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The Struggles of Modern Motherhood in Essays, a Thriller and a Dystopian Novel

But despite this sure-footed narrative, the writing frequently feels hurried and trite. The three trial participants (a.k.a. “Cohort One”) are drawn with such large brush strokes that it is difficult for the reader to feel invested in their pregnancies. And, perhaps most problematically, the exact science behind the accelerated gestation is never explained, even in fictional terms. “I can’t pretend to understand the details,” says Tessa’s co-chief executive. That’s O.K., but it feels as if the author hasn’t worked out the details either. (To say nothing of the fact that one of the characters has conjoined twins of different sexes. Which is impossible.)

Still, Tessa’s journey is hard to resist, and the questions raised by the prospect of shorter pregnancies — would they really empower women, or just make it mandatory for them to bear children as quickly as possible? — feel downright prescient.

AMATEUR HOUR
Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words
By Kimberly Harrington
308 pp. Harper Perennial/HarperCollins. Paper, $15.99.

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Harrington’s first book of essays explores parenting, marriage, childbirth, education, unemployment — and the special slice of hell that is navigating two toddlers through a rest area bathroom. Harrington is a veteran of the mommy wars who, fascinatingly, has fought on both sides. She worked 60-hour weeks with a newborn and later took time off to stay at home with her family. She has had her 3-year-old daughter literally cling to her coattails to try to stop her from leaving for the office; she has experienced the brain-splitting act of making a conference call while her children roughhouse unsupervised in the next room; and she understands that staying home with small kids means you “coordinate, plan and do almost everything,” yet “crash face-first into bed every night feeling like you’ve accomplished basically nothing.”

She has felt the sting of scorn that comes after telling a guest at a cocktail party that you’re a stay-at-home mom, or that your kids are in day care: “It’s an awful word; it’s a hard one to get out. It’s where babies go to die on their first day.” She knows that working mothers are always apologizing to their children: “‘I’m sorry I’m away from you. I’m sorry I have to make money, even though sometimes what I’m doing is stupid and utterly pointless.’ But also ‘I’m sorry that I’m probably really enjoying at least part of it.’” In trying to justify both sides of the conflict, Harrington occasionally ends up sounding mad at the world. Her point is that the world of child rearing is unfair — mothers have no guilt-free options — but she sounds vitriolic rather than vehement.

Harrington excels in the short, funny lists that punctuate the book (i.e. “Radiohead Song or Accurate Description of My Parenting?”) and conveys true heartbreak in longer, more personal pieces on topics like her miscarriage and having a child with Asperger’s. Other chapters, like “It’s Complicated” and “As Young as We’ll Ever Be,” are more generic and feel like filler. Too often Harrington’s crisp, perceptive sentences are followed by three or four more that say pretty much the same thing, dulling her otherwise stylish prose. Even so, the book is thought-provoking and memorable. The chapter about the day she finally made good on her threat to turn the car around if her children didn’t start behaving will stay with you for a long, long time.

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