Some people look at me skeptically when I discuss the impact of early childhood trauma and the profound effects of PTSD. We have a hard time considering a slippery, invisible emotional problem, with very few black and white answers. It’s hard to bear witness to the suffering of our fellow humans, especially children, and not know how to address it. But ignoring it doesn’t make the problem go away.
Jillian Lauren is the author of her memoir out today, EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED (Plume), which tells the story of Jillian and her husband, a rock star, adopting a child from Ethiopia with special needs and helping him feel safe in the world. She is also the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, SOME GIRLS: My Life in a Harem, and the novel PRETTY.
I’m a longtime fan of Jillian’s work and always intrigued by feminist mothering memoirs, so was eager to talk to Jillian about EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED.
Anna: Everything You Ever Wanted, is a love story. The story of your love for Scott, his love for you, your mutual love for the idea of family, for your son, Tariku. It’s a story about what grows in the rich loam of love. Parenting as act of radical love. Can you talk a little about that, about those ideas?
Jillian: Margaret Mead famously said you need three marriages, even if they’re to the same person: the first is for sex, the second is for children, the third is for companionship. All of our love songs and Hollywood movies pretty much end after the first option. I make fun of that in the first chapter of my book, ending it by saying, “And then we lived happily ever after.” For many of us, that’s the beginning, not the end. So, what happens next? They don’t write love songs about that. Y’know—Why do birds fall down from the sky, every time you…. wake up bitchy and bleary eyed at 5:30 a.m. in the same yoga pants you’ve been wearing for three days? This book is that love song.
Anna: I was so moved by your willingness to delve into your marriage in this story. The problems that arose in your marriage. The anger and occasional rage. The stress. Your sex life. Your fears for your marriage. So often in parenting memoirs it’s all about the kids and the effect on romantic partnerships is left out.
Jillian: My goal with this book is connection. My dearest hope is that it will speak to other women who relate to the story. In order to connect with readers on a deep level, you have to tell the truth. My romantic, emotional and sexual needs didn’t magically disappear when my child showed up. Like- Poof! What’s an orgasm? Did I ever care about that? I was sooo selfish! Now all I need to be fulfilled for the rest of my life is that unbearably sweet smile beaming up at me from the bassinette. That hasn’t been my experience.
Anna: In the book, you shine a bright light onto the difficulties of parenting Tariku. The dark times. What struck me as so beautiful about the story was your own calling yourself to love, to compassion, to patience. You always keep the focus on your own growth, not what parenting forced you to do, but rather how you could offer more love. I felt a rich call to open my heart more deeply.
Jillian: I’m so glad that was your response! The unique challenges of parenting a child with special needs have, at times, left me in tears, praying to God that I might find some hidden reserve of strength to keep me standing for another day. There were times that it was really, really f-ing hard. In retrospect, it was precisely those times that allowed me to understand myself as stronger than I ever knew. It was those times that gave me greater faith in myself and my family. I’ve never felt equal to the task of parenting. I still don’t really. But then I think–parenting is a gift, not a reward for perfection.
Anna: You write about adopting your child, but not about adoption as a topic. You tell a story about adopting and raising a specific child with complex needs, your son. You are careful not to make statements about special needs kids at large or adoption at large. Tell me about staying on course for telling the one story, not issuing a polemic.
Jillian: My book is a memoir not a manifesto. I’m not a therapist or a social worker; I’m a writer and a mom. My story absolutely has a universal reach, but it’s doesn’t have a moral. That said, for the people who relate to the story and are seeking specific recommendations around PTSD, Sensory Processing Disorder or adoption-related issues, there is a detailed resource section in the back of the book.
Anna: You raise the issue of trauma and PTSD and what a huge role they have played in Tariku’s life and your parenting of him. Society seems to be lagging behind in recognizing trauma’s impact on kids. Like we can’t face how many kids have been trauma victims and what it’s done to them.
