A Conversation with Lara Lillibridge
Lara Lillibridge is the author of Mama, Mama, Only Mama: An Irreverent Guide for the Newly Single Parent—from Divorce and Dating to Cooking and Crafting, All While Raising the Kids and Maintaining Your Own Sanity (Sort Of) (Skyhorse Publishing, 2019). Her first memoir, Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home (Skyhorse Publishing, 2018), is currently a finalist for the 2018 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards. Lillibridge co-edited the anthology, Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility (Cynren Press, 2019) with Andrea Fekete. She is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. In 2016, she won the Slippery Elm Literary Journal’s Prose Contest and the American Literary Review‘s Contest in Nonfiction. Some of her work can be found in Ms. Magazine, Washington Post, The Guardian, The Advocate, Hippocampus Magazine, Luna Luna and Salon. Lillibridge lives in Cleveland, Ohio, with her two children, affectionately known as Big Pants and Tiny Pants, and her partner, SigO. She says that when she’s not writing, she can be found shivering in a hockey arena or getting sunburned at a baseball field. She also says that you’re least likely to find her vacuuming, but luckily she’s nearsighted enough not to notice it’s needed.
Amidst travel, speaking engagements, and radio appearances for Mama, Mama, Only Mama‘s release, Lillibridge sat down to answer Literary Mama contributor, Dana Mich’s burning questions about her writing process and her fun-loving approach to motherhood. Here, dear readers, is what came of it.
Dana Mich: It’s no secret that you’re a prolific writer who juggles multiple projects and commitments. But with Mama, Mama, Only Mama, you’ve achieved a feat few others have: you wrote a book about being a single mother to (not just one, but) two children. How did you find the time and energy?
Lara Lillibridge: Right now, I think I have more time than most parents. Cohabitating with my SigO means I no longer work full-time, and the kids are both in school all day. Our shared parenting schedule has always been three nights in a row at Daddy’s, then four nights in a row with me, so I get a block of grown-up time on a consistent basis. I have a friend who is single parenting two boys with no overnights at Daddy’s, and she gets up at 3:00 a.m. every day to write. She’s the hero; I’m currently very privileged.
About all I did the first two years of single-mamahood though, was change a sentence here and there on the same nine-page essay. It wasn’t the time crunch of working, parenting, and going to school that held me back—it was more about how the emotional roller-coaster of remaking my life overrode any creative impulse. One thing I found that still detracts from writing is that I miss the kids unbearably when I’m home and they are at their father’s. Many times when I was single, I’d have these grand plans for my alone time and just wind up lying in bed all day, too sad to do anything substantial. SigO and I have a cabin that’s a few hours away, and most weeks we go there when the boys go to Daddy’s. The cabin is bare of the detritus of parenthood—I never come across a lonely, child-sized sock abandoned on the floor, waiting to unleash a torrent of sadness in me. The cabin is where I do the majority of my writing each week. Even now, ten years after the divorce and nearly five years into living together, if we stay in town, I fight melancholia when the kids are at their dad’s and get nothing done.
DM: One aspect of your memoir that I adore, and which seems to combat this melancholia—as if with a spatula and superhero cape—is the inclusion of quirky recipes you whipped up on the fly. For example: your de-constructed pan-fried s’mores that 1. fed you when you were hungry, 2. served as a snack for your kids when they came home from school, and 3. lent you the opportunity to test out your new dishwasher. What made you decide to include your hilariously-crafted recipes in your manuscript?
LL: When I was married, my husband did 90% of the cooking, so becoming a single parent was more than just finding a job and new house—it was part of reinventing myself. I certainly knew the cooking basics, and I could read, but I grew up with lesbian parents who saw cooking as something necessary but part of society’s oppression of women. I don’t have a strong family tradition to rely on, or a book of recipes handed down through generations. Every night my parents, brother, and I stood in line in front of the microwave and nuked individual box meals—so the idea of me (of all people) giving anyone kitchen advice is a bit unexpected. The recipes provide another entry point for the reader, from making fried dough because I was too tired to take the kids to a carnival, to making cookies because I needed a treat very badly after a rough night and had nothing in the house, to moving in with SigO and having Tiny Pants successfully execute a 23-hour hunger strike to avoid eating chicken casserole. You can chart my growth through the recipes, starting with a microwave dinner and ending with a turkey (I even touched the carcass with my bare fingers!).
DM: And in that vein, let’s talk about humor! In the scenes you write, you exhibit enormous, protective mama-love for your boys: moments filled with sincerity and connection even when life is messy. When finding your voice—first for your Only-Mama blog, and later for the book—did humor come naturally to you? Were you able to laugh about your day-to-day in the moment? Or did you write in order to lend the chaos some hilarity in retrospect?
LL: In my family of origin, my brother was the funny one, and I was the serious one. I think being around someone day and night who was so funny taught me a lot about humor. When I started Only-Mama the blog, I wanted it to be humorous, so I trained my eye to look for moments that could be told in a funny way. At that time in my life, I was dealing with a lot of depression, and looking for the funny side of things helped me refocus my own perspective. I could only write when the kids were at my house, because they were the source of 99% of my material. Toddlers are pretty stinking hysterical, and when they were at their dad’s I had nothing funny on my own. But I think writing the blog had lasting effects beyond the book—the act of constantly observing with one eye for writing a funny story helped me have more patience, be more present, and appreciate the small joys in situ. And honing my gaze to find humor has helped me be funny even without the kids.
