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The brains behind Brain, Child Magazine

An interview with Jennifer Niesslein and Stephanie Wilkinson

Interview and introduction by Judith Stadtman Tucker

I confess that typical personal essays on the subject motherhood and mothering -- or, at least those found in popular parenting magazines -- leave me absolutely cold. It’s not that these stories aren't well written or imaginative; they are. But this particular genre also tends to reflect and reinforce a certain cultural standard that Susan Maushart describes as the "mask of motherhood:" the idea that good and capable mothers must cherish every moment of motherhood -- or pretend they do -- no matter how messy or dispiriting it gets.

The common theme in mainstream writing about motherhood seems to be the ingenious ways mothers find to survive the disastrous consequences of living with children. The tone is almost always good natured and humorous, and the deepest insights these writers have to offer usually lead with the observation that children grow up very quickly -- so when a mother’s sense of self preservation is telling her to head for the hills post haste, she ought to relax and treasure the madness and mayhem while it lasts.

I knew in my own dark and unsettled heart that there was a lot more to this motherhood deal than cheerful coping, and I was pretty sure there must be other moms like me somewhere in the world -- mothers who wanted to read and write about the lived experience of motherhood without the protective sugar coating. I finally found this community of like minded-mothers in the Fall of 2000, when I picked up my first copy of Brain, Child Magazine at a local newsstand.

Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers was founded in 1999 by Jennifer Niesslein and Stephanie Wilkinson, two friends who had babies under a year old at the time. The pair, both with backgrounds in journalism, were itching for writing about motherhood that spoke to them. There were plenty of outlets for child-rearing tips and expert advice, but not one for smart writing that delved into the meatier issues of motherhood as a life-altering experience.

Brain, Child's first issue was published in March 2000. It included essays by Barbara Kingsolver and Susan Cheever, a feature on the new academic field of ethnopediatrics, a debate on the merits of family bed, fiction, and essays by mothers exploring the stuff of real-life parenting (swearing off swearing, or selective reduction, for example). That year, the magazine was named by Utne Reader as one of the five best new magazines in the country.

Brain, Child is the only literary magazine dedicated to motherhood. Contributors have included Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists Jane Smiley and Anne Tyler, best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich, and acclaimed writers Antonya Nelson, Alice Hoffman, and Susan Maushart. In 2002, Brain, Child was nominated for three Independent Press Awards, given out by the editors of Utne Reader, in the categories of General Excellence, Best Writing, and Best Personal Life Coverage. Brain, Child won the 2001 Independent Press Award, beating out hundreds of other independent publications to be awarded the prize for "excellence in personal life coverage." The magazine was also nominated in the General Excellence category; it was the youngest magazine to be nominated in either category.

Jennifer Niesslein became a mother in October 1998 when her son Caleb was born. She has worked for alternative newsweeklies in Charlottesville, Virginia (at various positions including managing editor at C-Ville Weekly) and Harrisonburg, Virginia (as a contributing editor at 81). She was raised in western Pennsylvania and northern Virginia, and graduated from the University of Virginia in 1994 with a degree in English Language and Literature.

Stephanie Wilkinson graduated from Dartmouth College in 1985 with a B.A. in English literature. She has worked in advertising in New York, and as a journalist for high-tech and business magazines in Boston and San Francisco. She earned a Ph.D. in European and American Religious History from the University of Virginia in 1997. She lives with her husband and two children in Lexington, Virginia.

MMO: What was the inspiration/impetus for creating Brain, Child? What was going on in your lives when you came up with the concept for the publication?

JN: We had our first babies within six months of each other, and we were writing about our experiences, which we found amazingly life-altering. (Stephanie wrote this great essay on colic, and I wrote a piece about getting called a housewife by a former co-worker). As it turns out, there weren't very many places to send our work. And since we wanted to both write for -- and more importantly, read -- a magazine like Brain, Child, we started one.

MMO: Did either of you have any publishing experience prior to launching Brain, Child?

JN: I had worked at an alternative newsweekly in Charlottesville, Virginia in a variety of positions, including managing editor. Since it was a small paper when I started (and grew leaps and bounds while I was employed there), I got to get my hands in a lot of aspects of the business, from writing and editing to circulation to graphic design. But really my background was on the editorial side of things. We bought a book, literally called How to Start and Run a Successful Newsletter or Magazine, and it was really helpful.