Jillian: Some people look at me skeptically when I discuss the impact of early childhood trauma and the profound effects of PTSD. We have a hard time considering a slippery, invisible emotional problem, with very few black and white answers. It’s hard to bear witness to the suffering of our fellow humans, especially children, and not know how to address it. But ignoring it doesn’t make the problem go away. Early childhood trauma has a very real effect on neurochemical responses. As a trauma survivor, my kid responds to every perceived danger as a threat to his very existence, and he fights it accordingly. It takes patient, consistent, fearless love to help these kids feel safe in the world, and as a result to begin to rewire their brains.
Anna: How does the relationship you had with your parents affect your parenting of Tariku?
Jillian: Everyone says they won’t make the same mistakes their parents did. Which is noble but reductive. I got tons of great stuff from my parents, and just as much screwed-up-ness. As parents, we’re all grappling with the totality of who we are as people, including our histories. My husband Scott and I work on this stuff really hard. Let’s just say there are lots of therapy bills in this house.
Anna: What books—memoirs or novels—that concern parenting have been important to you?
Jillian: Rachel Cusk and Beth Kephart both wrote incredible parenting memoirs that inspired me, but I think that great books are great books period. You can write about parenting or climbing Mt. Everest or bagging groceries and it can be totally boring or absolutely revelatory. Maxine Hong Kingston, Joan Didion, Alexandra Fuller, David Carr and Nick Flynn are also huge influences.
Anna: So often in reading your book, I kept thinking, “this is a story of the triumph of love over shame.” At the end of the book, you let us know that as your family starts to think about growing via another adoption, that your past, as told in the memoir you published since adopting Tariku, has been raised as an issue. You talk about getting knocked down and getting back up. I think, for those of us who come from turbulent backgrounds, backgrounds that others try to shame us for, backgrounds that do or did cause us shame, every day is about killing shame, or not. Your book seems a testament to that.
Jillian: Shame is the big question, isn’t it? It’s still the most debilitating force in my life. Because I’m so outspoken about my “scandalous” past, people can sometimes think that I’ve transcended shame–I’m the anti-shame authority. In truth, it’s something I still struggle with every day. Shame is so insidious that I can even feel shame about feeling shame! The best I’ve been able to do so far is to gain a consciousness around it, so that at the same time I’m experiencing shame, I’m also watching myself experience shame. I try to approach it with a spirit of curiosity. Like, oh yes, there’s that old chestnut SHAME again. How interesting. Why am I feeling it? How is it manifesting? How is it getting in my way? Can I, for just this moment, step over it, like a lump of dog poo on the sidewalk? How about just long enough to answer these interview questions? Then how about just long enough to go and enjoy putting on some great music and making dinner for my family?
Anna: Have any reactions from early readers of the book surprised you?
Jillian: I can’t say I’ve been surprised yet. I’m sure I will be–the world is full of surprises! But I have been terrifically touched.
Anna: Any thought on the way writers who are mothers are treated in regard to their parenting? Is there a double standard for fathers and mothers in writing?
Jillian: Don’t get me started on this. There is still, of course, a phenomenal double standard in our culture. This applies to mothers working in any profession, not just writing. But the writing/mothering debate in particular calls to mind the accusations often leveled at many of my fellow mom-bloggers. Like–you’re exploiting your kids by writing about them rather than spending time with them! Why isn’t the rich and complex subject of motherhood as relevant a subject as any other in the world? No one is harassing some male music blogger (who also happens to be a father) about the fact that he is sitting around writing about silly music all day when he could be making macaroni collages.
Anna: Before we go, can you tell us about your hopes for Tariku, for yourself, for your family?
Jillian: I can’t think too far into the future or I’ll wind up hyperventilating in a fetal position on my laundry room floor. Right now, I hope we make it through piano practice without too much whining. Also, I hope we’re not out of frozen corn dogs. Wish me luck!
Anna March’s writing has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times Modern Love Column, New York Magazine, Salon, Tin House The Rumpus. Her memoir, The Spectacular Remains and novel The Diary of Suzanne Frank are forthcoming. Follow her on Twitter, @annamarch or learn more about her at annamarch.com