The next book in our book club series is Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers as We Never Saw Them. This fascinating collection of essays and portraits of women—writers, poets, teacher and more—was edited by New York Times bestselling novelist Edan Lepucki. What started as a simple Instagram account turned into a moving and at times funny reflection of motherhood. We interviewed Edan, herself a mother of three, on her remarkable book, life as a writer mom during the pandemic, her favorite quarantine reads and more.
Can you please tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m an author and mother in Los Angeles, where I was born and raised. I have three kids, Dixon Bean, age 9, Ginger, who is almost 5, and Mickey, who’s 13 months. I’m the bestselling author of the novels California and Woman No. 17, and the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.
What are your kids doing for school this year?
My oldest son is in the fourth grade and my daughter is in TK (Transitional Kindergarten). They’re both enrolled at the local elementary school, doing remote learning; we chose not to do a homeschool pod or anything like that because we didn’t feel it was fair to other students who might not have those resources—and we also weren’t comfortable expanding our “quarantine bubble.” My son has a pretty heavy day, on the Zoom from 9 am until about 2, but he has a terrific teacher so she’s actually engaging and he’s handling it all as well as can be expected. My daughter’s remote learning occurs from 9 am until 10:30 am, and then there is some minimal extra worksheets and such. We’re just trying to stay afloat and keep our sanity during all of this but it gets tough! I cry at least once a week about the remote learning struggle and how early I have to get up to have any time for writing. It’s working but it’s a struggle.
This book is such a wonderful concept of acknowledging moms lives pre and post kids. How did you come up with this?
Thank you! Mothers Before actually began as an Instagram to promote my second novel, Woman No. 17, which includes a storyline about an artist character making art from photos of people’s mothers. Since Woman No. 17 is all about mother-daughter relationships I decided to make the Instagram (and the subsequent Mothers Before book) for women and nonbinary people to share their mothers before motherhood. This way, like the novel, it could be a space to think about womanhood and motherhood—idealizing it, performing it, celebrating it, questioning it, and so on.
What surprised you while researching this book?
I was continually surprised by how terrific the photos are—even a candid can tell a riveting story! I also loved that I gave the contributors broad directions to write about their mothers and the photos any way they wanted, and each turned in something unique. Some told compelling and compressed biographies of a fascinating mother, some told cute and funny anecdotes, and some used the photo to talk about racism or sexism, or they wrote about all that they didn’t understand about this central figure in their lives. The diversity of topics was surprising and great.
Amazing. Did you have any self-realizations during the process of putting it together?
I think, over time, it’s taught me to take the long view of parenthood because the project asks you to consider a mother’s whole life and whole identity. We aren’t only one thing. Especially during the pandemic, I can feel like a downright terrible mom, with zero patience or interest in my kids, grouchy or yelling at them to clean up or finish their school work or stop bothering me, and I feel so beat down by the world that I can’t summon the energy to be the positive presence I know they need. But Mothers Before reminds me, and I hope reminds everyone, that mothers were and are people with a complex humanity, and that we all deserve compassion and a little slack. There are days where I’m a not-so-great mother, but I know, overall, I have been there for my kids and loved them so hard, and I am certain they will look back on their upbringing and know that. When you zoom out and understand the long view of your parenting, it feels a lot better. Mothers Before has reminded me to do that: zoom out and see the big picture.
Was there a particular story that stands out for you?
Ah, so many! I love Kristen Daniels’ looking at the photo of her mother and her mother’s college boyfriend, thinking about how her mother’s one true love wasn’t this random dude, but Kristen’s father, who died a few years ago. And I think about Lisa See writing about her mother, Carolyn See, whose stepdad and mother tore up all the photos of Carolyn, and how Carolyn had so much grit and drive and became the success she was destined to be. And the story of Brit Bennett’s mother going to DC for the first time and trying not to show her amazement at the cherry blossoms, so she wouldn’t give away her innocence. And Jennifer Egan’s glamorous mom–wow. But really–they all are so good!
Stephen Colbert praised your literary debut novel, California. What was that experience like?
Surreal, funny, terrifying, and wonderful! Never in my wildest dreams did I think THAT would happen to me and my book, so I just tried to be grateful.
What are some of your favorite recent quarantine reads?
Ooh, so many. I loved the aforementioned Brit Bennett’s new novel, The Vanishing Half. I also adored this strange novel called The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder, about a group of men who gather annually to reenact a famous football play and injury. I don’t even like football but the book was so funny and weird and absorbing. I loved The End We StartFrom by Megan Hunter, about a woman who’s just had a baby when a flood overtakes London; it’s a poetic post-apocalyptic novel that’s told in these beautiful epigrammatic paragraphs. You can read it in a single evening and let it soak your dreams in beauty and dread.
Do your kids love to read and write?
All three of my kids love books and my fourth grader is a voracious reader. My daughter, who is almost 5, is very early in the process of learning to read (putting sounds together, etc.) and it’s fun to see the wheels turning! I encourage a love of reading by having books around all the time. Also, my husband and I are huge readers and they see us reading. I think that’s important. You can’t get your kids to read if they don’t see you doing it and valuing it! If your kid isn’t into reading, they may just need more time and practice—or they may not have found an author or book that’s right for them. Get recommendations, visit the library, ask a bookseller—find that special book that’ll unlock the magic for them
During these stay-at-home times, what are some of your favorite activities to do with your kids?
We’ve enjoyed walking in the hills by our house, having a fake cooking show called “quarantine eats” and then eating the baked goods we make, going to the beach super early and leaving before the crowds get there, and generally just hanging out at home, all of us doing our own things. I’m a big fan of kids having lots of unstructured time; in regular life, my kids aren’t involved in tons of extra-curriculars, so they’re pretty good at entertaining themselves at home for long stretches (though of course they also fight a lot and/or bug me that they’re bored.) My favorites moments during this pandemic are definitely when my husband is cooking dinner with music blasting, and my kids are playing, maybe they’re drawing, or building a civilization with various blocks and cardboard boxes, or they’re playing on their enormous bouncy yoga balls, and the baby is crawling around happily or eating a snack in high chair, and I can just take it in and feel grateful.