Tuesday, November 25, 2008


I am not buying Christmas presents yet. I’m still very much in the mode of buying presents for myself, like the bundle of eight karaoke CDs I got two weekends ago.

I was happy to see how many songs I knew on them, but once we popped those babies in the machine, I was surprised to see the lyrics and the strange sort of plotlines for songs I thought I knew. For example:

--“Name” by the Goo Goo Dolls: A song dedicated to a relative or childhood friend who’s, frankly, a little obsessed with anonymity and is in need of a vacation.

--“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”: A couple has absolutely nothing in common except they both have fond feelings for one movie.

--“Getting’ Jiggy Wit It”: Will Smith dips into his generous well of self-esteem.

--“Where Have All the Cowboys Gone”: An old-timey woman is disillusioned when the terms of the relationship she insisted upon set her up for an unsatisfying life some years down the road.

--“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”: Man watches woman sleeping, foregoes own sleep. In my opinion, creepy.


Happy Thanksgiving! Would it be cheesy for me to say that I’m grateful that I got to meet you peeps, whether through your blogs or comments or in real life? And that meeting you really does enrich my life? Well, too late. I already said it. Ha!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Oh, the Humanity

Brandon and I try to go out by ourselves every Saturday. To be honest, I get a little pissy if we can’t. Lately, we haven’t been able to (a combination of our normal sitter’s ramped-up social life and our own laziness at finding a back-up) and I have been increasingly pissy about it. I literally don’t get out much. I work at home. It’s only the need for groceries and beer that keeps me from being a shut-in.

We had a sitter this Saturday, and humanity did not disappoint. At one bar, we got to witness a reunion of two men who both had that stoner laugh (heh heh heh heh heh). Damn, they must have missed each other. They hugged and hugged and hugged. One of them was named Stewey. I know this because whenever Stewey would leave the room (and we had our suspicions about where he was, heh heh heh heh heh) and then return, the other guy would yell, “Stewey!!!” and the mutual manhandling would begin anew.

It was a joyous thing to witness and I’m not even kidding.

On the down side, there was also an older woman, missing some teeth, nursing PBRs that she drank with a straw and paid for with change. She was waiting for her son. I know this because she pulled out a Christmas ornament with his picture on it and showed it to people. She kept asking the time. She borrowed a cell phone to call him. When we left, he still hadn’t shown. It broke my heart, a little.

I don’t know if it’s some voyeuristic thing that makes me like going out in public places like this, or just some Bowling Alone drive. As for us, we were the couple who started off discussing how restaurants shouldn’t seat people if they don’t have enough wait staff to handle it. Which had just happened to us, and we wound up leaving before getting a drink.

“We got the silverware dirty, and now they have to swap that out,” Brandon said.

“Yeah, I licked all of mine,” I said.

“I put mine down my pants,” Brandon said.

It devolved from there.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

That Podcast

Remember when I said I'd put up the link to the podcast of the evening Stephanie and I were at Writer House? Well, here you go.

I'm the one who, apparently, talks reeaaal sloooow.

Many thanks to Elizabeth McCullough and the Charlottesville Postcasting Network!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Some Things

Dionne Ford and Margaret Gunther, contributors to the Fall 2008 issue of Brain, Child, are going to be on WBUR today; they're both mothers of biracial kids. (You read and loved the essays, no?) You can listen here from 12:10 to 12:30.

I'm also putting up the talk I gave at the ARM conference. I was going to make a video reenactment but my voice is pretty much somewhere between Kim Carnes and Macy Gray these days, so I'm sticking with the written word. It went pretty much like so:

Moral Support
by Jennifer Niesslein

When I first started writing this, I was at my sister’s house in North Carolina. Her son Nick was seventeen days old. It was not yet nine at night, and they were already in bed, nursing. To fill the down time, I sat at her kitchen counter with my notebook. In theory, I was there to help in a physical, tangible way, but my kid’s ten years old and my skills were a little rusty. Sure, I could get Krissy glasses of water and whip up some dinner. But when I burped Nick, he’d puke all over the both of us. When he fell asleep on my chest, I’d startle him as I laid his warm little body down on a cool sheet. My personal well of breastmilk had gone dry years ago.

