Joanne Catz Hartman: Your book is part self-exploration and part social commentary; it is a raw, real look at unhappiness in motherhood, and deeply explores many issues. How do you feel it is different from other books on motherhood?
Faulkner Fox: I think what’s different about my book is the voice — personal and vulnerable, yet also often taking sharp aim at cultural forces that I find harmful to mothers. Dispatches is a hybrid book, in a way. One reviewer called it “part memoir, part parenting book, part cultural analysis.” I’m happy with this mixture. Above all, I wanted to write a book that would move people so I had to appeal to the heart. But I also believe strongly that social changes need to occur to make life better for mothers. This led me to write politically. And yet because I didn’t want to be dry or manifesto-like, I included a lot of humor. Finally, because I wrote poetry before writing non-fiction, I paid close attention to how the sentences sounded. I wanted the language in Dispatches to be sharp, but also beautiful, if possible.
JCH: An editor rejected an early draft of your book and said you should be taking care of your children instead of writing about them. Was this one of the reasons you knew you had to write the book?
FF: Absolutely. This was precisely the kind of woman-to-woman judgmentalism I was writing about — what a great case study! Another strange, and oddly reaffirming, rejection I got came from a pregnant editor. “This just cuts too close to home!” she exclaimed. Ah-hah, I thought, must be on the right track. I wanted to write a book that would provoke discussion among women. I didn’t expect everyone to agree with me. I wanted to raise hard questions, though. And I wanted to write an honest book. Dispatches is not sugar-coated or watered-down, but I also tried hard not to make it dogmatic or polemical.
JCH: Your desire to find time for intimate and uninterrupted talk with women is something many mothers can relate to. Can you explain more about this and why you think not everyone finds completeness in mothers groups?
FF: I was incredibly fortunate in my childhood, adolescence, and twenties to have very good female friends. So the idea of friendship I had when I became a mother was very specific and very intense: you talked one-on-one for long hours about literally everything. Conversation with girlfriends was, quite simply for me, how I made sense of the world, how I even knew who I was and what I felt. Because I moved to a new town when I was six months pregnant with my first child, I had to start over, from a friend-making perspective, as a new mother. This was very difficult for me. For one thing, the time constraints of my life had changed entirely. As I write in Dispatches , if it takes six hours of intense conversation to begin to feel intimate with someone, I could easily accomplish that in a weekend in my twenties. As a new mother, it might take two and a half years to amass that much one-on-one conversation with another new mother, much of it coming in 5 to 10 minute snippets. I had a hard time adjusting to this. What I was missing terribly and looking everywhere for was the kind of intense, individual conversations I’d always had with women. That doesn’t typically happen in a group setting.
JCH: An older male religious counselor you saw told you, that yes, it’s a terrible thing our culture does to mothers. He said to not waste any more time trying to make friends at the park and instead advised you to hang around other artists. You ended up becoming good friends with women who happen to be childless, but who are writers, artists and women with similar interests to yours. Have you made other mother friends now, or are your closest friends still those who share your work or intellectual interests?
FF: I am very happy to say that I have many mother-friends now. I actually had mother-friends at the time when I saw the religious counselor: they just didn’t live in town. And they weren’t new friends I had made as a mother. They were friends from college who went on to have children at the same time I did. It was making friends AS a mother that I found so difficult, and thankfully, find much less difficult now. As a new mother, I felt that I should easily strike up friendships with mothers who had children the same age and gender as my own. This would be so great and symmetrical! The kids could play, and the mothers could talk. In several cases, this is exactly what did happen, and it does make a neat and symmetrical playdate for all. What I had to finally accept, though, was that I wasn’t going to be best friends with every mother who had two boys the same age as mine. Was I going to be friends with everyone who drove a Subaru? Everyone who worked at the University of Texas? Of course not. Yet somehow I felt that motherhood, in itself, should be enough to bond me to all other mothers. When it didn’t, initially I felt that something must be wrong with me. Later, I was able to see that friendship is elusive and quirky and not subject to rules, and I wasn’t so hard on myself.
