Kim Brooks is the author of Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, a parenting memoir that weaves historical and sociological research together with Brooks’s personal experience of dealing with child protective services after she left her four-year-old son in the car while she ran into Target for a pair of headphones. The book was named an NPR Best Book of the Year and described by The National Book Review as “an impassioned, smart work of social criticism and a call for support and empathy.”
Though published in 2018, Small Animals may be especially relevant now during the COVID pandemic because of the focus Brooks puts on perceived risk versus actual risk. Her book sheds light on how we assess risk as well as the moral implications we attach to taking risks.
Brooks’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Chicago Magazine, Salon, Buzzfeed, and other publications. Her novel, The Houseguest, was published in 2016. Brooks is a graduate of the University of Virginia and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is currently at work on a new memoir and attending graduate school for social work.
Mandy Henderly chatted with Brooks over Zoom about Small Animals, her writing process, and how we assess risk for our children.
Mandy Henderly: When I read Small Animals, I could hardly put it down. You weave together your own experiences of parenting with sociological and historical research so smoothly. What was your process writing the book? How did you work toward balancing the research with your own experience?
Kim Brooks: The writing of that book was unique for me because there was a long time when I couldn’t write about that experience because I didn’t have mental or emotional space, and I legally couldn’t write about it. When I did write about it, it was in the form of an essay for Salon. It was the most viral essay I have written. I wrote it very quickly—in about two sittings at a Starbucks. I think part of the reason it struck a nerve is because I had let the ideas marinate for so long.
I think my secret superpower is also my weakness as a writer, which is that I get bored very easily. I can’t write things that I find boring. When I was doing the research for Small Animals, I was trying to interrogate questions that were interesting and had affected me. I write about things that I want to understand, that I want to figure out, and I try to impose some form onto things that feel chaotic or confusing. I think readers can feel when writers are invested, emotionally and personally. The books I like to read are books where I feel the writer has something at stake, and that’s what I try to do, too.
MH: In Small Animals, you write: “And one doesn’t have to look hard or long to see that parental fears do not always correspond to the most apparent and pressing dangers children face.” For example, statistically speaking, my kids are much more likely to die during a car wreck on the way to school than they are to die of COVID. It seems the actual risk is very little, yet the perceived risk is great. Have we as a collective gotten better or worse at evaluating perceived versus actual risk?
KB: I have thought a lot about this over the last year or two. We put our kids at great risk everyday. I think that there are two schools of thought with this question. The first school of thought would say that COVID is different because there’s the public health aspect. It’s about protecting the herd. While it’s true that a healthy ten-year-old has a very small risk, we’re trying to keep them from spreading COVID to more vulnerable people. However, there’s another school of thought that looks around and sees the lockdowns and social isolation. I think that has had profound impacts on our children. And I wouldn’t be surprised if in a year or two, we see an uptick in depression and anxiety and substance abuse in our kids. So, we have to balance the public health costs with the costs of isolation. And I don’t think we’re very good at that kind of risk assessment.
People judge the likelihood of a particular risk by how many times they have heard about it. For example, if there’s a plane crash in the news and for two weeks that’s all you hear about, people think their risk of dying in a plane crash is higher than it actually is. The same is true of COVID. It’s all we have heard about for two years, which is valid, but it can’t just be turned off like a switch.
When we perceive that a certain behavior is risky, we also perceive that it’s immoral. When people think that it’s immoral, they perceive it to be risky, so it goes hand in hand. I think we see a lot of that with COVID, with behaviors around COVID, because it takes on these moral dimensions, which don’t evaluate the actual risk.
MH: How did writing Small Animals change your life?
KB: The main way in which writing Small Animals changed my life was that it connected me to other writers and women who are writing and thinking about motherhood in a complicated, interesting way: the memoirist Claire Dederer, the novelists Bethany Ball and Rebecca Makkai and Jessamine Chan, my friend and former editor at Salon, Sarah Hepola. Thinking critically about motherhood as an institution and an experience can be a lonely pursuit. Writing Small Animals brought these women into my life and made it more like a conversation.
MH: What has been your trajectory toward becoming a published author?
KB: It was in college that I really started becoming passionate about writing. Then, a year after college, I applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for fiction, and I focused on writing short stories. I finished at Iowa and hoped that I would take a year or two to write a novel, but it ended up taking eight years. What I didn’t expect, or the part that I didn’t intend, was that during those years, I started working on personal essays just to keep myself writing—and I had two kids. I worked on essays about my life as a mother and related topics. That laid the groundwork to write a work of nonfiction. So, I guess my path has been improvised and circuitous. My new book that I’m working on now is sort of memoir and cultural criticism—a hybrid of the two forms I’ve worked in.
I think we do young writers, or young people in general, a disservice by saying that they should have a plan and that success as a writer is if you can make a living by writing, because very few writers do. To define writerly success so narrowly is just not helpful.
MH: What advice would you give to mothers who are trying to balance writing and mothering?
KB: To be gentle with yourself and your expectations. Just being a parent in this culture that gives us virtually no support is hard. So to then try to be a writer on top of that is not impossible but really difficult. For example, I thought that I would write a whole book over the summer, but I didn’t, and my friend pointed out that it was a ridiculous expectation. My kids were home. There’s a pandemic. Of course that isn’t going to get done! It’s particularly discouraging for writers who are caretakers to compare themselves to writers who don’t have those responsibilities. Because we don’t talk about child rearing as being hard work, I think that makes this even worse. It’s another job, and if you work outside the home in a non-writing capacity, and you’re a mom, and you’re a writer, you’re doing three jobs. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t do it, but it’s hard, and it takes time.
MH: Do you have any new projects, writing or otherwise, that you’re working on?
KB: I’m working on a book about the nuclear family. It merges memoir and cultural criticism and journalism. And, I just started graduate school for social work this semester. My interest in social work is a case of personal passions intersecting with pragmatic considerations. I’ve always been interested in the psychology of relationships and the way in which larger social systems shape and impinge on those processes. It’s hard to make a living these days as a social critic or really any kind of writer, whereas there’s a much better job market for mental health professionals. I’m hoping, though, that my studies in social work will also bring me to new places as a writer.