Updated: Oct 29, 2021
We are delighted to highlight Ericka Sóuter’s new book, How to Have a Kid and a Life: A Survival Guide. Ericka graduated from Georgetown in 1997 and took classes with both of us. She had planned to go to law school, but at Georgetown, her extraordinary talent as a writer began to take her in a different direction. She majored in English and became the youngest student to intern for the DC Bureau of People Magazine. Over the last twenty years, Ericka and I have spent many hours talking about motherhood. How to Have a Kid and a Life is not a how-to-parent-self-help book; the stork on the cover is carrying a bomb (a shocking representation to some), and the book is a survival guide for mothers. See our interview with Ericka below and you can buy Ericka's book from Amazon or bookshop.org.
You can listen to our interview here, or read it below
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.
Actually, I have to say--the stork dropping the bomb came before the title. So we were still considering the title, playing around with different phrasings and different words, and it really kind of--and this wasn’t actually the original title that we had decided on; I changed it a little late in the game because I wanted to be straightforward and honest because that’s what it is--how to have a kid and a life. That’s what I thought was missing from all of the books on motherhood and parenting. 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.
Velez: I love that. I love the idea of--right, how to raise yourself because I think you’re right. There’s so much focus on “good mothering, bad mothering, this is what you do,” and I really appreciate that.
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: When I started interviewing mothers for this book, I wasn’t quite sure what the book was going to be. It went through a bit of an evolution, and the more interviews I did--I did about 150 total, which includes experts, therapists, researchers, moms, I sat in mom groups, I held focus groups in my apartment--it evolved into this, it became this message to people who are relatively early in motherhood. As I was writing, that’s what it felt like, but as I gave it to mothers who had more experience to read, they kind of liked those issues that I touched on that they still are dealing with. 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, ad a lot to feel like, “Okay, this resonates with me.”
Fox: So how did you choose the people that you had in these focus groups inside your apartment, that you interviewed? Were these people that you knew? How were you able to attract all of these different types of women to talk about their experiences as mothers?
Sóuter: You know, my husband asked me the same thing! He’s like “Why are these people telling you these things?” And I said, “Because a lot of people don’t necessarily ask moms about how they think and feel outside of the day-to-day of taking care of their children.” So when I started the conversation, first I went to mothers I knew because I wanted to see if there were some real nuggets there, if there were things they wanted to talk about, things that were--not plaguing them, plaguing isn’t the right word--but things that were weighing on them. Then I started going to conferences. I went to the museum of motherhood conference. I went to the Not Mom Summit. I went to bloggers. I started just talking to mothers wherever I was, and then I just joined lots of mommy groups. Tons. Any mommy group that would let me come along, I joined. That’s how I started amassing all of this information and all of these insights. And sometimes, people were completely clueless about what they wanted and needed, and other times people had some great insights about what they would do differently or what they think they may have done wrong. I kind of pulled that all together and decided what to put inside.
Fox: Yeah, because it’s a really nice range. I really liked--and this is something I will ask about later--the way you would go to the Not Mom conference, women who are not interested in being mothers and that you were just as interested in getting their perspective as you are women who always wanted to be mothers or mothers under duress who did it anyway.
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.” And I got to this point where my older one was so easy. 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.”
So we thought, let’s see if we can have another child and we had Aiden. Aiden is a completely different child. I kind of thought I would have a similar, quiet, bookish child. 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. I find it very difficult, but at the same time, I have found I’m having a lot more fun now that I’m a little older and I have a little bit more perspective.
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. I find that fascinating--I teach feminist theory, Simone de Beauvoir says “no maternal instinct” and other people say, as you know, “every woman has got a 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. I had never changed a diaper, and I had never been one of those girls who had grown up playing with baby dolls. I played with Barbies, and my Barbies were fighting crime in the Amazon. So, I kind of felt out of my depth. 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 about this thing, 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.” That was the first thing I started to explore, and that’s why I was so enthralled with that research because I thought, “Does this explain why I don’t know what the cries mean or why sometimes I can’t figure things out? Is it biological?” 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.
Velez: It’s interesting because Simone de Beauvoir, when she writes about it, she says we can’t talk about this instinct because it depends, always, on a woman’s total situation. I think that is so true, whatever the biological--as you say--it’s much more nuanced than that, I think.
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? Of course, they were flawless and they had a baby and ten minutes later their stomach was flat, all of that. I guess 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. It really made me think, and I didn’t expect pregnancy and the body you have after pregnancy. I didn’t because I thought, “Well if I exercise a lot and I ate right, I’ll get my body back.” That doesn’t happen for normal humans who don’t have chefs and personal trainers and 24-hour child care where you can focus on yourself. I wanted to be honest about that. 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.
Fox: Even when we teach the class, at the beginning of the course we would have a presentation on current celebrity moms and the students were all clamoring to do that. They were all really invested and interested in that. But then we just started to feel that we were complicit in that--even though it was meant to be a critique. We thought, we