Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Jennifer Niesslein and Stephanie Wilkinson

No comments

Jennifer Niesslein and Stephanie Wilkinson founded Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers in 1999. The two former journalists were both new mothers who yearned for something more than the standard advice, how-tos, and product placement found in mainstream parenting magazines. After a year of planning, the duo launched a quarterly literary magazine for mothers with personal essays, features, fiction, reviews, editorials, and cartoons. Today, the magazine has a circulation of over 30,000 and has won several Independent Press awards.

Niesslein handles the editorial side of the magazine from the home she shares with her husband and son in Charlottesville, Virginia. Wilkinson manages the publishing side from the magazine's office in Lexington, Virginia, where she lives with her husband and two children. In an interview with Stacey Greenberg, the two editors discuss how they got started, how they keep going, and where they hope to end up.

Stacey Greenberg: Tell me a little bit about your friendship. Did motherhood bring you two together or were you already friends? I picture the two of you having great intellectual discussions on motherhood over coffee as your kids roll around on the floor, slobbering on back issues of the The New Yorker...

Jennifer Niesslein: Wouldn't that be great! Actually we met before we had kids. Stephanie was getting her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia, and while she was there, she wrote the book column for the local alternative newsweekly -- I was the managing editor there. We both left Charlottesville and moved to different parts of the Shenandoah Valley. We lived about an hour away from one another, but we'd get together sometimes. We had babies about six months apart. It's hard for me now to remember what our relationship was like before Brain, Child, but, living an hour away from each other, I know a lot of our friendship and our talking through different motherhood issues was conducted on the phone and via email. It still is. I remember standing in my kitchen at my old house when we decided, Yes, we'll start a magazine, but I don't remember whether Stephanie was there or if I was standing in the kitchen talking on the phone with her.

Stephanie Wilkinson: We'd meet every once in a while to talk about writing, etc., but it wasn't until we started having our kids and then talking about starting a magazine that we really got to know each other well.

SG: On your website you say Brain, Child was published after a year of planning. That seems so fast! How did you go from having a great idea in your heads to having a great magazine in your hands?

SW: My friend Matt used to say you can cook anything in 15 minutes if you turn the heat up high enough. Jennifer and I were excited about the prospect of starting a magazine, so we devoted all our spare time to making it happen. I actually think a year is a pretty normal start-up time. If you wait too long after you've come up with the concept, you're likely to miss your window -- either someone else will do it first or you'll have missed the hot moment.

JN: I had worked at a weekly paper, so a year actually seemed, on the editorial end, a pretty long time to get everything together. It seemed even longer once I realized that we had three months to put issue number two out. We had a book called something like How to Start a Successful Magazine or Newsletter that was very helpful. We asked a lot of people a lot of questions, and people were almost always really nice about offering us advice and pointing us in the right direction.

SG: How has the material you received changed over the years, if at all?

JN: It's funny -- certain subjects come in waves. For example, we'll receive nothing about atypical boys for a long time, then all of a sudden, everyone's son is wearing dresses and putting on nail polish. Generally, the subjects haven't changed a lot. It's motherhood, right?

SW: I think we get sent some really great stuff. Of course, it gets harder as you go along, from an editorial standpoint, since you don't want to repeat yourself too much. So it will always be a challenge for us to find fresh ways to talk about the tried and true stuff.

SG: How do you account for the fact that hundreds of mothers are clamoring to get their writing into your magazine?

JN: Mothers have interesting stories to tell and Brain, Child is one of the few publications committed to publishing personal essays about motherhood. I can't speak for all our contributors, but I personally think that our readers are the people whom I want to talk to when I write.

SW: I do think we hit a cultural nerve. The mid-to-late 1990s was a time when talking and writing about motherhood in a new, open, fresh way became popular. We are riding the wave, and helping sustain it, I hope.

SG: What does the financial side of Brain, Child look like? Are you making a living or is this a labor of love?

