To most, Anna Quindlen is the bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, whose column, Public and Private, still leaves a gaping hold on the New York Times Op-Ed page. To us, she is the working-mothers’ mentor, whose poignant words of wisdom about motherhood are among the most “forwarded” of all. Her most recent novel, Every Last One, which is a story about family, love, and loss, just came out in paperback. We were lucky enough to have interviewed Quindlen recently.
Proudest moment in parenting: Quin’s first byline in Newsweek, Chris’s first book, Maria’s performance as Masha in The Three Sisters, my ability to keep my mouth shut during assorted crises and craziness.
Proudest moment in my career: the moment a Fed Ex man handed me a copy of Living Out Loud, my first book, in hardcover.
My kids have taught me…everything worth knowing, and cool slang, dude. Although they have also taught me that I sound stupid when I use it.
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about…revisions on the newest book. I hate revising. I hate writing, for that matter. But I don’t know how to do anything else.
I define down time as…Masterpiece Theater on the DVR and needlepoint. Ice cream if there is any.
The biggest mistake I ever made with the kids was…not listening to them enough and listening to other moms too much. Other moms lie. There really aren’t that many toddlers who can read “Yertle the Turtle” and that many teenagers who got 2400 on the SATs. Really.
Guiltiest pleasure: Say Yes to the Dress with my daughter and a bag of M & M peanuts. We are so ready for wedding dress shopping. And I won’t make terrible faces when she comes out of the fitting room like some of those other moms!
Activity I don’t really love but…It would be fine with me if the TV was never tuned to the Super Bowl, but since they all have so much fun watching it with their father I provide the food and watch the halftime show. I hate televised sports.
I’m way nicer when…I’ve gotten eight hours sleep.
Even when my children have families of their own, I’ll still…make them bake the Christmas cookies at our house.
My dad always told me…winners need not explain. (Does this explain my entire life?)
My mom was right about…never marrying a man named George, and not having a flower girl at my wedding.
My mom was wrong about…nothing.
As a parent I’m great at…providing the comic relief, and meals, and unconditional love.
As a parent, I wish I were better at…separating myself psychologically from their concerns. I’m nauseous about half the time because of issues in the lives of my children. Issues I can’t do anything about, by the way, because they are adults. Of course, that’s been true for a while now. Maria used to see a certain look on my face when she was in high school and snap, “Mom, do not call anyone!”
For the life of me I will never figure out how to…you know, I could have given fifty answers to this twenty years ago. But I’m almost 60, and I’ve learned never to say never. When I was 55 I learned how to do a headstand, something I never thought I could manage. So I’m keeping an open mind. Although I can promise there will be no sky diving.
The last time I lost my temper was…when the Republicans tried to defund Planned Parenthood.
My favorite moment of the day is…when I hear a key in the front door and a voice calls “Mom?”
I wish I had more time for…actually seeing my friends as opposed to talking to them on the phone. Scheduling is what always gets in the way of family dinner, but we still manage to have one several times a month.
I always feel saner when I…talk to my best friend Janet on the phone in the morning.
I’m currently reading…The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. Genius. I’ve started Moby Dick a thousand times. I finally finished it because my elder son, Quin, was very invested in it. He makes me revisit lots of literature I’d written off.
My marriage mantras are…nothing is that big a deal….we’ve been here before and gotten through it….all you need is love—and separate sinks.
You wrote: “I did not live in the moment enough…I wish I had not been in a hurry to get on to the next things: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.” I think so many women struggle with this–the race to bedtime, to get out the door in the morning, to meet deadline, etc. How would you do it differently, in other words, what are the mechanics of “living in the moment” when so much has to get done? Does it mean, if given a do-over, you would let certain things slide in order to be in the moment? If so, what would those things be (I know in my case, I would probably be less strict about bed time, such a source of anxiety with every stroke of the minute-hand). Or is it more of a mindset change? I think having bright lines and boundaries really worked for us, that it made our kids strong and secure because they were clear on expectations and responsibilities. But I wish I had been better able to combine that with letting things go a little bit. Nobody really needs a bath every night. Nobody really needs a balanced meal for every meal. I should have let the freak flag fly a bit more. It’s hard to be a Type A mom. I wish I could have been a bit more B plus, for my sake and their own. But it’s hard for me to have regrets at this point because, at 27, 25, and 22, they are all three so fabulous in every way!
What about being parenting boys, and it’s evolution as they get older? How is it different from girls? How has the business of “raising men” changed in recent decades? It seems that we have taught our girls to be independent by example, by working, by closing the gender gap. Where does this leave boys? Raising feminist sons was the linchpin of my life. That’s how you change the world, one kid at a time. It really worked and, as Chris sometimes says, chicks dig it. But it’s hard. With your daughter you can tell her to fight the power. With sons, you are asking them to forego power that will be theirs simply by accident of birth. You just have to tell them that an egalitarian world works better for everyone. And their generation really seems to get that. The milennials have such a sense of tolerance and balance. I’m optimistic about the future because they will be running things.
I hesitate to raise the “juggling it all” issue, because I think so-called balance is the Holy Grail, but do you think there are a few golden rules to live by? For some people it’s the sanctity of date night; for others it’s working a four-day week, family dinner, scheduled sex, etc. I’ve read so much of what you have written, but wonder if there is any seasoned-parent takeaway, a kind of hindsight on how you did/do it, now that your kids are older? Takeout is a godsend, and neatness is overrated. So are meetings; most office meetings are busy work and should be outlawed. You get twice as much from someone who is permitted to work at home. But you don’t get much done at home unless your kids are in school or you have a sitter at least parttime. When in doubt, choose the kids. There will be plenty of time later to choose the work. And, by the way, I have never been asked about balance by a guy, only by women. Guys still believe they will balance work and family by getting married. That’s got to change.
There has been a lot of talk lately about “helicopter parenting”–a generation of parents who are obsessively focused on their kids to the point of neglecting their marriages and themselves. Your thoughts on this and some words of wisdom about the dire importance of feeding the marriage, not just the family unit? Rules to live by in this department? Helicopter parenting is bad for kids because they wind up with no real accomplishments. If everything is overseen by your parents, you’ve never really done anything great, interesting or creative yourself. It’s a selfish act because it doesn’t grow out of the kid’s need to be overseen but out of the parent’s need to be central to the kid’s existence. It forces a teenager to either rebel or become too dependent to be a fully realized human being. The trick of being a good parent is to play the line out slowly until, when the moment is right, you drop it and stand there with empty hands. That is hard, and it is sad, but it’s the only way.
Photo: Maria Krovatin