SW: I had worked as a journalist for high-tech and business publications, and then when I went back to graduate school, I began writing for the newspaper Jennifer was managing editor of. I mostly covered literary happenings in Charlottesville and wrote a books-and-authors column.

MMO: What sort of feedback did you get on the concept for Brain, Child? Did you encounter any skepticism about the market for a magazine directed to an audience of thinking mothers?

JN: We did. Someone told us that there was no market (although I had no delusions that Stephanie and I were this unique breed of women). I think part of the problem was that it was a hard concept to explain. Was it going to be like a traditional parenting magazine, but we'd get into the hard science behind, say, diaper rash? Was it going to be really earnest or academic? Was it going to be all lovey-dovey with tributes to our kids? I think there are so many stereotypes out there about mothering (and magazines targeted to mothers) that it was hard to come up with a concise mission statement. In fact, I still have a hard time explaining what Brain, Child's about without explaining what it's not. Part of that's my own inarticulateness, but I think another part is that the mothering-equals-doing-laundry-and-wiping-noses concept is so ingrained in our culture. Motherhood is still paired up with apple pie, like it's a monolithic, American thing.

SW: I mostly got feedback from people in the world of small-magazine publishing, who just kept stressing what an incredibly hard undertaking launching a magazine is, and how high the failure rate is (50% don’t make it past the first year; 75% don’t last four years). But everyone also assured me that quality will out. You can have a lot of money and a lot of business savvy, but if you don’t have a good concept and good execution, it’s all a bust. Given that we’re still around and going strong -- and that we’re winning awards to boot -- I think we’re proving that our concept and our content are solid.

MMO: What sort of financial arrangements did you make to get the first issue into circulation?

JN: We started out (and continue to operate) on a small budget, at least by publishing standards. We took the money out of our savings accounts.

MMO: From concept to print, how long did it take you produce the first issue? What was the quantity of your first run, and how many copies are you distributing now?

JN: We were in start-up mode for a year and printed 5000 copies of the first issue in March 2000. Our circulation is 22,000 now.

SW: We’re on newsstands in every state in the US, in many places in Canada, and we have subscribers as far flung as Switzerland, South Africa, Australia, Egypt and China, to name a few.

MMO: Which articles have generated the greatest response— positive or negative— from your readers? Why do you think those particular topics struck a chord?

JN: Well, I think there are two different ways of looking at it: what generates the mail and what I hear about a lot -- the pieces that our readers might not write to us about, but ones that stick in their craw, especially the essays on the subjects that are taboo in traditional parenting magazines. For example, I know plenty of people who wanted to talk about Dianne Homan's essay on her son, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Or the two essays we've published on miscarriage. Or any number of pieces that basically say, hey, the hardest thing you go through as a mother is not necessarily potty training. It's not all sunshine and sometimes things don't just resolve themselves.

There is this odd phenomenon with the mail that I've been noticing lately. The pieces that generate the most mail are the ones that tackle different parenting philosophies: one on the Taking Children Seriously movement, another that looked at the anthropology behind Dr. Sears's claim that there is such a thing as "natural" parenting. I was surprised by the passion behind and amount of letters we got, especially on the Sears essay by Cynthia Eller. (It'll be on our website until June). Cynthia was thanked and applauded, but also called "vile" and "an out-of-touch academic." I saw a discussion board in which she was -- there's really no other word for it – attacked.

Interestingly, in the same issue as Cynthia's essay, we published an essay by a woman who had a late-term abortion, which I really expected to hear about but did not. I'm thinking that there are a couple of reasons that we get responses to pieces on parenting philosophies, but not on ones about what many people would consider a more controversial subject. First of all, the nastier responses to Cynthia's essay came from people who are not Brain, Child readers (who are generally open to hearing about a variety of parenting styles) -- they were people who read the essay on our website, people who seem to be very invested in their parenting expert. Secondly, I think our culture has set up a very bizarre antagonistic relationship between What's Right for Mom and What's Right for Baby. So, if you open the doors to say that there's more than one "right" way to mother, I think there will be a certain percentage of people who take that as an indictment of their own mothering style.

I don't think that's most of us, though. It may just come down to that all mothers can relate more easily to the parenting philosophy pieces than ones that deal with issues they haven't experienced.

SW: People have also responded very positively to pieces by some of the more famous writers we’ve published, like Barbara Kingsolver and Jane Smiley. Not only is the quality of the writing stellar, but I think readers like knowing that these writers go through the same sort of parenting quandaries they do.

