The Agony and Ecstasy of Motherhood

September 09, 2013

Brain_ChildThe publishers of Brain, Child explore the highs and lows with literary flair Jennifer Niesslein and Stephanie Wilkinson might never have met.

They didn't grow up in the same area, go to the same undergraduate or graduate schools, and they don't even live in the same town now.

But they are allies in ways that perhaps only women can be. During their 10-year business partnership they've combined high standards with humor and traded 'toxic perfectionism' for an approach focusing on getting the job done. The mix has produced a rare result: a profitable publication with literary cred.

They are the co-founders of Brain, Child: A Magazine for Thinking Mothers that debuted in 2000 following a year of incubation when both women had babies under a year old. A decade later, they have 36,000 readers and a raft of awards. Against all odds, at a time when newspapers and magazines are struggling to survive, Brain, Child thrives.

The quarterly magazine has been nominated for the Utne Independent Press Awards every year since its inception and received the 2003 Utne Independent Reader’s Choice Award for Best Personal Life Coverage. It is the youngest magazine ever nominated for Utne's General Excellence Award. It has received honors from Pushcart Press and been noted in Best American Essays. The Washington Post says, "A good read is what Brain, Child is all about."

It isn't an easy-reading magazine, lacking copious celebrity photos, glossy ads, and white space. It's a densely packed magazine of essays, opinion pieces, and debates about motherhood. And infidelity. And children who are impossible—really and truly impossible. About being arrested for leaving your kids at a mall. About mothers who don't have custody of their kids. Brain, Child has been credited with being at the forefront of the trend toward honesty about motherhood—neither the glorification so rampant around Mother's Day, nor the vilification popular in some psychological circles, but the daily drudgery, the unsuspected pleasures, the profundity of the way it alters the life and, yes, the mind, of the woman doing this challenging, rewarding, world-altering, unpaid job.

So how have Wilkinson and Niesslein done this—created a magazine that is real, readable, and award-winning all at the same time?

"Jennifer gave me confidence that we could really do this crazy thing," Wilkinson says, "—launch a magazine with a tiny budget, minimal experience, etc. She has high standards and expectations but she's great at seeing how things can be made possible. As a result, we were and are able to nudge each other on to see things through."

Niesslein explains that her uncompromising standards came about as a result of working for demanding editors at the Charlottesville alternative weekly magazine where she and Wilkinson originally met in 1994.

"I've been very grateful for editors who have forced me to write well—not write-well-for-me or write-well-compared-to-how-the-thing-started out, but a real standard that had nothing to do with my age or my experience," she says.

Jennifer Neisslein and partner Stephanie Wilkinson of Brain,Child Magazine.

Jennifer Neisslein and partner Stephanie Wilkinson of Brain,Child Magazine.

Brain, Child is the only literary magazine devoted to motherhood. In a genre often associated with universities and featuring academic and experimental writing, Brain, Child takes an intellectual look at family. That's challenging enough, but pulling it off without politicizing the topic seems even more difficult.

Niesslein and Wilkinson say that they are interested in any subject, any approach, as long as it's respectful. "Liberal rigidity and insolence—we avoid that too." Wilkinson says.

She expresses an interest in an essay that explores the identification many women feel with Sarah Palin, akin to the passionate attachment others have for Ayn Rand. Both women represent a way of thinking that challenges feminist principles, which traditionally underpin literary magazines.

They even considered having the magazine be about parenting, to recognize the entry of fathers into the role of central caregiving. But there are still only 165,000 stay-at-home dads, according to recent surveys, and, Wilkinson says, "Mothers and fathers face fundamentally different issues."

Though they don't avoid controversy—in fact, they encourage it in the "Debate" section, which publishes the pros and cons of such issues as spanking or letting your teen have sex with her boyfriend at your house—they've sometimes been surprised by the topics that stir passions. They had anticipated a negative response to an essay about a late-term abortion a woman chose when she knew that her baby was going to be stillborn—but there was none. Instead, controversy raged around an essay one woman wrote rejecting the Dr. Sears attachment-parenting approach, which suggests that sensitive and consistent parental attention to the baby and child supports secure children who will be free of depression and other serious mental illness. The anti-Sears mother noted the extreme demands this places on mothers.

