Erin Loechner on Style and Substance: Woman Crush Wednesday

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After I sent off another list of questions last week to today’s WCW interviewee, I wondered how long I’d run this series. My wild and crazy brain is notorious for starting new things, loving them for awhile and then flitting off to find new ideas. But then Erin sent her questions back, and I poured a cup of coffee one morning and sat down to read her responses. In a few thoughtful answers, my friend had written a short book–a good one–one that filled me up, made me feel understood and stretched my perspective a little more–which is exactly what I hope these women do for you too.

I “met” Erin several years ago when a mutual blogging friend connected us through an e-mail group intended to serve as a support and advice channel through the blogging business. In little time, she became known as the helper, always quick to respond with thoughtful advice and well-versed in all things blogging and business. When I checked out her blog, Design For Mankind, there were even more reasons to love her. Not only is she nice and generous–she’s dripping with style and unique design ideas. A former art director/stylist in LA, Erin’s been writing and speaking for years for clients such as IKEA and Martha Stewart and has created a following of over a million design-loving fans. She hosted a 2-year/24-episode web series for HGTV.com and has designed products for a number of companies. But enough about that stuff. There are a lot of creative geniuses out there, and I don’t pick my woman crushes for how cute and stylish they are (but she’s both, for the record). I started reading Erin’s writing, and that’s what drew me in. Speaking pie chart terms, she was one slice design and a whole rest of a pie left for bigger and better things–like discovering how to marry a love of aesthetics with fighting materialism and keeping up with the Jones. I love Erin for her heart and her vulnerability and the way she both pushes herself to be her best and yet accepts herself for who she is. Take the explanation she attached to her interview alone: These answers are me, at my best. They are not my everything, my always, and in fact, I contradict them nearly every time I have a bad hour where my pants feel too tight and I don’t like the crossbar wrinkles between my eyes and the toddler is yelling about the tag on her shirt. I answered these in a fairly peaceful state of mind at my favorite coffee shop and look, they have just brought me eggs and hot sauce. So, I hope I do not sound too Pollyanna, or too much of an idealist, but in truth, I am. I am an intense idealist, and I will always fall short of perfection, and so will every woman who reads these words. I know you know this, so they feel safe with you and your readers. But I never want to Photoshop my words, so there you have it – raw from the cutting room floor.

I’m so thrilled to share my friend Erin Loechner with you today. You’re going to eat her words up.

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You were an art director and stylist in LA, you write a design blog, you research trends and there’s no doubt from your work that you appreciate beautiful things. What I really love and relate to is how open you are in your struggle to justify your love of aesthetics. You’ve written this: “I’ve slowly morphed into this odd, thinky design blog where I’m asking a lot of questions, searching for answers and trying to figure out how design applies to my life now…I’m in this weird space where I see so much value in design, but am also seeing a lot of the cost. Consumerism, materialism, keeping-up-with-the-Jones-ism.” You’ve expressed though that there have been times you’ve compromised your own gifts, talents and interests listening to, as you put it, ”the voices of well-intentioned authors writing their own stories.” Some examples of those voices: You’re a designer? Don’t you feel that contributes to a materialistic culture? or Christian mothers shouldn’t work outside the home or Beauty is an idol. First of all, let me say from a friend who reads your work and follows your journey, I am so inspired by the way you openly juggle these things and entertain both parts of you. Now tell us how you do it. It’s a pill, right? It’s an easy one-time fix and all the questions and justifications go away. 

Oh, Kelle! You do not ask the easy questions, do you? I’d expect no less from a fellow beauty and truth seeker.

The pill, I believe, is acceptance. When I lived in Los Angeles, there was a female attorney that used to come into the coffee shop I wrote from, and she’s the epitome of the image your brain likely conjured when you just read the words “female attorney.” Black suit, dark hair slicked into a bun, Hermes bag. My eyes would follow her long gait as she’d enter, a butterfly of power flitting into the room.

You know what she pulled out of her bright orange bag one morning? Not a manila folder of contracts, documents, briefs. She pulled out her cross-stitch and sipped a latte and sat in the corner and needled, and I was smacked in the face at how little I understand about life and the people who occupy it.

I think of that woman whenever I get into a tizzy about how I’m straddling my own fence; when I’m falsely believing that I need to pick one or the other: style or substance? We cannot have it all, because we’re already all of it. We are mothers and daughters, and we can be teachers and wives and really bad cooks that sometimes go to yoga but mostly just wear yoga pants. We can be foodies who frequent Chik-fil-A (waffle fries, you know it) and we can be skincare experts who battle breakouts. We can be stylists in sweat pants and cobblers in bare feet. We can be mothers who emanate serenity and peace and yet, we might still cry in a heap over spilled rice (me, yesterday, on the wood floor).

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And we can be powerhouse female attorneys in L.A., who cross stitch on our 7am call with Japan.

The reason, I think, we try so hard to compartmentalize ourselves is because we are so busy compartmentalizing others, to make sense of them, to understand them. And so, lately, I’ve been working toward finding the contradiction in others to help me embrace the contradiction in myself. My friend Caroline is a fierce feminist and also a stay-at-home mother who cooks three meals a day in an apron and hot curlers. (Really!) My friend Jones is a prominent chef who eats Mac and Cheese from the blue box every morning – and he doesn’t even add gouda! People are unbelievable. They are swirly mixes, like constellations, like carousels.

And if that isn’t proof of style and substance, I don’t know what is.

