Jennifer Weiner: Parenting Advice from the bestselling chick-lit author.Andrea Zimmerman
Chick-lit author Jennifer Weiner’s new novel, Fly Away Home, hits shelves this week, and in between a busy book tour and raising two girls – Lucy, 7, and Phoebe, 2 – we caught up with the hysterical writer to talk about keeping her kids off Facebook, the airplane ride from hell, and how all her detailed birth preparations went out the window as soon as she went into labor.
What’s your parenting philosophy?
“If they’ve got both arms and legs at the end of the day, we’ve won.” And on long trips, my parenting philosophy is “by any means necessary.” Movies on the iPod, M&M’s in the lunchbox, new toys from the dollar store in the diaper bag – whatever it takes to keep them quiet and happy, I’ll do it.
If you could teach your children one life lesson, what would it be?
I’d teach them the lesson my mother gave me: that it’s all material. I’d tell them that there’s very little in life, however tragic it seems at the time, that isn’t going to be funny at some point. Above all, I’d want them to be kind.
How have you managed a public tantrum?
I just went through one, and I’m afraid the answer is “not well.” This was on a cross-country flight, and I had a nap-less two-year-old in full meltdown. I basically held her as tightly as I could, trying to keep her from kicking the seat in front of us, climbing over the seat behind us, and screaming loudly enough to wake the dead. It didn’t work. Eventually, I just tried to survive it: eventually she fell asleep, and I consoled myself, saying that my two-year-old won’t be two forever, but the miserable old lady who turned around to scream at me has to live with herself for the rest of her (presumably quiet and kid-free) life. In other circumstances, I’ll quickly and quietly remove the child – take her out of the restaurant or the grocery store – make sure she’s in a place where she can’t hurt herself or others, and let her yell and thrash and wail until she’s ready to listen to reason.
What shocked you most about parenting?
How little all the preparation I did ended up mattering. I was thirty-three when I had my first baby, and I prepared for pregnancy, labor and mothering like a Ph.D. candidate getting ready to defend her thesis. I read every book, took Bradley birth method classes, walked to the hospital in labor with my ten-page birth plan in one hand and my CD of whale songs in the other, and was prepared to give birth without drugs, breastfeed for a year, and never let my daughter glimpse even a moment of TV.
Well, my daughter was two weeks late. I labored for thirty-six hours until my doctor told me that my uterine environment was decompensating. “What does that mean?” I wept. “Are the schools getting bad?” He also told me that I was going to need the C-section I’d dreaded. My milk didn’t come in for five days; breast-feeding was a war, and I was so exhausted and sore and sleep-deprived that Lucy met Elmo before she blew out the candles on her first birthday cake.
The bottom line – and the most valuable lesson – is that parenting breaks you down and builds you back up. It turns you into someone different and better and, in my case, more flexible, which was good for my girls and, I think, my writing too.
Favorite vacation spot: Cape Cod. I went there when I was a girl, and I’m lucky enough to get to spend big chunks of the summer there now. It’s perfect for me and a great place for my two city kids to spend their summers and enjoy the outdoors.
Favorite exercise: I love to kayak and swim, and I do it whenever I can. I hate running, but I love the feeling of having run, and it’s the most efficient. Just throw on shoes, strap on bra, grab iPod and go.
Weirdest habit: I prefer to eat my meals out of bowls. Even foods that technically belong on plates, I like them in bowls. Neater that way.
What makes me cringe: Dora. I cannot stand her. My seven-year-old loved her, and I had to listen to about a year’s worth of, “Do YOU see anything in backpack that could help?” I’m currently trying my damndest to keep the two-year-old Dora-free.
Guiltiest pleasure: Reality TV. I am devoted to shows like The Bachelor and love live-tweeting them, so that I can enjoy the ridiculousness in a supportive communal atmosphere. I’ve also read every one of Tori Spelling’s books, and no, I’m not ashamed.
Before I had kids, I swore I’d never: Do the thing of lifting up the child and sniffing her butt to see if she needed a change. And yes, I have done it. Regularly. Twice this morning.
What’s off-limits in your house?
Public exposure. My big girl would love to be on Facebook – she’d love to have her own blog, too. Once when we passed a bookstore where I was having a reading, she looked at the poster of me in the window and said, “But where’s my picture?”
Early on, my husband and I made a decision to keep the two of them out of the media – no pictures on my blog except one each, as newborns, and, once they were older than two, no shots in newspapers or magazines. We made a joking exception for People magazine – like, ha ha, People would ever want to write about me: but when People did, we were all photographed together. I know that there are writers who handle this differently – just last night I saw an absolutely adorable picture of an author with her three children, all dressed-up and each one brandishing a copy of Mom’s new book – and I felt the pang of, “Oh, my girls are so beautiful! I want the world to see them holding my books, too!” But really, I don’t. I want them to have their privacy, to be known for who they are instead of who I am, and if they choose to be in the public eye, I want it to be their decision, not mine.
