Andi Buchanan: What inspired you to write Waiting for Birdy? Was there a lightbulb moment where you thought, “gosh, this would make a great book!” or did it happen more organically?
Catherine Newman: Yes, Andi, because those are the kind of terms I think in. Not only “gosh,” but also about how great my writing is! Ha ha. No, of course not. I only know how to obsess and be weird and neurotic. The writing was easy — much of it came out of my column — and of the sanity-saving variety. But then afterwards I was kind of worried about it, worried that people would hate the book, or me for writing it. Also, about a month before it was published some article came out in the New York Times that was like, and I’m paraphrasing here, “The Memoir Is Dead! Enough Already.” Which was kind of a bummer. But if even one person read the book and felt less crazy? Or felt like someone was actually crazier than they were — the way I felt after reading Anne Lamott’s amazingly generous Operating Instructions? That’s the best thing you could really hope for.
AB: How was writing the book different from writing your column? Were there topics you addressed in the book that you would not or did not address in your column?
CN: The book started with the first year of the columns and then I filled in the gaps — mostly around the pregnancy, the birth, and the new baby — with the writing I’d done in my own journal, the private one, filled with stuff that was mostly too weird and painful to write about at the time it was happening. Because of that, the book is, overall, much darker than the columns. Also, there are real-live swear words, which I can’t publish on-line and which make up a significant portion of my actual everyday speech. But when I read the book in galleys, besides being terribly embarrassed about how much I talked about my hemorrhoids, I was struck by how much it’s actually a book about anxiety — the kind of anxiety that has, for me, been twinned with falling in love with my kids. The book sort of traces a path from anxious despair to — or really towards — something more like mental health.
AB: Tell me about your work schedule, how you organize your time around kids and job and book-writing.
CN: We juggle my jobs (freelance writing and being the secretary and occasional professor of Creative Writing at Amherst College) with Ben’s kindergarten and Michael’s massage therapy school. When it’s good, it’s great — everybody busy and happy, our lives rich and varied. And when it’s bad, I wake up in the night in a panic, wondering if I’m supposed to be somewhere else or if I maybe left one of the kids in a shopping cart at Whole Foods.
A typical (good) day is when I get to write and work and play with the kids, and Michael and I pass them back and forth smoothly like cheerful batons, and the whole family is like a set of happy, smiling gears. A typical (bad) day is when I wake up and feel like I’ve been bludgeoned all night long with a metal pipe and I’m exhausted and witless and I don’t have time to write and I’m cranky with the kids and I get nothing done and then it’s finally the night but everyone can only sleep if they’re hanging onto me and coughing into my face. If I try to get up to write, there’s epic weeping and wailing and I just have to give up and go to bed at 8.
AB: I just experienced, for the first time, Emi reading part of an essay I wrote — and recognizing that it was my version of a story about her. Are your kids (or at least your older child) aware that there is a whole book of stories about them in general circulation? Do you think, as your children grow older, that you will continue to write about them as personally?
CN: Oh, wow, Andi, that’s intense. We’re handling it by keeping our kids from learning to read. Ha ha ha. As Ben grows older I find myself writing about him — especially about his own actual struggles — less and less. The thing is, even when I have written about them, I feel like it’s always clear that they’re just kids doing kid things. You know what I mean? The person who has insane feelings and bizarre responses — well, that’s always me, and I feel happy to share those things about me. I’m not so big on privacy — my own privacy, that is — but I will tread more and more carefully around the kids’.
AB: What has the response to your book been like? I imagine after writing for Baby Center and being subject to scrutiny on the bulletin boards, you have become somewhat inured to criticism. But has there been feedback that particularly stung? Or response that was particularly moving?