DM: I love this idea of training our eyes to capture joy, and then, of course, transcribing the moment. I’m curious: as we know, even well-written, humorous memoirs can bring people to bristle—perhaps especially when they center around motherhood. You brave the territory of writing about your kids in the face of your own nerves and the judgments of others which you’ve navigated firsthand. Do you have any insights for moms who write? Words of advice? Cautionary tales?
LL: One thing I’ve learned in writing memoir is that no matter what, someone will take issue with you. That’s just something you have to accept. For me, it’s been imperative to focus on why I wrote this book—I wanted single mothers to know that they were going to not only survive this experience, but that they would come out stronger than they ever knew was possible. My first year as a single mother, my closest friends were all people in long-term relationships. It was lonely.
I was an advocate for single mothers from the moment Big Pants started preschool. I told the teachers up front that we were a “two-house family,” not a broken family. I wasn’t afraid to be visible or vocal as a single mother, and I spoke out for the single parents who weren’t ready to be loud. In writing Only-Mama the blog, I wanted to help someone else feel less alone in the world, and to help normalize single and divorced parents.
When I get anxiety or criticism, I remember why I wrote the book, and each time I read a review from someone who was touched by Mama, Mama, Only Mama, whether they are divorced or happily married, it reinforces the importance of the risk. It may make my kids uncomfortable, but I hope that they also understand why I am willing to reveal so much.
DM: Speaking of Big Pants (and Tiny Pants too, of course), how did you come up with these fun monikers?
LL: I made a rule never to use my kids’ first or last names in anything I wrote. Many parents use initials in place of their children’s names, but I find that reminds the reader that they are only allowed in so far. Intimacy was essential to me in my work, so I decided to come up with aliases for the boys.
My father’s sixth wife (more on that in my first memoir) had two boys, 11 months apart, ages four and five. She called them Duracell and Hemorrhoid, which was funny between adults, but when the little one came up to me and said, “Hi, I’m Hemma-roid!”, I wondered what he’d think when he was old enough to know what that meant. I thought about that moment a lot whenever I wrote about my kids, and decided never to default to the mocking humor that parents often use when they don’t think kids are listening. I wanted the stories to be funny, but always show the love beneath them. I used to call the kids Tiny Pants and The Big One in real life, which got revised to Tiny Pants and Big Pants for the blog. My eldest never liked to be called Big Pants, though the youngest liked his moniker up until he was ten. But just last week, I referred to him as Tiny Pants and got “the look” for the very first time. Both boys understand that I do it to give them anonymity, so they accept it for the book.
DM: I admire your commitment to intimacy and love for your real-life characters. As a mom who writes memoir and essays myself, it’s encouraging to see it being done thoughtfully and to see it going over relatively well. That brings us to adult characters, though. It’s really challenging to write about partners, exes, etc. Did you have any reservations or worries when it came to writing about SigO or Daddy Pants? How did you overcome the hurdle of writing about The-Things-That-Matter-Most-But-That-We-Never-Talk-About (that is, intimacy and sex and the lack thereof)?
LL: I started out not writing much about Daddy Pants or SigO in the book. Not only did I think it was unfair, but I didn’t want to put things out in the world that might affect the boys’ relationship with their father. The first few drafts began with a “it doesn’t matter why we got divorced” type of introduction. But, as a beta-reader pointed out, it didn’t resonate. As my writing mentors constantly said, “If you aren’t crying when you write it, you’re writing the wrong things.”
One of the themes of Mama, Mama, Only Mama is how society views mothers as pure, holy, born-again-virgins who have no needs of their own—sexual, or otherwise. You see it in blogs with titles like What Moms Should Never Wear After 40 or in parenting groups where stay-at-home mothers vivisect mothers who work full-time. So many married moms told me, “I don’t know how you do it. I could never be apart from my children every week,” which contains an unspoken judgment that there is something wrong with me since I do.
Writing about divorce and relationships on such a personal level is my way of saying that all mothers are still women with dreams and ambitions of our own. We still matter separate and apart from our children. For the work to resonate, it had to be intimate, honest. And that meant I had to write about being touch-starved. I had to write about the messiness and heartbreak as well as the funny moments. But I wrote carefully. I tried to write more about my own failings than my ex-husband’s. And with every story I wrote about my ex, I asked myself if it was necessary to the work or just malicious gossip. In the end, I think I was fair and didn’t go too far.
In terms of SigO, he’s a deeply private person, so living with a memoirist was an interesting choice for him to make. I let him read everything I wrote about him before publishing, and in the end, he pushed me to be more honest, not less. He could see how it was vital to the end result.
DM: That is what I love about your writing: your willingness to share your unfiltered experiences, your commitment to speaking out for others. There’s so much to love about this book, and I’m overjoyed that it is out in the world. A final question for you: What feeling do you want readers of Mama, Mama, Only Mama to have when they close your back cover?
LL: I want readers to feel like the book is a warm hug. We all feel like walking disasters some days—married or single. I hope by sharing some of my experiences, I can make someone else feel seen. Mothering shows us all that we are stronger than we ever knew was possible.