(This entire conversation, which I could go on and on and on about for days, is so reminiscent of one of my favorite posts of yours, btw.)


So let’s talk about style. We know that style does not equate to “stuff” and buying and trends. What does it mean in your life and how does it transfer to your home and wardrobe?

I was raised a minimalist and will always bend toward practicality first. If an item has less than three purposes, I often find it useless (this is largely why my scarf collection is unmatched – oh, the possibilities!).

Still, I will not pretend that a new pair of perfectly shaped denim does not make my heart pulse with the magic of transformation. I love style, and I love the magic of transformation. I tend to believe that we reflect the atmosphere in which we live, and so, ever the Midwesterner, I am a 4-season chameleon.

As a child, I was ever rearranging. This is why I identify myself as a stylist and not as a decorator, or an interior designer. An interior designer is meticulous, thoughtful, designing a room with the mind whilst seated behind an oak desk with a measuring tape in hand, pencil behind ear. (I don’t know, perhaps I am judging, perhaps I am missing the orange Hermes bag with the peeking cross stitch beneath.)

But a stylist! Oh, a stylist designs a room with the heart. She walks into a space and surveys it, and begins moving things around like a burst of a tornado, and when she leaves, you wonder why you’d never thought to use that colander as wall art, or the kids’ outgrown boots as an entryway planter, and what, where did those dish towels even come from? (Your grandmother’s blouse, from the bottom heap in your closet.)

Style is really just experimenting, I think. It’s trying on a lot of hats, looking at yourself in the mirror and saying, ooh, this one looks how I feel like feeling right now.

Here, let’s add a feather.

There.


Most favorite meaningful purchase for your home and closet and reason behind its importance?

Oh, this is a tough one! I’m actually very bad at meaningful purchases. I don’t attach a lot of value to things, and am ever too practical, so there is really nothing precious in my home that I’d feel I must gather should the house burn down, you know?

But there are purchases and acquisitions that conjur memories, and the memories, I would miss. A pair of beaten leather sandals I walked the streets of Singapore in, a wooden toy lion I wrapped in scarves and toted home from Ethiopia, a dog-eared copy of The Phantom Tollbooth that has accompanied me for years of haircuts and heartbreaks and red-eye flights. I’d miss my husband’s worn thin scrubs that line his drawers – the ones he’d been wearing the first night we cooked mushroom pasta and chose love.


Your blog is considered a design blog but I love how you haven’t let that pigeon-hole you into a particular style of writing and posts. You write about family, faith, women, being true to yourself, motherhood–things that fit perfectly with design because we are both, we are all. That said, how do these things affect each other? How does your family, your faith and motherhood influence and inspire your sense of design?

You know, all of that substance – the family, the faith, the feelings, the frets – are so very braided into the style that I now find it hard to find which inspires the other. It’s just me, making decisions with my head or my heart, and sometimes style wins over – other times substance.

I mean, design is always a matter of depth, I think. We can pretend like it’s not – like it’s only parties and peonies, stripes and sofas – but in my circumstances, it’s always been much more. Our environment plays such a role in our thoughts (have you ever tried running in a river? relaxing in a riot?), and we’re the great environment makers. We can choose to decide that we’re not stylish enough, or rich enough, or creative enough to change the environment, or we can just change it, little by little. We can stack our favorite books on end and call it a nightstand, if we’d like.

I think, for me, the way my life shapes my design sense – now, in this moment – is that it’s teaching me what matters and what does not. I have always obsessively craved order and peace, and yet, there is a toddler underfoot, and my spatula is missing, and good gracious, what are you doing in my sock drawer?

A crazed monkey has snuck into my sterile little lab, and I am learning to like it. To wit, the contents of my former bar cart reveal much about our current state, about the delicate balance between intentional order in the name of Mama’s peace and creative disarray in the name of fun. From left to right, an empty jar of almond butter, three cookbooks, a swirly clump of dried brown Play-doh, an errant wooden block, a whistle (?), nine thousand rocks, leaves and various nature “collections” and an ominously empty tube of toothpaste, of which I have not yet found the remaining contents thereof.

Ah, and there is my spatula! Naturally.

I’m learning to let go of my need for order, control, organization, and on good days, I write this. On bad days, I do this. I will never get it right, but I’m trying.


I love conversations about leadership and women and how true leadership is really a melding of leading, following and listening. Yes we “lean in” but sometimes we need to lean back, especially if everything within us is saying “this isn’t working!” You founded Clementine Daily, managed writers, spent some time as “the boss” and recently wrote about how that role doesn’t fit with what you want right now. As you wrote, “It is hard to talk about female leadership now without entering a feminist conversation, without tiptoeing around words like empowerment or equality, without taking a stance with our feet planted firmly, lips pursed. I don’t particularly enjoy planted feet.” Can you tell us more about these feelings and how you used them to shift some things around to make sure you were living your best life?

Oh, yes yes yes. It’s hard to talk about prioritizing family over career without the feminist word rearing its head, without the choir shouting that we are stomping on the graves of the historically brave women who fought for so much of what we take for granted.

And yet, these suffrage women were so very against the grain, and I am now beginning to believe that – were they here, were they my mentors – they would not have furrowed their brow and said, “Fight for your right to lead.”

I believe they’d have patted my hand and said, “Fight for your right to choose where you lead.”