There is an additional issue about friendship with mothers, though, that I talk about in Dispatches — the issue of judgmentalism. The mothering terrain is such a loaded one, with dozens of debates that mothers often feel very passionate about — breast vs. bottle, work vs. staying home, public vs. private vs. home schooling — that it is sometimes difficult to move beyond the particular judgments and choices an individual may make into a place of compassion and respect for someone else’s different choices. Of course, this difficulty is certainly not limited to mothers. In my experience, though, the level of judgmentalism seemed markedly hiked-up among mothers of young children. On occasion, especially occasions when I was already exhausted, I did find it a welcome oasis to hang out with old and new friends who did not have children. They didn’t scrutinize as closely, and this could feel like a relief.
JCH: You say that your desire to write grew stronger when you had children. Why do you think this is so?
FF: What a great question! First off, what a part of me hoped would happen was that I would find motherhood so compelling, all-encompassing, and fulfilling that I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I really hoped this would happen. And I thought it should, that this would make me a better mother. I was very disappointed when it didn’t happen. What I found instead was that time alone felt incredibly precious, desirable, and not-to-be-wasted. In the few hours — and many days, it was just minutes or nothing at all — I had away from mom-duty and could also actually keep my eyes open and didn’t have to be teaching or preparing to teach, what did I want to do? It was very clear that I wanted to write. I’d wanted to write, and had written, before motherhood, but in a way, I think I always kind of felt that I had all the time in the world. I puttered, I procrastinated, I made myself snacks. As a mother, I most definitely did not have all the time in the world. Motherhood forced me to be a more disciplined writer, and it caused me to value my moments of solitude much more highly. Also because motherhood, for me, has been such an intense, immediate, and emotional experience, I’ve craved the balance that a more reflective part of the day has to offer.
JCH: You mention that once your children developed the capacity to converse mothering became easier and more enjoyable for you. Can you elaborate on that, and what other things make motherhood easier for you?
FF: I am unquestionably a big fan of talk so it felt wonderful when my children could talk as well. They joined me in a place I love to be. Infants are scrumptious, but I personally enjoyed time spent with early (and later) talkers much more. Motherhood is easier for me when I have breaks from full-on duty. And it’s easier for me when I worry less about what I should be doing and instead just try to be present in the moment.
JCH: Would you answer your own question — can you be a good mother and not be selfless, can you still hold on to the things that make you “YOU” and keep those strong passions beyond family?
FF: I think the answer has to be “yes.” Otherwise, certainly in my case, I’d be facing considerable unhappiness. For me, much of the unhappiness I experienced as a young mother, in retrospect, seems unnecessary. Why couldn’t I come to terms, sooner, with who I actually was rather than feeling I needed to morph into perfect-mom? My sons accepted me, as I really was, far earlier that I accepted myself. And they were children! I was the mother; I was supposed to have more experience, more insight. Of course I ended up learning from them. They were the guides showing me that they didn’t like it when I was selfless or pseudo-selfless, even if it was allegedly for their benefit. I don’t actually believe that anyone can be fully selfless. Who would be left to get you through the day? I would love it if mothers didn’t feel pressure to be as selfless as possible. I think the relief of this burden would be enormously beneficial to women, men, and children.
JCH: I loved the pie chart metaphor that you wanted from your therapist (who wouldn’t give it to you) — a graph displaying how much of your unhappiness was cultural, societal expectations, your temperament and the like. Do you still apply this approach when looking at where you’re at with things?
FF: Sometimes. As I say in the book, I knew the pie chart of unhappiness was an odd thing to crave, but I was desperate for clarity. I’ve been fascinated by how personal and cultural pressures and desires intertwine for a long time. I felt that the pie chart was a particularly good thing to include in the Introduction to Dispatches because the mingling of personal and cultural is such a huge theme in the book. But in terms of whether I think it’s a good idea for a person to actually sit down and make a pie chart of the reasons she’s unhappy, or happy, or wants to move to a new city, or wants to have a baby, I think it’s a little eerie. It might be an interesting exercise, but I wouldn’t want anyone to have super-high hopes that a pie chart would settle any issue definitively. Life is too strange, ever shifting, and wonderful to be pinned down neatly inside a circle.