An interview with Cathi Hanauer
Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser: How has life changed for you since the publication of The Bitch in the House?
Cathi Hanauer: For one thing, the entire premise that prompted me to want to do this book is different. When I moved to Western Massachusetts, my kids were four and one. My husband and I were two working writers with no help and very young kids. And we were new to this town. I was stretched so thin and I had these high expectations of myself that I’d be a full-time mom and a full-time writer, equally pulling in income. I was angry all of the time.
Now, my kids are ten and six. We’re settled in here. My life has also changed dramatically in that the book’s success gave me a chance to start to do work I really wanted to do, to pick and choose. This past fall, for example, I worked on a couple of things for Elle magazine, and helped — with Dan, my husband — to launch a modern love column for the New York Times. I also started to co-write with Dan a relationship column for Tango magazine. Last year, I wrote a novel without having sold it first. To have nine months like that, writing for myself and not for pay, not on deadline, was great.
SWB: Has there been an ongoing response to the anthology?
CH: It comes in waves. Both books [The Bitch in the House and The Bastard on the Couch] recently made a splash in Brazil, so we are getting calls for phone interviews. The Canadian press is interested. CNN might be interested. I’m always gratified that the book hits a chord. It’s something I loved working on and feel very proud of having pulled together. At the same time, it is hard to bring myself back into the mode of thinking about that book when my mind is on the new novel.
SWB: What was it like writing a novel after putting together a nonfiction anthology?
CH: I had to write this book. It wasn’t that I planned — after my previous experiences with writing novels — to return to fiction. Writing fiction is such a different process than working on nonfiction. Novels are dreamy experiences, wondering what it would be like if . . .
When I decided that my idea wouldn’t go away, I figured I’d write it quickly and hope it would sell. While [The Bitch in the House] gave me a chance not to grab at every opportunity I was offered it didn’t mean I could just stop earning money. Fortunately, the novel sold.
SWB: What compelled you to write this novel?
CH: Maybe it was a midlife crisis, I don’t really know. The novel is about a mother and daughter and about adultery, which the mother commits after losing a baby when her world comes undone. I was interested in this: how far are you allowed to go? These issues — marriage, monogamy, and motherhood — fascinate me. They permeate all of my work.
SWB: What were the differences between your first novel and this new one?
CH: That first novel was my graduate thesis. The story, which was about two sisters — both of whom bore certain resemblance to parts of myself and some resemblance to a friend of mine — was written because I was interested in a central question: can you be different than your parents or are you destined to become them? I wasn’t anorexic; I didn’t have the same family situation. Yet, there were parts of me in there, as I think is true of all first novels.
After that novel came out, I was supposed to write another one to fulfill the two-book deal I’d signed. During the time I was working on the book, I had three editors. Each editor wanted something different. I had gotten pregnant, so I was sick, and then I had a baby. We had hardly any money, living in New York. It was extremely hard. I was overwhelmed. Finally, I walked away from the deal, certain that I’d never write another novel.
SWB: What’s next on your horizon?
CH: I’m not sure. The book I keep thinking about is not one I could do at this point in my life because it would involve too much research and too much time away from the kids. What I’m interested in is schools: charter, public, private, and the kinds of choices people and communities make about schools. I want to know what makes them work.
SWB: You’ve obviously given a great deal of consideration to the themes of anger and disillusionment in both marriage and motherhood — themes explored in your anthology. What do you think would enable women to feel less frustrated?
CH: A lot of my own problems were solved when I wasn’t on deadline. Two parents, two careers, tag-team parenting, no help with childcare or domestic work: that all adds up to a great deal of stress. When my pace is more relaxed, I feel less stressed. When I am not so stressed, I feel much less angry. When deadlines creep in and I have more pressure from work, I get stressed and angry all over again. The issues aren’t even all solved by money. While I very much enjoyed letting motherhood flood in this fall — and doing the kinds of things I hadn’t done before, like cook dinner every night and run the kids’ school’s book fair — I wouldn’t be happy, I don’t think, as a full-time stay-at-home mom. I like my work too much. I’m excited by it. If I’m not strictly one thing or the other, then the push and pull is constant. When I’m pushing away work demands, I can make play dates or be relaxed about bedtime, but eventually, work will push in again and I’ll kind of have to push away some of the motherhood demands in order to work. I’ll feel frazzled if the kids are not going to sleep on time, because I need that time to work.
When I decided to do the book, what was happening to me was happening to many women I knew; many of these women were writers. Working on the anthology, although a lot of fun, was not only hard work, it was very hard on my marriage and my home life. While I certainly hoped the book would be meaningful to other people, I wasn’t sure it would be. Some of the book’s success had to do with the good fortune of timing. Women are hungry to grapple with these issues, and to learn from one another’s experiences. In terms of models, I was inspired by the anthology Mothers Who Think. For mothers, short, contained essays that shared other women’s experiences and can be read quickly made the book appealing. I think the title helped capture people’s imaginations.
The Bastard on the Couch was an obvious extension to The Bitch in the House, the men’s response. I started to work on that idea. Then I said to Dan, ‘You have to do it,’ because I realized that it belonged to men, the way The Bitch in the House belonged to women. Men are clearly baffled by women’s anger. Reflecting this, Dan’s book is sadder than mine, not so angry. This is women’s dilemma: how to be a mother, work, fulfill one’s self. Men, they can turn the parenting off more easily. They can be great, even do fifty-fifty, but when expectations change and they aren’t required to do so much on the domestic front, they just don’t anymore. And women aren’t like that.
I’ve done lots of magazine work. Stories that touch upon the issues covered in the anthology are always devoured. For example, I wrote a piece for Elle called “The End of the Beginning” which was about when the romance that accompanies falling in love fades to the more committed, married kind of love. I think these are common themes for women, how we divide up pieces of our lives. I’m not sure that I know of anything that would solve the problems, yet I do feel like I’ve learned a lot about how to balance these concerns. I wrote the advice column for Seventeen magazine for seven years. In a way, the anthology is an extension of this; it’s a lot of sound advice.
SWB: As you find yourself further into both career and motherhood, is there any one thing (or number of things) you tell yourself that helps you to stay afloat? Any particular strategy you rely on?
CH: I guess one thing I remind myself of is that everything’s temporary. Whatever phase I’m in, it will pass, and things will get easier-and then harder again, of course. For me, a lot of it, if not all of it, is about how much work I have to do. When I’m on deadline or under the gun or traveling or overscheduled, things don’t keep running smoothly at home; the house gets messy and chaotic, things pile up. I’m shorter-tempered with the kids and I have to do more at night, which means I’m more tired, which makes me more anxious . . . the whole thing. As soon as I get my work under control, I can catch up at home and things get smooth (well-relatively speaking) again.
One of these days, the house will be clean and the calls and e-mails all returned again, the kids’ camp forms and school forms and health forms and everything else all filled out. It also helps to remind myself that my kids aren’t getting younger, and their childhood is fleeting. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t have the option of quitting work (or, most of the time, the desire to). So I get both — the kids and the work — and the price I pay is often chaos, but it’s worth it to be able to have the kids and be with them. Sometimes, I dream about having my own “wife” or the Italian au pair boy who cooks, cleans, runs the school book fair, and teaches the kids Italian in their spare time . . . but in the end, I really wouldn’t trade any of it.