I don’t know, it’s like the more free we are in reality, the more shackled we become in our minds. Do we not know our own freedom? Are we not owning the fact that – when our alarm rings at 6am – we can roll out of bed and pick up a briefcase or we can roll out of bed and pick up a binky? Do we not know that we get to choose, without justification or expectation? What a gift! What a gift we have been given.

I am romanticizing, of course. Not every gal gets to choose, and not every woman is free from expectation.

But here’s the truth: I love my life because I have chosen to love my life. I have chosen to lead my best life, which is equal parts in the coffee shop at 6am, writing my beliefs, and equal parts in the yoga studio at 9am, centering my beliefs, and equal parts in the playroom at 12pm, teaching my beliefs, and equal parts in the kitchen at 3pm, practicing my beliefs, and equal parts in the dining room at 6pm, living my beliefs.

I do not believe in the words, “I have to,” as in, “I have to go to work, or I have to raise my children.”
It is only, “I get to.”

We get to go to work.
We get to raise our children.
We get to take out the trash, evidence of abundance.
We get to chop these vegetables, evidence of nourishment.
We get to rush out the door, late and frenzied, with the diaper bag spilling and phone ringing, evidence of life abuzz all around us.

Some of us could choose this perspective, but won’t. And that’s not suffrage. It’s suffering.


I dug through some of your old writing and life lists and saw one of your goals last year was to say no more. Whether it’s saying no to friends, opportunities or people we don’t want to let down, it’s still hard, especially for pleasers—I’m one of them. I just want everyone to be happy! Have you followed through with that goal this past year? What filters do you use to decide whether or not your answer is a “yes” or a “no”, and have you found a way to confidently deliver those “no”s that feels comfortable to you?

I am truly terrible at this, but am recovering, slowly, and am working hard to not confuse the terms servanthood and martyrdom.

I suppose the biggest shift is that I continually ask myself:
Will this ____________ leave me with enough energy to be the __________ I want to be?

Will this writing assignment leave me with enough energy to be the mother I want to be?
Will this volunteer position leave me with enough energy to be the wife I want to be?
Will this new project leave me with enough energy to be the friend I want to be?

I cannot show up for everyone; I am not a gift to the world. I am a gift to my world – to the people in my life, my real life – and they are a gift to me. If a “fill in the blank” will leave them with an empty box to open at the end of the day, then well, I must pass. It’s only fair. No one loves an empty gift.

As for delivering this perspective, I can only offer this: If you write publicly that you are working on saying “No,” fewer people are inclined to ask you of things. 😉

But truly, I’ve also been incorporating many more clear and specific boundaries when I do agree to something. It’s a “Yes, but,” which is similar to a “No,” but feels a bit less selfish. I could potentially be kidding myself here; I haven’t yet decided.

For example, if a friend is moving and asks me to stage her home, instead of saying, “Sure! When do you need me?” I’ll simply say, “Sure! I can come from 4-6 on Tuesday, but I’ll have the toddler with me – can your older girls keep an eye on her while I style away?”

It’s direct and clear and doesn’t mean I’ll need to rearrange my schedule or prioritize something that doesn’t necessarily fall in line with my priorities, but that sounds like something I’d enjoy doing.

And as for declining certain opportunities, I’m learning that “No” can be a sentence, if we’d like.


You work from home and raise a toddler—two things that don’t always mix well. I know because the cushion covers from my couch are in the washer right now after an entire bottle of ketchup was squeezed all over them, and I’m behind on e-mail. And yet I’m thankful for the opportunity to do both and I constantly make changes where necessary to keep things as balanced as possible. If you had to give your three best tips for balancing work and motherhood, what would they be?

1. Compartmentalize, if you can. I don’t imagine a chef particularly enjoys cooking in his garage, and I don’t particularly enjoy writing in my bedroom. I’m a big space compartmentalizer, so I need the elements to be served with as little distraction as possible. To do this, I wake up at 4:45am, jet out of bed, shower and sneak out of the house to the local coffee shop. I carve out a chunk of work in a quiet spot before the rest of the world wakes, and when I return home (as early as 9am on a good day!), I’m energized after having some productivity under my belt. When I’m at the coffee shop, I’m writing. When I’m home, I’m home. It’s pretty cut and dry for me, and it works well. (I am a terrible multi-tasker!)

2. Reassess often. Parenting stages change so quickly. I’m a morning person, and my husband is a night owl, so when Bee arrived we thought, “Awesome! Both shifts are covered!” I took the morning shift with Bee, and Ken took the night shift. But, as freelancers, we both struggled to get in the work mode and eventually we realized we were utilizing our best hours on tedious infant tasks (with love, of course, but you know what I mean – changing diapers isn’t the most intellectually stimulating duty). So we swapped. I started working in the morning, during my most productive moments, and Ken starting working at night. The swap stuck and although we’re always shifting more hours here and less hours there with the changing demands of work and play, it’s a really good system for us. We’re unusual in that we both have flexible schedules, both split childcare and both work from “home,” but I know of many creative working mothers who swap childcare or run a miniature co-op for littles where they take turns teaching special skills once a week while the other mamas get a break.

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3. Pick one. While I believe it is very possible to balance work and motherhood with a supportive village, some creativity and a healthy dose of flexible solutions, there are bound to be moments when the two do not complement each other. The baby skipped her nap but your conference call is in five minutes and she’s hungry and the dog just ran out into the street and the eggs are burning and… well, we can’t do it all. It’s a priority I’ve set from the beginning, and in those times, I let motherhood take precedence and the conference call gets rescheduled, with immense apologies. I believe in priorities, and I believe motherhood is mine.


