Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Susie Bright

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Susie Bright is the national best-selling author and editor of eight books on sex and sexual politics. Her most recent work, Mommy's Little Girl: On Sex, Motherhood, Porn, and Cherry Pie, is a collection of personal essays written after the birth of her daughter. Bright has edited 15 anthologies, including The Best American Erotica and the Herotica series. Her articles have appeared in Playboy, Ms., BUST, and Salon. She has appeared in numerous television and film projects, and she originated the first university courses on pornography and sexual representation. Bright lives in Northern California with her partner, Jon, and their 13-year-old daughter, Aretha.

Can a woman be both a mother and sex goddess? Literary Mama Columnist Heidi Raykeill interviewed the expert to find out.

Heidi Raykeill: I loved your new book, Mommy's Little Girl: On Sex, Motherhood, Porn, and Cherry Pie. It's about time someone strung those words together! And just in time for Mother's Day. Speaking of which, what's the most memorable thing your mother taught you about motherhood and sexuality?

Susie Bright: Hmm, what a tough question. At first I was going to say "nothing," because my mom has never said a peep to me about sexual relations, fantasies, dating, body image, etc. However, I do remember that she did want very much for me to have a scientific understanding of menstruation and childbirth.

She told me that when she started bleeding, she thought she was dying, and "the nuns" at school told her to stuff rags in her underwear and to shush. She thought that was such an outrage later on, when she learned the score. She really came to hate the church and its particular treatment of women, its superstitions, the fear they put into their members, etc.

She went to some trouble to get me one of those Kotex pamphlets, and also a little pink book called "A Baby is Born." She would have been too embarrassed to talk about it, but she definitely wanted me to know what was what!

HR: What surprised you most about becoming a mother?

SB: I had NO IDEA that mothering my own child would be so healing to my own sadness from my childhood. Doing the right thing for someone else was like a tonic for me; it was like some magic ointment that made a wound disappear.

HR: Is it still a tonic, even now that she's a teenager? How do you know what the right thing to do for her these days is?

SB: Hmm, you're getting into dark territory. My mom sent me on a "vacation" when I was my daughter's age, and I had no idea that I was never coming back. My mother's mother died when she was 13.

So here I am, very much WITH my daughter, right in the thick of her puberty and my perimenopause. I have NO model of how people do this . . . the kind of arguments we get into certainly make me feel like getting in the car and driving to Egypt sometimes!

But I also see my daughter having an experience I craved when I was her age: having an older woman to mentor me who would watch my back, who would be absolutely reliable, and who was devoted to my "empowerment" (sorry to use that corny word, but I can't think of anything more to the point). I am so thrilled that I've survived, and that I haven't abandoned my daughter, either by accident or on purpose!

I think moms need to share information on a regular, intimate basis. I have a few brilliant conclusions about SOME issues, but I am DROWNING on others.

Also, it is so wonderful to hear about anyone who is dealing with something even more obnoxious and ridiculous than what I'm dealing with. I think you come to truly understand schaudenfreude when you are the parent of a teenager -- you grow so tough that the only thing that gives you a laugh is the misery of other teenage-impaired parents.

HR: Although all of the essays in the book were written after the birth of your daughter, only one section of the book is directly about sex and motherhood. Why?

SB: Oh, I had a number of issues I wanted to speak out about. It's a collection of personal essays, and I felt all the issues were influenced by this major transformation in my life. I wasn't writing as a childless woman any longer. I am also very much a Mommy's Girl myself.

HR: What do you mean when you say "Mommy's Girl"? Do you think your daughter considers herself a Mommy's Girl? What did she think of this book? What did your mom think about it?

SB: I'm a Mommy's Girl -- the strongest influence in my young life was my mom. I'm sure Aretha will say the same thing when she grows up. Mommy's Girls want very very much to please their mothers, but they also rebel against them, big-time. They can bring Mommy to her knees, occasionally, too.

My mother hasn't read this book and wouldn't read it. The whole notion of me writing personal essays about my life must be bizarre to her. It's not just the sex . . . it's the idea of being such a public person about private things, about writing one's own story in front of everybody.

When I told my Aunt Molly what I did for a living -- "I'm a writer," I said -- she totally sneered and said, "Any Irishman can write; what else do you do?"

Aretha was interested in my stories about her when she was the age I wrote them at. The one where I quote her extensively, "My Mother's Job," I gave to her to "proofread" and "fact check." It was funny because at first she wanted me to turn it into this puff piece. She wanted to me to say things like, ". . . and the beautiful Aretha, who was so talented and lovely, brilliantly sat on her throne . . ." It makes me laugh just thinking about it.

But then I pointed out how much she appreciates stories where real people have real feelings as well as arguments, and people who look bad as well as good. She understood that; she is such a bookworm.

Now she's a young teenager, and she doesn't want to be reminded of being young -- she hates that. She also thinks everything I do is embarrassing. Every last thing. The books I write are no worse than the way I comb my hair or open a door. I am incapable of doing anything non-embarrassing.

