Good Moms Know Themselves: A Conversation with Zibby Owens
by Zibby Owens
Flamingo Books (2022); 40 pp.; $16.73 (Hardcover)Buy Book
Zibby Owens, author of the children’s book Princess Charming (Flamingo Books, April 2022), is also an award-winning podcast host, entrepreneur, publisher, editor, essayist, reader, and mother. Her latest endeavor, Zibby’s Bookshop in Santa Monica, opened in February, and she’s currently writing a novel.
Since launching her initial podcast, Moms Don’t Have Time To Read, in 2018, Owens has become one of the biggest champions of authors and has been honest about the challenges and privileges on her path to success. Currently, Owens lives in New York with her husband Kyle Owens and her four children, all under sixteen, including teenage twins.
In an interview with Tess Clarkson over Zoom, Owens spoke about her memoir Bookends (Little A, July 2022), the events and circumstances that shaped her story, and the lessons she learned, especially those related to motherhood. This conversation has been edited for content and clarity.
Tess Clarkson: In Bookends, you say you found your voice and love again after age forty. You’ve been candid about creating an identity separate from your family too. What’s your advice for women struggling to express their true selves?
Zibby Owens: It’s hard to know who your true self is sometimes when you’re a mom. It’s easy to lose the core of who you are because your attention is focused exclusively on other people. The first step is acknowledging that it’s okay to have your own identity even if you’re with your kids all the time. You don’t have to give everything up to be a good mom. I thought “good motherhood” was measured in terms of time spent with the kids or activities attended, and that’s how I measured it when my kids were little. And that’s not true. Being a good mom is also about showing them a good role model, setting a good example, and inspiring your kids. It’s okay to know who you are. Don’t put your true self aside because if you do, your kids will never know the real you.
TC: The reader gets a sense that many losses of your loved ones, especially your best friend Stacey’s death on 9/11, impacted you and shaped how you live each day as if it could be your last. Halfway through the book, you’d already listed five important people in your life who had died. Can you share more about how your losses impact you now, as a mother?
ZO: Loss has heightened my awareness of how short life can be. So, I feel like I’m constantly working, racing against time, to get everything done. I’ve made time a part of my brand; my podcast is about time. It’s tongue-in-cheek, Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books, but it underscores the point that none of us have all the time we would like. And so we have to make decisions about how to spend it.
When my children were younger, I thought I was always supposed to be happy and together—or at least present myself that way to the kids. But now I have days when I am so tired or sad that I stay in bed, and they all snuggle with me. It is what it is. I want to show them that I need to cope with my feelings. Otherwise, they come out sideways later (never a good thing!). We all have feelings, and it’s fine.
TC: What challenges does motherhood create for your writing and how do you navigate around them?
ZO: I write quickly. I’m not precious about it. I’ll write standing up on my phone. For personal writing, or first-person writing, I’ve learned to do that from anywhere, in any situation—from a doctor’s office, a car, a moving vehicle—literally anywhere.
Writing fiction, however, is a different beast and requires a different part of my brain. I can’t do that standing up! I also can’t do it around the kids. The novel I’m working on has been written on days when they’re with their dad. I need hours of uninterrupted time. But I talk to the kids about all the ideas for my books. Their input helped me when I wrote my children’s book, Princess Charming. They’re involved in them all, and a side benefit to all this is that they like to write now.
TC: How does motherhood impact what you choose to write?
ZO: Having kids gives me so much material! Moms who want to write have so much material at their fingertips. All their emotions are front and center, unlike [in] the grown-up world where so much is hidden. Having kids around, there’s that immediacy of feeling and constant navigation of emotion that make for great writing. There are two kids in the novel I’m working on now. I don’t write about my kids, per se, but the experience of motherhood and raising children is universal. There may be attributes of my children reflected in the work, but I try not to give anything away, and I always share my work with them.
TC: You state in the opening of Bookends that you were protecting your children’s privacy so you left out some portions of your life pertaining to your first marriage and divorce. Did that decision in any way help or hinder your writing process?
