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 don’t need to focus on those people. They’re just like a unicorn or something. We have moved slowly away from it. On the one hand, yes, it is important to talk about them because they do uphold this representation that is so galvanizing to men in the culture but also to a certain population of women. And like popular culture in general, they’re part of that problem. On the other hand, we just thought, “They already know this. They’ve already seen these people.” So we have backed away from it, but I always have a kind of reluctance about it because it is one key cultural site of this incredibly unrealistic image, this mythology of motherhood.
Sóuter: I’m waiting to meet the celebrity who tells me, “It took me three years to get back into my skinny jeans!” That’s the reality for a lot of us. It’s this aspiration that can leave us feeling inadequate or--failure is a strong word, but it makes you feel like you are failing at something. You want to get your career back, you want to get your body back, you want to do all of these things, and a baby doesn’t just pop into your world and you pick up where you left off. I have yet to meet the regular, everyday mom who has been able to do that.
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. You know that I came of age as a feminist in the 60s and the 70s when anger was more permissible. 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. It’s interesting--we have this digital project, and we have a couple of quotes on the homepage and one of them is Toni Morrison. And it’s: “If not carefree, motherhood is a killer.” The other quote is: “Who decided that women are the ones to do everything, to keep these families intact, to keep the physical world of our children and the people who live in this house intact?” 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: Well, first of all, I felt like some women need permission to put themselves first, they need someone else to say, “ It’s okay to put yourself first because a bunch of us are struggling with this and it’s the only way out of this hole.” 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. Sometimes it means leaning on your parenting partners even more. That’s what I wanted to get across--you have to start making demands of the other people in your life who care for you and want the best for you. That’s especially true when you have a partner or a spouse. What’s interesting is, I found the same dynamic at play in same-sex marriages. There’s always one partner who took on more of the traditional mothering role.
Velez: I’m really glad you added that at the end because I think there’s a part of me that still thinks, separate gender and motherhood. Why does so much of this work, so much emotional labor, have to be done just because you’re a woman? I think that’s part of all of us when we talk about ambivalences. I think it’s a hard question, and as you make clear in your book, there are institutions that don’t support any of us as parents.
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, and I really appreciated that. And I wanted to ask: what made you choose to make that such a prioritized chapter in your book? Because there are lots of different topics, and I have looked at a lot of these types of books, and I haven’t seen any that address child-free women. I wanted to hear more about why that inspired you.
Sóuter: I actually really loved writing that chapter. When I was doing research, I kind of attended every conference that I could. With the Not Mom summit, it was--when I attended--it was the very first one. And I thought, “I’m gonna fly to Cleveland, and I’m gonna go to this conference.” And I remember my husband saying, “Why would anyone want to be celebrating not being a mom?” I said, “This is why they need the conference, and this is why I’m going.”
So I went to the conference, and I went as an attendee, and it was the first time ever I was around a group of women and nobody asked how many kids I have or if I have kids. I thought that was really interesting. It was a mix of women who were child-free by chance and child-free by choice, and I thought it was really fascinating that they would share panels. On this one panel, they are so grateful that they don’t have children, that children would have ruined their lives, and they are just happy being child-free, and then the person next to them talked about the seven rounds of IVF that made her go broke and ruined her marriage. But they were both able to coexist together, which I found really, really interesting.
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? That’s what a lot of women get when they don’t want children. 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. What was really startling to me was that these women still wanted to be a part of their friends’ lives even though they’ve chosen a completely different road. For whatever reason, people with children think, “Oh, they don’t want to go to a four-year-old’s birthday party. They don’t want to be invited to the recital or the play. They don’t want to go to the Little League game. They don’t want to do this; they don’t want to do that.” Because they feel like this person doesn’t want to be a part of the lives of children. 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. For a while, I was only hanging out with people with kids--I was doing all of this stuff at my kids’ school, and everything like that, and it was a complete relief to hang out with a friend who didn’t care about kindergarten or this test or the gifted and talented or whatever. That’s also a part of us that we need to cultivate and still hold dear--the part of us that has friends that don’t have children. That’s sanity-saving, to be honest.
Fox: I thought you did a really great job with that and also it seemed like either women with children assumed women who are child-free are not interested in children or they seem to resent them because they are child-free.
Sóuter: Oh yeah.
Fox: “What is she doing? She’s going to brunch at noon when I’ve been up since 6:30.” It was a very eye-opening chapter, and again I think entirely anomalous in this type of genre of how-to guides for mothers. I wanted to call attention to that because I thought it was so important.
Sóuter: Thank you.
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. When I had my first kid I was pretty young--I was like twenty-four or something; it’s all a blur now--but I blundered into a friend that was the same age with a little baby, and I would say we saved one another’s lives. We didn’t talk about the babies or what they were doing, we talked about books and ideas and all kinds of things. 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 talks 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.”
One of the things that I think that I learned the hard way is that just because someone has a kid the same age, they might not be the right friend for you. You really do have to do a little legwork and find people who are your tribe, and I give a list of simple questions to ask because you have to feel supported, you have to feel that you have some kind of shared values and shared interests. I think a big, big problem with some women is that they’re just so desperate for connection--and I understand that, a lot of moms are--that they kind of overlook some of these bad friendships that may do them more harm than good. 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. I mean, toxic moms are out there in full force. No one needs that in their life right now.
Velez: I think that’s a great point, and I think that’s probably one of the larger issues for mothers right now--this sort of environment of competition and mommy blogs. I remember that Pam and I used to--and this was like thirteen years ago--sort of look at DC urban moms with our students, and these women were vicious to one another. I remember one in particular: a mother wrote in, “I don’t know what to do, my two-year-old will only eat cheddar cheese and won’t eat goat cheese” and then these mothers were writing in, “What kind of mother are you?” That environment is terrifying to me, that mothers are put under this microscope of you’re going to ruin your child if they don’t eat goat cheese soon enough.
Sóuter: 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. For some reason, moms feel that “if this person does the opposite of what I do, that’s some kind of judgment on my parenting.” That’s why I write about it in one of those chapters, let’s strive for understanding if not acceptance.
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 just kind of dried up very quickly. 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. It doesn’t come from--we don’t know that someone who only gives their kid organic is going to ruin their kid or we don’t know if someone who occasionally gives their kid McDonald’s is going to ruin their kid. I mean, half of us had fast food growing up and we’re just fine.
Fox: Oh, absolutely.
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. So we live in a culture in this country that really focuses on that. I think it’s difficult. I just want to say, 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.
Sóuter: I can’t believe it! I wouldn’t have been able to write this book if it weren’t for having you two as teachers. I mean that. I say that in my acknowledgments. You two are absolutely amazing. I hope your students know what gems you are. You shaped me into a writer, both of you. So I really appreciate that.
Fox: That’s very lovely, thank you.
Ericka Sóuter has over 20 years of journalism experience and is a respected voice in parenting news and parenting advice. A frequent contributor on Good Morning America and other national broadcast outlets, it’s her job to speak to parents across the country to stay on top of the issues, controversies, and trends most affecting families today. Her work appears on CafeMom, Mom.com, and additional sites that reach millions of parents monthly. She is a former staff writer for People magazine and Us Weekly, and her work has also been featured in Essence, Cosmopolitan, Self, HuffPost, and WebMD.
Ericka received her bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. A native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, she currently lives in New York City with her husband, Caleb, and her sons, Lex and Aidan. For more, visit erickasouter.com.
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