I had typed “What’s next for you?” for this question but then erased it because sometimes “What’s next?” can seem like what you’re already doing isn’t good enough. So tell me this, what are you excited about right now?

Oh, many things! We’re planning a trip to Ecuador in a few months, so I’ve been furiously researching Quito textiles. We’re also in the early stages of an adoption – something that has taken years to fulfill and still unearths deep fears and anxiety for me. But you know, a lot of good things bring a bit of anxiety for what lies beneath – murky oceans, towering canyons, aging carpet – and you don’t get the gem without the dig.

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I love the way you dig, Erin. Thank you for digging, for letting us in on the dig. I’ll get my shovel and meet you out in the canyon. When it gets hot, will you show me how to properly tie a cute head scarf? xo Thank you for your words today.

To read more from Erin Loechner, you can read her blog, Design for Mankind (grab a shovel–you’ll be digging over there too). 

And for more inspiring words from fabulous women, check out other Woman Crush Wednesday interviews here.

Sara O’Leary on Writing for Children: Woman Crush Wednesday

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Last summer while in Michigan, I took the kids to a darling toy shop in Rochester and stumbled upon a children’s book that slayed me. It combined all my favorite treasures of a good children’s book–imagination, wit, simple writing and sweet illustrations that bring the story to life. I bought it, brought it home where it quickly became a favorite of my kids, and then looked up to see if there were any other books by both the writer, Sara O’Leary, and the illustrator, Julie Morstad. I bought those books too (all three: When You Were Small  When I Was Small  Where You Came From). 

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I was thrilled a few months later when I crossed paths online with Sara O’Leary. Though I’ve never met her in person, she inspires me, and she has been so gracious and kind to answer some questions. I’ve long been obsessed with children’s literature and frequently entertain dreams of becoming Kathleen Kelly when I grow up–running a children’s bookstore maybe somewhere in the mountains where I spend my days reading, watching kids get lost in imagination and hosting events for children where writers like Sara O’Leary show up to talk about their stories and characters. In the meantime, I’m honored to talk to these people online and enjoy their stories in our home.

Much to our delight, Sara O’Leary and Julie Morstad have collaborated once again and their new book, This is Sadie, just came out yesterday. And they did it again. With simplicity and magical details, they’ve created a beautiful story about the power of imagination…you can be anyone, you can do anything.

I’m so honored to introduce Sara O’Leary for today’s Woman Crush Wednesday and loved reading her thoughtful responses on writing for children, inspiration and the power of “less is more.” I know you will too.

 

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In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Maurice Sendak once said, “I don’t write for children. I write—and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’’ I didn’t set out to make children happy or make life better for them, or easier for them.” Is that true with you too, or do you think specifically about children and the way they absorb the world and read when you’re writing children’s books?

I do and I don’t. I do generally think a lot about children and the kind of books they both need and deserve.  Diversity in children’s books is a big issue, and for me it comes down to the child’s right to see themselves reflected back from the pages of picture books. With this book one of the things that made me really happy was the opportunity to break down that whole girl book/boy book binary.  Sadie is quite a girly-girl but that doesn’t stop her from imagining herself as the hero of a fairy tale and I think that’s a pretty great message to put out in the world! But, when I’m writing I’m mainly just concentrating on finding the story–it’s kind of like it already exists if I can just be still and listen very carefully.

I know you’ve also written plays and adult fiction—does writing children’s books inspire you as a writer in a different way?  

I’ve wanted to be a writer pretty much my whole life, but it wasn’t until I had children of my own that it even occurred to me to write picture books. Amazingly, it has turned out to be pretty much my favourite thing to do. The rewards are immense.  For one thing, I can go out and do readings and be almost certain that no one in the room will be drunk and obnoxious.  Plus I get to ooh and aw over online photos of my readers. And really, just thinking about small people reading my books (or being read them by their big people) makes me go all daft and giddy. Could there possibly be anything nicer to do with your life than making up stories for children?

That said, children’s books might be labeled by publishers as being geared toward a younger audience, but they affect adults too. In fact, some of my favourite books with the most beautiful lessons—ones that always bring me to tears—are kids’ books. As a children’s author, you often take big important topics—issues that might take numerous chapters to explore in a grown-up book (such as being the hero of your own story theme in This is Sadie), and you consolidate them to a handful of powerful sentences that bring the same revelations, make us cry, challenge us, teach us. How hard is that? Is it more challenging than writing 5 grown-up chapters to explore the same message?

I shy away from thinking I have any real lessons or messages to impart, but I think there is room in children’s books for talking about really big things. Big things do matter to small people! After my second book with Julie Morstad, Where You Came From, was published I started getting these really nice messages from people who told me how the ending of the book (“You dreamt of a baby and the baby you dreamed became me?”) worked so well into whatever their particular family story was–whether it was adoption or surrogacy or having a child alone. And it does read that way. I have an adopted sibling so I guess I internalized that babies come into families in all sorts of ways and that the important thing is that there is love there waiting for them.

 

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With picture books, at least from a child’s perspective, it seems the words and pictures rely heavily on each other and create the story together. How closely do you work with your illustrator—or do you write without thinking at all about pictures and hand it over to Julie to add her thing and it magically, on its own, forms this cohesive beautiful story?

