Page Turner: An Interview with Instinctive Mama Author Ada Calhoun
You’ve likely encountered the work of writer and editor Ada Calhoun—whether it’s her critique of Inga Muscio’s Cunt for Nerve.com, her editorial work on Babble.com, of which she was founding editor, her pieces for Time and New York magazines, or her blog conversation 90s Woman—where, among many other admirable feminist pursuits, she and author Kara Jesella try to pinpoint the “most 90s woman” song of 2010.
Now Calhoun has published her first book, Instinctive Parenting: Trusting Ourselves to Raise Good Kids, which chronicles her life as a new mother and outlines her parenting philosophy. Consider her the feminist lit voice for a back-to-basics approach to mamahood in the era of “helicopter parenting,” the obsessive Gen X and Y response to the laissez-faire style of their parents. It may just be the only parenting book blurbed by Kathleen Hanna.
Page Turner recently interviewed Calhoun about her take on parenting culture, the gender spectrum in raising a boy, her “get out of hell” mantra for crisis moments, and how playground life circa 2010 really can evoke Heathers-era teen flicks.
Page Turner: Instinctive Parenting calls on parents to trust their own instincts, not the latest parenting advice book—yet here you are, publishing one of your own. How did you come to write this book, and how did you want to differentiate it from others? I understand your first pitch to the publisher was a book on crushes!
Ada Calhoun: I was an editor at the sex site Nerve.com and pregnant, so when the publishers decided to spin off a parenting site, I was the obvious person to run it. I was kind of resistant: “Just because I’m having a kid, doesn’t mean I don’t know about sex anymore!” Thus, my book pitch about the history of the crush, which I still want to do one day. But these super-fun and adorable editors at Simon and Schuster took me out for drinks and said I should use what I’d learned as a parenting editor to do a book about parenting culture and my take on it. And I immediately had a crush on them, so I was more than happy to do it. And it wound up being really fun and cathartic to write.
My book is different in that it’s not pushing any parenting agenda or specific strategy, but is intended to be an antidote to all the bossy books, magazines, blogs, and other parents out there—like a hardcover grain of salt. I hope people also find it funny.
PT: Instinctive Parenting arises from the idea that Gen X and Y parents are anxious and changing courses ad nauseam based on the latest how-to parenting book. What led you to believe we’re essentially lost parents?
AC: Well, I don’t think we’re completely lost! I think we’re doing a good job overall and that all the anxiety comes from a really good place: We want to do the best by our kids. The only problem is that there is no consensus on what “the best” is. Every book, every blog, says something different: co-sleep! Sleep-train! Breastfeed until the kid is twelve! Get rid of that pacifier at three months!
The problem is that there is no objective best—every family, every kid, responds to something different. Once I accepted that, I relaxed—and I hope this book, which explains how I got to that point, reassures other people, too.
PT: Your book is very much a memoir of your experience parenting your son Oliver with your husband, Neal. How was your actual experience of mothering different from what you imagined?
AC: That thing people talk about where you’re suddenly living for someone else really is freaky. Before having a kid I was like, “Yeah, I’ll love him. I get it.” But then when I became a parent, I had that revelation of, “Ohhhhh, I’d totally step in front of a truck to save him and be grateful to die that way. Wow.”
Based on horror stories, I also thought becoming a mother would be the end of my career, social life, and marriage. Happily, none of those things have happened. The downside is that logistics do get way more complicated and good babysitters suddenly become this exquisite, beautiful treasure.
PT: What helped you get through some of your most challenging moments as a parent?
AC: Talking to my husband, my mother, and my best friend, Tara, who has three kids, has been the biggest help. One time when I whined to Tara about how stressed out I was at a particularly star-crossed outing, she told me a story that I mention in my book.
She was at the zoo with her kids when they were little. It was a thousand degrees, and everyone freaked out at the same time. So, she was standing there with all these kids covered in sweat and snot and melted ice cream—and they were miles away from the exit—and she said to her father, who was there, too, “Look around. We are in the ninth circle of hell.” But they eventually got out of the zoo, and got cleaned off, and took naps and all was well. Her moral to me was: “When you’re in hell, get out of hell.”
That cracked me up. “Gee, thanks,” I said. But it’s really kind of the best advice. Now anytime I am in hell—like tonight when I was trying to convince my son that he needed to stay in his bed and go to sleep already and felt myself getting close to losing my temper, because I really wanted to go to bed myself—I can think, “Get out of hell,” and it makes me laugh, and suddenly I’m not in hell anymore—or at least I can see the exit.
PT: How does feminism inform your parenting, especially raising a son? I know a few feminist moms well-versed in gender theory who struggle with whether to let their son wear pink or run around in a dress.
AC: Yesterday, I was visiting a friend of mine, and his daughter and my son were playing dress-up, and to my son I was like, “You can wear that Snow White costume if you want,” because I’d realized he’d made a beeline for the knight outfit and had never experienced the joy of a tutu. But he had no interest.
I think there’s a real gender spectrum between girly and boyish, and my son seems to be on the boyish end, at least for now, which I kind of enjoy, because it means I get to learn all about trucks and I get to hang out at the firehouse around the corner, and those guys are way hot.