CN: Oh God, I’m so pathetic, because I was happier to get weird or even negative reviews than to get no attention at all. That’s the kind of person I am. Although one review described the book as “plotless,” which really made me laugh. I mean — welcome to my life! Sorry if the narrative arc doesn’t suit you! But mostly, people indulged me by saying nice things (although I’m sorry to say that nobody referred to me as a “total babe to boot,” which had been my one real hope all along). And even though the book and the column are written in the same voice, reviewers talked about the actual writing of the book — while the readers of my column tend to treat the writing as transparent and respond more to my parenting choices. And these are the comments that really can hurt my feelings. Like when I write about how I practically zipped Ben into an eternal hair shirt (is it just me, but what’s an eternal hair shirt?) for, say, dropping a blob of toothpaste on the floor, and I feel terrible about it, and I confess, “God, I’m such an asshole,” and then readers write in to say, “God, you’re such an asshole!” I hate that. But in truth, the sentiments expressed there are overwhelmingly of the “I so hear you sister” variety, and it’s wonderful. It gives me a very broad sense of our community — like it’s Parenting without Borders or something.
AB: Tell me about humor. Traditionally, humor has been a way for mothers to broach difficult topics, or flirt with dark ideas, without treading fully into the dangerous territory of being “the bad mother.” Sometimes this results in jokey, light commentary on situations we can all recognize from our lives; sometimes this results in a more focused look at situations we might recognize but be afraid of confronting. You seem to be able to do both kinds of funny. Is this something you actively strive for in your work, or is your writing voice a byproduct of the way you view the world in general? Are you as funny in real life as you are on paper?
CN: I’m laughing because — and excuse me for over-sharing — Michael and I once went briefly to a couple’s therapist who turned to me at some point and said, “You seem to have mistaken humor for intimacy.” And of course, I was like, “Hunh?” Because, um, aren’t they the same thing? Humor is how I understand the world. I don’t know how to love my kids as much as I do without making incessant jokes about, say, the likelihood that they’ll be killed by one of the child-safety devices I’ve installed. But also, humor is a way to enjoy them more. With kids I think you have to cherish absurdity. Like, you’re in the ER half the night because your baby has an infected Cheeto wedged deep inside her nostril, and it’s worrisome, sure, but also just so completely ridiculous that you have to laugh when you tell the on-call resident why you’re there. Of course then he thinks you’re an even worse parent than you actually are — which is okay, as long as he doesn’t call in a social worker. The irony may be that I feel most like a bad mother when I forget to laugh. When I’m all earnest, “Jesus Christ, Birdy, that’s a party streamer not toilet paper,” and I don’t even see how hilarious it is.
AB: Here’s a little-known fact about Catherine Newman, parenting writer: you have a PhD in literature. Back when you worked on your dissertation, did you ever expect to be writing about, say, babies with infected Cheetos wedged inside their nostrils?
CN: Oh god, don’t remind me. Some nights, Michael walks into the kitchen and teases, “You didn’t get that PhD for nothing, honey!” because I’m up late testing a recipe for marshmallow igloos or making finger puppets out of a latex glove. But I have no regrets. Honestly, I think that all that critical thinking really instilled a belief that things are rarely as they seem — even parenting. Like, you flip through Martha Stewart Baby magazine, and all the newborns are lying placidly in their white eyelet cribs in a sunny room while the mother is happily making goldfish crackers from scratch. And if you’re a critical thinker, instead of feeling bad about the fact that your house is a cross between a monkey cage and a urinal, or that you’re clawing your own eyes out from boredom and anxiety, you just look at that picture and know that the baby has been fed valium-laced teething biscuits, and that after the photo shoot someone removed the million-thread-count Egyptian cotton bedding to Oxyclean out a huge yellow poop stain.
I also learned to be a capital-F Feminist — the bra-burning kind who still talks about “The Man” and has an “Eve was framed” sticker on my bumper (okay, I don’t — but I want one). And I’m glad always to have my righteous indignation to fall back on when the world depresses me too much. Like how we need better affordable child care. Have I mentioned that yet?
AB: What are you working on now? Any new projects on the horizon?
CN: Nothing. No. Okay, maybe a little bit of a novel, but really it’s almost too ridiculous to mention. The narrator is a young mother with a weird sense of humor. See?