Julie Morstad and I have now done four books together but with This is Sadie I felt like we hit a whole new level of collaboration. I wrote the book partly for Julie–just thinking about ways to give her room to do what she does so wonderfully. And our process this time included a lot of back and forth. Sometimes once I saw her illustration I would realise that it was doing things the text didn’t need to and I would trim away a few more words or change things around a little. Sadie’s little fox family was part of the original story but now it just exists in the visual representation of Sadie’s world. And then so many things were a surprise to me: That flower meadow! Sadie’s little reading tent! Those darling little Jack Lemmon pyjamas!

The text on this book is really, really spare. I had in mind something like Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are because I’ve spent a lot of time marveling over how much he does there in just 388 words! Any chance I got to pare back the text and let the pictures do the talking in this book was just another occasion for glee.  (And as a parent, I can’t help remembering how at bedtime my hand always strayed to the books that didn’t have too many words to sleepily stumble through!)

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I’ve got new books in the works right now with illustrators Qin Leng and Karen Klassen and so it’s like entering into these new relationships and I can hardly wait to see what comes of it. As some one who can barely draw a stick man, I feel incredibly blessed to be able to see my name on the cover of such outrageously beautiful books.

Tell us how the Henry stories came about. Were they inspired by your sons?

The first story had its origins when we still just had one boy and his father used to tell him that he remembered when he was small enough to carry around in his shirt pocket. He had an old shirt with a slightly torn pocket that he would produce as evidence of this. And the wonderful thing to me was our son’s desire to believe this story. So then I made up a few more “small” tales to go along with that one and eventually the whole thing became a book. And then When You Were Small came out and the whole thing was so delightful–Julie’s illustrations and the fabulous design by Robin Mitchell-Cranfield and the inordinate level of care that our publisher, Dimiter Savoff, took with the whole thing that there was no question that I’d have to do another.

There’s a lot of our firstborn, Liam, in the first story and a lot of our younger son, Euan, in the third, When I Was Small.  Euan went through a stage where he loved hearing stories about when I was a child and it made me think of how as much as I adore being a parent, there’s always a part of you that wishes to be a child with your child. So the idea that “in stories we can be small together” was born.

What book from your childhood influenced you the most?

I had a copy of Alice Through the Looking Glass that was my mother’s when she was a child and that made it doubly special to me. And I think the Alice stories are the kind you can read a hundred times and find something new each time you read them.

I love hearing about where people write and create their art and the routines they develop to commit to their work. Tell me about your writing space and a little bit about what writing your stories looks like.

I was thinking about this question about the great photos you see of writer’s desks or even better yet of writer’s huts. I do have a little cottage on our property that is pretty much the perfect writer’s hut…or at least it will be if we ever get around to rebuilding the floor! (I wrote about writer’s huts here.) Our house was built around 1870 and the cottage is older than that, so it feels a little bit magical to someone who grew up on the Canadian prairies where all the buildings dated from my own century.

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Really, though, these battered old boots of mine are as much my office as anything else. I need to tumble things around in my head for quite awhile before setting anything down on the page and I find walking a tremendous aid to thinking. I bought these boots just after my second son was born which means they are almost fifteen years old. When my son was around twelve he grew into them and wore them until he fairly quickly grew out of them. Between us we’ve put a lot of good miles on them.

Your new children’s book is about being the hero of your own story. You’ve referenced “princess shaming” in regards to This is Sadie, and I love what you wrote about your hopes for all children—boys and girls—that they “feel free to imagine themselves as whoever they want to be in that fictional world, because that is, after all, a stepping stone to imagining yourself as whoever you want to be in the real world.” How did the story of Sadie evolve, and why do you think this lesson is important right now?

How did Sadie evolve? It’s hard to recall now that she’s here–kind of like looking at those old ultrasound pictures you pored over before your children were born and telling yourself that you knew them before you knew them!

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Doll and photo by Atelier Caroline

As a small child I don’t think I was particularly aware of being male or female, or at least not of being limited by that in any real way. I wore nice little smocked dresses when I went to visit my grandmother who lived in the house where there so many pieces of cutlery on the table that I never knew which one to use. And when I went to my other grandparents’ house I knew that I would be Grandpa’s helper out in the garden and so I wore my overalls and my engineer’s cap because my Grandfather and his father before him worked on the trains.

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And in my reading I was as likely to see myself in Max, heading off to sea in his little boat, as I was to feel like Alice in her life through the looking glass. So, I wanted Sadie to be just that sort of child because I think meeting someone like that in books gives you permission to be like that in life.

How has motherhood inspired your writing? Do your boys weigh in on your stories and offer suggestions?

My boys and my husband all have a tremendous influence on my work and on my reading life. My husband is a poet, an English professor and a grammarian, which is helpful as he has to follow along behind me picking up stray bits of punctuation and placing them where they belong. He’s also a great believer in me and my work which has helped keep me writing when it sometimes seemed it was time to settle down and do something more practical.

My elder son is a tremendous reader and I really learned about children’s books and then middle grade and young adult literature alongside him by reading what he was reading. These days we both like Scottish crime fiction and pass novels back and forth. We also, when he was younger, wrote a novel together. It was just after we’d lifted him out of his big city life in Vancouver, British Columbia and took him all the way across the country to a tiny little village on the Fundy Coast of New Brunswick. We wrote a story about a boy whose parents do exactly that and then they–the parents, that is–vanish into a time portal and he is left to fend for himself with only an African grey parrot for company. It was really interesting being writing partners…like a different form of conversation.

