On Shaming Other Mothers: A Book Review of “I’m Just Happy to Be Here”

Last January, a video was circling around Facebook of a mother who was putting her children in a grocery cart, in the middle of a winter, in below-zero degree weather…

..and they weren’t wearing shoes.

Oh, the howling that ensued.

Child abuse! That’s the worst! Some people shouldn’t have kids! I would have called CPS on her ass!

That was the general tone of the comments.

Maybe you agree. Maybe you think this woman deserves to be shamed on social media.

I’ve got a book for you.

Happy to Be Here

Janelle Hanchett, “I’m Just Happy to Be Here,” 2018.

Janelle Hanchett is the blogger of the wildly popular blog, Renegade Mothering. (Check out this recent post, “You are Not Going Crazy: America is Gaslighting You.”)

She’s a married mother of four children. She has a Master’s in English. She’s whip-smart. Hilarious. Cutting. Raw. Emotional. Authentic.

And she’s an alcoholic.

With borderline personality disorder.

Say what?

Yeah. Guess what? All of those things can happen together.

And, luckily for us, Janelle was ballsy enough to put it out there for the whole world to see.

This book will make you re-examine your stereotypes of motherhood. It will make you stretch your definition of who can possibly ever be redeemed for the consequences of their bad decisions and years of absence or neglect. It will repeatedly evoke emotional reactions that will force you to consider the limits of your No Judgment Here mentality.

It definitely did so for me.

She shows us how the mind of an addicted person unravels in stages, how an addicted mind can rationalize one step, then the next one, then the next, until you’ve lost everyone you love and you’re living in a trailer, pooping into bags (that’s the extent of my spoilers).

Then she recounts the concerted energy that she put into self-reflection in order to pinpoint the actual thoughts, insights, and specific decisions that she made in order to take back her life.

What Janelle shows us over and over in her book is that shame doesn’t motivate people to change. 

Only love can do that.

And love starts with empathy.

***

Let me repeat that.

Shaming another mother for her bad mothering doesn’t make her stop being a bad mother. Especially when addiction or mental health is involved. (And let’s be honest, either one or both of those factors are usually involved when mothers go completely off the rails.)

Yes, you’re right: the mother who brought her kids to the grocery store in winter without shoes exercised terrible judgment.

You’re right.

But how does “being right” help those kids?

It doesn’t.

It just makes you feel better about yourself.

Posting videos like this is an exercise in vanity. And as Janelle’s mentor reminded us poignantly in her book,

Do you want to be right, or do you want to be free?

In a twist of true irony, the pursuit of “being right” is often responsible for Janelle’s downfall into addiction. It’s her Achilles heel. She must be right. She cannot be wrongUntil, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter anymore about who is right and who is wrong.

Rarely, if ever, is “being right” the destination on the path to happiness.

***

Whether or not we want to admit, the United States needs this book right now. The opioid epidemic and all the subsequent outbreaks of substance abuse that have stemmed from it are turning a lot of women into lifelong addicts.

If you’re not one of them, be grateful. Period. Don’t follow that gratitude with a list of reasons that other women did become addicted. (a.k.a. Well, if they hadn’t done this, then that wouldn’t have happened!)

But more importantly, you need to develop some empathy for the mothers who do struggle with addiction.

These women don’t need your shame. Neither do they need your pity.

They need help. They need love. They need friends. Sometimes those all come together.

***

There is so much truth in this book. And it’s for everyone. Not just women who have experienced addiction. I found myself nodding along in many places throughout this book. Janelle unearths beautiful kernels of truth in surprising moments throughout her difficult journey.

The most powerful moment for me came in the following paragraph, which I read in a children’s museum as my daughter played. There I was, reading this book on my Kindle, in a crowded room, children running and playing, parents scrolling on their phones.

And me, crying.

Of course, I was crying. (Hope it wasn’t too obvious.)

She writes,

I didn’t want the pain to be gone. I wanted it to mean something.

When I found my voice, I didn’t find answers–I found purpose for every moment I had lived. I found power in every blackened room in my mind, every fear, every sad parent, every futile word and nightmare memory.

Because it led me to you, to the place where we are the same, to the place where words draw a line from my bones to yours, and you look at me and say, “I know,” and I look back at you, thinking, Well, I’ll be damned. I guess we’ve been here all along.

I know, Janelle.

Thank you for your gift of this book.