One of the strongest voices in my parenting journey has been that of Janelle Hanchett, the hilarious and profane author of the Renegade Mothering blog. The appeal of the blog is its fierce rejection of the beatific cult of motherhood and its earthy exploration of the realities of parenting. While that alone is enough to attract many readers, one of the more compelling aspects of Renegade Mothering is her past as a self-destructive alcoholic and addict, which gives Ms. Hanchett a humility that has created some of her best writing and created a devoted community of tens of thousands of readers.
I’m Just Happy to Be Here: A Memoir of Renegade Mothering is the background story of her life, beginning with the discovery that she was pregnant at 21 with a young man that she had only met a few months prior. Without harboring any doubts, she and her boyfriend keep the baby, who attends their wedding a year later. So begins her family, at an age that is unbelievably young by modern standards.
But – and here is the plot twist – Ms. Hanchett is in the beginning stages of a fight with addiction that will take her down some very dark roads that endanger the well-being of her first two children and the future of her marriage.
There is always a voyeuristic pleasure in witnessing a life that you wouldn’t lead, and here Ms. Hanchett certainly delivers. Her descriptions of the next few years, as her addictions grew worse and her lifestyle degraded into squalor, are the sort of thing that you really want to read from a distance. Yet Ms. Hanchett’s signature humor keeps the narrative from turning into a self-flagellation, as does her honest introspection about her motivations.
Her story is a rare narrative – the voice of the drug-addled mother – and it challenges our cultural assumptions about such women by telling the story in a middle-class context. Ms. Hanchett is helped by privilege – her white skin, a family that can hand over thousands of dollars for expensive rehab centers and take in her children, a completed college degree, an employer that was willing to to give her long periods of absence to address her addictions. And yet, while it could have easily turned into a Gilbertesque story of unaware self-finding, Ms. Hanchett doesn’t allow for it. She forces us to understand the women that she could easily have been, if she had been born into different circumstances. It is her confrontation and understanding of her failures despite her privilege that lead her to a place of pure humility and grace.
Readers of Renegade Mothering might be surprised to find that Ms. Hanchett’s voice is altered in her memoir, dropping the quick jokes that pepper her blog posts. And yet, this more serious tone suits the story, as an older Ms. Hachett narrates the realities of addiction for an audience that may not understand addictive behavior. For those of us with addiction in our families, her story will ring uncomfortably true, both in her stories of chasing the next high and in the recovery process. By the time Ms. Hanchett finds a lasting sobriety, we are battered with the brutality of the destructiveness of substance abuse and the failures of the health system to provide appropriate treatment, even to those who have the resources to navigate it.
Fans of Renegade Mothering will enjoy the novel for its deep-dive into the story that Ms. Hanchett has often referenced in her more personal posts. But those unfamiliar with the blog will also find a page-turning and addictive story about the potential of a young woman who lost her way for a time, only to emerge into the world of competitive mothering with enough self-knowledge to understand that it was time to build a community of her own.