JN: It's pretty solid. We're still growing, but Stephanie and I now make a small salary each, and we have enough to pay some great women to contribute their talents on both the business and editorial ends. For the first few years, it was entirely a labor of love for us. We've always paid our writers and artists, though, which we felt strongly about doing.

SW: Most magazines don't turn a profit for three to four years. Three quarters of all new magazines don't make it to the second issue, and half of the ones who do don't make it past the second year. We have definitely beaten the odds. We spent the first three years paying everyone who worked for us, apart from a couple of wonderful college interns, but not paying ourselves. Now that we're paying ourselves and we've hired a small staff, it is really gratifying.

SG: Where do you see the magazine in five years and what happens when Brain, Child is a teenager?

JN: Someday -- I'm not saying five years, but maybe -- I could see it coming out more frequently, being longer, etc. I don't see why the magazine couldn't be around for a good long while.

SW: We have some ideas about expanding the magazine but we're both still working pretty hard on what's on our plate right now. Someday we might be publishing more frequently, or starting a new title, or perhaps expanding into related products. But at this point in our lives, it's tiring just to think about.

SG: How do you co-parent the magazine?

JN: Stephanie and I divvied up responsibilities early on, but we make the big decisions together, from what's going in the issue to whether we should get an office. We started working out of our homes, but now there is a real business office in Lexington where she works. It's where the phone rings if you call in a subscription. Stephanie has certain parts of the magazine that she does the first edit on and I add my edits later -- and vice versa. She also handles the publishing aspects of the magazine, which is a gigantic job. I do the layout, which is later checked over by a real graphic designer, Anne Matthews. Steph and I have complimentary strengths, I think.

SW: Jennifer handles the majority of the contact with writers and artists. She and I both edit everything that goes in the magazine. She writes for the magazine frequently. She also does a significant amount of graphic design and layout. I handle the business side -- paying bills, doing taxes, overseeing the circulation, distribution, advertising, printing, and marketing. We have very complementary skills, one of those wonderful accidents that help make a partnership work.

SG: Tell me a little about your process. How do you decide which essays will work together, do you look for themes, how do you know when an essay is a must have?

JN: Since we only come out four times a year, every issue needs to be pretty well balanced. We can't have only essays by new mothers, for example, or only essays about parenting kids with special needs. That said, sometimes it happens that a couple of essays on the same subject will go well together. A few years ago, we ran two essays about miscarriage in the same issue: in one, the writer was kind of glad she miscarried, and in the other, the writer was devastated. We look for a range of attitudes, stages of parenthood, tone, etc. It's pretty subjective. A must-have essay is one that's really well written, surprising, and says something that we haven't heard before.

SW: Jennifer reads everything and then passes on the contenders to me, usually about 30 or 40 essays. I read them and then we discuss them all. As I said above, we do try to do fresh subjects, though we recognize that lots of topics are going to be revisited again and again, either because there are always interesting new angles or because our readership will always be interested in them. Some essays are just great, right out of the box, and demand to be printed just on the basis of sheer blow-you-away fabulous writing. We almost always agree instantly on those -- I can't think of a time when we haven't -- and then the conversation is very short. Those essays are like pornography -- well, not literally -- you know them when you see them.

SG: How do you balance work and motherhood? What does a typical workweek look like for you?

JN: When we came up with the idea for Brain, Child, my son was five months old, and I fit everything in during naps and evenings and weekends. You know, the classic part-time worker cobbling together of time. I'll tell you, it's a lot easier now that my son is in kindergarten. I work 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. My husband pulls his parenting weight around here, so if I have to catch up on things over the weekend or in the evenings, I do. The workweek varies depending where we are in the production schedule. It gets more intense the closer we are to finishing an issue. So, in a nice, calm period like now, I'm working only on the weekdays while he's in school; in a month, I'll be heading up to the attic after dinner for another shift.