My younger son’s main area of interest is film (he made my little teaser trailer for Sadie for me!) and we have long, interesting chats about that because I was teaching screenwriting for a few years. We’re both really interested in the process of adaptation so for fun we will outline screenplays of books we’ve both liked. He’s keen to see the Henry books made into a film by Pixar, or Aardman, or Studio Ghibli. It’s nice that he aims high for me. He’s a huge help to me with the picture books too–he draws early dummies for me now so I can start to see how they work visually even before they go out for illustration. And he and I are in the midst of writing a middle grade novel about a boy named Rufus together. It’s a lot of fun–because we share a sense of humour we find each other terribly funny so I can email him a few pages and then have the satisfaction of hearing him laugh on the other side of the room.

If I come to Canada, can we have a big waffle breakfast together and talk for hours about kids and books and inspiring little minds? You inspire me, and I’m so grateful to have stumbled upon your books which truly are one of my favorite things that make us happy in our home. 

Yes, absolutely. Although, I will warn you that I’m not the breakfast maker in my house.

Okay, I’ll make the waffles. 

One of the very nicest things about writing children’s books is that I’ve met all these wonderful people–online and in real life–and it’s made my life much richer than I could have possibly imagined. Thank you for inviting my characters into your lovely children’s imaginative world. I count myself very, very lucky.

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Thank you, Sara, for your words today and especially for the ones that are so beautifully preserved on my kids’ nightstand. I’m so thankful for the magic of children’s literature and the talented writers who make it good!

 

Order Sara’s new book This is Sadie
Read more from Sara’s blog.
Check out other Women Crush Wednesday interviews from more amazing women.

Women Crush Wednesday: Jillian Lauren on Motherhood, Adoption, and Surviving the Hard Parts

Jillian Lauren

I started Jillian Lauren’s new book Everything You Ever Wanted (just out yesterday!) in the bathtub one night, where I often start new books, and ended up so engrossed, I realized I was sitting in cold water an hour later. Jillian is a brilliant writer who tells it like it is and does so with humor and remarkable self-awareness. Everything You Ever Wanted is the story of how Jillian became a mother and how, through the challenges that followed, she was guided by love for her son and her family in a path that ultimately led to accepting herself. I dog-eared so many pages in this book–things that made me laugh (I mean, come on: “What happens when schoolyard taunts of “Your mama is a ho!” are actually factually confirmed by said mama in her hoish memoir?), stories that made me cry and experiences that, while different than mine, make me feel less alone. I had to whittle down my questions for Jillian because there are so many relatable topics and honest truths about parenting in this story. You will fall in love with her just as I have, and I’m ever so thankful that she lends her voice and shares her story for other women so that we can feel the community in motherhood’s “me too!” hug.

This book is much more than an adoption or special needs story–this is a motherhood story, a love story and a self acceptance story.

I’m thrilled to welcome Jillian’s words into our online space today.  Now quick, grab some coffee and read along.

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Your book begins with your challenges of infertility—the emotions of which you articulated so honestly. I know several women who’ve gone through this and have been witness to the deep emotional struggle of wanting a baby more than anything but not being able to will a body to meet the expectations of the heart. You refer to “wild fluctuations of self-hatred and self-pity” in your journey and describe the fertility disaster as leaving you hollowed out, but define a moment when—and this part made me cry—you finally, in the recesses, “feel the faith in me, small and glowing.” Why do you think women put so much self worth into fertility and what would you say now to that version of you that felt hollowed out and defeated? Was it simply the hope of adoption and the relief of loosening those expectations on your body or was it something deeper that returned that faith within yourself?

I think there’s some ancient tribal stuff that causes us to equate fertility with worth. I also think that there’s a ubiquitous celebrity culture that fetishizes pregnancy and baby bumps and all of the attendant accoutrements. When that didn’t happen for me, I felt more than just hollowed out and defeated, —I felt cursed. I’ve had a life with plenty of adversity, including drug addiction, depression, abuse, self-harm, you name it. Not to make myself sound like an after school special or anything, but it’s been a ride! Even with all that, infertility is the most painful thing I’ve ever been through. It was extended and relentless and dragged me to terrible depths of doubt and self-pity and shame. I had specific expectations around how creating my family was going to go. I was like, okay, I’m behaving now. I’m a good girl. And the reward for that is the house with the white picket fence and the 2.5 children, right? ASAP! So when that didn’t happen, all of my deep shame about myself and my past bubbled to the surface. I felt ruined and punished. How did faith rise out of those ashes? I can’t say exactly. That’s the mystery of faith, isn’t it? We find it in our most broken moments. Maybe because suffering is an experience that connects us with our humanity, and the humanity of those around us. If I could go back now and whisper in my own ear, I’d tell me to just breathe and hold tight and lean into the storm. I’d tell me that I’d joyfully live through all that suffering again and more if I knew what gifts waited for me on the other side of it!

As an adopted child yourself, you express that you were never able to look at the world and see a reflection of yourself with no parents or siblings, and you thought pregnancy would fix that—that you’d finally feel this physical connection to the world. You challenge yourself with the question, “What do I want, a mini me or a family?” (loved that). I imagine that this bond you and Tariku now share–in the love story of mother and son sense, but also in the fact that you are both adopted–has shifted that perspective a bit, but maybe I’m wrong. Do you feel more connected to the world physically now and find a reflection through being Tariku’s mother? Do you think he’ll feel the same growing up?

