Here are some highlights from our interview with Ericka Sóuter, author of How to Have a Kid and a Life: A Survival Guide. If you like this post, make sure to check out our full interview with Ericka. You can buy Ericka's book from Amazon or bookshop.org.
Elizabeth Velez: Ericka, we’ve talked a lot about the desire to write a book about mothering, motherhood, and the way it’s situated in this culture. So that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Your book is called How to Have a Kid and a Life: A Survival Guide. How did this cover photo come about?
Ericka Sóuter: I kind of looked at motherhood as this crazy life change for me. And it was like this--you know, you picture in all of the popular images of motherhood and in artwork, this little bundle of joy just sweetly, calmly, quietly entering your life--it really was like a bomb dropping into your existence. And not necessarily in a terrible way, but it just changes everything about your life and your environment. And so, when I was working with the book publisher and we were coming up with ideas, the artist actually suggested, “Let’s have a stork do that. Let’s have a stork drop a bomb.” And I was like: that’s perfect...I wanted to be straightforward and honest because that’s what it is--how to have a kid and a life...This book has nothing to do with how to raise a child, it’s really about how to raise yourself when you become this new person and this new mother.
Pam Fox: How would you describe your intended audience for the book? Were you thinking about women writ large, were you thinking about mothers, were you thinking about a particular generation?
Sóuter: Motherhood is really this constantly evolving process because you mother a newborn one way, you mother a teen another. You’re kind of dealing with these shifts all throughout motherhood. So the intention was originally for new mothers because we’re kind of hit with the reality of a lot of these things that I talk about in the book that nobody else talks about, but then it’s also for people who are in the thick of it because there’s a lot that they can relate to.
Velez: We have the same experience, Ericka, of having a teenager and a toddler at the same time. It’s interesting to me when I look at books that come out about motherhood, they are so focused on infancy. Sometimes I look at these books and think: when is somebody going to write a book about raising a nine-year-old or an eleven-year-old? I would imagine that you’re finding that each of your children have very different needs from you, from your partner, so how is that going?
Sóuter: I’m a different mom to my four-year-old than I am to my thirteen-year-old. Because you have to be, right? They’re barely in the same generation! It’s so strange! And that wasn’t necessarily my intention going in, I was really one of those people who was going to be one and done. I didn’t enjoy pregnancy, it was a very difficult pregnancy for me, I was very ill, so I thought, “I’m going to have this one kid, and that’s it.”...He was like eight, and he was such a quiet, bookish child, I thought, “Ah, we can do this again, and he should have someone to complain to when I’m old and annoying...Aiden is the most rambunctious--we had to bolt down every bookcase and mirror in our apartment once Aiden started moving. I found myself having to use different skills, and it’s hard, right? It’s like code-switching for motherhood, in this weird way because the older one needs something completely different--it’s not just his age, it’s his personality--than the little one does.
Velez: Yes, and even when they’re different, experience makes a difference So, I want to ask you: one of the things I find most interesting about your book is your chapter about the “mommy gene”...this idea that, for some of us, there is this particular, biological, genetic component to what we have always called the maternal instinct...Could you talk about why that was so fascinating to you?
Sóuter: I entered motherhood with a great deal of ambivalence because I kept waiting for this biological clock to start ticking. I kept waiting for this moment where I would be like “I’ve got to have a baby,” and it never really happened. I had been married a few years, and my husband was sending me email messages saying “Ricky, my biological clock is ticking, we have to have a baby.” Then I got to the point where I was thirty, and it seemed like my career was in a great place. I knew I had a solid marriage, and I had no other reason not to have a baby. So I did.
I found it really hard. I thought the adjustment was really hard. When I came across the research of the mom gene--that there was an actual gene that scientists at Rockefeller University had found in female mice that when they suppressed the gene, it suppressed their desire to mother, and human women have the same gene--it got me thinking...and I wrote an essay about it for Cafe Mom. It was picked up by some places, and I started getting reader mail about “Oh my god, I don’t think I have the mom gene either, and it’s hard to talk about, and I never had this maternal longing.”
That’s when I knew I wanted to write about those unspoken topics about motherhood that some of us feel kind of awkward admitting to because we’re not supposed to admit “I don’t have the mom gene” or “I don’t have a maternal instinct.”...Being maternal is not just biology; I think that there are a lot of social constructs that affect what you’re like as a mother. It was just interesting that science was trying to offer an explanation, but I don’t believe in maternal instinct. I think that love is innate, but being a parent is something that you have to learn.
Fox: I was really interested in your celebrity moms chapter because I really admired the way that you implicated yourself within it.We’re talking about this idea of maternal mythology, especially within that era where these celebrity moms were such poster women for this idea, right?...I just wanted to ask a little bit about your coverage of those women at the time--when did you start thinking more deeply about how you were writing about them? It seems like it was even before you decided to become a mom. Why did you find it important to reveal here in your book?
