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?