A Mommy Who Drinks (and Cusses and Goes to Church and Volunteers at Her Kid's School): An Interview With Brett Paesel
by Amy Anderson
Brett Paesel is a writer and actress living in Los Angeles with her husband and two young sons. Her book, Mommies Who Drink: Sex, Drugs, and Other Distant Memories of an Ordinary Mom, comes out in August. I interviewed Brett last month via email and not, due to unfortunate realities of geography, over a drink in a Los Angeles bar.
mamazine.com: So I have to tell you about when I received your book in the mail. I opened the package, and my son Henry, who's seven, looked at the cover of the book and said, "Eww! I KNOW I don't want to read THAT book!" I glanced down at the cover, which has a picture of a woman with a lampshade on her head, and the title, Mommies Who Drink: Sex, Drugs, and Other Distant Memories of an Ordinary Mom, and started laughing, because he's just entered this extremely prudish stage where the world is very black and white and sex, drugs, and drinking are obviously ALWAYS bad, according to him. And this is fine by me, because, you know, he's seven.
But as you know, after your essay "Slow to Warm" in Toddler led to the book being banned at the school which editor Jennifer Margulis' kids attended, it's not just seven-year-olds who have this very absolute vision of what mothers should be like, this vision that tries to deny that mothers often are people who do like sex (that's how we become mothers, after all) and drink and smoke and say "fuck" and who had lives before they gave birth. How do you deal with the grown-ups who still have a seven-year-old's view of what mothers should look and act like?
Brett Paesel: You know, I'd love to say that I'm impervious to their opinions. But I'm not. When the whole thing happened with "Slow to Warm" I kept thinking, "These people don't even know me." I'm a laughably traditional mom—happily married, church-going, school-volunteering. I felt both hurt and defiant.
But when I relaxed, I realized that the people who objected to "Slow to Warm" and who are likely to object to Mommies Who Drink, aren't reading the book the way I intended and probably don't care to. In both pieces ("Slow to Warm" is actually a chapter in the book), I write a great deal about what goes on in my mind. And when I'm alone in my head, I often use graphic language or fantasize about any number of escapes—sex and drug-induced highs being a couple. Do I use such language in front of children? Do I care for my children while strung out on cocaine? Do I perform live sex acts in front of my mommy friends? Absolutely not.
The juxtaposition between the salacious thoughts in my head and the mundane activities I'm performing as a parent seems funny to me. So I write about the place that exists between the mother-role we take on and the sexualized woman we bury or leave behind.
The title "Mommies Who Drink" was inspired by my weekly happy hour. It's one place where I get to drink and smoke and say "fuck" (actually, I gave up smoking—sigh). I find that it is there that I can be a person separate from my children and my husband. I get to reclaim a little of what is lost.
I adore being a mother. Anyone who reads the book would be hard pressed to come away with any other impression. But like any worthwhile thing we take on, there is a necessary shift. I wanted to explore that in a comic way. In the end, if adults are turned off by references to sex and drugs and regret, I can only say that I have written about what is true for me.
My experience has been that when you write about parenting, you're expected to write in a certain way. I wanted to see if I could dicker around with those expectations. Do we always have to have huge chunks of the book dedicated to reassuring the reader that we do indeed love these babies? Must we always reassure the reader that we are, though unprepared, up to the task of mothering? Must we also reassure the reader that motherhood has removed our desire to be fucked, have a drink, rock out, flirt, and be seen for the women we are without our children, husbands, and pre-school committees?
I think that writing should be dangerous. I want to say the unsay-able because that's what excites me when I read other people's books. Whenever I reread something I've just written and my heart races a little bit and I say to myself, "Oh God, can I really say that?"—I know I've hit gold. If it embarrasses me, then I know I've struck something deep. And I've got to assume that it will resonate with others.
I also wanted to challenge the firmly held belief that only mothers will enjoy books about parenting. I find this notion maddening, but very difficult to fight. I certainly read books about war, bullfighting, politics, etc. I read these books because they are well-written and transport me. When I thought about my book in terms of broadening its audience base, I decided that using profanity and graphic imagery might serve as shorthand to say, "This isn't a cute little mommy story. Yes, it's about a woman who is a mother. But at its heart it's about loss and reclamation." Isn't that as universal a theme as one can come up with?
mamazine.com: In the book, you write, "Like all shy people, I am a relatively deft 'faker.' Faking being worlds away from actual lying—something I'm not that good at. Faking is implication. It's a subtle inference. It's manipulation. Lying takes bravery. Lying takes cunning. I am neither brave nor cunning." How are you using those faking skills these days?