Really, what I was doing was providing moral support for my sister. Do you remember the run-up to that first time you were going to be in charge of a helpless human being all by yourself? The day my husband went back to work, I had a panic attack. For me in those early days, motherhood didn’t go with apple pie. It went with scary love and sleep deprivation and the great big fear that I would screw up royally.

Krissy was using her time with me wisely. We went to Target. The idea was to show her that, yeah, she could no longer just sashay into the store, just her and her purse, but a life with a baby was do-able. I didn’t help her at all, which made me feel like kind of an asshole, but the point was that she could do it. So she stuck Nick’s bucket seat in the cart and we wandered through the aisles. People peeked into the cart to see Nick. He fussed a little in the store. By the time we drove through somewhere for lunch, though, he was screaming. But the world didn’t end.

It’s just that, for a time, it feels like it might.

I’m the co-founder of Brain, Child magazine, and sitting in Krissy’s kitchen, it occurred to me that it’s not just new mothers who like to hear that the world doesn’t end. I needed that message a lot in the beginning when I was afraid that motherhood would swallow me whole, but ten years in, I still need it. The funnier essays we run might point out that the world doesn’t end when you daughter points out in a crowded restaurant that you just made a poop in the ladies room, or that you get through the witching hour by having a drink or three with your girlfiend. The world doesn’t end when you try some left-field parenting advice (elimination communication) and it makes you crazy for a time, or when the drugstore really screws up your kid’s medicine. More amazingly, the world doesn’t end when it seems like it really, really should: when a child dies, for example, or when a mother slips into a serious depression.

This is from one of my favorite essays that we’ve published, “Holding On,” by Johanna Rossi:

“These girls need large amounts of time. They need me, in my imperfection. They need aimlessness, patience, repetition. How can I provide all this and out be achieving too?

“I am not trying to be everything to my children; I am trying to be what they need. My children are passionate about me: all their childish emotion is wrapped around my unworthy, reluctant self.

“One morning I go with Evelina to kindergarten and she introduces me to her classmates as if I’m the greatest celebrity in the world. I sit on the floor and these kids are crawling all over me, leaning against me. Evelina cries when I leave, and I drive home through the endless woods with my chest collapsing because I don’t know how I can support this kind of love. I don’t know how I can pour it out for her when no one’s giving it to me.”

We originally published Johanna’s essay in December 2000, and when we reprinted it in our Greatest Hits anthology, I checked in with her for updates. She wrote back, “This motherhood desperation is hard to capture because when mothers are going through it, they’re too exhausted to write about it, but once out of it, it’s too hard to remember. I couldn’t write this piece now. Three years ago is another world.”

Johanna’s right. And as a reader, there’s something extremely valuable, I think, in finding that connection that you can’t really get from other mothers at the playground, or sometimes even your close friends. The subtext for in a lot of these essays is that you aren’t alone. They reinforce what we all know: that the world—as glorious and messy and frustrating as it is—didn’t end with a given moment.

But the truth is, some moments do end. Three years ago IS another world. People try to tell new mothers that—enjoy it! it doesn’t last forever! motherhood changes you!—but we don’t listen. I didn’t anyway.

After another week at Krissy’s house, I came back to Virginia. In her little coccoon, I was news deprived. Turns out, Sarah Palin’s teenage daughter was pregnant, and conservative talking heads were tripping all over themselves to seem to approve. The stock market was in trouble, and people were finally questioning the role government has in our lives. Health care was an issue on the front page. These were all things Brain, Child had been covering for years.

It occurred to me that, crap, I forgot! I forgot to tell Krissy the other important part!

It’s the part that comes after you find out that your world isn’t going to end and that you are doing it by yourself: You start to see connections between your experience as a mother and the stuff that either is, or should be, news. This isn’t the stuff we do all by ourselves. And this is the other part of what Brain, Child does: exploring that connection between motherhood and the bigger world.