But he has macho girl friends and girly boy friends, and so far, maybe because we live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, everyone’s totally okay with a pretty wide spectrum. And they all watch both Diego and Dora and seem to feel no disconnect sitting around having tea parties and talking about weapons.
I will say my son, who is three now, is very chatty and articulate, but is totally lousy with gender pronouns. I blame his beloved “uncle” Murray Hill, “the hardest working middle-aged man in show business.” People sometimes call Murray she and sometimes he, and I think Oliver now thinks you can use either one at any time. So he’s very zealous-gender-studies-major-like in that way.
PT: Your book’s characterization of moms on the playground reads in part like a scene out of Mean Girls. What’s your take on mothers vigilantly critiquing other mothers’ choices?
AC: Playground life has a lot in common with movies about teenagers! Parents are all a little Molly Ringwald-ish in the morning. The problem is that talking trash is really fun, and it makes you feel far more secure in your own choices. I think it’s a way to psych yourself up about whatever it is you’ve decided that you’re maybe ambivalent about deep down.
The only problem—aside from the obvious problems that come with being mean to other people—is that it’s a huge jinx. In my experience, whenever I question—okay, mock—someone else’s parenting, I wind up facing the same thing later and feeling dumb.
PT: We often parent in a similar—or opposite—manner of how we were parented. In Instinctive Parenting, you write of Gen X’s “helicopter” parenting—“omni-available, omnipresent, and omni-facilitating” as opposed to their own parents “distracted, laissez-faire approach” to child rearing. How were you parented—and what did you take or discard from your experience?
AC: I grew up in the East Village of Manhattan in the ’80s, on St. Marks Place. I was an only child, and there weren’t a ton of other kids around. The year I was born, 1976, was the lowest birth rate ever in NYC, or so my mother says. My parents gave me tons of freedom. I was taking the subway and bus alone from a very young age. I went to my own parent-teacher conferences in high school and had jobs starting when I was 14.
And even though I wanted that freedom and managed it well, in retrospect I wonder if maybe it would have been more relaxing to have had less responsibility for at least a little while. So I think I’m going to forestall my son’s total independence for a little while longer. But who knows? Maybe by the time he’s six, I’ll be like, “Here’s your MetroCard, what’s your hurry?”
PT: NPR’s Michel Martin gave you some push back on the concept of “instinctive” parenting and simply trusting your own instincts. She asked, “what if your instinct is to be racist?” You countered that there’s a difference between what our instincts tell us and what we know to be “right.” You later said that the interview led people to believe your book was “this hippy-dippy advice thing that’s all about going with your gut, and totally against science.” Were you surprised by Martin’s take on the book? What did you take away from that exchange?
AC: I really like her a lot. . . . She is a super-tough interviewer, and she’s making people talk seriously and frankly about race. That’s necessary, especially in a liberal environment like NPR, because I think that in this age of Obama, progressive white people would often just as soon pretend race is no longer an issue.
But I found the way the interview was framed as a point-counterpoint with Po Bronson, who wrote that cool bestseller NurtureShock, at once super flattering and also totally ironic. My book is all about post-partisan parenting and not putting everything about parenting into two categories: child-led versus parent-led.
So here was Instinctive Parenting being pitted against a science-driven book and framed as this kind of whatever’s-whatever crunchy thing, which it so is not. The book is basically a love letter to my son’s pediatrician for staying up on all the medical research, so I don’t have to!
Among the things I took away from the interview are that it does bear saying that prejudice is not the same as instinct, and that there is a really intense desire out there to put parenting philosophies in opposing categories—even if, as in this case, one of the philosophies is that opposing categories are bad.
PT: You created the blog 90s Woman with author Kara Jesella. You wrote in your first post that the nineties were a “maligned decade,” but you’re “convinced they were not a waste, but in fact ushered in a whole new and—contrary to public opinion—NOT entirely objectionable new phase of feminism.” What’s your take on 90s-era feminism?
AC: That’s what we’re trying to figure out with the blog! Post by post, we’re trying to figure out what it meant to us and to the culture, and to make peace with the hennaed hair and eco-feminism books and Kill Rock Stars albums that defined our 90s life. We are really eager for it all to have meant something, and by having this conversation publicly, we’re able to air our thoughts and see which are dumb and which have some merit. And luckily, the readers who write in are helping us figure it all out.
PT: You might just have the only parenting book blurbed by Kathleen Hanna. How did that come about?
AC: I’m lucky enough to be friends with her, and she’s super supportive. Kathleen babysat Oliver a bunch when he was a baby. From her he’s learned how to pick blueberries, play the drums, and rock floaties. He adores her, and rightly so.
PT: You collaborated with Tim Gunn on his forthcoming advice book/memoir, Gunn’s Golden Rules. What’s your one-sentence synopsis of Gunn’s philosophy of life?
AC: “Take the high road.” That book was probably the best writing gig I’ll ever have. Tim made me cookies every time I went over to his house and taught me so much about fashion and about being a good person. His book tells a very funny and remarkably deep story about how nice guys can indeed finish first.
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