ZO: I cut 10,000 words from the book to protect them. I would love to write about my kids and could write about them nonstop, but as a parent, you have to recognize it’s their life. Sometimes I’m dying to post about my kids—we’re parents, and we all have immense pride in our children—but it’s an area of caution for sure. It’s hard to resist, but I know it’s not right. So I don’t do it.
TC: Like you, I suffered from extreme anxiety while I was young, and I connected with your discussion in Bookends about your communication and anxiety struggles. As a writer, how has this particular experience impacted you?
ZO: I think it’s increased my sensitivity and my awareness. I was constantly observing as a kid, and now, I spend so much time looking, listening, and watching others. I’m curious about people. I’m always wondering about people.
Many writers have anxiety. It seems to come with the territory. The more authors I meet, the more I realize how common anxiety is among them. Indeed, there are many attributes that we share and are now able to commiserate about. So I feel at home with my anxiety now, and I think listening to other writers—and others generally—is really important.
TC: What question do you wish you had been asked after Bookends was published?
ZO: This question: “How did Stacey’s family feel about the book?” Stacey’s and Avery’s families [the families of two of my close friends who died and are included in Bookends] read and loved it, which was gratifying. Reading it gave us all an opportunity to reconnect and brought back a lot of memories. I saw Avery’s sister and mom for the first time in years [when they read my book], and then another of her friends whom I reference in the book, and it’s drawn me closer to those families. I also think it’s given them some closure and peace of mind about the losses of their loved ones. So that makes me feel good.
TC: After so much experience interviewing authors for your podcast, how has it been with Bookends to be the author getting interviewed?
ZO: At first, it was uncomfortable (I’m the one who should be asking questions!), but I’ve gotten used to it. I schedule my book interviews during my workday, and sometimes, when I’m in one of my go-go moods, I have to switch gears entirely and talk about the most upsetting parts of my life. I think I’ve found a way to talk about the book where I don’t go back in time and resurrect all the feelings. It’s taken some practice, I guess, on my part. But I’m honored and appreciate every single interview and every time anyone reads the book.
TC: What do you prefer writing: essays, memoirs, novels, or children’s books, or do you like the variety?
ZO: I like variety. I enjoy coming up with new ideas, pursuing them, and seeing them come to fruition. In terms of writing, it’s easier for me to write personal essays and memoirs. So those are my go-to genres. But I like all forms of writing and want to learn how to do everything. Ideally, I’d write all the genres. A middle-grade book, a YA book, a screenplay—I would like to try them all at some point if I can.
TC: What else is next for you?
ZO: Our publishing company (Zibby Books) released its first book on February 7, My What If Year: A Memoir by Alisha Fernandez Miranda. It’s about a forty-year-old mom of twins who isn’t happy so she decides to take a year off from her job to try four internships. We have one book a month after that. We’re planning all the tours and launches. We’re also acquiring new books and planning our future seasons. So, I’m very wrapped up with the publishing company, and all the books we have coming out. The bookstore opened in February. We launched classes. We have two retreats. We have one in the Hamptons at the end of March called the “Fierce Women” Retreat. Then we have another one in Charleston on April 28-30, and I’ve got lots more stuff up my sleeve!
TC: What advice do you have for other women juggling all the people and obligations demanding their attention and time?
ZO: I got some great advice from my daughter this morning when I was feeling overwhelmed. I was stressing about the kids and writing and my new business, and I was like, “Oh my gosh! I’m just so worried about disappointing someone.” I don’t want to disappoint the kids. I don’t want to disappoint an author. I don’t want to disappoint anyone who takes a class of ours or reads an article of ours or reads a newsletter or listens to a podcast. I never want to disappoint anyone. My daughter said, “Mom, it’s okay. Disappointment is a part of life. They’ll be okay if they’re disappointed.”
So, if I do end up disappointing someone, they will survive, and I will survive. We’re all resilient. I think people know I’m doing my best, and I think for other moms too, that’s the point. You’re doing your best, and occasionally you’ll disappoint someone, but they will be okay with it.