Q: Motherhood is sometimes thought to be a blissful, unequivocally fulfilling experience. Your book shows the real, complex, sometimes less-than-perfect world in which young mothers sometimes find themselves. Why did you think this book needed to be written?
A: Like every other pregnant woman I know, I became completely addicted to "A Baby Story" on The Learning Channel. For the uninitiated, "A Baby Story" is a half-hour show following a woman and her partner through their baby's birth. The first ten minutes or so, viewers meet the mother, learn a little about her life, hear her talk about her hopes for the birth. The next fifteen minutes are the delivery itself in the hospital, with a midwife, underwater, whatever. Then there's usually a commercial break, and then we flash forward six to eight weeks, and there's the happy mother, and the new baby, usually in a cute outfit, and the mother gives the baby a bottle, or changes her diaper, and beams joyously at the camera, and then the credits roll.
Needless to say, this gave me a somewhat skewed idea of what the early days of my own baby's life would be like. I remember one specific night Lucy's second night at home. My milk hadn't come in yet; my daughter absolutely refused to breast-feed and regarded my breasts with all of the enthusiasm of a discerning diner greeting a pair of decaying melons. Of course, I'd read a number of books advancing the viewpoint that a mother who did not breastfeed was more or less the maternal equivalent of Saddam Hussein, I was completely beside myself, and I was trying to follow the advice of three or four different lactation consultants at the same time, which meant pumping for half an hour every three hours, so I was sore and sleep-deprived and generally not a happy camper.
That night, Lucy started crying, and she would not stop. Nothing we could do would calm her not a fresh diaper, not a bottle, not being held and swaddled, not being rocked, not being sung to. Not the bouncy seat, not the stroller, not a drive in the car. Not darkness, not light, not music, not silence, not her crib, not our bed. Nothing. I think at one point, rounding the corner into Hour Three of Inconsolable Infant, my husband and I looked at each other and realized that we were completely and utterly helpless, and not all of our work experience or advanced degrees or all the classes we'd taken or the books we'd read were going to get us out of this mess. At that moment, when I wailed, "How come the frickin' 'Baby Story' didn't show me THIS?!?!" a book was born.
Having said that, though, don't think I've ever started a book with the question, "Does this book need to be written?" I'm a firm believer in Flaubert's idea that writers don't choose their subject matter; the subject matter chooses them. And with this book well, I hardly had any choice at all. I'd finished a first draft of another book before Lucy's arrival. Six weeks after she arrived, when I was ready to start writing again, that book didn't interest me at all. The only story I wanted to tell the only subject that interested me was the journey I'd been on. Perhaps because I was so deep in the thick of it, pregnancy, birth and new motherhood felt like rich and wonderful terrain to explore. (Rich, and wonderful, and not much like the baby books told me it would be!)
Now that Lucy and I have both successfully survived Year One, I can also say that writing this book was one of the only things that kept me sane. There would be days where something would happen something funny, something awful, something scary in the morning and by the afternoon it had been transmuted into fiction.
Q: The new mothers in your novel struggle with a number of problems that have been explored recently in non-fiction. Even Becky has read Naomi Wolf's Misconceptions. Did any recent work in this area give you inspiration for the characters, plot, or issues in Little Earthquakes?
A: Once I became a mother, I had a lot less time for recreational reading and keeping up with the hot-button topics of the day but you'd have to be living in a cave to not have some understanding of how contested pregnancy, birth, and especially motherhood has become. And of course, as an avid reader and former English major, I prepared for birth and motherhood by reading everything I could from Dr. Sears' attachment-parenting manifestos to Tracy Hogg's Secrets of the Baby Whisperer. I read Naomi Wolf and Birthing from Within; I researched doulas online, took a twelve-week natural childbirth course and attended La Leche League meetings ahead of time. Girlfriends' Guides? Got 'em. Birthing from Within? Read it. What to Expect When Your Baby Accidentally Swallows a Hit of Ecstasy? That, too.
My theory of modern motherhood which I'm now sharing for the first time is that the generation of children being born to my peer group is the most intended bunch of babies who have ever existed. We've had careers, we've married probably later than our mothers did; we live in a world where having babies is no longer the automatic choice it was twenty or forty years ago. And dammit, we're going to be successful at raising our kids the same way we successfully managed our careers; the same way we successfully survived our twenties. If there's a book that says it's got the answers to raising happy, healthy, cheerful kids who will get in the nursery school, elementary school and, eventually, college of their choice, you darn well better bet that we'll read it, dog-ear it, discuss it, and do our absolute best to live up to it, whether it's Dr. Sears advising moms to wear their babies in slings while cooking dinner or emptying the dishwasher (the one time I attempted it I almost dropped Lucy on the drainer) or the Baby Whisperer mandating no naps after mealtime. When I started writing I knew that I wanted to have some fun with those books and the culture of perfection in parenting that turns them into best-sellers, and turns otherwise bright, savvy, sensible women into zombies regurgitating lines from Sears or Ferber or Happiest Baby on the Block.