MMO: What are some of your personal favorites of the essays you’ve published so far?

JN: Actually we get a lot of submissions (about 400 for every 7 that we can use)— so, pretty much everything we publish we either love or at least find really interesting. There are a few writers that we've published several times -- Theo Pauline Nestor, Jody Mace, Tracy Mayor; it seems like whatever they write is always a great fit for the magazine. They have this way of being funny and reflective and literary all at once.

Generally speaking, I always have a soft spot for the pieces that don't wrap up tidily.

SW: I currently have a 2 1/2 year old who is still choosing to nurse (and who says to anyone who dares try to tear Mommy out from under him, “Hey! I was eating that!”), so one of my favorites right now is “Weaning Lacula” by Laura D’Angelo. I also have a deep fondness for essays like Elizabeth Roca’s tale of being pregnant on bedrest, “Now I Lay Me Down to Wait” and Elizabeth Halling’s struggle to sign a “do not resuscitate” form for her son, “This Far Out,” Sundae Horn’s comedy of earth-motherhood-gone-askew, “Planting My Placenta,” and Tracy Mayor’s “Losing My Religion,” which we just heard won a Pushcart Prize!

MMO: How do you think Brain, Child contributes to changing cultural attitudes about motherhood?

JN: Like Stephanie wrote in the magazine early on, the magazine's existence is a sort of warning to those who would think that mothers will bow to whatever you tell them (for example, co-sleeping is a dangerous practice, or nonparental childcare will create monster kids). And this is what the title of the magazine speaks to—it's shorthand for something like, I have a brain, I have a child, don't condescend to me.

But when it comes right down to it, we're written for and read by mothers, not the general culture. I think that Brain, Child's value is in reflecting and dispersing ideas that are already out there. For example (and as you know!), there aren't yet a lot of places where mothers can find out about the mothers' rights movement, and Brain, Child can be one of those places. I also like that some of the issues you'll find talked about fleetingly in the general media, we can tease out and really analyze, like Jessica Handler did in her feature on precocious puberty a few years back.

SW: … and the feature about mothers in prison, or the one about the damaging and often erroneous stereotypes of teen mothers, or the one about our culture’s view of mothers’ sexuality… We really do explore lots of things other pubs don’t.

I do think we have a shot at affecting the general culture. I have this fixed idea that motherhood is the most misunderstood and/or misrepresented life role out there. There’s a fairly monolithic stereotype about what motherhood is like, and many books and magazines and advertisements just perpetuate it. And it’s just so easy to fall into cliches when we talk about mothering. But by offering real, in-depth, eloquently expressed stories about what it’s really like, maybe we can bring about more empathy, respect, understanding—maybe even affect some policies, who knows.

We’re undeniably part of a larger literary trend focusing on the experience of mothering. I could give you a list as long as your arm of books that have been published in the last five years that are in this new category (which some people are calling “momoir”). I like to think we’re the lynchpin of this new movement.

MMO: What’s been the most unexpected experience— pleasant or unpleasant— that's come out of taking on the publication of Brain, Child?

JN: I'd say the enthusiasm that people have expressed about the magazine, through letters, or subscriptions, or awards. It's incredibly gratifying and I didn't expect it.

SW: Ditto.

MMO: Any plans for the future of Brain, Child you would like to share?

JN: The immediate plan to get the summer issue off to the printer. It's a really good one, I think. There's an essay by Emily Jenkins about her conversations with her grandmother (which is hilarious); one about feeling rage towards your kids; a great, thoughtful essay by a meteorologist about wanting to be able to predict the future once you become a mother. The debate is on school vouchers this time.

Sometime in the future, we'd like to add color to the inside of the magazine and grow, grow, grow!

mmo : March 2003

Brain, Child is distributed in independent bookstores, Barnes & Noble superstores, Borders, and select grocery stores around the U.S. and Canada. Ordering information and selected essays are available on the web at brainchildmag.com. Subscriptions ($18/ year) and single copies ($5) may also be ordered by calling 888-30-4MOMS (888-304-6667).

Also in MMO:

Living Full-Throttle:
Motherhood, Balance, And Another Women's Movement

an essay by Jennifer Niesslein

From Brain, Child

What Motherhood Does To and For You
an essay by Stephanie Wilkinson and Jennifer Niesslein

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© 2003-2008 The Mothers Movement Online.


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