Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Annie Spiegelman

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Annie Spiegelman's Growing Seasons: Half-baked Garden Tips, Cheap Advice on Marriage, and Questionable Theories on Motherhood describes the difficulties and frustrations of new motherhood, her mother's illness, and its impact on the family. She is also the author of Annie's Garden Journal: Reflections on Roses, Weeds, Men and Life and works as an assistant director of movie and commercial projects in northern California, where she lives with her husband, Bill, and seven-year-old son, Jack. In an interview with Profiles Editor Joanne Catz Hartman, Speigelman talks about the evolution of her writing, generational differences between mothers, why she keeps her day job, and her own mother-daughter relationship.

Joanne Catz Hartman: What was your goal in writing the book -- did you write for your son, for readers to understand the complexities of mothering? Did it start as a book, or was it a personal journal that made its way into book form?

Annie Spiegelman: I began writing Growing Seasons for myself to keep sane in those first few years of new motherhood. I was also still examining, as I had done for years before, my difficult yet fascinating and loving relationship with my mother. She was a stay-at-home mom in the 1950s when mothers supposed to look perfect and be happy 24/7, while making dinner and cocktails for their husbands when they came home from a hard day at the office. I finally understood why my mother was somewhat bitter and cranky! And then Oprah broke down the conspiracy of silence last year when she had a program called "The Truth about Motherhood." Finally, we were all allowed to admit that it wasn't all picture-perfect every single minute. Mothers were human, not saints!

I wanted to give new mothers a heads-up as to what was in store for them. There are going to be those rough patches, those moments, especially in those first few years of parenthood (and I imagine many more when we become parents of teens) when mothers simply want to run away and escape to lie on a sunny beach . . . alone! It doesn't mean we don't love our children to pieces, it means we still have self-respect, and that is critical to hold onto in this grand motherhood journey.

JCH: You write about how you needed to get away from "happy new mothers" and that you were "not cut out for this motherhood stuff." You called your father in the first few weeks of your son's life and asked him how he was able to forgive you and your sisters for keeping him awake for years when you were babies. "Annie, you forget all that," he told you, "You remember only the good things." Do you agree? Is that good advice? Having recorded both the good and the bad, do you hope you are making some new mothers feel less (in your own words) "freaked out"?

AS: I decided to write a book that may be comforting to new mothers, especially of my generation, where many of us are older mothers who have had or have successful careers and think we can do anything. Obviously we cannot. It's all very challenging, balancing work, marriage and parenthood.

It's funny because I do agree with my dad in that you remember the good things. I have blocked out all those nights of no sleep! I'm always telling Jack how sweet he was as a baby, which is true, and how I loved to stare into his eyes as we cuddled on the couch together, which we still do, and I still am amazed at all this love.

As for some cheap advice, I'd say that women must trust their gut feelings -- which is hard to do in that first year because you are so, so busy and worn out. Asking for help is a critical part. Letting your husband be an active part is huge. Men are great with babies, and we must finally stop this false stereotype that dads are clueless. The more involved they are, the more everyone wins.

There's a fantastic book that I wish had been around for me when I was a new mother: Mother Nurture by Rick and Jan Hanson, which is all about nurturing the mother and the marriage so the couple can be effective new parents.

JCH: You describe being jealous of your twin sister's perfect baby, a baby who sleeps all the time and doesn't make a peep. You tell her, "You're not a real mother. This doesn't count. That's not a baby. She sleeps day and night. She doesn't even cry. That's a doll. You have no idea what real motherhood is." Is your sister's child still perfect?

AS: Perfectly perfect! I swear I'm not bitter . . .

JCH: You discuss feeling guilty for not being the perfect happy new mother and say, "I didn't talk to many people in those days because I felt that everyone expected me to be thrilled, and I wasn't thrilled. I was sad that I had lost my old life, scared to death of the responsibility of taking care of you, too tired to work in the garden or see my friends and I missed my work (the paying job). I was bored and worn down by the monotony. . . . I felt guilt-ridden for not being the perfect selfless little caretaker, generously ready to give." What was the answer for you to this? Did you find a balance? How's the juggling now that Jack is older -- your film career, your gardening, your writing, and your mothering?

AS: The answer for me, and this will be different for each woman, was for me to "keep my day job." I had to work for financial reasons, but I also had to work to keep my sanity. I am very fortunate to have a job that that I love. I work in the San Francisco film community on various movie and commercial projects. It's long hours and hard work, but I get to work with really fun people. I am very blessed in that way. I also don't work every day, so I have a wonderful balance between film work, writing, gardening, and doing fun things with Jack, like mountain biking or rollerblading. My own personal opinion is that mothers who have a balanced life where they have not had to give up on their own dreams and goals will be happier and healthier in their relationships.

