A Conversation with KJ Dell’Antonia
KJ Dell’Antonia has spent the past decade on the front lines of parenting journalism. She wrote and edited The New York Times‘s Motherlode blog from 2011-2016 and served as a contributing editor to the “Well Family” section of that paper from 2016-2017. Before taking the helm at Motherlode, she wrote for Slate and co-authored the book Reading With Babies, Toddlers and Twos. Her new book, How to Be a Happier Parent (“not a memoir,” she’s quick to point out), takes the long view on building a strong family no matter what the current news cycle might be. Dell’Antonia cohosts the podcast #AmWriting With Jess And KJ with Jessica Lahey, a weekly discussion about the challenges of building a writing career. She’s also at work on a novel, a significant change from her work in journalism, but change is something the former New York City prosecutor knows well. A wife and a mother of four, Dell’Antonia spoke to Courtney Hanna-McNamara from her rural New Hampshire home (“sitting in my driveway,” she admitted, “because this is where I always record”) about finding a new kind of happiness away from the pressure and prestige of writing the news.
Courtney Hanna-McNamara: Your years of writing about parenting at The New York Times gave you a front row seat to so many parenting struggles and successes. What did that experience teach you about what happier parents do differently?
KJ Dell’Antonia: They know what’s a “tiger”—they know what is really a problem. And the truth is that very little in most modern, Western kids’ lives is a tiger. As an editor, I would frequently get essays that were written in the heat of the moment that I would return and say, “Look, I get that this is going to seem crazy, but you need about a year to process this, and then I’d love to hear back from you.” Something as simple as your child’s sleep challenges, or something really difficult like a divorce—you need to be able to step back and see this for what it is, not the emergency that it feels like right now.
CHM: One of your “Ten Mantras for Happier Parents” is “people including children—especially children—change.” Your personal life and career have both been marked by significant change. How has that influenced your outlook?
KJDA: That piece is so important: to let yourself change and to let the people around you change. It can be just as simple as “this kid doesn’t like peanut butter.” And the more you say “this kid doesn’t like peanut butter,” the less likely that kid is to ever even try peanut butter again. Give people room to grow.
I truly miss being an editor at The New York Times. That was an evolution, as opposed to an active choice on my part. I can get stuck thinking: “I don’t do that anymore! Is anything else that I do good enough? Was I worth more when I had that title?” Maybe if you let go of that idea, you can have room to change.
CHM: A piece you wrote for Slate in 2010, “How to Love an Adopted Child,” launched you into the national spotlight. In it, you are candid about your own deep unhappiness after adopting your daughter. What do you know now about family happiness that would have been most useful to you during that time?
KJDA: That things evolve very slowly, and that is okay. I was a huge catastrophizer as a young parent and probably as a young person, meaning that anything that went wrong, I said “This is it, this is it, he will never nap again. It’s over. He will never nap again, and I will never ever get anything done.” Every stage my kids went through, especially the bad ones, felt permanent. If I could have cut myself and my poor kid some slack on just taking the time . . . You know, I’m a horse person now. It takes a year to get to know a horse! How could I expect to have this deep relationship with a child in a month? It’s not fair to them and it’s not fair to the parent. If I could have just told myself to relax and let it grow, that would have been hugely helpful. Although I probably wouldn’t have listened.
CHM: In that piece, you wrote that “prospective adoptive parents are either incorrigible optimists (that was me) or people of deep and abiding faith, and it does not really sink in with most of them that things might end badly—might really end badly—until it is too late.” Would you still describe yourself as an “incorrigible optimist” about parenting?
KJDA: I’m so pleased that I described myself that way then! I know that I’m optimistic now, but I did not start my life that way. I think by “optimistic” I might have been hiding the word “naive.” Another line from that piece is that adoption is a phoenix, a beautiful thing that rises from the ashes of the tragedy. And I definitely wanted to just brush the tragedy aside in favor of the future phoenix. I didn’t want to give it time. (I might add that it’s totally okay now. We barely remember that.)
People still find that piece and write to me. My biggest message is a lot of people don’t love the baby the minute it’s placed in their arms. It’s easier to pretend with what essentially amounts to a sack of flour that screams all the time: “Yeah, I totally love this thing! And I’m going to put it in the crib.” If I walked into your house and handed you a four-year-old at this point, there would be times when that four-year-old would hate you and you would hate that four-year-old, and that would be normal. Family is not something instant. We shouldn’t pretend that it is. I wish we didn’t.
