Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Jenna McCarthy, author of "The Parent Trip"

Over at Work It, Mom!, I sat down with author and mom of two Jenna McCarthy (at our respective computers, of course) to chat about her newly released book, The Parent Trip: From High Heels and Parties to Highchairs and Potties. Part memoir, part guidebook for new moms, her book is a hilarious look at the darker side of pregnancy and parenthood -- you know, the part the "experts" never seem to talk about.

Jenna McCarthy has been writing for magazines for 17 years, as a freelancer and as a staff member at publications including Seventeen, Mademoiselle, and Shape. "I’ve written for nearly 50 magazines, plus dozens of web sites and several anthologies. I also spent two years co-hosting the top radio show in Santa Barbara," she says. "Oh yeah, and I recently made two people, right in my body, practically from scratch. No wonder I’m exhausted half the time."

McCarthy lives in Santa Barbara, California, with her husband, Joe Coito, and their daughters Sophie ("5 going on 25; nickname: Hollywood," McCarthy quips) and Sasha, 3 1/2 ("And you'd better believe that half is key!") Her first book, The Parent Trip: From High Heels and Parties to Highchairs and Potties, was published this month. Part memoir, part guidebook for new moms, her book is a hilarious look at the darker side of pregnancy and parenthood -- you know, the part the "experts" never seem to talk about.

The Parent Trip is more than your average "I just had a baby, now what!?!" guide for new moms. Tell us a bit about how you came up with the idea for your book.

The first time I was expecting, I bought every book I could find on pregnancy. I learned a lot by reading them. (The placenta is edible! There’s even a name for the practice: placentophagia. This is good information to have!) But with all due respect to the authors of these very helpful and essential works, I wanted more. I knew that I might develop morning sickness (which now I know is a big, fat misnomer, by the way, because this particular breed of illness definitely does not wear a watch), but no one told me that I might take sudden and violent offense to the aroma of my couch while I was pregnant, or that I would hate my husband on a regular basis for no obvious reason. I had questions but no answers: Would sex ever be the same (assuming I could muster some enthusiasm for it in the first place)? Why are mothers so damned competitive? And would someone please tell me what the hell a Velboa Snuzzler is? I figured I couldn’t be the only woman who was stupefied by the mysterious but clearly established rules of motherhood. So I learned as I went -- and then I wrote a book.

What is your favorite part of the book?

I love the section about horrible children’s stories in “Mommy’s Dead.” I am constantly amazed at how lame and inappropriate so many kids’ books are. I joke at the end of that section that I’m going to have to write my own children’s books -- but it turns out, I wasn’t really joking. (I didn’t know this at the time.) I’ve already written the first one and I think it’s really fun. It’s being illustrated right now. It’s called My Very Own Fairy and it has a little of the funky edge that I love in the occasionally well-written kids’ book. My illustrator is phenomenal -- I can’t wait to see it.

What was the most difficult part to write?

Honestly, none of it! It’s my life, and I’m a writer, so it all just sort of tumbled out of me. I wrote this book because there were -- and are -- so many things about being a mom that I feel really strongly about, but couldn’t find a lot of validation for in print. I didn’t love every minute of being pregnant, and I really wanted a girl! I lied about how much weight I gained (and frankly people, it was none of your effing business so it’s your fault for asking), I sometimes resented my new role and, once in it, I tended to overreact. A lot. Women aren’t supposed to admit these things, but I can’t believe I’m the only one of us who thinks or feels them. If one woman reads my book and says, “Oh thank GOD I’m not the only one” it will have all been worth it.

There's one passage in The Parent Trip where you're trying to get back to work and you realize that you've somehow become the default caregiver. You detail how you went about hiring some help, but could you tell us how you dealt with the internal struggle that came along with the realization?

Let’s just say therapy helps! Seriously, I was not thrilled about having all of the responsibilities fall onto me. But I realized (and this was not new information, believe me) that I really do like to do and have things “my way,” and the only way that was going to happen was if I did them myself. This continues to be a bittersweet pill to swallow, but in the end I’m happier this way. There’s a lot of letting-go you have to do as a mom; the sooner you accept this fact, the less likely you’ll be to turn into a resentful hag. At least, I hope that’s the case.

Share your favorite tip for getting work done at home while you have your little girls underfoot.

Enlist as much help as you can, and lower your standards. The last part is really the only thing that works. And although I personally cannot stand television, it’s a lifesaver. Of course I wasn’t going to be one of “those moms” who plop their kids in front of the TV to get some work done, but seeing as I work, sometimes it has to be done.

What do you wish someone had told you before you became a mom?

That you can’t be a perfect mom because there really isn’t any such thing. That once you become a mom you are never, ever off the job -- not for 20 seconds, not even if you’re in Aruba and the kids are with your parents in Florida. That you’ll never be able to go to Aruba and leave your kids with your parents in Florida. That you’ll have your heart broken 25 times a day, and laugh 25 times more. That your priorities will shift so dramatically that having a flat stomach or “perfect” thighs really, honestly, won’t seem all that important. That you might find the smell of another tiny human being so totally intoxicating that it can make you dizzy. That those breasts you used to laugh at in National Geographic will suddenly, and seemingly overnight, appear in your bathroom mirror, attached to your body.

Tell us a few things that you never thought you'd do before you became a parent (and found yourself doing them).

There is not enough space on the entire web to detail all of the things I never thought I’d do as a mom, yet find myself doing on a daily basis. There’s a whole section on this in my book (“The 5 Second Rule and Other Disgusting Parenting Practices You Will Embrace”) that details many of them! Here’s the thing: Before you have kids, you have all of these ideas about how that will look. You judge other moms because you think you will never let your kid have a pacifier or a public tantrum or eat a Cheerio off the floor. And then you get there, and you realize sometimes your child’s happiness (or your sanity, or both) is more important than what “anyone else thinks.” Eureka!

What is most challenging for you about your work-life juggle?

Trying to be present with the girls -- and that means shutting off the CrackBerry, closing my email, not checking Facebook every five minutes -- and just being. It’s so easy to get caught up in all of that stuff because in the moment, so much of it truly feels important. It’s a constant struggle to remember what really matters.What's next on your life to-do list?More books! Lots and lots of books. More first-person parenting stuff, children’s books, eventually fiction. Spend more time with my kids. Remodel my bathroom. Get back into yoga. And hopefully, get a little sleep. But not the big, eternal kind. I’ve got too much to do.

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