*BEST of mamazine.com* The Visible Mama: An Interview With Ayun Halliday
by Amy Anderson
Ayun Halliday started writing her self-described "anticorporate, consciousness-raising, feminist call to arms" zine, The East Village Inky, while living in the East Village and staying home full-time to raise her daughter India, nicknamed Inky. The zine lead to a book, The Big Rumpus: A Mother's Tale From the Trenches, Inky led to a second child, son Milo, and Halliday had found a new career: writer/mama. She has since written No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late, and most recently, Job Hopper: The Checkered Career of a Down-Market Dilettante. In addition, Halliday is the Mother Superior columnist for BUST magazine, contributes to Bitch and NPR, and has essays in numerous anthologies, including Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, and Toddler: Real-Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Greg Kotis, and their two children. This interview took place over the phone just before Halliday departed on her book tour for Job Hopper.
mamazine.com: So I have to ask. What was your worst job ever?
Ayun Halliday: I can't say there was any single one worst job. There were just plenty of low points. One that was particularly bad that is in the book was working at this short-lived Chicago nightclub called Clubland, and it was just a case of me working in a place where I was definitely the least-equipped person to work there. I felt like an idiot and an outcast, and also I would never have gone there as a customer. So I was there, hating my customers, hating my fellow workers, and also feeling like the big dorky freshman in cotton underpants.
mamazine.com: How would you compare motherhood to your previous jobs?
Ayun Halliday: Well, you're more obviously invested in motherhood, and you can't just quit. I think probably the rage I experience at the inequities of motherhood, things that are both social inequities and the inequities of, "Oh my god, I can't even read this article because these kids won't get off of me and keep requesting juice and, you know, want me to look at their drawings and I just want to be in peace" is so much more than it ever was in any day job. There was, in day jobs, this sort of pissy, self-righteous anger, and in motherhood, it's just like an explosion that I have to suppress at all times.
mamazine.com: I have to say it's good to hear that from someone else.
Ayun Halliday: Well, [motherhood] never ends, and you've got so much invested in the children, and they invade pretty much every corner of your life.
mamazine.com: You can't go home, and you don't have coffee breaks.
Ayun Halliday: Yeah, and you're not allowed to fully hate them the way you can fully hate a boss!
mamazine.com: That leads into my next questions. I love that line on the first page of Job Hopper—which by the way, at Tower Books is shelved next to the bathroom humor anthologies, and I thought, okay, so this is in humor, and No Touch Monkey! is in travel. You're taking over the whole store.
Ayun Halliday: Yeah, that's right. I gotta carpetbomb them, right?
mamazine.com: So you're moving out of the motherhood section?
Ayun Halliday: Thank heavens! I love 'em, but it's a ghetto from the publishing point of view.
mamazine.com: There's an article by Jennifer Niesslein and Stephanie Wilkinson about motherhood memoirs in the Spring 2005 issue of Brain,Child, which refers to your first book, The Big Rumpus: A Mother's Tale From the Trenches. They write about how publishers are saying that "motherhood as a subject is played out," and they quote British novelist Rachel Cusk as saying that writing A Life's Work, her motherhood memoir, was the worst thing she ever did in terms of her career.
Ayun Halliday: Yeah, I've heard her say that in other forums as well.
mamazine.com: So what do you think of that idea?
Ayun Halliday: It's unfortunately something that is put on a writer by the marketing department, and it's basically like Hollywood producers saying, "Oh well, that movie's of no worth" about a wonderful independent film that is unclassifiable. We're all trying to pass on this stereotype of the soccer mom, this completely sexless suburban mother kind of ideology, including mothers who live in the suburbs. Nobody wants to be considered in that way, but it's just this heavily cemented idea that people don't want to get rid of and people don't want to believe that somebody might have something profound to say about their child or about their experience of motherhood. You know, I think people writing about their experiences with their children at its best is another form of travelogue. It's something that people without children should be able to enjoy, without the actual drudgery of having to raise a child. I have no religious affiliation and no desire to ever be a nun, or something like that, but I certainly would enjoy hearing what a nun's life is like for the duration of a book.
mamazine.com: Look at The Big Rumpus, for example. It's shelved in the parenting section next to Dr. Sears' books about how to raise our children.