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Wow, Kelle, I think this is my favorite question ever! This is really the blessing of telling our stories- that our readers find things in them that we can’t even see ourselves. Yes, I absolutely think that mothering Tariku has made me feel connected to the world around me in a physical, primal way. My own unique story of motherhood has has allowed me to understand who I am, and has led me to my tribe. When you go through a rough time, you learn who your true peeps are! I truly hope that the fact that I was also adopted will resonate for Tariku, and that I’ll be able to model for him the fact that we live connected to so many different things- by blood, by choice, by faith. Our position as adoptees is not without its complexities, but it’s a truly privileged one.

Your first memoir (which I’ve now ordered and can’t wait to devour) chronicles a completely different lifetime for you. You were (and, I admit, I Googled the heck out of this because I simply can’t believe it) once a stripper and later a member of Prince Jefri of Brunei’s harem. I couldn’t help but chastise myself while reading this book—this beautiful brilliantly written account of motherhood from a smart woman who loves like me and wants the same things as me and has all the same voices in her head as me—for my judgment of people, of women. The story of a stripper-turned-harem member seems to drastically clash with a loving mother in search of answers for her son and yet, you’re the same girl. We all are, really. That said, you talk about feeling shame for not appearing to be mother material and you echo what so many of us feel—that feeling judged as a mother is harder to weather than any other comments one might say about us. As you put it, “Why did motherhood suddenly make me cower before the masses? Make me want to fit in, seek approval?” Why do you think that is? And that said, is it harder to put this book out into the world than your first one that honestly exposed your former life?

Ha! I know- it’s so funny to watch people’s faces when they first hear about the harem thing. Especially people I meet at a faith-based event or pre-school or Mommy and Me! I watch people do elaborate mental gymnastics, while still trying to maintain their composure. Their mouths often actually hang open. When the first memoir was published, I was so scared of what everyone was going to think of me. I had lived my life in a compartmentalized way. Not necessarily because I was ashamed of my past, but because I figured that it wasn’t all that relevant any more. I learned one of my biggest lessons through my neighbor Helen. For some reason,I was so concerned about what my sweet, 82-year-old, religious neighbor was going to think of me. I’ll never forget the day she rang my bell with four copies of my book in her hand, telling me she was so proud of me and asking me to sign them for her daughters. Helen was 82! She had lived through poverty and prosperity and pain and joy and love and death. She had lost a husband and a child and countless loved ones and SHE DIDN’T GIVE A SHIT about a harem! Puhleeze, child! Or about how wild I was or who I had sex with or what drugs I did. She cared about who I was in my relationships– as a friend and a neighbor to her and as a mother to my child. Helen and I actually got much closer after that. When she could no longer stay in her house, I visited her often in her assisted living center, and then in her hospice facility. I spoke at her funeral. I treasure the time we spent together. I like to think my honesty in the book had something to do with how our relationship blossomed.

You shed light on some of the hard truths about adoption that you don’t always hear but that are important to talk about—the fact that families don’t magically save abandoned babies and everyone lives happily ever after. You reference Disney movies and their orphan narrative: the hard-knock life and the immediate sun-will-come-out-tomorrow finish. (so true!) Your experience—and that of many other adopting families—was entirely different and yet so understandable given the expanded story. And yet here you are: in love with your child, stronger, wiser and—obvious from the book—gaining a keen awareness for your own past struggles and strengths as a woman. Now that you’re on the other side of the particular struggles you discuss in the book (are we ever on the “other side” of struggle as parents? Ha!), what would you say to parents considering or new to adoption?

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First of all, adoption is beautiful and incredible. It’s my favorite thing. We’re doing it again right now. I’d do it ten more times if we had the space and the resources! That doesn’t mean that it’s not complex and sometimes painful. It’s important to understand that adoption isn’t an act of charity. You’re not saving a disadvantaged child, who should then reward you with eternal gratitude. Many of our children suffer tremendous loss. In the case of international adoption, they lose an entire culture. We have to be respectful of the trauma our children go through, and the loss and grief that follow. I would say to potential adoptive parents that it’s important to educate yourself. In the case of international adoption, you need an agency that’s transparent, that you can trust, and that’s respectful of the children and their histories. The agencies should be willing to walk you through their entire process, from beginning to end, and give you as many references as you need to feel comfortable. You should definitely talk to other adoptive families and familiarize yourself with the community.

More than anything, I think this book gives permission to all parents to truly be honest—to say that parenting can be hard, boring, isolating and to admit that we feel inadequate, selfish, guilty—and yet still know that we are good, that we love well, that we wouldn’t trade this fulfilling path for any other. You admitted that here, after you chased motherhood so fervently thinking it was going to make you feel a part of something, it did the exact opposite—made you feel more isolated than you’ve ever been. Your prayers in this book made me tear up. The emotion was so palpable and relatable—we’ve all been there. There was one, after you were feeling particularly guilty, after your son was preferring his dad and pushing you away, where you cried out, “Please, God, help me be a better mother. Please, God or Jesus or Krishna or Allah or Mary or Moses or Grandma or whoever is on the other end of this line right now. Please throw me a bone here. I need help.” I think we should just patent that prayer and give everyone permission to use it. Your vulnerability in this book is such a gift. For all the rock bottom moments that you so articulately describe in this story, can you summarize what pulled you out of them? I know it probably won’t be a tidy singular answer, but what would you say saves you and reestablishes your confidence in these moments?

