Finding the Humor in Parenting with ‘One Bad Mother’

I’ve been keeping tabs on motherhood for about a year now; out of the corner of my eye, I can see it coming at me sometime in the next few years. It is a strange topic: too serious to bring up casually at parties, and somehow I only hear people talking about parenthood after they are pregnant or have the little one in their possession. Those of us who are married with no children often feel like we’re in limbo – people joke with us about being pregnant “soon” but don’t give us much other useful information.

This past spring, I turned to podcasts for help with my curiosity, dread, and general attitude toward becoming a parent. I found a lot of helpful, informative stories: The Longest Shortest Time was raw and pulled no punches about parenting being a challenge, and The Birth Hour helped with some of my most intense fears regarding the actual act of childbirth. However, nothing helped me think of myself as a potential mother more than the comedy podcast One Bad Mother. Strangely enough, I found this podcast because of reading the author’s bio in the book American Housewife, written by the sister of the host of this show, and felt myself drawn to it.

One Bad Mother, on the Maximum Fun podcast network, is co-hosted by Theresa Thorn and Biz Ellis. At the outset, I learned that Theresa and Biz were both in the throes of motherhood, each of them with a toddler, when they met and started a friendship and the podcast in 2013. It was charming that within a few episodes, they were both pregnant with their second children. I liked these episodes a lot, because I got to hear people talk about their in-the-moment stressors and joys rather than the freakishly rosy way that people talk about having children 20 or more years after the fact.

A hallmark of One Bad Mother is a substantial amount of profanity: Ellis states in the intro “this is a show about life after giving life – don’t listen with your kids, cuz there will be swears.” Motherhood is portrayed as simultaneously rewarding, humiliating, hilarious, and exhausting, and the podcast vacillates between highs of parental “genius” moments and total “fails.” I laugh at the general unhinged feeling that comes from Biz after she has to plan a party or a carnival, and I groan with Theresa as her kids grow into little mischief makers and co-conspirators who are simultaneously adorable and impossible.

Two useful takeaways emerge in the 229 episodes (and counting): one is also the title of Ellis and Thorn’s book, You’re Doing a Great Job. This affirmation came from early episodes where the hosts addressed common stereotypes and judgments about parents and how the conclusion they kept coming to was that people parent differently, and that is usually okay, if not perfect for the particular child they are working with. For example, when a sleep-deprived mother calls in to say she’s bought herself fancy pajamas to make the nights up with her active child easier, they affirm that she’s a genius and that she’s doing a great job. The hosts actively resist the need to judge other parents and instead affirm that, regardless of circumstances, parents are doing the best they can.

Their second affirmation comes later on in the show, as they each start seeing glimmers of parenting success: whenever one of them seems to get the hang of something, they tell each other, “we’re getting really good at this.” When the hosts or a guest mention how many times they’ve gone through sleep training for a baby, or potty training woes, or any other difficult patch, they remind each other that every challenge is also making them stronger, and that they are getting really good at this. They have a dose of hard reality even in the midst of this positivity, with episodes like “We’re Getting Really Bad at This,” where they talk about feeling like they don’t get a sense of accomplishment from many of their tasks anymore, and how that is an okay place to be in at times.

While I spend a lot of time laughing while listening to One Bad Mother, it isn’t just because it’s a comedy podcast. I laugh in sympathy, and I laugh in sadness at times, because there is something so clearly real about parents at the end of their ropes. What tends to be addressed most often is external perceptions of mothers, be it the debates between working and stay-at-home moms, the way people talk to pregnant women, or perceptions of parents when their child is acting out publicly. Thorn and Ellis address with precision (and occasionally, outrage) the fact that parents look a lot of different ways, and that it is probably best not to tell them how to do their jobs.

Thorn and Ellis balance each other; Ellis tends to speak more and be a bit more emotive and loud, which satisfies the part of me that thinks of pregnancy and immediately freaks out. After hearing a call from a mother whose one-year-old turned a doorknob to let himself outside onto the back porch, Ellis grandly declared “I BLAME DOORS. Doors are the fail this week.” Her fierce support of other mothers has great timing, perhaps due to her background in improv comedy. Thorn, on the other hand, expresses her frustrations and successes in a quieter manner, except of course when she doesn’t, and that is all the more funny because she’s usually the more reserved hostess. Thorn’s stories of her children’s antics, like the time when they managed to stick a running garden hose through the mailslot and fill the kitchen with water in less than two minutes of her being outside, always surprise the listener; Thorn has an eye for good details, like when she was mopping up the water in her kitchen and mentioned that her child “made her a series of ten apology drawings.” Both of them participate in a loud “WOOOOO” sound at the beginning of each episode, but the enthusiasm and timbre of the woo seem to vary based on their moods.

The structure of the show moves from an intro section where the hosts catch up on life, to a topical discussion of some aspect of parenting, to a sharing time for their best and worst moments of the week (parenting genius and parenting fail). They also usually have a guest, like episode 9 with author Alice Bradley, who wrote the humorous parenting book Let’s Panic About Babies!, or episode 223 with fertility doula Sarah Kowalski, who they call and ask about their specific expertise or experience as it relates to children and parenting.

While I think many of the discussions are insightful and the guests are informative, I don’t really listen to “learn” about parenting – at least not in a way that would have me taking notes. It’s more to learn what parents can speak like in the 21st century; I wanted to know that there were parents out there who could roar about the indignities of poop explosion diapers while still doubling down on the task of raising compassionate, thoughtful, problem-solving children. I wanted there to be something else besides being an overbearing helicopter parent and being a laid-back, go-with-the-flow parent, because my personality doesn’t work for either of those extremes.

I still don’t have babies, and I’m still not pregnant, but the whole prospect of becoming a mother seems less like I have to fit into a perfect mother stereotype to eventually make that choice. Listening through pretty much all of the episodes of One Bad Mother hasn’t been the only factor, but it certainly helps.

Thorn and Ellis created a show that makes me feel like parenthood is in reach, because they are committed to continuing to learn and grow with their kids but they aren’t going to deny how tired and fed-up they are either. The resulting podcast makes for a listening experience that isn’t about punchlines, but rather about the real life of living with small children, and all the surprise and amusement that entails.

Laura Marie is a writer and teacher in Ohio; she blogs about organization, personal finance, and making a mess of things at Messy Mapmaker.

Finding the Humor in Parenting with ‘One Bad Mother’