Ayun Halliday: Where no single, childless man is ever going to find it!
mamazine.com: Right, and I think, well, why isn't this in biography/memoir?
Ayun Halliday: I think the same thing. On one hand, maybe that's a way it's going to get into the hands of somebody who's not my demographic, although we both have children. Maybe there is going to be some really mainstream, churchgoing, Winnie-the-Pooh-logo-wearing mother who's going to go into a Barnes & Noble in Terre Haute, Indiana, and she's going to find that book and maybe find some common ground, or enjoy it, or it might turn out to be just what she's looking for and she would never have discovered it in a different section. But as a writer, of course, I feel like they're making me eat at the children's table, and I want to be with the adults.
mamazine.com: I love that line in Jobhopper about "the reduced probability of having phone sex for a living being more tragic than [your] dwindling fertility." It made me think of that loss of certain possibilities that comes along with having kids, and how at the same time these new options open up, like making a zine and writing books.
Ayun Halliday: Each one is kind of a transitional phase. I think many mothers go through the idea as their children get a little older of, "Oh, I'm going to miss having a baby." It's hard, but they're so sweet and so without guile with their sweet little baby breath and little bald heads, and you start really looking at other people's babies with envy and interest and kind of wishing you had a baby. It's an idle fun thing to do, but when I really think about it, I don't want to go through the work of having a baby again. I've got these two wonderful children, so how 'bout I just enjoy them? And from a practical standpoint, I don't know how much further our apartment, our tiny apartment, or our limited financial resources can be stretched to accommodate another family member. But I kind of feel that way about looking back at the old jobs, too, you know. It's a way of feeling very sentimental about me in my twenties as this woman who's kind of hopping from boyfriend to boyfriend, as well as hopping from job to job, and the crappy apartments that were furnished with milk crates. I still have crappy apartments, but I did just buy myself a leather sofa and feel like a real adult about that. You hit a certain age, and you realize time isn't standing still.
mamazine.com: It seems like it's more acceptable for mothers to focus on the good stuff they get from parenthood than it is to publicly or even privately mourn aspects of that lost life. Is that something you've experienced or observed since becoming a parent?
Ayun Halliday: It's probably something that other mothers, particularly those whose children are out of the baby stage, out of the being infatuated with everything about motherhood because they have a new baby sort of phase, can relate to. You hear them on the playground talking about what they did in college. But I think probably there are other people who don't want to hear about [the difficulties of parenting], too, and who feel it was your choice to have children, regardless of how much choice was actually involved in it. It's like you should put up and shut up, and I think that's a stupid idea.
But I mean, it's a phase that passes. One of the nicest things that happened to me all year was this older lady came up to me at the library. The kids were being pretty good, but they were also obviously a physical handful at that point; Milo was racing for the elevator and Inky had all this stuff, all these books and bags and lunchboxes and everything, and this really physically compromised older lady comes up and she's like, "Oh, my dear, it's so difficult. It's so difficult," and she said it with this big smile. I thought thank goodness that this lady who looks to be in her eighties is remembering and acknowledging, that yeah it's really hard.
mamazine.com: Kind of the antidote to the "enjoy these years; they go by fast" lectures most mamas get in the grocery store, right?
Ayun Halliday: Right! The kind of mothers who write and who I hang out with or talk to on the internet tend to be the hip mama type, and they're very much the warts-and-all types. I don't know too many people who feel a social imperative to gloss it all over like everything's wonderful. But most of my mother friends are people who've grown up in at least semi-privileged middle-class places. Only through the school do I meet mothers who are from these really traditional Yemeni families, these veiled Arabic mothers, or from many generations of working-class Latino and African-American people who have always lived in Brooklyn, or maybe their grandmothers came over from the Caribbean. They have a really different attitude towards mothering, I think, and most of them become mothers young, with a partner, and you know, they're following this really codified social structure. But I grew up outside of that, or I guess in rebellion to a sort of not very interesting middle-class, white, Midwestern existence that I had. I belong to a class and a type and an age of person who is a feminist, educated woman who has grown up culturally advantaged and never hurting for the basics of life. What better person to just complain and complain and complain and constantly be measuring how much her male partner contributes to the childrearing versus how much she contributes? That's probably where a lot of the other mother-writers are themselves.
mamazine.com: Yeah, like the frequent parenting miles Faulkner Fox writes about in her book [Dispatches From a Not-So-Perfect Life].