Also, like every parent I know, we’re trying hard to keep the two of them away from the Internet, to limit commercial TV and hydrogenated fats and corn syrup and all that fun, yummy stuff that we ourselves indulge in. We tell them we’re raising them Amish, but with better clothes.
If you could be any TV or movie parent, who would it be?
Maria from The Sound of Music. She’s not a parent but a stepmother, but fun! Patient! Musical! And she gets to wear a uniform, so no worries about not being dressed appropriately!
What’s your biggest parenting challenge?
These days, airplanes. Forgive the repetition, but I just had the trip from hell, and I’m still feeling raw about it. Previously, it was infancy. I know there are mothers who adore holding a newborn, gazing into its eyes, trying to discern a baby’s personality and intuit the baby’s whims, but for me, the older they get and the more they can communicate, the better I am as a mom.
Who’s the bad cop – you or your husband?
Oh, him for sure. I rarely raise my voice with my kids, preferring instead the futility of trying to reason with them. He’s much more into laying down the law, which is, of course, much more effective.
Did starting a family change the way you work? The characters you were interested in writing about?
Yes and yes! In the halcyon, pre-baby days I could dawdle all morning and all afternoon, going to the gym, lazing around the house, folding a little laundry, watching a little daytime TV. Now that I’ve got two children, I’m much more disciplined. My mornings are spent with the little one. My sitter comes at eleven. By noon, I’m showered and dressed and out the door, bags packed, cell phone charged, just like I’m going to a real office for an actual job. I work in a coffee shop until four or five in the afternoon, and I work hard, keeping the web-surfing and email-returning to a minimum. By five I’m home again, in mom mode, doing dinner and baths and stories and bed. For the most part, it’s a good balance. I’m happy that my children get enough of my attention and also get to see me happy and fulfilled and challenged by a job that I love.
In terms of characters, I’ve gone from writing about single girls looking for love and identity and their place in the world to new mothers, older mothers, mothers dealing with the challenges of marriage and of parenting adult children: so I’d say that motherhood opened my eyes to a whole new world of stories.
What’s the last great book you read with your kids?
I really loved Barbara Parks’ Junie B. Jones series; they were written in a great voice with a fantastic and singular heroine: a smart, funny little girl, which is great to find when you’ve got daughters. Sadly, Lucy’s moved into the world of farts and boogers, so it’s a whole lot of Captain Underpants, with Diary of a Wimpy Kid on the side. My little one loves Sandra Boynton’s books: Moo, Baa, La La La is a favorite, along with Kevin Henkes’ A Good Day and, of course, The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
What’s the last great book you read with yourself?We tell them we’re raising them Amish, but with better clothes.
I made it three-quarters of the way through The Passage, then went right back to Stephen King’s The Stand, which I adore – a riveting story, a sprawling, fully-realized cast of characters, the epic battle of good against evil – an outstanding read. Another book I’ve been telling everyone about is Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply, which was vivid and strange and unsettling and unforgettable.
Is your daughter showing any interest in writing?
My oldest daughter is – I think she has correctly pegged writing as an occupation where you get paid for making stuff up without having to get dressed up to do it. She’s also an avid reader and is currently hard at work on a book about a coyote and a deer on the beaches of Cape Cod. But I think that her finest work so far is a short story entitled “The Smell.” The title was rendered with comic-book-style stink-lines emanating from each word. My two-and-a-half-year-old is a big fan of her board books, but still sometimes prefers to gnaw on them instead of read them.
Do you ever swap parenting tips with other author moms?
Occasionally I’ll have an email exchange about bringing kids on tour or balancing writing with family, but in real life, most of my friends are non-writers, and they’re the ones I turn to for advice.
What’s the first book of yours you’ll want your daughters to read?
Oy. I think all of them have fairly vivid sex scenes except Certain Girls, so maybe they could start there? I once read an interview with Molly Jong-Fast – Erica Jong’s daughter – in which she described picking up Fear of Flying, reading the first few chapters and then deciding it wasn’t for her. Part of me is hoping my daughters will have a similar response to my stuff. Part of me also believes that by the time they’re old enough to care, books will be available in pill form, and the idea of “writing fiction” will be so amusing – like hearing about my career in scrimshaw – that they won’t even want to read the actual documents.
Do you write at home? How do you explain to your daughters when you’re in author mode?
I write at home very occasionally – it’s easier for me and them if there’s a clear demarcation between work and home. But every once in a while I’ll need to send a quick email or take a phone call. Do they understand it? As well as children can understand any parent’s job. They still think that whatever I’m doing, they’re more important – and nine times out of ten, they’re right.