I also believe that fathers who do not have the huge stress of being the sole financial provider and have more time to spend with their children as they grow will be happier and healthier fathers. Seventy percent of mothers in the US are working out of the home. We need to keep changing with the times. The United States is very behind other countries in making policy decisions that would help working parents. The 1950s are so over! I have witnessed the next generation of women. My neighbor Rebecca is 15-years-old, bright, assertive, athletic, and expects to do things her way or bust! I have seen the future divas, and they're not all nicey-nice.

JCH: The mother-daughter relationship is central to your story, about letting go, about being someone's child -- coming full circle in your relationship with your mother and your relationship as a new mother. You write: "I recalled my childhood spent trying to please her, my early adult life trying to understand her, and, now, I simply wanted to forgive her. . . . Ma, I'm writing about you and our life. You can have a whole chapter if you want--" and you go on to tell her she can have a whole book. Do you think of your book as a tribute to your mother?

AS: Growing Seasons, which was originally called "Dear Jack," is definitely a tribute to my mother and the mothers of earlier generations who didn't have all the choices we have now. The book first ended without the epilogue, "Queen Bee Junkies." I had been sending out the book to agents and publishers for a few months and receiving a plethora of rejections. Then, my mother fell and broke her hip on Mothers Day. The next few months were spent watching her health rapidly decline in nursing homes and hospitals and dialysis centers. Around that time, I got a call from a New York agent who popped gum in my ear and practically barked at me that the book needed a better ending. It had NO ending according to her. I said that I couldn't hear this criticism right now because I was drained from the hospital visits where my mother was dying. I told her I would call her back in a few weeks. She said, "The Queen Bee is dying. Now that's an ending!" I hung up the phone and hated her but started writing the devastating ending, and now that is my favorite part of the book

JCH: What would your mother think of the book?

AS: She knew that I was writing it, and I had read her some parts of the earlier chapters. I think she would have loved the book. The epilogue would have been very difficult, obviously. My mother had the gift of a great sense of humor. We laughed at everything. She always saw the humor in any situation. People watching my mother and I would have assumed that we were drunk or crazy. We were always laughing. That is how I want to remember her.

JCH: Your book openly describes your marriage. You say, "Everyone told me, '[Having children] changes your life,' but no one mentioned how much it changes your relationship with your partner." You say that "marriage can heal you by wrapping you in its safe sunny blanket of unconditional love, or it can stomp, pulverize, and blow your feelings into tiny powdery emotional bits." Did writing help you reach understanding, deeper truths, did it help sort things out? What was your husband's reaction to your book?

AS: Bill helped me write some major paragraphs of the book so he knew what I was saying about him all along! He is my toughest critic, but he is always willing to help me make the storytelling better. We spent many late nights together during the final edit working on sentences and paragraphs that we thought might be offensive to relatives or friends or Tommy K. fans, or making sure my Aunt Zif wouldn't have ammunition for a lawsuit!

JCH: Will you talk about your work with Adults and Children Together Against Violence, a group to which you've donated some of the proceeds from your book?

AS: My favorite part of my booksigning is when I stop talking about me (imagine that!) and speak about the work that ACT (Adults and Children Together) is doing. ACT was started in 2000 by the APA (American Psychological Association) and the NAEYC (The National Association for the Education of Young Children). Nearly a half-century of psychological research has proven that violence is a learned behavior, often learned when a child is young. But children can also be taught nonviolence. The best teachers they have are their parents. They will copy behavior from the people closest to them. The ACT project stresses teaching nonviolence in the home especially during the early childhood ages between birth and age eight. By the time our kids leave elementary school, it is estimated they will have seen 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of violence on television. Being peaceful role models for our children is an essential part of raising a healthy family. This means parents have to work on their own issues and become healthier within themselves.

JCH: What are you working on now?

AS: I'm working on a book of essays to be out next year, I hope. Part of the proceeds of that book will also be donated to ACT. An essay I wrote for an anthology with a group of writers entitled "Changing Course" will be out this fall from Avalon Publishing. For Bay Area readers, I will be a guest speaker on Saturday, September 18th, at the Sonoma County Book Fair in Santa Rosa, California. The book fair takes over the whole Santa Rosa downtown area and is a very fun event to attend.

JCH:.What books are you reading or look forward to reading?

AS: I just got David Sedaris's new book. I love him. I'm also reading The Bastard on the Couch, because I still haven't figured out men!

Joanne Catz Hartman, lives with her husband and daughter in northern California. She wrote the Literary Mama column Mother Angst and was also a columnist for San Francisco’s J . Her work appears in the anthologies Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined, Using Our Words, and The Knitter’s Gift. Prior to motherhood, she worked for a New England public television station on an award-winning feature magazine show, was a reporter and photographer for a sailing magazine, an editor at a wire service, and spent a decade teaching middle school.

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