Ayun Halliday: Yeah, right. What would be really interesting would be to see a whole new burst of mother-memoirs or mothers writing not even memoirs but just sort of "This is what I am; this is what I'm doing: I have little kids in the house and I'm bringing them up," written by one of the Yemeni mothers at school. Let's see Osama's mother write something. It would be very interesting to hear a book-length meditation about what it's like for her.
From traveling, sometimes, too, it makes me mad at the culturally accepted American approach to middle-class parenting. I remember being in Thailand and Vietnam and places where the whole family would be crammed into a two-room apartment that had cement floors and cinderblock walls. The only decoration would be an enormous color photograph of the baby, and the furniture was baby furniture and it was not out of an insipidness but out of this complete love and reverence and attention to the littlest person in the family. There was support for the mother and the father and the grandmother emotionally, and everyone just pitched in. It wasn't a hassle to be around little children [in places where everyone paid attention to and cared for them]. A lot of time I play the hassle of being around little children for laughs, but it's always a wonderful feeling when you're going out with adult friends who don't seem to be burdened by the idea of a child coming along.
mamazine.com: Absolutely. I have to say that your Bitchmother character [from The East Village Inky] is somebody I think about often in the afternoons I spend with my three kids and all their sibling dynamics. That time seems to bring out the Bitchmother in me.
Ayun Halliday (laughing): It seems like the older the children get, the shorter Bitchmother's fuse is. She lives at the end of a much shorter corridor these days.
mamazine.com: If you could have one last low-paying job, what would it be?
Ayun Halliday: Oh, that's easy! I'd work in a bookstore.
mamazine.com: What are some of your favorite books you've read in the past few months?
Ayun Halliday: Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I thought it was wonderful. Also Stiffed by Mary Roach, and a self-published book from Microcosm Press called On Subbing by Dave Roche.
mamazine.com: In your zine, you write about always being on the lookout for new stationery and toys from Japan and other Asian countries. What's your favorite funny Sanrio-type character these days?
Ayun Halliday: I just bought some yesterday, as a matter of fact. There was a great 99-cent store, Samurai, across the street from where I was doing a photo shoot for Jobhopper in Chinatown. My kids like to play post office, and it's these little packets of teeny tiny stationery. The envelopes are like the size of a credit card, and it has little tiny Japanese stamps that go with it, some of which say "U.S. Airmail 8 cents," with a picture of the capitol building on it, and it's a character named Puchi-Hamu. He looks like a hamster, and he's eating a seed. But then I also got a little soap case from Lovery Animal World, and the package says, "We present you, very fine goods for your beautiful life," and it's a little pink plastic soap case that has a handle and buckles on it like a suitcase and a little smiling rabbit character and some cherries, and beneath the cherries it says, "Cherry rabbits. I never want to lose the innocence of my heart." I feel like that was $1.29 well spent, even if it was in a 99-cent store. They charged me thirty cents above the going rate!
mamazine.com: What's your next project?
Ayun Halliday: I'm writing my fourth self-mocking memoir. This one is going to be all about food: eating it, cooking it, serving it in restaurants, shopping for it, being repulsed by the idea of pasta. I think I'm the only American who not only doesn't care for pasta but also actively loathes it.
mamazine.com: No, you're not! My six-year-old thinks pasta is gross.
Ayun Halliday: Oh, good! I'm not the only one.
mamazine.com: This last question comes from a segment on the radio show This American Life in which one of their contributors went around asking people which superpower they would choose: invisibility or flight?
Ayun Halliday: Well, my first impulse is to say invisibility, but then I realize I would be invisible. So I guess I'll choose flight. I want people to be able to see me.
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