HR: Okay, without saying, "Spend a romantic weekend alone together" or "Get more sleep," what is the one most important thing a mother can do to fire up her libido?

SB: But how many people actually make the arrangements for a babysitter on any weekend? How many people make sleep their TOP PRIORITY? I think those things are worth repeating because they are so blatantly ignored.

Forget figuring out the "romantic" part. The part where your child is with someone else -- and you can do any fucking thing you want to do, including stare out the window like a tree frog -- that's the romantic part! You have to CALENDAR time for yourself even if you have no idea what you're going to do with it.

I think women need to realize that they would be much better moms if they were well-rested, sexually satisfied, and had some interests going outside their childrearing. To even have that INTENT is fabulous.

A lot of women think having sex means servicing someone else. Imagine it more like a spa -- you do nothing, everyone waits on you. You get a massage, you get touched just the way you want to, you are caressed just so. Of course this kind of treatment will make you feel generous in spite of yourself, but that's how it has to begin! Your self-interest has to be RIGHT THERE. No one with a baby has the time to 'take care" of anyone else. If you feel like your spouse/lover is just another whiner/demander, you will want to kill them!

Women who never liked sex all that much, who never orgasmed -- they are going to give it up for good after kids, for at least the next 15 years. Women who loved sex are more motivated, because they remember it was something that used to make them feel like a million bucks. But sleep deprivation can drive it all out of you. So can poor eating.

I know people want to hear about some gizmo that will fire them up, but there is nothing like a good night's sleep, a home cooked meal (made by someone else) and some creative free time to make you feel HORNY.

HR: Are good sex and marriage mutually exclusive?

SB: Of course not! Familiarity with your lover is what initially makes sex really good. At first, maybe you have chemistry, but it's a little clumsy. As you "practice," you really learn what gets each other off, you start to feel more uninhibited.

It's a tricky spectrum though: when does the familiarity get to the contempt point, or the boredom point? You need to know each other to really get deep with each other, but when does that start to feel like being taken for granted?

Human beings like variety, and they also like partnership . . . these are scientific values we can point to. Certainly two people who never changed, who did the same exact thing in bed every time, would be robots! But people actually do change over time, life is always throwing you a curve, and sexual exploration is pretty infinite.

HR: So, does Susie Bright, Sexpertista/Mother/Writer/Guru ever just pass on sex and opt to do the dishes instead?

SB: Oh no way -- you have NO IDEA how much I hate to do the dishes. I just don't do them at all. I have somehow got this deal where my partner and daughter do all of them. I do other stuff that they don't like to do! But sure, I have passed on sex to do something mundane. Just not the dishes.

HR: If you could hand over the legacy of a perfect sexual world to your daughter, what would it look like?

SB: I imagine this incredible satiny red ribbon, but I can't see what's inside that package!

HR: That's a powerful image. Red is such a strong color. And yet the ribbon part seems so feminine to me. How can we help our daughters weave their way through society's confusing sexual messages so they can find their own sexual strength? What can we do to keep them from making the same mistakes so many of us have made?

SB: You're asking for a book, yes? I could bluntly list a few things that I believe in, but I would like the time to be more persuasive.

I think that you have to do EVERYTHING you can do to empower girls when they are young, from their education, to their successful independence, to their sexual self-knowledge. You have to say, "I am raising an Amazon, dammit." And you can't back down.

You have to make sure you have community with other great women, so that when the daughters go into puberty and find you "embarrassing," they will turn to their 100 cool Aunts. Get your godmothers into action!

HR: What's on your nightstand right now? Wait -- no, let me rephrase -- what BOOKS are on your nightstand right now?

SB: Hmmm . . . a book about sewing . . . probably Sandra Betzina. Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex. A New Yorker, a comic book, vibrator, ear plugs, water, Advil, my iPod, clock, crystal, seashells, flowers, my glasses, carrot cream, colored pencils, my laptop, diary, a small scissors.

HR: Hmm. Carrot cream -- is that as intriguing as it sounds?

SB: Not really, it's a Burt's Bee's product that I have a curious attraction to -- I love the smell.

HR: And here's the million-dollar question: what's in your diary?

SB: As Aretha would say, "That's Private!"


Heidi Raykeil is the author of the books Love in the Time of Colic: The New Parents’ Guide to Getting it on Again (Collins, 2009) and Confessions of a Naughty Mommy: How I Found My Lost Libido (Seal Press 2006). She is a contributor to Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy and Birth and to several anthologies, including Unbuttoned: Women Open Up About the Pleasures, Pains, and Politics of Breastfeeding (Harvard Common Press, 2009) and Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined (Seal Press 2006). Her writing has also been featured in Parenting Magazine, Redbook, and online at iVillage.com. Heidi lives in Seattle with her husband and two daughters.


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