It's no accident that the initials of the book Ayinde adopts her bible are B.S. and in creating that book I pulled some of the more extreme elements from all of the different books I'd swallowed whole when I was expecting Dr. Sears at his most unrealistic, Tracy Hogg at her least intuitive; Caitlin Flanagan, a conservative social critic who's made a career of guilt-tripping working mothers, at her most judgmental and shrill. One of the funniest parts of the editing process was when I got a note from an editor in the margin next to the section where Baby Success talks about co-sleeping until the kids are five. "I didn't know we were entering the realm of satire," the editor wrote. I had to email her and tell her that that was actual advice from an actual, widely read and respected guide to newborns!
There were also some ripped-from-the-headline elements that made it into this story. The Kobe Bryant case happened when Lucy was six weeks old, and Kobe Bryant's daughter was six months old. I remember being so struck by that story, and watched it unfold with a kind of horrified fascination, all the while wondering what I'd do if I had a baby just a little older than Lucy and my husband was involved in a scandal like that. I thought a lot about what would prompt a man with a baby and a beautiful wife at home to cheat (let alone rape) and about how the wife and child could survive the situation, given what the media would undoubtedly do to them.
Q: Did your own experiences with childbirth flow into the novel in any way? Of the four women you write about, do you relate most to Lia, Becky, Kelly, or Ayinde?
A: I have a weblog that got a lot of hits as my pregnancy went up to and then two weeks past my due date. Once Lucy emerged, a lot of people wrote to ask whether I'd ever post the story of her birth. I told them no, because I was saving it for the novel and I used some of what happened to me for Becky's birth. But I made a lot of friends in my own prenatal yoga class, and I heard a lot of stories everything from the accidental natural childbirth (my friend Kim had fully intended on an epidural, but her labor progressed too quickly for any drugs at all), to scheduled C-sections. Long labors, slow labors, speedy labors, pitocin, inductions, doulas, midwives, doctors, Mom in the room, Mom and Dad in the room; Mom and Dad and professional videographer in the room you name it, I know someone who's told me her story about it.
In terms of the characters, there's a little bit of me, and my experiences, in all of the women, but I will say that I definitely identify with Becky's inability to find decent maternity clothes.
Q: Did the process of writing this novel encourage you to rethink any of your own ideas about babies, family, or relationships? What did you learn along the way?
A: What I learned along the way is to never, ever forget to take my pill again!
I think that what I really learned was that birth, and motherhood, and the experience of being a mother, wasn't going to be anything like what I'd thought about, read about, or imagined. I thought I'd be able to have this very nice balance of baby and work, and that my work wouldn't suffer, that marriage wouldn't undergo the total upheaval that a new baby brings, that I'd never feel any longing for the life I'd left behind in short, I figured I'd be immune to all of the things the books and magazines talk about (because "A Baby Story" never showed any of that, perhaps). I've learned that having a baby, being a mother, balancing work and family is much harder than I believed, but also more rewarding, and that the experience reshapes your life more profoundly than I ever expected.
Q: Most women with children, and even most who don't, will be able to relate to at least one of the women in this book. How did you make all of these characters so different, and yet so believable?
A: I think it was a combination of drawing from my own experiences and being lucky enough to have a lot of friends who were going through what I was going through, in terms of birth and babies, marriages and mother-in-laws, reading all the baby books, and gaining, in many cases, a new appreciation of our own mothers (for example, my sister and I are fifteen months apart, which meant that my mother got pregnant when I was six months old. When Lucy turned six months old, I did the math, called my mother, and asked, "What in God's name were you thinking?")
Q: In particular, how did you gather the emotional depth and painful experiences that characterize Lia? What was the biggest challenge you had while writing about her?
A: I think that all of my books have an element of "what's the worst thing you could think of?" In Good In Bed, it's a woman who finds her body image and sex life served up for public consumption in a national magazine. In In Her Shoes, it's a sister committing the ultimate act of treachery. With both of those books, the worst thing in them was the worst thing I could imagine. With this book, the worst thing actually happened: one of my friends lost her baby in circumstances similar to Lia's. I remember thinking that that was, really and truly, one of the most terrible things I could think of. And it raised so many questions: how do you put your life back together in the wake of that kind of tragedy? How does your marriage survive? How do you get past the feeling that there had to have been something you could have done differently to prevent it, or wanting to go back in time and undo everything up to and including the act that led to the baby's being there in the first place?
My friend, who is one of the most incredible people I know, said something that actually made it into the book in a different guise. That was that her loss was, in its way, a blessing, because it let her know how much her friends and family and husband loved her, and would be there to support her and care for her, and carry on her son's memory. So I started thinking about a character who'd go through losing a child, and what she might have lost already, and how the tragedy of a baby's death could help her see her life in a new light.
Q: What idea or impression would you most like your readers to walk away with? What did you most want to convey through these characters and their experiences?
