emotional landscape of Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life lies pretty close to the bone— not only in its representation
of your disenchantment with the cultural set-up of motherhood but
also in the depiction of your marriage. What sort of resources—
inner or otherwise— did you need to muster to write this book,
in this way?
had a lot of emotional support from friends, many of whom were writers.
This was absolutely essential. There were definitely dark days when
I thought, “What am I doing? I shouldn't say this!”
All writers, especially writers of creative non-fiction, face these
doubts, though. If your goal is to tell the truth as you see it—
and that was unquestionably my primary goal— then you will
likely upset at least a few people. Friends help you stick with
it through the fear.
Also, whenever I had
a really bad session of writing and felt like giving up, I’d
inevitably see a mother soon after who was obviously struggling,
and I’d be reminded that I had to write this book. It didn’t
feel optional. Too many women struck me as isolated and full of
guilt. I wanted to write something to make them feel better. I had
no idea if I actually could, but the possibility that I might kept
me going when I really didn’t feel like writing the book.
Every day before I wrote, I started with a prayer. It went like
this: “Please give me the vision to see the truth, and the
courage to tell it.” It did take courage to write Dispatches.
I felt I was breaking a lot of taboos.
The hardest chapter to
write was definitely the one on negotiating housework and childcare
with my husband. It took the longest, and I cried the most while
writing it. Basically, I wanted to tell a different story. My husband
and I are both feminists, and I wanted to tell the story of an equitable
partnership, just like the one we’d always talked about in
graduate school (before we had children). Instead, I had to write
about what actually happened when our children were born. There
is still a lot of sadness— and anger— there for me.
My husband also feels sadness and anger.
One of the main supports
I had while writing was my husband’s insistence that this
was “my book.” He was angry about some of my portrayals
in the book, and we had heated debates last spring when I was finishing
the manuscript. Still, he accepted the fact that it was my book.
He would argue with me, and when he reminded me of something important
that I had forgotten or glossed, I added it in. But it was my reality
that stood, that is depicted in Dispatches.
Perhaps most importantly,
even when my husband didn't like what I was writing, he did a ton
of childcare during the final stretch so I could actually finish.
This was absolutely critical to my being able to write the book
Despite all of this support,
the process of writing Dispatches was stressful. I decided
last May that my next book would be about insects— something
no one would be likely to debate personally. But by June, I knew
I would write about women again.
MMO: Part of your preparation for writing Dispatches involved interviewing other mothers, but the actual interviews seem
fairly incidental to the focus of your book— for example,
you don’t include any extended passages about the lives or
experiences of your interview subjects. What did you hope to learn
by conducting these interviews, what did you learn, and why was
the interview process important to writing such a highly personal
Fox: When I started writing this book in the
spring of 2000, I had no idea what the tone would be like—
how academic, sociological, journalistic, or personal. I had always
done interviews for my other prose writing projects so I figured
I’d definitely do them again this time. I also planned to
read widely, as I’d always done— in this case on motherhood,
feminism, and marriage.
But as the nature of
what I was writing became clearer, I realized that only a very personal
voice would work. One of the hardest things for me as a new mother—and
one of the major themes in Dispatches—is the sense
of always being judged. Pick up a baby book, a parenting magazine,
a newsletter from La Leche League; talk to other mothers in the
park, your own mother on the phone, an old college friend without
children— and you might just feel an element of judgment in
the exchange. In my case, it was both judgment toward me and judgment
from me. (I actually found the judgments flowing from me—
seemingly against my will— to be more painful, surprising,
and petty-making.) Because feeling like I was living in a land of
near constant judgment—my own and other people’s—
caused me considerable grief, I really didn’t want to pass
It seemed to me that
there were plenty (too many?) authoritative books on motherhood,
books that portrayed themselves as objective and based in solid
research, but that still functioned to make women feel anxious and
judged. The only way I felt I could avoid adding to this climate
was to speak in an utterly personal voice. I make sharp cultural
critiques in Dispatches— it’s certainly not
a book that limits its scope to my individual life— but I
never claim any authority higher than my own personal one. This
decision meant that I couldn’t quote much from other people’s
interviews or make conclusive statements like: “85% of married,
middle-class American women do all the laundry.” There are
some fantastic books that do precisely this (See, for example, Wifework by Susan Maushart), but these kinds of statements wouldn’t
work tonally for my book. The tone I came to feel would be right
for Dispatches -- an intimate, irreverent, and vulnerable
one—kept me from quoting at length from interviews.
That said, I’m
incredibly glad I did the interviews. For one thing, they broke
my isolation with the difficult material I was dealing with. I needed
to talk to other mothers as I wrote this book, and not just casually
and haphazardly beside the jungle gym. I am someone who has always
made sense of the world via conversation, and the writing of this
book was no different from any other period in my life.
Actually, I found it
harder to have frank and intense unplanned conversations about motherhood
than I had ever found with other topics. If I tried to casually
bring up a real and dicey motherhood issue— say, how much
childcare mothers expected (or wanted) their partners to do—
I felt I got a lot of evasion. It seemed like the best way to get
truthful and full answers was to formalize the setting, to ask people
if they were willing to participate in an actual interview. And
this worked, to a large extent. The mothers I interviewed were incredibly
generous with their time, and most seemed to thoroughly enjoy the
experience. One woman even thanked me for providing “free
What I was trying to
learn in the interviews, to a certain extent, was simply how much
of the sadness and anger I felt as a mother was “just me.”
If it all was, then I figured I shouldn’t be writing a book.
This was not a vanity production. I wanted to write a book that
would speak truthfully about a wide cultural phenomenon. A book
from my particular perspective, definitely, but not one that was
solely about me as an individual. I felt fairly isolated in my anger
at the injustices I saw around me, and I wanted to see— by
checking in with others— if I was just unusually disgruntled.
I found that I wasn’t. This was relieving! I wasn’t
a freak, and I felt I had a legitimate book topic. I also found,
through the interviews, that mothers have a hard time articulating
their unhappiness. For one thing, they aren’t typically just
unhappy. The women I interviewed certainly didn’t wish they
weren’t mothers. They loved their children passionately. So
What I was trying to
tease out in the interviews was a separation, a kind of: Okay, so
you love your child. But what don’t you love about motherhood,
as you are living it? What I was trying to figure out was this:
How much of what ails mothers is culturally-created, and how much
is inherent to the role? If a child is throwing up all night, and
you stay up with her, you probably feel wasted the next morning.
I didn’t have any desire to critique this reality. Or any
desire to change it. Children get sick, and they need care. What
I wanted to isolate and identify were the facrs making contemporary
American mothers unhappy and overburdened that were unnecessary,
that could be changed. Say, for example, the guilt-mongering, anxiety-producing
tone used in many pregnancy and parenting magazines and books. One
reason the interviews were so critical was the way they helped me
get at the intricacies of these separations—what is par for
the course with motherhood, and what is unnecessarily damaging to
women and can be changed.