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Mommy Blaming in This American Life's "Bad Baby" Episode

Yes, I'm an asshole who listens to This American Life. We can get that out of the way at the start.

I was listening to their latest episode, Bad Baby (from March 28th). It is a good collections of pieces — full of creepy and unsettling and sad and (surprisingly) funny accounts of kids gone wrong and "devil babies."


One thing that immediately bothered me, though, was the story at the top of the show. It's about a woman named Cheryl who writes about her potentially sociopathic 8 year old son. For the family's protection, she has changed all of the names (Cheryl is a pseudonymn), but discusses in great detail her painful experience trying to parent a child who seems to enjoy chaos, pain and suffering. All while also trying to raise two younger siblings that the oldest has tried to kill or seriously injure multiple times.

One of the things that Ira Glass says during the episode is that Mothers specifically are often made to feel like they are responsible for a "bad child," even though — as Cheryl and another guest point out — they've managed to raise two perfectly normal, sweet, pleasant children as well.

But here's where TAL lets me down: where the fuck are the Fathers? Okay, we've established that Mothers often get all of the blame for bad kids. The show seems to be saying that this is wrong. So isn't it a natural segue to say, "So does your husband ever feel that other people judge him as well?"

Instead, it seems like what's "wrong" is that we should also praise the Mothers for raising good kids. We carry on with brief mentions of the husband but no sense of actual involvement or responsibility is given. Cheryl even talks about the way that her middle son, who is 6, doesn't want to leave for school because he doesn't want his Mother to be alone with the "bad child." But... what about Dad?


Now obviously in North America, far more Mothers than Fathers act as full-time parents or stay-at-home spouses. That's fair. But one would assume that when you're dealing with a child that requires therapy, medication and security alarms and cameras, Dad isn't just trotting off to work without a care in the world.

And if he is, that should be a huge point of contention and discussion.

Not all of the stories in the show are Dad-free. Quite tellingly, the second story involves a Dad who has "had it" after months of coming home to find his wife crying over their out-of-control son. Naturally, Dad's one moment of genius "solves the problem" where his wife's attempts had failed.* I have no doubt that this is true, but given that it's the first real mention of a Father, it's a little disappointing that it's a Superhero-esque moment compared to the futility and impotency of the Mother's efforts.


All the same, the first two stories in particular suffer from sloppy (and, dare I say, sexist) journalism.

I love This American Life, but this really let me down.

*Note: editing slightly for clarity. This attempt to "straighten the boy out" didn't work, but it did still place the father in a position of "action" where the mother was made to seem inert and helpless throughout the story.

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