Brett Paesel: I continue to fake my way into bigger and more challenging situations. I keep imagining that I'm going to be busted. But it hasn't happened yet. I truly believe that I am completely unqualified for any of the things I do as a mother, writer, or actress. And I believe that someday someone is going to say so. I imagine reviews for the book that say, "Paesel's book is limited in craft and scope. What on earth made her think she should foist upon the public such an excruciatingly pedestrian tome?"
I fake because I'm so shy that my first impulse is not to speak to anyone outside my family and close friends at all. If I followed this natural inclination, I would hole up in my bedroom like Howard Hughes, completely damaging my children and my marriage. In order to join the human race—in order to "participate"—I have to imitate the behavior of someone who actually enjoys being out in the world taking on new challenges and talking to strangers. And sometimes I find that I actually do enjoy it.
Tomorrow, I am going to a booksellers luncheon. My publicist told me that all I have to do is dress nicely and walk around the tables being charming. This scares me shitless. I don't really know how to make small talk, and I am terrified that I will say something inappropriate or not say anything at all. But I will go. The faking will kick in and it'll all be fine, I imagine.
I've appeared on television as an actress (which is really all about faking), but never as just myself. So lately my biggest fear is that, as a writer, I will fake my way onto some national talk show and that I will be exposed as a fraudulent mother and writer in front of millions of people.
I have a small tip for fakers everywhere: I love the column in Real Simple magazine called, "Fake it, Don't Make it." It tells you how to use pre-prepared stuff to make a recipe that will appear home-made. I think there should be an entire magazine completely dedicated to ways one can fake through almost anything. I'd especially appreciate a column called, "Fake it. Don't Clean it."
mamazine.com: Much of what you write about in Mommies Who Drink is everyday parenthood, but with a twist, since you're bringing up your kids in Los Angeles. How does life in L.A. affect motherhood for you?
Brett Paesel: What's different about being a mother in Los Angeles is only reflective of what's different about Los Angeles, period. I don't drive, so it's very difficult to get around, especially with two children. As the mother of an infant, I was literally isolated, as well as figuratively. I couldn't pop in the car and drive my baby to a mom's group or to the playground. I depended a lot on taking him out to lunch. At age three, he drew a map of how to get to all the local restaurants.
Los Angeles is a company town–the company being Hollywood. And my children are very used to seeing their parents and their parents' friends on TV. When I did a role on Six Feet Under, my family visited me on the set. I thought that Spence (then five) would love seeing the fake house, the actors and all the cameras. But what he really loved was my trailer. He wanted to stay in it all day. He said that it was "like a mini place." He was completely unfazed by meeting all the stars of the show.
It is shocking how gorgeous people in Hollywood are. It's their job and they spend a lot of time and money maintaining their looks. This can erode anyone's sense of reality. I have to go to the Midwest to see clumps of women who look like me.
On the upside, the world of show business is predominantly socially liberal. My children think nothing of a friend having two daddies. They also have a pretty elastic view of what adults do for a living and who does what jobs. In the past year and a half, my husband has been the primary parent at home. He's not alone here, as many actors spend chunks of time at home during the day.
mamazine.com: We're bookworms here at mamazine.com, so we always want to know: what are you reading these days?
Brett Paesel: I can't tell you how thrilled I am to talk about books. Currently, I'm reading Charles Bukowski's Hollywood. I'm bowled over by his writing and his wicked, unapologetic sense of humor. I'm also reading Erica Jong's Seducing the Demon. In it, she writes about writing, feminism, sex, and writing about sex.
Recently I read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking—which is gorgeous. I also picked up a slim volume of Amy Hempel's stories, which are mind-blowingly simple and challenging at the same time. I also read Mailer's The Executioner's Song after reading his book on writing, called The Spooky Art.
I'm all about the writing. I'll read something about fly-fishing or football, if it's great. And I have no interest in fishing or football. I love James Elroy and he writes noir type crime stuff—which is worlds away from the stuff I write about. But, oh, his prose makes you want to jump out of your chair and take a midnight walk down a dangerous alley, just to stay in it.
mamazine.com: What's next for you and for Mommies Who Drink? Are the rumors true—is the next Sex and the City going to be Mommies Who Drink?
Brett Paesel: Mommies Who Drink is still in development with HBO and Jenny Bicks (Executive Producer of Sex and the City). I've kind of stepped back lately to concentrate on getting the book out there, so I don't know the latest. It's a show I would like to watch, about three friends (who gather for drinks on Fridays) who depend on each other for support during the early years of motherhood. It's a show about the search to recover your pre-baby cool, only to find that you've changed. And that that change is a beautiful thing.
While the powers that be figure that out, I'm developing another half-hour for Fox about a mother raising two teenage boys on an army base, while the dad is stationed in Iraq.
I'm also hoping to jump into my next book of stories about being my forties. I also have an idea for a novel. Now I just need to find the time to write it!
Click here to visit Brett's website.
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