CHM: When you applied to be head of The New York Times‘s Motherlode blog in 2011, you insisted you could do the job just as well from New Hampshire as your predecessor had done from the Times offices. How did your position as an “outsider” affect the work you did and the scope of what was written about at Motherlode?
KJDA: In terms of doing the job, that does add a degree of difficulty, not being physically there. But it also definitely made me very aware when all of our pieces were city-focused; I could see when they were all written by people that fit into certain economic groups or that were partnered. Nothing about where I live is homogeneous except that it’s not very diverse in terms of race, specifically. But in terms of religion, politics, financial position, education? The four or five houses immediately around me would vary completely in all of those ways. Because of that I was able, and I’m really proud of this, to help that part of the paper reflect the national piece of the Times as opposed to the New York piece of the Times.
CHM: Your work for Motherlode and the Times‘s “Well Family” page includes both traditional journalism and personal essays. As a writer and as a parent, what influences your decisions on what and how to share about your own family?
KJDA: [Former Motherlode editor] Lisa Belkin gave me an interesting piece of advice when I took the job, which was to never use your children’s names in a way that will become searchable. You can, with some difficulty, sort out what my kids’ first names are. But if you Google one of my kids, you don’t pop up anything I’ve written about them personally. There are definitely times when I have done a reported story on something that I chose to write about because of a personal interest, but I also chose not to make it about my kids, because they’re still in the middle of their experience, so it wouldn’t be fair.
I got an essay when I was an editor at the Times about the writer’s concern that her infant son’s penis was too small, and I wrote her back and said, “Look, there’s nothing wrong with your essay, and it’s a topic of general interest, but for your future child’s sake, I’m just going to say no. For the future 17-year-old in your life, I’m going to suggest that you not send this anywhere else.” Because, really! Probably no one would find it, but if we had to make a list of the absolute last thing that your 17-year-old will want you to have written about them, that would have to be it.
CHM: You have worked closely with other writer-parents both as a writer and as an editor. It’s easy for writers and for parents alike to fall into the trap of comparison. Does working and sharing with fellow writers and parents contribute to your happiness?
KJDA: I turned out to really love it and I didn’t know that I would. When I was hired, the primary idea was that I would write and do a fairly small amount of editing. And it turned out that I’m really good at editing, and also willing to take the time with somebody who has a story that’s worth telling, even if it’s not a person whose first attempt was publishable, if it was a story that you just can’t get anywhere else.
I am familiar with the idea that the only thing that anybody posts on social media is the “pretty” stuff; that has not been my experience. Maybe that’s because I am reading essays and, frankly, essays are disproportionately about the dreadful stuff, to the point where it’s necessary to balance. Even if someone is telling me a story about how their kid does laundry, it’s punctuated invariably with how hard it was to make that happen. I don’t have that many superficial conversations about parenting, other than what you have by the baseball diamond. We live in a small town, so no matter what somebody says to you, you tend to know what’s really underneath it, anyway.
CHM: You spent the last several years working on your new book, and you’re transitioning into a career as a novelist after all these years in journalism. What have you had to do differently as you’ve shifted from shorter, time-sensitive pieces into years-long projects?
KJDA: You can’t just pick that—it has to pick you, too! But that’s the goal. When there’s an editor anxiously waiting, when you have a daily deadline as I definitely did, a couple of things happen. One is that you have to force it out. There’s no waiting for the news in journalistic blogging. You have to come up with something, and you have to finish and hand it over even if you could keep playing with it. To switch to writing long stuff, I had to turn the long stuff into short projects. I never leave a day’s writing without knowing what the next day is going to be. I don’t worry about polishing something to perfection, which I could never do in the blogging world.
The other thing I had to do was stop responding to news and email and texts. I don’t look at anything when I get up. I do the creative piece of writing first, which has been the novel, for two or three hours at the beginning of the day before I do anything. I try to be protective of that, and if I can’t have that space I mark it off somewhere later in the day. When I was a journalist, I would figure out what was going on in the world and what I needed to be doing, and then I would turn everything off and write for a little while, but then I very quickly had to turn it back on. It was just a different mindset. I like this mindset better. I think I’m happier. I loved my job, but I also love having more time trying to figure what I really want to say, not what I want to say in answer to what’s going on in the world.