SW: It has become vastly easier for me now that a) we've moved the business office out of my house and b) both my children are in school from 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. every day. In the old days, my schedule was a lot more chaotic and a lot more had to be done at night and on weekends. Now I work from 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. a few days a week and 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. a few days, depending on whose turn it is to pick up the kids, mine or my husband's. I really value that structure. Yet at the same time, I think the best thing about owning your own business is having the flexibility to work when and how you want. My family spends six weeks in the spring in England each year with my husband's family and I work from there. There's never a need to ask anyone for time off to volunteer at our kids' schools or to just bum around with them. That's a great, great thing.

SG: What do your husbands think about the magazine? Do they read it? Are they proud of you?

JN: I don't think Brandon's read an issue since the first one. He reads more for information than for the sort of thing Brain, Child offers. When he takes photos for the magazine, he does read the specific piece the photo is for. We have different strengths -- he's an engineer -- and I think we're both impressed by what the other one can do. It's an excellent set-up for a Mutual Admiration Society.

SW: My husband was doing some proofreading of the magazine for a while. He's good at catching typos and telling whether an argument makes good sound sense. Sometimes I ask him to read something I've written to see what he thinks. On his own, he leafs through each issue, but no, I wouldn't say he's a devoted reader of it. He reads it like he reads The New Yorker: always the cartoons, usually the short or humorous bits, anything by someone he's heard of, and whatever catches his interest.

Yes, I would venture to say he's proud of what we've done. He has always been immensely supportive.

SG: Are your children involved with the magazine? Do they "help" you in any way?

JN: Not much. My son sometimes helps me staple together the submissions after I print them out. One time after about five minutes of stapling, he said, "Mama, my hand doesn't hurt that much!" So, yes, there is child labor involved in the making of Brain, Child. Not long after that, I got an electric stapler, and that was big hit for about an afternoon.

SW: Well, apart from appearing in homemade ads or illustrations that we sometimes run in Brain, Child . . . not much. Back in the days when my office was in my house and we were mailing out individual issues to subscribers in peel-and-seal envelopes, I did enlist my then three-year-old daughter in the peelin' and sealin' process. (Like that old Staples ad with the work at home father and child: "Can you collate that for daddy?")

SG: I notice that there are a lot of frequent contributors to the magazine and I see a lot of these names in other publications. Sometimes it seems like everybody knows everybody. Is that true? Have you met these women?

JN: It is a small world, but we're always working with writers we'd never heard of before. I haven't met too many in person, probably because I don't often leave Charlottesville. We had our very first staff party in December and I met almost everyone on staff for the first time in person. Wonderful people, they are, and a lot of fun, too. As far as writers go, we met Theo Nestor really early on at the Million Mom March. I met Jennifer Margulis, Faulkner Fox, and Andi Buchanan at the 2004 Virginia Festival of the Book. We'd published Lucy Sankey Russell years ago, and now, coincidentally, we live in the same neighborhood. One of her daughters babysits my son every few weeks.

SW: A few I knew before we started the magazine and a couple we have met since. Most people we know only by email or phone. As far as how small the world of motherhood writing is . . . we wonder about this ourselves. It's probably fairly safe to say that you could fit all the people actively publishing on this topic into a large ballroom.

SG: What if anything, do you struggle with? You make it all sound so easy -- starting a magazine, balancing work with family life.

JN: Oh, I don't mean to! There are days when my son is wearing too-small sweatpants and I'm wearing very fancy clothes to the playground because no one has made the time to do laundry. The house is clean for maybe four hours a week, after we tidy up on Saturdays. I logged a lot of hours, when Caleb was little, playing with plastic dinosaurs (bo-ring!) when I was dying to do something stimulating. For years, I spent Sunday afternoons responding to writers while my guys were downstairs doing something fun. We all struggle with the same sort of stuff so I didn't think it was worth mentioning. The things that scare me are the things that could happen but haven't: a divorce, a debilitating illness in the family, job loss, etc. It would be difficult to bounce back from any one of those. And they're largely unpreventable.

