) The description began, “The time for do-overs is over. Ever since she became a parent, Mary Louise Kelly has said ‘next year.’” And from those two sentences alone, I clicked “Check out.”
There was the topical aspect—a book about a kid leaving for college while driving to a college visit. Almost too on-point. But just that week, someone had asked if I was attending a particular upcoming conference on the other side of the world. For the last 15 years or so, I’ve traveled a good bit, attending and speaking at software conferences on a regular basis. Usually, when someone asks if I’m going, the answer is an enthusiastic, “See you there!” This time, something else came out of my mouth, a thought I had not yet even discussed with myself. It was that rare kind of idea that announces its existence to you only when you speak it aloud without having even thought it first.
“No,” I said. “It’s my kid’s senior year. Last year at home. You know.”
Did they know? Did I know? Apparently, I did and yet had not actually spent any conscious cycles pondering it.
The book’s author, Mary Louise Kelly, is best known for hosting All Things Considered on NPR. We’re not exactly leading the same life. I have not once gotten a call from a child’s doctor as my helicopter took off in a war zone. But I did once get a picture sent to my phone, with no explanation, from my husband, of our two-year-old with stitches across the bridge of his nose. I was merely 700 miles away, walking through a convention center with coworkers on our way to dinner. There was no helicopter involved, but I felt where she was coming from. It turned out, page after page, we had a lot more in common than I ever would have expected. I also grew up in the southern US, also had a challenging delivery, and while I majored in journalism, she made a stunning career of it—a career that cost a lot of soccer games and holding hands at the doctor.
As to those usually dull memoir parts, it’s hard to be bored by a journalist’s front-row reflection on the past few decades of world history, which comprises the bulk of the non-mom reflection in the book. But there’s also a good bit about what often is the other half of the challenging years of being a teenage parent, and that’s being the child of an aging parent. I lost my mom when my children were much younger than hers, but again I felt everything she described going through her father’s decline and death.
The pages are not an endless Insta-perfect view of a privileged professional’s life. She confesses to her failures and the realities of life with two teenage boys and an imperfect marriage. And while some reviewers of the book have criticized the extent to which she held back, I credit her for striking the right balance between telling a story and recognizing that it’s not her story alone. It’s the story of her children. She writes about herself with critical reflection but about her kids with mostly a mother’s glowing praise, while also noting that although everything wasn’t always perfect, “I’ll elide the details of the less glorious [days], out of respect for the boys’ privacy.”
But while she grants that to her teenage children, the same does not extend to some of the world leaders and headline-makers she tells stories about related to her work. The book begins with two quotes after the dedication to her boys. The first is Toni Morrison’s quote loved by many writers, “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” The second is more pointed, by Anne Lamont: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” And Kelly tells those stories.
It’s an honest walk with someone writing to you as if you were a friend, thinking out loud about this strange thing that is the last year your teen is at home, reflecting on the 18 or so years that got you here and how you did as a parent. And what happens next for you, when those kids walk out the door, and the days are less dedicated to their needs? Who you are at this new age, when you realize nobody ever cards you and it’s been a long time since you got catcalled. (And do you, in fact, maybe miss it? Can you say that out loud? She does.) It felt good to actively have this conversation with myself—now that my mouth had told me I had the thought—guided by someone who had been there before.