In Julia Fierro’s Cutting Teeth, a colorful group of young parents and their children, who belong to a weekly playgroup, escape New York City for Labor Day weekend at a Long Island beach house. Fierro pits mothers against mothers, mothers against children, and biology against science, in a satire that exposes our need to be liked as people, accepted by our partners, and validated as parents.
It begins with Nicole, the group’s host, who is both eagerly and reluctantly providing the beach house. Convinced the world is about to end, Nicole is obsessively preparing for disaster, all the while sending texts about the weekend—“We have a baby pool, floaties, & sand toys for kiddies!… Mojitos await you.”—and trying to talk herself out of a growing paranoia. Allie and Susanna are mothers to twins, with another on the way. While Susanna deals with a difficult pregnancy and Allie struggles to prove she is just as much an artist as a parent, work and child-rearing priorities conflict. Rip, the only man in the group, is remarkably self-assured as a stay-at-home father. He battles an intense desire for another child his wife isn’t interested in having and tries to reconcile his disappointment at needing a sperm donor for his son. Leigh, mother of two, harbors a terrible secret and is continually tested by a “problem” child. She brings along Tenzin, her Tibetan Buddhist nanny, for extra support. The nanny’s presence creates a rift with another playgroup mother, Tiffany, the sensuous and unpredictable newest member. If it sounds like a lot to keep track of, it is, and with the children present it can take readers some time to commit all the characters to memory. To Fierro’s credit, each mother, child, and couple, in this highly readable and entertaining novel is fully imagined, coming to life as the doomed weekend unfolds.
The group has little in common other than parenting young children, and they cast petty judgments on each others’ parenting and lifestyle choices—like Tiffany’s decision to breastfeed her four-year-old. While Tiffany’s attempts to fit in to this upper- to middle-class set of mommies and daddies come off as grasping, and grate on the group’s nerves, her voice echoes that of a culture terrified to do anything but the “best” for their children. When Fierro writes: “Leigh would never have let the other mommies know she bribed Chase with TV in order to stuff a piece of (God forbid!) McDonald’s chicken nugget in his mouth…” she exposes both current parenting trends and Tiffany’s ability to successfully manipulate. As the narrative oscillates between different points of view, each character’s opinions and judgments are revealed. Under the observant eyes of young children, the mounting pressures of the parents’ personal lives begin to bear down.
Fierro’s commentary on the pressures of being a biological parent is most apparent in Rip, whose “slow swimmers” plague him. Overcompensating, he becomes the ultimate dad, making his own baby shampoo, never losing his temper, and incessantly chatting in online baby forums, but he needs constant validation. When he jokes about his biological setbacks—“‘Well, NBs like us can’t really be trusted, can we?’ He winked at her… ‘Nonbiological parents,’ Rip explained. ‘Sometimes we don’t get full credit, you know?’”—and incessantly calls himself a “mommy,” he only reinforces his position as the butt of the joke. Susanna and Allie also confront biology and science in their use of a sperm donor. Susanna, who carried the twins and the new baby, is clearly the traditional parent, and Allie bristles at the knowledge that birthing none of the children puts her at a maternal distance: “She knew they resented her for not carrying the baby herself. She could feel it when they stared at her… and in the way they spoke to Susanna… Poor Susanna—married to such a selfish woman.” Fierro sends a clear message about the link between biology and parenting through her characters’ struggles to reconcile their biological gaps. Though Fierro’s cast acts badly as a result, their motivations are largely understandable.
There is very little room in our culture for bad parenting, and Fierro exposes this concern. She addresses the issue by depicting both forgivable—and terrible—mistakes from the parents, highlighting good intentions with less than stellar results. In this way Cutting Teeth is akin to novels like Little Children, We Need To Talk About Kevin, or The Family Fang. While Fierro’s work is lighter in tone and more approachable than these first two titles, it contributes to a conversation about the balance between seeking out what you want as a person, versus what society expects of you as a mother or father.
As a whole, Cutting Teeth begs for an honest discussion on what it means to be a parent and partner. Perhaps the most shocking revelation in the book isn’t Fierro’s examination of the damaged psyches of the parents, but the frank and candid portrayal on the demands of parenthood. The biggest rule among this parent group—and I know this to be true among mothers and fathers I know myself—is to never say anything bad about the kids. Of course children don’t mean to irritate, hurt, or annoy, but sometimes they do, and the parents in Cutting Teeth all blame themselves for being angry when this is the case. The truth is, everyone feels this way from time to time, and it doesn’t make you a bad person, it just makes you a real one. Fierro may have chosen a group of overly neurotic, troubled characters to make her point, but it highlights how much pain we are willing to endure in order to be loved and accepted. Being a parent in this contemporary moment gives you every resource to be perfect, but we all have flaws. I can’t help but feel Freud’s copy of this book would be filled to the gills with margin notes, but that he would have enjoyed this imperfect bunch as much as I did.