I gave birth to my first child fifteen years ago, which is to say, Before Parenting Trended. In the B.P.T. era, maternity clothes were ugly, car seats had no bases (let alone tethers and anchors), there was no such thing as a nursing apron, and the words baby and bump had no connection (unless the baby fell on her head). My baby was born in Berkeley, where we did have prenatal yoga, cloth diapers, and slings, but that’s because we were Berkeley, not because we were hip mamas (Hip Mama didn’t even exist; it was founded a year later, one signal of the beginning of the end of B.P.T.).
One thing we did have, however, was baby shoes. There were no baby Crocs, because there was no such thing as a Croc, but at my baby shower, I received baby moccasins and baby Timberlands, and I’m sure that somewhere in there was a pair of baby Mary Janes. Then, as now, baby shoes were about as cute as it gets. And then, as now, which is to say, both B.P.T. and A.P.T., babies did not wear their baby shoes.
The fact of the matter is that in the winter, babies spend much of their time in sleepers with feet, and in the summer, babies spend much of their time in onesies with their little bare legs and adorable toes kicking free, and at any time of year, you spend way too much time squeezing the baby’s chubby feet into shoes and then the baby kicks those shoes right off. Is there anything at once sweeter and sadder than an abandoned baby shoe lying on the sidewalk?
The other fact of the matter is that baby shoes have nothing to do with babies. What are shoes for? Protecting your feet as you walk (if you didn’t have to walk anywhere, wouldn’t you keep your feet warm with soft delicious socks, not hard confining shoes?). Do babies walk? No. Do babies care about moccasins, Timberlands, Mary Janes, and Crocs? No. It’s grownups who love the incongruous visual of a non-ambulatory being of petite proportions displaying a miniaturized version of adult footwear, even if that visual lasts only a moment, and then the shoes that haven’t been abandoned on the sidewalk are left on shelves or thrust into closets to gather dust and eventually become cat toys.
In other words, baby shoes are kind of like Go the Fuck to Sleep.
If you are reading this column, which is to say, if you are of the bookish parentish ilk, you must have heard of Go the Fuck to Sleep, Adam Mansbach’s forthcoming picture book and recent Internet sensation. The latest contribution to the longstanding tradition of bedtime books, à la Goodnight Moon, Bedtime for Frances, Sandra Boynton’s Snoozers, and about a million others you’ve probably read way too many times, Go the Fuck to Sleep has the requisite charming illustrations, animal companions, and mischievous child who refuses to pass out, with the special added attraction of parental profanity.
The rhyming quatrains on each page begin with the bucolic and end with the kind of language that makes fifth graders titter. The title is a quote from the first page:
The cats nestle close to their kittens now.
The lambs have laid down with the sheep.
You’re cozy and warm in your bed, my dear.
Please go the fuck to sleep.
The parental frustration and bad words, as those fifth graders would call them, proliferate together. “How is it you can do all this other great shit / but you can’t lie the fuck down and go to sleep?” asks the mischievous child’s aggravated father. “I know you’re not thirsty. That’s bullshit,” he announces. “Hell no, you can’t go to the bathroom,” he protests. Clearly, Toto, we’re not in Frances territory anymore.
Go the Fuck to Sleep was originally scheduled for publication in October, but mentions of the book popped up on the Internet at the end of April, a PDF soon leaked, and within days it went viral. Publisher Akashic Books moved publication up to June, and, as I write this, the book is #4 on the Amazon bestsellers list.
In a Washington Post article, Mansbach presents himself as the umpteenth contemporary writer to tell the dirty truth about parenting (actually, he doesn’t: like everyone else who purports to bare the secrets of parenthood, he presents himself as the first such truth teller): “I wrote it as a reflection of my own personal reality. I wanted to write about the way that I felt and be honest about it. … I think our generation talks so much about parenting, you almost can’t get away from it. But there’s a certain lack of honesty in a lot of it.” Whether he’s the first or the umpteenth, however, the appeal of Go the Fuck to Sleep is obvious. Who hasn’t overflowed with fury at the child who won’t sleep? The nightly reading of books, rejecting of requests for drinks and the bathroom, counting of minutes, lying down in the filial bed, tiptoeing out, and starting all over again is the ur-tale of contemporary parenting.
But let’s be honest. Aren’t the swear words what get us really excited about Go the Fuck to Sleep? If baby shoes juxtapose adult fashion with cute baby feet to generate squeals of delight, Go the Fuck to Sleep juxtaposes adult language with cute baby books to generate…Facebook updates, tweets, and blog posts of delight. And just like those baby shoes, I promise you that every copy of Go the Fuck to Sleep will be read once with great delight and then put on a shelf where it will gather dust, though it will probably be too big to become a cat toy. (Why can I promise this? Because sitting on our shelf, unread since the day we received it as a gift, except by guests who spot it and squeal with delight, is Goodnight Bush, which juxtaposes adult warmongering with cute baby books.)
Baby shoes and adult children’s books, the mashup of the adorable and the anachronistic which is one of the leitmotifs of life A.P.T., are examples of what I think of as the ephemera of modern life: the things that give us immediate pleasure, but never really matter again, because they offer nothing but that immediate pleasure. We’ve always had such ephemera, but today, in light of cheap material production and the infinitudes of the Internet, it threatens to take over our lives. But while somebody might make a claim about the decline of civilization right about now, it’s not going to be me, because I like immediate pleasure as much as the next person.
However, I’ve decided that I like it best on the Internet. The material ephemera of modern life is the bane of my existence: the spent glow sticks and crushed plastic hats from bar mitzvah parties, the toys from gumball machines, the stickers, even the baby shoes and adult children’s books. But on the Internet, I can look at the ephemera, laugh at it, forward it, and never see it again. Which is why I’m glad a friend sent me the PDF of Go the Fuck to Sleep, and nobody needs to give me the actual book.