It’s something that I think about a lot these days. Because while part of what Brain, Child does is connect mothers’ experiences, the other part of what it does is offer what the writer Jennifer Mattern calls a lens to to see the world through. When my son was Nick’s age, I have to confess: My eyes would glaze over when someone would talk about the economy, but it’s a different story when your readers are trying to find a job that will accommodate their need to have money and their need pick the kid up on time from pre-school. I might have let myself be scared by statistics about, say, teenage pregnancy or online predators, if it hadn’t become my job to know the truth. Motherhood in general and Brain, Child in particular brought the world’s issues home for me, but I think many mothers go through the same transformation, where they go from wondering how they will do it all by themselves to acknowledging that there are issues that they can’t tackle all by themselves.

I’m making it sounds as if Brain, Child is an activist magazine. It’s not. I have my own opinions, of course, but we report in a balanced way. This lens that we offer doesn’t lead to any definite conclusions. It’s not our job. Our job at Brain, Child is to bring readers feelings and ideas, comraderie and debate. We don’t have an agenda, other than to put stuff out there and see who grows it.

Stephanie and I have an essay in the book The Maternal Is Political, edited by Shari MacDonald Strong, in which we start off by talking about why the bumper sticker—you know the one, “Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History”—irritates us. And I think part of what we wrote about why we’re not activists fits well here:

“When you get down to it, some would argue, every time a mother’s voice is heard—this is what my life is like, this is what I struggle with, this is what makes life worth living—it is a poltical statement because we’ve been invisible, dismissed, for so long. The two of us believe that—and have to believe it really—to a certain degree. But we also recognize that what we do is limited. We provide a stage and hope that players—the ones who can take it to the next level, the lobbyists and activists and policymakers and voters—will jump on it.

“Months ago, the New York Times ran a piece on the mothers’ movement. The big color photo accompanying it featured Kiki Peppard, the Pennsylvania activist who has worked for years to get a maternal discrimination law passed in the state. Peppard ws holding a magazine in her hands. It was at an angle. We’re sure that most New York Times readers couldn’t tell what magazine it was, but we knew—it was Brain, Child.

“We can recognize a metaphor when we see one. Well-behaved women might not make history. But we’re hoping with all our journalistic hearts that we can make a difference.”

So, you might ask, why am I at this conference devoted to the mothers’ movement? Well, like I was in North Carolina, I’m here as moral support. I know a lot of you do research and work as activists in the movement. And I know it’s in an intense period. I want to say thanks for making my job even more interesting. I’ll tell you the same thing I told Krissy when we were hugging goodbye in the airport drop-off lane:

1. You’re doing a great job.
2. Call me if you need me.
3. Except at night.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


I’ve had a killer cold for the past few days, so last night when the election results were coming in, I was curled up in an armchair while Brandon and Caleb were watching the results trickle in. My heart couldn’t take the maybe yes/ maybe no, not after these eight years. I sat there and read Dreams from My Father. Maybe you’ve heard of it, by a Mr. Barack Obama?

It was a very soothing evening, the sort of hopeful one that I haven’t had in many years. I thought about the small throng of people at the polling place in front of the “First Time Voters” table I saw earlier that day. I thought about the fact that issues I care about (and have written about in Brain, Child and in my book)—like what place government has in our lives, health care, the stock market’s weaknesses—were actually part of a national conversation now. I thought especially about my friends at the Virginia Organizing Project and how thrilled they must be that one of their own would be in the executive branch.

I woke up this morning like it was Christmas. Ooh, what did the American electorate bring me last night? A President-Elect Obama?

Yes, you did.

Hey, if you’re excited about the momentum (and I know, not all of you are) and live in Virginia and want to keep up on local and state-wide issues, check out VOP. It's like in the Chicago part of Dreams from My Father, except, you know, both here and now.

Earnest and out.