I wanted to give a radically honest account of my experience of motherhood, with all of its complexities and ambiguities and beauty. I wanted to tell the truth, warts and all because it’s so much better and richer than some glossy façade I really hope that I give other women a sense of permission. That they can see their own transgressions and struggles, whether or not they’re as dramatic as mine, in a more compassionate and maybe even humorous light. We live in a culture of relentless self-improvement, steeped in the rhetoric of “happiness.” We’re supposed to be so “Happy” all the time or we’re failing somehow. I’m much more interested in meaning than happiness. Adversity has shaped me and made me strong. It’s given me the family and life I have today, which is amazing. I’m not saying that I’m not happy, and that I don’t have my moments of joy because I absolutely do. But I don’t see life in this strictly binary way- things aren’t bad or good. Things are hard and messy and gratifying and wonderful and everything. Everything, all at once! Bring it!

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You went through a lot—a lot of schools, a lot of experts, a lot of advice–to truly get to a place where you felt Tariku’s needs were being met. As a parent of a child with special needs, I could relate to so many of your thoughts. One of my favorites was when you expressed finding it comforting when one of Tariku’s therapists referred to children with special needs as “our children”, distinguishing them from typically developing kids—as in “our children have a harder time handling unexpected touch.” I’ve had a few other parents and support team members of Nella’s who’ve done the same, and I know how endearing that is. As you said, “it makes me feel less isolated and reminds me that children are raised by communities and not individuals. We may not have asked to be a part of this particular community—but who does?” Amen. How important has that role of community been in finding your rhythm as a mother?

The importance of this community is one of the reasons I keep writing. Through my story, I hope to extend a hand to others who may have questions, like we did. What would I do without the people I’ve met through the special needs community? This community has taught me how to be an advocate and a warrior. They’ve show me that I’m strong. They’ve taught me that my priorities were all kinds of screwed up before, equating achievement with worth. I would never have consciously admitted to that, but it was true somewhere in my bourgeois heart. They’ve showed me that worth is not about conventional achievement, but about connection and relationships.

One thing you do so well—and I think it’s vital in parenting—is honoring both parts of us: the good and the bad, selfish and selfless, clueless and confident. You didn’t tell a transformative story where selfish, insecure, isolated mom is suddenly replaced through love by nurturing, confident, connected mom. You celebrate the fact that, even after these trials and deepened love, you still value and understand all the parts of yourself that play a role—selfishness, vanity, incompetence and yet resilience, resourcefulness, unwavering love. Are you less hard on yourself after all of this? What does your self talk to those negative voices sound like today?

I can still be a total asshole to myself! It’s not like I’ve achieved enlightenment and I’m some kind of monk. Today, for instance, I’ve been traveling and being very social, promoting the book, which is enough to make you crazy. You lose the grounding of the everyday routine– the family stuff. You’re facetiming your kid from the bathroom of a hotel. It can really fire up the self loathing. But this is what my years of being an asshole to myself have taught me: it passes. It changes. It always changes. Sometimes the best I can do is to maintain a spirit of curiosity. This is the part of yourself that, no matter how dark things get, can still say, ” Oh, how curious, that I’m calling myself a fat, mediocre, useless fraud. I wonder why I’d never think that about anyone else? I wonder why I can look at my son and see so clearly that he’s filled with endless love and potential, but I look at myself and see someone worthy of nothing but disdain….” It can give you some perspective.

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I’ve been asked many times if I worry about my children reading the honest things I write about or if I wonder how Nella will feel reading her birth story. I know my answer to this, but I’d love to hear yours. What are your thoughts about Tariku reading this book someday?

This book is a story of triumph and my son is the hero. I see it as a gift to him, and a valuable document of his precious first years of life. I may not always be a great mother, but I’m a good storyteller. This is my gift and it’s a special thing I have to offer him. People can be judgmental around sharing publicly about children. I absolutely agree that it’s not the right choice for every family. But when I was struggling, there were people like Rachel Cusk and Beth Kephart and you and Christine Moers and Kristen Howerton, who were being brave and honest and sharing about their families and offering me an education and a point of connection. I think that a lot of people who judge haven’t experienced what it’s like to be part of a marginalized community. People lambast Facebook all the time, but I have a friend whose child has a rare and severe medical condition, and Facebook is one of her greatest sources of strength and hope. I personally have an entire community of incredible friends with children from Ethiopia on Facebook. Tariku and I love to follow their stories. I think it makes us feel less alone. It’s totally valid not to share publicly about our lives, but I also think we have to be careful not to confuse privacy with shame. And not to judge the ways other people find connection in the world.

This isn’t really a question. Or I guess it is. Do you give me permission to write all over my walls or maybe tattoo on my body or, if I ever figure out the needlepoint thing, stitch on a pillow the closing statement in your epilogue? Because it’s solid and such a simple statement of all we need to remind us that we’re doing the best we can: “This house is full of love and warmth and music. And we try like hell; really we do.”

I’m so glad it touched you. If you ever make that into a sampler, my life will be complete!

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You can order Jillian’s new book, Everything You Ever Wanted, here.

And for you, dear friends, Jillian’s put together some thoughtful gifts for a giveaway today–signed copies of all of Jillian’s books, Bruce Kaplan’s memoir I Was a Child, a signed Weezer CD (her hubby is the bassist) and a “mommy survival kit.”

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Just leave a comment with something you tell yourself when you feel the rabbit hole of self doubt opening. Whether you’re a mom or not and whether those moments come in parenting challenges or through other experiences, we all have them. What’s one thing you tell yourself to reestablish your confidence? Giveaway winner will be randomly chosen from comments and announced in Monday’s post.