Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Jennifer Margulis

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Jennifer Margulis is the editor of Toddler: Real-life Stories of those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love (Seal Press)

When her oldest child was two, writer Jennifer Margulis had the idea to create a book of stories about the intense experience of parenting a toddler. A few hundred essay submissions later, a book was born. Toddler: Real-life Stories of those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love is the first and only collection of first-person stories of its kind, and features essays by well-known writers and new writers alike. In a dialogue with Mother Shock author Andi Buchanan, Margulis -- who lives in western Massachusetts with her husband, two daughters, and a new baby boy -- shares her thoughts on the anthology, toddlerhood, and her own mother.

Andi Buchanan: There are already hundreds of books about toddlers on the shelves. What's different about your book?

Jennifer Margulis: Toddler isn't an advice book; it is a book of real-life stories by real people about their every day lives with their one, two, and three-year-olds (though one story is about four-year-olds -- triplets who defy every attempt by their mother, a family doctor, to potty train them). The stories are all written in the first person; they all put the toddler on center stage. They try to speak to some aspect of parenting while at the same time telling a story that has a literary and universal value.

AB: What's wrong with advice books?

JM: Nothing! I remember once needing advice about my then three-year-old daughter so badly that I bought six books on parenting, including two on child development. Six. Then I read all of them with the eagerness of a toddler learning how to walk. I think advice books, especially good ones, have their place. But I also think that no matter what the "experts" tell you to do, you will probably keep doing things your own way, with a little modification here and there. The books that have helped me in a profound way in my parenting are not the advice books. They are the books that made me laugh and cry, books that show me that other people are having similar experiences; books like yours, Andi, and also like Mothers Who Think, Kitchen Table Wisdom, and Between Mothers and Sons.

AB: I noticed that a lot of the stories in this anthology are short. Was that intentional?

JM: It's interesting, when my agent first sent around the proposal for Toddler, one editor wrote back that he thought it was a fabulous idea but that he was not convinced that parents of toddlers have time to read. I know that's ridiculous and that parents of toddlers read. I also know they have no time. I designed the book so it could be read by busy people, so that when you're on the toilet for a few coveted minutes you can pick it up and get through a story.

AB: You yourself have a four-year-old, a two-year-old, and a newborn. How did you find the time to compile this book?

JM: I'm not sure!

AB: No, really.

JM: I think I am much more efficient with my time now that I have children who need me so urgently so much of the time. My toddlers (my older girls are 19 months apart and I started working on the book when the littler one was a few weeks old) taught me to use every millisecond. I put this book together on stolen time, little snatches of time that I managed to find and use every heartbeat of. Also, my husband and I care for our children together and we cut a lot of corners everywhere else. Something has to slide and for us it's usually the housework, the yard, and sleep (which is in very short supply at our house). I sometimes fantasize about being lonely when my kids are in college and having an immaculate lawn and a big garden. But right now I think we are bringing the property values down on our street, though the neighbors haven't complained yet.

AB: How are toddlers "fickle, irrational, urgent, tiny people," as you say in the title of the book?

JM: The other day when I was giving a presentation about the book, a preschool teacher said, "It's not just toddlers who are fickle, irrational, and urgent," and a parent in the audience added, "and then they become grown-ups." There is a way, I think, where we are all fickle, urgent, and irrational. But most grown-ups are better at disguising it than our toddler counterparts. It's a raw time of life.

AB: You have a very high-powered mother. Tell us about her.

JM: My mom, Lynn Margulis, is one of the only women in the National Academy of Sciences. She is a microbiologist and a Distinguished University Professor at UMass. She won a National Medal of Science under Clinton, stuff like that.

AB: What's it like to have such a famous mother and be a mother now yourself?

JM: There was a picture of my mother in both my high school and my college textbooks. One of my two stories in the book is about her. It's called "Why Does Your Son Have a Phallus on his Head?" -- something she said to a friend of mine she had never met before about her son's elephant Halloween costume. My mother is wonderful and amazing and inspiring. She has more energy than anyone I know. But she also made a conscious choice to put her science first and that has been painful for all of us -- I have three older brothers. She's very honest and open about it. Recently she said to me, "At least I have a good reason, Jenny. My mother neglected us and there was nothing else in her life." She really does have a good reason and I am proud of her and a little in awe of her accomplishments. But I am trying to do things differently and make sure that my children get the attention and the nurturing that I think we all need.

AB: You chose to include several stories by men and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading them. Do you really think men will read this book?

JM: There are record numbers of stay-at-home dads and fathers who are primarily responsible for their children. The most conservative estimates say that at least 250,000 American men stay home. But almost all books about parenting are written for women. I think men want and need to be more included in the conversation. And many men have told me that they have read the book, and were grateful to see something of themselves in it.

AB: Anything else you want to add that I have not asked you about already?

JM: Just that toddlerhood is so complicated and wonderful and challenging and fleeting. It goes by so quickly and I think, in the midst of the car seat battles and the potty training problems and the tickling sessions and the incessant demands for "that song one more time again Mommy" that it is important to try to capture it, hold onto it, laugh about it, and remember it. This book tries to capture a tiny slice of toddler life so that we can all stop time for a minute and have something to look back on.

Andrea J. Buchanan is a writer living in Philadelphia. In addition to her latest book, The Double-Daring Book For Girls (HarperCollins), she is the author of the New York Times bestselling The Daring Book For Girls, The Pocket Daring Book For Girls: Things To Do, and The Pocket Daring Book For Girls: Wisdom and Wonder along with Miriam Peskowitz. She is also the author of Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It (Seal Press) and the editor of three anthologies: It’s a Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons; Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined; and It’s a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters (all from Seal Press). Before becoming a writer, Andi was a classical pianist; she studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music, where she earned her bachelor of music degree, and continued her graduate studies at the San Francisco Conservatory, earning a master’s degree in piano performance. Her last recital was at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. She is the mother of a daughter and a son, both of whom are equally daring.

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