Juli Berwald’s path to motherhood began with a near plane crash. On a flight from Rome to JFK, the pilots announced that they would be making an emergency landing in Paris. For Berwald, those 15 minutes she spent braced for the crash provided an unexpected moment of clarity: “I [need] to be a mother.” Many years later, when she found herself very much alive and very much the mother of a young baby (and then a second), uncertainty and self-doubt replaced that earlier clarity. Why am I not a natural at this? Why don’t I really like being the parent of an infant?
If the above sounds like unusual content for a book about jellyfish, it is. Berwald’s Spineless is a fascinating hybrid: both a delightful deep dive into ocean science and a compelling memoir about parenting and finding your creative voice. After earning her PhD in marine biology, Berwald left academia to raise her two kids. As she emerged from the fog of parenting young children, it was research on jellyfish that led her back to herself, toward a new creative project and a renewed engagement with climate change. Although Spineless is worth reading as an example of great science writing, Berwald’s personal odyssey makes the book so distinctive and relatable.
To continue the conversation that Berwald began in Spineless, writer Eileen McGinnis met the author at a Japanese coffee shop in their hometown of Austin, TX. In the café’s tatami room, they talked about creative lessons from parenting, hijacking family vacations for your art, and the challenges of being eco-conscious while raising kids.
Eileen McGinnis: What has parenting taught you about writing?
Juli Berwald: As a parent I learned that things change constantly. If things aren’t going well right now, hold on. It’s not always going to be this hard. You’re not always going to be this tired. You’re not always going to be this confused.
It’s the same with writing in a way. You’re not the same writer yesterday that you’re going to be tomorrow.
My experience parenting young children was good for my writing because I didn’t start off as a really good writer. I had been writing, but it had been much more constrained academic and educational writing. So, there was this fear, this scariness, like, “Oh, this sucks what I’m writing.” One of the things that being a parent taught me is just keep going, and it won’t always suck. Don’t have a big hang up about that because it’s going to change.
EM: Watching your children develop, you realize how much parenting changes you. As much as we focus on our children’s development, and rightly so, there’s also an internal development that happens within us.
JB: I was not a very happy parent, especially when my kids were little. I thought I was going to be. That was maybe the big lesson.
Immediately following my realization that I needed to be a mother, I thought, “Oh, I’m gonna be a great parent.” Or I didn’t really consider that I wouldn’t be. Then, I had a kid, and he was a horrible baby. I was so tired, and I had no idea what had happened to me. All the ideas I had about napping and walking and having this schedule, I had to throw out the window. I don’t know if I was a bad mom really, but I was miserable as the mom of an infant, and that was unexpected . . . and humbling.
EM: What are the skills or attitudes you’ve honed as a parent that came into play when working on this book?
JB: The one thing having kids made me do was really learn to be disciplined with my writing time. When I had three hours, that was three hours of writing. Don’t mess around with Facebook; don’t mess around with email. Just have the writing open and be super disciplined. No excuses. When you don’t have to pick up your kid at the end of the school day, you can totally do that. But there is a very strong discipline that comes in from having kids.
EM: Because that time is precious . . .
EM: What were your kids’ ages in 2011, when you started the project that would become Spineless? How did you begin?
JB: My daughter was seven, and my son was nine. So, they were little, but they had also been in full-time school, and they were on the same schedule. My brain had cleared, and then it had gotten bored.
Like I say in the book, I started hijacking family vacations to go talk to jellyfish scientists.
I also sat down with my husband. I said, “Look, I’m gonna take Jelly January, and not take any freelance jobs, and just work on the book for a month.” Then, I would do Jelly June. So, I did Jelly June and Jelly January for several years. It was very hit-and-miss until I finally sold the book. Then I had a full year.
EM: What was it like to “hijack” family vacations, as you put it? Did you feel that they were a nice synergy of personal and creative time, or was it frustrating?
JB: For the most part, it was great for me. It was like an affair that my husband was fully aware of. I got to flirt with the jellyfish during what would otherwise be family time. There was kind of a romance about it.
My dad is a physician, but he has this obsession with rocks, with geology. So, all of my childhood trips were driving around the country in a Suburban digging rocks. I really hated that my friends got to go to the beach or skiing or whatever, and we were literally digging in the ground on our family vacations.
So, I think the idea of stealing my family’s trip for my own passion, I come to it honestly.
