A Conversation with Jessica Carew Kraft
Jessica Carew Kraft is a writer, artist, and editorial director in San Francisco, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. Her reporting on health, culture, and education has been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Forbes, KQED, Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Magazine, ARTNews, and other publications. Her graphic novel about the art, science, and mysteries of motherhood, is called Motherwhelmed: An Art Historical and Somewhat Scientific Graphic Memoir, and is seeking a publisher. Writer Natalie Tomlin corresponded with Kraft about the unique possibilities of the graphic novel, her philosophy on diaper changing, and how her journalism is activism.
Natalie Tomlin: I stumbled upon excerpts of your graphic memoir, Motherwhelmed, in Hip Mama a few months back. Can you share why you were inspired to work in that form and how you prepared to do so?
Jessica Carew Kraft: As famous biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky once said, and I am paraphrasing him, everything makes sense only in the light of evolution, and we humans have evolved to have a very nonsensical pregnancy experience. Of course, it is in service to our bipedal, large-brained, yet underdeveloped newborns. I found being pregnant to be true to what ancient medical textbooks called “the weirdest stage of life.” To chronicle my surreal experience, I drew in a sketchbook. A few weeks after my baby girl was born, I was given the gift of a solo afternoon when my in-laws came to town. Released from the nursing chair, I nearly levitated and burst into bloom. It was like all of the creative energy I had simultaneously been gestating was birthed! I turned my best pregnancy period sketches into quick paintings with embedded captions in the style of Maira Kalman, who had always inspired me. Hers was a graphic memoir format, which naturally blended my two passions of writing and making art. Over the years, as extraordinary things happened in my ordinary life, I kept adding to the collection of pages to make some sense of things. Eventually, I had the makings of a narrative.
NT: In your experience, what does the graphic form do that other forms can’t? Can you share any titles that have influenced you?
JCK: You can paint or draw an image and caption it, which is a literal interpretation, but you can also let the image convey a slightly different meaning than the accompanying text. By doing the latter, you enrich and add layers to the communication. I love to use visual allusion and reference previous works by other artists, making the page a dialogue across the decades and centuries, perhaps even affecting the viewer on a subconscious level. You can’t do that with just words!
As far as influences, I love Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, although her second big work, Are You My Mother?, aligns with my interest in motherhood. Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? was a breakthrough for the medium of graphic memoir, and I was delighted that she was so candid about her family relationships in that book. I also was inspired by Ellen Forney’s Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me, because I similarly struggle with mental health issues and found her depiction of her bipolar disorder complex and true. But my love of this art form goes back originally to the Berlin-born Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, who famously chronicled her life (in what we’d now call graphic memoir) while she was hiding from the Nazis in Southern France. She and her unborn child died at Auschwitz, so I create my own work under the shadow of her foreshortened life.
NT: One thing I really like about your work is how fluidly you reference writers and feminists; their ideals bleed over into practical areas, like mom groups. Could you speak to this process, both in your daily life as a mom and how you strive to capture it in your work?
JCK: This process was born out of a disappointment with the shallow ways that mothers in my cohort talked about their new caregiver roles versus the profound transformation that motherhood usually entails. Having been fortunately exposed to feminist philosophy, my (elitist) expectation was that most women would be drawn to interpret/reflect upon/inquire into their motherhood experience with the help of writers, philosophers, anthropologists, and political economists. But—duh!—most people are just trying to get through the day, and most moms are just trying to keep their babies fed, clothed, and relatively happy. That’s normal. But I desired some way to reconcile what I had been privileged to learn in women’s studies classes with my current reality of caring for a child full time. I had to create and imagine my own group of like-minded women as I worked to build community as a young mom. Part of what complicates this dilemma is that, in our society, we are all alone in our single-family houses and apartments. If you can imagine how we used to live—and how many still live—in a type of ancestral village, parents are able to provide each other more support and receive guidance from elders (and maybe even a French feminist or two who happened to be passing by!).
NT: I also enjoy your work because I relate to the deep analysis and thinking you apply to parenting. For instance, one of your illustrations depicts a mom reading Margaret Mead with the caption “Still searching for that ideal mother role model . . .” I personally think a lot about how to balance my analytical mind with a sense of peace and calm. How do you view this balance?
JKC: Well, peace and calm is fleeting—especially if you have a child around! I might remind you that the author Doris Lessing, who infamously fled from her family, said: “No one can write with a child around . . . There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children.” I think that’s hilarious and sad and true and don’t know how to resolve the conflict except to struggle with it relentlessly, day in and day out, until my kids aren’t so small and can take up their own intellectual space.
NT: One of your illustrations caught my attention: a mom with a baby in the backseat that is captioned “Does your brain atrophy when you spend the day with your child?” As a new stay-at-home mom used to the rigors of academia, I had to laugh, as I often ask myself versions of that question. Yet I also wonder if my struggle with boredom and lack of fulfillment may be rooted in the low value our culture places on caring for children as well as cooking and cleaning. I have started thinking about how my perception of such work is culturally biased and colors my everyday experience with it, often in a negative way. How do so-called menial tasks like cooking, cleaning, and diaper changing play into your work or your larger philosophy?
JCK: In one of my cartoons, I drew a Buddhist monk doing the dishes. This is a familiar trope from Thich Nhat Hahn, who encourages people to be mindful of every experience, no matter how lowly. For a type of Buddhist practitioner, humbly doing the dishes and remaining aware of every facet of the experience builds mindfulness. I deeply appreciate this. And yet, doing the dishes still sucks; it’s one of those urgent, endless tasks of housekeeping that women do more often than men. So my cartoon says that when women do the dishes, it’s just a chore. When men do them, they’re enlightened.
