Zibby Owens’s memoir, Bookends: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Literature, is the tale of an award-winning podcaster, publisher, and media company CEO weathering hardships that many of us have faced — the loss of loved ones, suffering through depression, and navigating a divorce from her first husband. Owens’s journey explores how she handled these universal struggles and finally found her voice to create an award-winning podcast and a relatable book that tackles relationships, love, food issues, the writing life, and finding one’s true calling.
Owens’s upbringing as the daughter of prominent business mogul, Stephen A. Schwarzman, is beyond the norm—she had a Park Avenue apartment, a house in the Hamptons, nannies, and access to large reserves of family wealth. But to dismiss Owens as a privileged Upper East Side socialite, which some readers might do at first glance, is to miss the point of her work. She admits that her grandfather was a Yalie and that she attended Harvard Business School, her father’s alma mater. But she acknowledges that privilege and confesses that she hid her well-known last name for years, so she would not get opportunities based on her family alone. Although she is deeply grateful for the advantages her family’s affluence has afforded her, Owens strives to define herself by more than her wealth.
Bookends is about connection. Owens recounts a time after her grandfather’s funeral:
I snuck upstairs to sit in my father’s childhood bedroom, where I stared at many trophies, framed certificates, and black-and-white photos of my dad from track meets. I tried to imagine what it felt like to grow up in this house, in his room, with this bedspread.
And it’s this thread, Owens’s quest for connection to her family, her friends, and her work that drives the narrative.
Her young adult and early mothering years were fraught with anxiety and depression. Owens ruminates about the chaotic process of managing kids and digresses, “And wait, let me stop all that and be in the moment and play on the floor until they get sick of me because it all goes by too quickly,” reminding me of the struggle to find a balance between good parenting and being true to oneself.
Her uneasiness about being “just a mom” reminded me of my own grief when I believed I forfeited my identity after the birth of my first child. Everyone in my playgroup subscribed to what the glossy magazines fed us about motherhood being all-satisfying. Sometimes it was, but sometimes it just wasn’t enough for me. But nobody spoke about the ugly parts, like difficulties one might have in nursing and the monotony of life with a newborn. All of my peers appeared to be happy, as though the consuming nature of motherhood was enough for them.
Owens recalls trying to be a perfect mother: “‘Zib, you’re driving yourself nuts,’ my mother would say as I raced around frantically, trying to do absolutely everything. My mother thought my parenting style was crazy, from the breastfeeding to the overinvolvement in the kids’ lives.” Hopefully, her narrative informs a new generation of mothers who long for connection. Bookends would have helped me feel less alone as a new mom.
Profoundly affected by the lack of closure she felt after her best friend’s death in the September 11 attacks, and the shock of the heartbreaking assault on her hometown, Owens muddled through her time at Harvard Business School. She found solace in trauma therapy and during meetings with her book club. This period coaxed her away from the corporate internship that she had been half-heartedly pursuing and was the first step in bringing her closer to finding her way in life through books.
“My fingers were poised over the keyboard. And I stopped. If I was going to die at my desk like I believed Stacey had and if my life could end at any moment, then I had better be doing something that involved my whole self,” she writes.
Her descriptions of the 9/11 aftermath and the early aughts seep through the pages of Bookends, and conjured my own memories from that period. I, too, fell in love with James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces because I’d never read something so honest, and I reeled in shock upon learning parts of the book were fabricated.
She writes, “Books, for me, are lifesaving. They have been my companions, my teachers, my entertainment, my emotional outlets, my escape.” A bookworm since childhood, she is moved by the tales she reads, and these stories guided her when she lost emotional connections at points in her life. Owens eventually finds support from her new husband, learns from other authors by inviting them onto her podcast, and starts her own publishing company, reminding me that the only constant we can expect along life’s path is the unexpected. I watched Owens speak at a Zoom book event recently and I witnessed her true spirit shine as she aided other authors, publishers, and editors in connecting, and generously shared her own knowledge.
Owen’s strong-as-steel diligence, tenacity, and understanding of the human need for connection are some of the attributes that catapulted her to leadership in both the podcast and publishing worlds. She started her motherhood literary career by writing a Huffington Post essay called “A Mother’s Right to Sanity” in which she states, “I was putting my foot down on behalf of all other mothers. I couldn’t be the only one who was chronically overwhelmed by what the demands of motherhood have morphed into over the years.” The piece went viral and resonated with other people, which motivated her to continue sharing her feelings about motherhood. She started her successful podcast, Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books and, during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, she edited an anthology called Moms Don’t Have Time To: A Quarantine Anthology. She founded her own publishing company, Zibby Books, with cofounder Leigh Newman, author of Nobody Gets Out Alive. Finding her true voice appears to be the missing puzzle piece that continues to push Owens to keep asking questions throughout her literary and publishing careers. “I’d always considered myself a writer. Not a successful one, of course, and not necessarily a published one, but deep in my heart, I’ve always known that’s who I am.”
I was engrossed in Bookends from the first page as I learned about Owens’s personal life. Her honesty and matter-of-fact tone were relatable and at times I felt like I was listening to a good friend. In light of this, more information about Owens’s relationship with her first husband, who fathered her four children, would have improved the story arc for me, and made her subsequent divorce from this man and her relationship with her tennis pro less shocking. But in the author’s note that precedes the start of the memoir, Owens says she didn’t touch on this portion of her life out of respect for her family. As a mother and parenting journalist, I understand the fierce need to keep certain components of her life private for the sake of her kids. Reading that disclaimer was enough for me to meet Owens where she is in both her writing career and on her mothering journey. I applaud her for putting her kids first.
Nurturing another person while not losing sight of oneself is a universal struggle of motherhood. Our paths, while all very different, are similar in many ways. As I journeyed with Owens, I rooted for her to achieve self-fulfillment and work-life balance, because I, too, have been caught up in the mayhem. I gleaned inspiration from her words, feeling by the end that I could reach my writing goals and still be a good mom. Owens concludes,
Ultimately, I’ve found my purpose on earth, something worth dying at my desk for. I’ve raised four amazing, special kids who continue to surprise, delight, and teach me. I’ve helped people I know and people I’ve never met who listen to my podcast . . . I’ve gone through the depths of grief only to rise up again. And again. And again.
Owens understands that if you put mothers in a room together, no matter who they are, a connection will emerge.