Sóuter: I think we go into motherhood with a lot of misconceptions. And I think the media plays a part in that, and I was a part of the media that covered Hollywood mothers. I often did those “body after baby” stories for People and Us Weekly. It makes it seem so easy, right? I remember listening to stars say “I love every minute. I love being spit up on” or “Pregnancy was the best time of my life.” Afterward, when I was finally pregnant I was like “Ugh. This is the worst!” And I helped propagate that image that motherhood should be blissful and always beautiful, that you should never complain about it...I wanted to be honest about the role the media plays and my part in maybe making moms think that something is different from the way it really is.
Velez: I was re-reading toward the end of the book--I think it was the overwhelmed and the underwhelmed, the last chapter--I was feeling angrier and angrier and angrier. We’re talking about motherhood and gender...I was thinking about--you write a lot about the way this is what you do, not so much because you’re a mother, but because you’re a woman. And the ways in which motherhood is so gendered... I wonder if you could talk about that a little because you do say, “it’s got to change” and you look at some of those ways, but it really struck me the way you wrote about that.
Sóuter: I just want to make a point of saying that, when I say that motherhood might not be enough, it’s not that motherhood doesn’t bring so many wonderful things to your life. I wouldn’t trade being a mom to my two for the world, and I also feel pressure to say that but it’s true! Motherhood can be one of the most important things that you do; it doesn’t have to be the only thing that you do that’s important. And that’s what I wanted to be able to get at, but in order to be able to prioritize yourself and the other things that you want to do, your partner or the people in your life have to step up. You may be a single parent, but very few of the single moms I interviewed are parenting alone. They’re parenting with relatives, with their friends--there are people in their world that are stepping up to help them, and I look at those people as parenting partners.
Fox: Patricia Hill Collins, who is a Black feminist sociologist, uses the term “other mothers” to describe these other people in your life who help you raise your children in one way or another. I think that’s great, but I would also like to see it be “other people” not just other women who are pitching in but actually having a variety of people who can help out. The chapter about child-free friends seemed to be such an unusual perspective to put in a how-to survive motherhood book...I wanted to ask: what made you choose to make that such a prioritized chapter in your book?
Sóuter: I think what was most poignant about the experience was about what I call the microaggressions toward child-free women, which are all of the things we say--people with children--to people without them that make them feel less than or insignificant. It’s as simple as asking when are you going to have kids or saying you’re going to be lonely and regret it, you’re going to be miserable in your old age, or asking are you gay?... For some reason in our society, it’s such an invalid life choice. But then on top of that, people with children start to exclude their child-free friends from their lives...Just because you don’t want to have children doesn’t mean you don’t want to be around children or celebrate children. I wanted to talk about it to kind of preach to moms about how we should treat our friends who don’t have children and how we still need to invite them into our lives. It’s an added benefit.
Velez: This is my last question as well, Ericka, and it’s close to Pam’s, about the importance of having women friends or women going through this experience...Your emphasis on “you need these other women in your life” I think is so crucial, and I haven’t--as Pam said--read a lot of these books that talk about that.
Sóuter: I think that female friendships are important for all women, but when you have a child your friendship needs shift and they change. You still need those friends who don’t have kids, but it becomes really important to create a village of friends or a group of friends that understand those emotional highs and lows that you’re going to go through because there are some things that are very particular to motherhood that when you’re a first-time mother and when your kid ages that you have someone you can turn to who can tell you, “No, you’re not crazy. We’re all going through this.”...So the key is, yes, friendships and finding those friendships and cultivating and investing time in them because it’s another relationship that’s going to really serve you well, but it’s also making sure you’re doing that with the right people.
It is so strange to me that--I write about how the mommy war used to be stay-at-home mom versus working mom, and now once I started talking to people--and I even experienced this myself--it’s not a war; it’s a million little skirmishes. It’s bottle versus breast, it’s organic versus non-organic, it’s helicopter versus the more hands-off form of parenting, and it’s like everyone judges harshly when someone doesn’t make the same choice as they do. But I think that comes from a place of insecurity...
I went to a yoga retreat with a woman who had breastfed her son until he was five--no it was older than five, he was in like first or second grade--in my mind that was crazy! And I judged her: this is nuts, who wants to breastfeed a child who can chew a tough steak? And then I had to let it go. You know what? That works for her, whatever her parent-child bond is. That’s not what I could do, that’s not what I was capable of, and also, part of my issue with her choice was that I was a bad milk producer so I couldn’t breastfeed for very long. I couldn’t even breastfeed for four solid months...I think sometimes when we’re judging other moms, we have to look at our insecurities about what we can do or what our choices are because that’s where all that comes from.
Velez: I think that can be so large is we live in this culture that pits women and mothers against one another, and the way it speaks to your book is if you know what your purpose is--you talk about that a lot, finding purposes, finding joy in other things--that you don’t invest every single thing in that child. If you invest every single thing in that child, then we’re all terrified that we’ll ruin them...I think you have written a really wise, compassionate, and smart book Ericka, and we love it. What a great thing for teachers! We’re learning from you.
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