And yet, in our screen-obsessed culture, I do relish those tasks which take me away from staring, sitting, typing, and clicking. Housework is a great opportunity to be healthy and active. The year I spent watching my daughter full time, my optometrist told me that my severe myopia actually improved. If we can think about the benefits to our health that come from these repetitive and necessary movements, the mundane menial tasks can be repositioned as vital and useful to our bodies and minds. However, everything you present in your question is true—this work is gendered and undervalued and God knows how we can change that, but we must try to transcend it.
NT: You state on your website, “My journalism is activism.” Would you elaborate on ways in which this sentiment has materialized in your writing career, especially as it relates to writing about motherhood?
JCK: I am a proponent of solutions journalism, which takes the approach that the news isn’t just about reporting problems, it’s about covering how people respond to problems. If we shift our focus to all of the wonderful ways people are tackling challenges, we shift everyone’s mindset.
One thing I am frustrated by as a mother is the lack of father participation in kids’ organizations. Schools, religious institutions and extracurricular programs frequently ask for “parent involvement” but don’t recalibrate when the majority of volunteer duties are taken on by mothers. This includes everything from filling out contact forms, to overseeing homework, to chaperoning field trips, and organizing fundraisers. Even though we know that having both parents involved in K-12 education and programming leads to the best outcomes for kids, the labor required for schools to run smoothly is still left to mostly mothers. So I wanted to investigate why this is.
It turns out that researchers have identified many reasons why dads aren’t busting down the doors to the PTA meeting hall, and there is a lot we can do to change that. I found one organization that is having success with integrating dads into the institutions of their kids’ lives and wrote about it. Now I’m trying to use the insights from that article to help the places where my kids learn bring more dads into the volunteer activities.
NT: You started an Instagram account in connection with Motherwhelmed. Can you share why you chose to do so and what memorable experiences have stemmed from it?
JCK: During the course of a year, my Instagram account was a fun playground for me to try ideas and see how a few hundred people responded. I enjoyed the challenge of posting something every day, and it definitely spurred my creativity. But one day, a family member without kids pulled me aside and told me that my message about motherhood was not a productive thing to bring up with his wife. “Please don’t talk to her about it, I don’t want her to be influenced by you,” he said. And then a mom going through the heart-wrenching process of secondary infertility told me she wouldn’t look at my posts anymore. I understand well that repeating the negative aspects of the motherhood experience, no matter how comically they are presented, eventually stops being a refreshing and honest take, instead turning into an ominous refrain on an endless replay loop. So my practice was always to emphasize that mothers are supremely privileged and uniquely disadvantaged in today’s society. Creating content based on that balanced point of view seemed the most reasonable approach.
Unfortunately, some still heard me saying that motherhood isn’t worth the struggle and that I resented being a mom. I reject that completely! It’s worth it—it’s damn well worth it—and the supreme privilege of motherhood is something I am grateful for every day and have shouted from the rooftops. And my kids are fantastic!
But I can’t shout this without also warning that this rooftop is precariously balanced on a crumbling support. Mothers do not have the foundation they need to thrive in our man-centric, biased society. It’s every mom’s duty to talk honestly about this and not perform the inauthentic cover-up that is demanded of us. Society tells us: Don’t complain too much, mom. If you do, you’ll look like you don’t love your children. You sound like you don’t understand how privileged you are to even be a mother. This message gets internalized. Deeply. Women stop pointing out how difficult it can be to endlessly sacrifice for little growing people. They become superhero moms instead, fighting themselves and each other in a quest for perfection.
For mothers who speak out, complain, or emphasize the difficulties of mothering (without constant references to wine), there’s very little public compassion. I no longer post on Instagram regularly, and I’m transitioning my critical project of Motherwhelmed into a celebratory project called Motherwild, a social practice art project to integrate nature into my family and community life. But I don’t regret airing the shadow side of what I experienced as a young mother, and I encourage every woman to stop contributing to the giant motherhood gloss-over!
NT: May we hear more on your plans for Motherwild?
JCK: Motherwild is a project that reintegrates my family’s life with nature. When our babies are born, many of us are encouraged to practice attachment parenting, with the rationale that primates and other mammals raise their children in close physical contact, and we believe that this is the healthiest approach because it is based on a couple million years of evolution. But when kids enter most kinds of schools, we seem to stop acknowledging that we’re apes. We dive into the project of civilizing these monkeys, and, for our culture, that means being inside, staying still, and narrowing our full sensory universe to hearing and seeing in a very limited, close-up range. We rarely help our children develop the ecological fluency that indigenous people base their lives on. We prioritize abstract concepts over lived, felt experience in the natural world. And we reap the negative consequences: myopia is sky-rocketing in children, as is ADHD, obesity, diabetes, and psychological issues.
So I’ve started taking my kids outside in natural areas for hours every day so that we can be barefoot, climb trees, watch birds, forage for snacks, track animals, learn about plants, and soak up sunshine. We get to be free and alive and build back our connections to the beings that support us. Since we live in urban San Francisco, this takes deliberate effort. We’re keeping track of our insights and I plan to weave them into a project that can encourage other parents to re-wild and align their family life with our deep ancestral heritage as Homo sapiens. Motherwild might ultimately be a DIY guide, a graphic novel, or even a work of social practice in a public space.
On that last note, I always thought it would be fun/funny to make the tasks of motherhood a work of art. If the artist Rirkrit Tirivanija can set up a kitchen and cook inside an art gallery, then I can conceptualize the time I spend cooking, cleaning, feeding, bathing, transporting, and experiencing the world with my kids as my own social practice that can engage other people! And so can you.