EM: Throughout the book, you’re chronicling all these attempts to get your kids involved or interested (in jellyfish) that mostly don’t take. So . . .
JB: Did it ever take?
JB: My son now is a sophomore in high school, and he has to write these papers for school—they’re called occasional papers—on something that you find interesting. Very often they are about climate change now, and they’re beautiful. They are about recognizing the fragility of our planet, and how it’s not fair that our kids are going to be responsible for our lack of responsibility.
Neither one of (my kids) will ever really see what I saw in jellyfish, and I’m okay with that. But some of the bigger issues around the health of our planet? Those things do take.
EM: There’s all this stuff that enters your life as a new parent. It’s not necessarily a moment of paring back. How has becoming a parent affected your environmentalism? Has that changed as your kids have gotten older?
JB: I bought every plastic thing that I had to buy with a pain in my heart, but I bought it.
I feel the need to confess my carbon failures, and a lot of that has to do with parenting, quite honestly. I drove a minivan for ten years, and I can’t tell you how much plastic stuff I bought. I tried the reusable diapers, and I just couldn’t do it.
So, I’ve come to this place of self-forgiveness, I guess, and what I’ve realized is that the carbon problem is a problem that needs to be addressed at a larger level. I support this economic policy called carbon fee and dividend, which is a market-driven solution to move us toward clean energy. I think that focusing on those institutional changes is a healthier way to deal with that guilt.
EM: Thinking back to parenting, there are all of these minutiae to keep track of, and to have those long-term, large-scale issues in mind is really hard.
JB: Being a parent, everything is immediate. There’s immediate crying; there’s immediate diapers; there’s immediate food that needs to be made.
But I do think there is an intellectual satisfaction for a parent to have longer-term things to think about. There is this sense that if I can think past this really stressful moment, that makes me feel better in a way.
EM: Both of your kids are teenagers now. As someone who has a young child at home, I have this idea that teens are so easy. Are there still ways that parenting interferes with your writing life, or for the most part is it smoother sailing with teens?
JB: I guess every teen is different, just like every kid is different.
My teens are really pretty chill, so that’s lucky. One thing that’s surprising to me is how much help they need with their homework! And maybe it’s just me. But I spend a lot of time on homework these days. Eighth-grade history, you know . . .
EM: So, that space for writing in the evening . . . it’s gone.
JB: It’s gone. Again.
But like I learned when I was a new parent, it’s going to change again.
EM: Oftentimes, the patterns of women’s creative lives and output don’t follow the same pattern as men’s. Because of the demands of caregiving, careers can look a little bit different, and they can be pushed until later. So, I was wondering about what that looks like for you. At one point, you considered a career in marine biology. Would you say that your career has taken an unexpected or unconventional path that you wouldn’t have predicted at 20?
JB: Yes, I completely follow that pattern that you’ve discovered, which is that I worked really hard academically, I thought I was going to have this career, and it didn’t happen. I really took a sidestep, and I felt okay with that when I did it. Then, I got my brain back.
I was 43 when I started the book. And I said to myself, “Dang, I’m 43. What do I want to do with my life?”
But I wasn’t able to say that until I had gotten an education and had kids.
You know how I had that moment of crystallization about having kids? I was never able to crystalize what I want my legacy on this planet to be until I had gotten through all this other stuff.
EM: Do you have any practical advice to parents who are looking to get started (on a creative project)—or who are maybe asking that existential question of “when do I begin”?
JB: I have two pieces of practical advice.
One is, I started what I called my Jelly Journal. Every day I would just write in there what I had done towards writing a book about jellyfish. Sometimes it would be, “wrote one email to one scientist.” Sometimes it would be, “read one article.” And sometimes it would be, “Couldn’t get anything done today, but I thought about jellyfish.”
The other thing I would do—and I have found this useful twice in my life—is to find a group of people. Again, it’s about accountability. For me it’s always been a group of women to meet with. I don’t think I would have been able to write the book without having that writing group.
This was how I got married, with the help of a strategy group that I had in LA. We met every Wednesday night for coffee, and it was about finding men who were worth dating. It was the same sort of check-in. Here’s what I did last week and here’s what I’m going to do next week.
Having those simple things in your life where you’re accountable to yourself and you’re not ignoring what your needs are seems to be really, really important.