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Dispatches from a not-so-perfect life

MMO interviews Faulkner Fox about her new book on motherhood, feminism, and the search for the self

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When I decided to launch the Mothers Movement Online in early 2003, one of the first writers I contacted was Faulkner Fox. I’d read her essay “Get a Wife: Confessions of a Slob” in an early issue of Brain, Child magazine and I loved everything about it: it was off-beat, it was honest, it was exceptionally well written, and it was damn funny. But I also liked Faulkner’s essay because it transcended formulaic writing about the joy and pain of family life and said something vitally important about the challenges mothers face when they try to expand their lives beyond the culturally-circumscribed boundaries of motherhood.

Faulkner Fox explores this issue in greater depth in her first book, "Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life, or How I Learned to Love the House, the Man, the Child"; (Harmony Books, January 2004). In the following interview, she graciously responds to my nosey questions about what it was like to write such an intimate, forthright and original account of her own experience with— and resistance to— motherhood as we live it here and now.

Judith Stadtman Tucker
December 2003

MMO: The 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?

Faulkner Fox: I 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 at all.

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 work?

Faulkner 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 on.

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 therapy.”

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 did I.

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.

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