I struggle with being tired because I can't be a big girl and make myself go to bed at a decent hour.

SW: Starting any business is high stress in one sense -- you don't know if what you're doing will succeed and you don't have anything to show for it for a long time -- but in another sense, it's the ideal job for women in their childbearing years. Unlike way too many jobs out there, you get to create your own schedule. The value of this for women with small kids is incalculable. Mothers get used to working hard and working long hours, just in taking care of their kids. After a while, it doesn't scare them. But what really stresses them out, I would say, is being unable to be the one who decides how their time is divided between home, work, family, self. That's why so many are "opting out." If you're in the lucky position to have someone else in the house bringing in a good enough income for a few years while you take a chance on starting something, like Jennifer and I were, the rewards in terms of balance can be great. Though of course personality plays into this as well; if you're a super type-A, maybe having your own business is worse. With your own business, there's never a time when your work is truly done -- there's always more that can be done or thought about. But I think the stats bear me out on the advantages of entrepreneurship for women; these days there are more women who start businesses than men.

SG: While I view Brain, Child as a first rate literary journal, I notice that it is also becoming more and more informative and even political. Do you see yourself and/or the magazine as part of a bigger political movement?

JN: I think it's almost impossible to cover issues pertaining to families and mothers without getting into political territory and having opinions. That said, I don't think Brain, Child is nearly as tied to a movement as, say, Mothers Movement Online, a great website edited by Judith Stadtman Tucker.

SW: We decided at the outset that we didn't want to have any sort of meta-agenda shaping what we print. We were looking for genuine stories of mothering that reflect modern life from all points of view, all political sides, all parenting theories. Of course, whenever you have that ambitious a goal, it's bound to be challenged. The essays we publish tend slightly toward a liberal point of view, I'd say. But then again, we don't get too many submissions from super-conservative writers. Is that a chicken-or-egg problem? I don't know. Maybe we are perceived as a liberal organ by conservative writers, or maybe conservative mothers are less likely to be writers.

As far as a political movement . . . again, we have no written mission statement to that effect. Would we ever agitate for a political cause . . . I don't know. We certainly want motherhood to be respected on the political scene, but we're also well aware that mothers are not all alike, they don't mother alike, they don't regard their roles all in the same way and so we try to be very cautious about ever Speaking For All Mothers Today. So that reticence to speak for all mothers probably hamstrings our usefulness as a political entity.

SG: Does feminism play a role in your work with Brain, Child?

JN: Depends what flavor of feminism you're talking about. But, in the broadest sense, feminism certainly informs the magazine -- Brain, Child is a publication devoted to taking mothers' experiences seriously and not condescending to the reader. Some of the issues addressed in the magazine are ones that are a direct result of what second-wave feminists did. A lot of us are beneficiaries of that work, and we're also the generation to grapple with the issues that are still unresolved. Some other issues we address, though, are not what are generally thought of as feminist issues.

SW: I'm of the generation that, for the most part, takes feminism as the underpinning of my consciousness. That's not to say I take the gains of feminism for granted or think the work of feminism is finished. But on the whole, I'm not thinking every day that I work on the magazine, "I'm doing this to strike a blow for women!" I think it's pretty clear in our pages that we think women are the mental, moral, emotional, political, etc., equals to men, though I also don't think we feel the need to be explicit about that. We certainly don't condescend to women, which might seem like a no-brainer for a magazine aimed primarily at women. But so many magazines for mothers and women do condescend, in my opinion. We try to work against that.

Stacey Greenberg , the creator of the zine Fertile Ground: For People who Dig Parenting, lives in Memphis with her husband and two sons. Her writing has appeared in Hip Mama, Clamor, and on She writes a monthly column for Philosophical Mother and a daily blog.

More from

Comments are now closed for this piece.