A: That motherhood is hard, that marriage is harder, and that even though we're all living in a culture that mandates nothing less than perfection lose that baby weight! Hang that educational mobile! Have hot sex with your husband, in between taking your newborn to five classes a week! we should all try to be a little easier on ourselves, and recognize that the best we can do is good enough. Which I know makes me sound like Stuart Smalley, but dammit, there it is.
Q: Have you had trouble juggling your family and career, as Kelly does? Do you have any helpful hints for other mothers trying to work from home?
A: Heh. I'm ashamed to admit that at one point in my life I was actually feeling rather smug about what a good job I was doing with the balancing act. I was a mom until one in the afternoon every day. From one until five, the most wonderful, caring, creative nanny in the world takes care of Lucy, and I go sit with my laptop in a coffee shop. Then, from five until bedtime (or from five until my husband gets home), I'm in charge of dinner, bathing, bedtime. The baby was thriving, my book was coming along, and even though I sometimes felt overextended or exhausted, I thought I was doing okay.
Then, when Lucy was ten months old, I got an invitation to go to speak to a group in Baltimore on a Sunday afternoon. It sounded great my husband and baby and I would pile in the car, drive down to Baltimore, I'd do my thing, and enjoy each other's company all the way home.
I'd taken Lucy to events when she was in her potted plant stage and she'd sit or sleep quietly in her car seat. I hadn't factored in the difference between a three-month-old baby and a ten-month-old baby particularly a ten-month-old baby who's been in the car for two and a half hours.
Nor had I factored in the logistics of the event. They wanted me there at eleven; I didn't actually start speaking until two, and for over an hour I was stuck on stage, watching my daughter get increasingly kvetchy (and the members of the group get increasingly annoyed with her presence).
There were four people on this panel. I was last. The man who spoke before me had written a book about surviving the Holocaust, so I thought the passage I'd planned to read the sex scene with Kelly and Steve would have been in poor taste. At that point, all I wanted to do was get through the reading, get off the stage, and get my daughter out of that room!
So I read a brief passage, got off the stage, drove the two and a half hours home and spent the next morning dealing with the fallout. The event organizer sent a very harshly-worded email to my lecture agent saying how "duped and disappointed" they'd felt by me, and how I was completely not worth the money they'd spent to bring me there. She complained that I spent too much time in the bathroom (true I was changing diapers), that I seemed distracted during the event (also true) in short, that they'd expected this funny, very put-together bestselling author, and instead, this disheveled, exhausted, overextended mom showed up in her place.
I felt terrible in part, because I'm a bit of a perfectionist and I hate the idea of disappointing people (even nasty ones). I felt terrible that I'd wasted my husband's day. I felt worst of all that I'd wrongheadedly brought my daughter along and made her spend hours in the company of people who very clearly didn't want her there.
I sent the group their money back, and got a very terse email from the organizer saying "at least you've learned to separate your personal and professional life." (I resisted the temptation to write back that the main thing I'd learned was never to bring my daughter around such a pack of harpies ever again).
But I did learn something. I learned that you can't have it all or at least, you can't have it all at the same time. You can be a writer for part of the day and a mother for part of the day, but you can't combine the two activities.
So now I do a lot less public speaking, and I'm a lot pickier about the groups I visit (and in general, I try to make sure that I won't be sharing an event with Holocaust survivors). My book tours are shorter, and geographically limited, because I'll only stay away from home a few days at a time. I've given up trying to respond to every single piece of email I get, every request for donated books, for back-cover blurbs and writing advice and book-club visits.
It's a trade-off. On the one hand, if I wasn't a mother I'd be happy to undertake every speaking engagement that sounded like fun, and the lengthy book tours, and I'd do nothing but answer email (it's a wonderful way to procrastinate).
And if I weren't a writer, I'd spend every minute with the baby, and when I had a sitter, I'd use the time to see a movie or go out to eat instead of stealing an hour or two with my laptop.
The balance isn't perfect, and I worry a lot about whether I'm short-changing my child or giving my job, and my readers, short shrift. But mostly, horrific events in Baltimore aside, I think that I'm doing okay.
Q: You've written columns and articles and short stories before what draws you to writing novels?
A: I like having a broad canvas to tell a story on, and novels give me a kind of range and freedom that newspaper articles and short stories never could. Of course, the down side is timeliness. When you're writing for newspapers and something happens, you can give the world your take on it the very next day. If you're writing a novel and, say, September 11 happens, your book won't appear for another entire year, and what you have to say might not seem as timely or meaningful. Of course, I've got a weblog (www.jenniferweiner.blogspot.com) where I can unload my daily musings, although generally they're not about important national or cultural issues, and they're more about what non-food items my daughter's eating these days.
Q: Are you working on another novel now? If so, what can you tell us about your new project?
A: Right now I'm writing a murder mystery that's set in a Connecticut suburb very much like the one where I grew up. The heroine is the accidental mother of triplets (she grudgingly agreed to try to get pregnant just to humor her husband, and wound up with three babies), and she and her friends fight crime from nine to eleven-thirty, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, when their kids are in nursery school.