Yet neither Niesslein nor Wilkinson seem to mind the excessive demands of managing a family and producing an award-winning magazine. Instead, they keep piling new challenges on their plates. Niesslein wrote a critically-acclaimed (and very funny) book called Practically Perfect in Every Way, a memoir of her year of trying out every self-help program from Weight Watchers to Flylady to Dale Carnegie. In this both amusing and vulnerable exploration, Niesslein takes on—and lays to rest—the tendency of many women to constantly strive for self-improvement. Successful living requires accepting a lot of imperfection—focusing instead on enjoying life on a daily basis, accepting the pleasures of marriage and motherhood in all their imperfect glory, while honoring one’s self as is.

Wilkinson took on another business altogether, starting a high end restaurant in her hometown of Lexington, Virginia—just as a recession hit. It also turned out that their bookkeeper was convicted of embezzling. Talk about imperfection. But the restaurant is doing well and is featured in the January 2010 Virginia Living.

For young women who are thinking about starting a business, Niesslein and Wilkinson advise finding a partner who shares your ideas and philosophy.

For what to do with your too-long to-do list: learn how not to do things, and not feel guilty about it.

For what to do if you're thinking about having a child and wonder what it will really be like: read several issues of Brain, Child.

Setbacks are a part of life, both editors say.

"I learned the hard way that I’m spectacularly ill-suited to teach adults over 55 memoir-writing," Niesslein says.

"I've had a few personal setbacks," Wilkinson adds (dealing with terminally ill parents, for instance), “and some professional ones, and I think I've learned two things: 1. Any giant problem is just a lot of little problems waiting to be broken down and dealt with piece by piece. It’s one of those times when you should look at the trees, not the forest. And 2. It's really, really okay to let your friends help you. The perfectionist thinks she has to do it all herself and never let the seams show. But the truth is, you're screwing yourself when you do that. Not only is it more stress on you, it throws up an obstacle to real intimacy with your friends."

Not that it's easy, both concede, to do what they do.

"If I went with the flow," Niesslein says, "I would spend my entire working day playing Scrabble on Facebook with my sister." She adds that "I do think it's easy to not take your writing seriously, especially when you're getting paid little or nothing to do it (and that's almost always true in the beginning), but unless you do make it a priority in terms of time and work and revision, it’s not going to go anywhere."

Her advice: "My own little head game is getting other people involved—if I know someone is expecting a manuscript on a certain day, I can guilt myself into action."

She also adds this little known fact: having a child MAKES you focus—or nothing will get done.

And, finally, their advice to their 25-year-old selves:

Niesslein: "Although it feels like it, this pregnancy will not last forever."

Wilkinson: "My bio looks pretty scattered and unfocused (advertising, technology journalism, grad school), but all the pieces really did contribute to where I am today—every turn gave me a skill or an experience that proved invaluable later. You don't have to decide right this minute where your career is going to go."

Amen to both, from Iris.

With careers that started out sharing only their bookworm status as children, attending the University of Virginia at different times and in different schools, and a stint at the local alternative weekly, Niesslein and Wilkinson have arrived at a full-blown, successful partnership.

"Having a supportive partner is invaluable," Wilkinson says," both a 'life partner,' like a spouse, but also a work partner. The best moments for me are when Jennifer and I are deeply engaged in discussing something—when we're really chewing on some idea—because inevitably we end up laughing and also learning something. Our brains work well together. It's one of the greatest joys of my life."

And, finally, in keeping with Iris’s mission to support young women in resilience, Niesslein captures the advantage of being a writer or editor: "eventually you can make any painful, awful experience into a good story."

Niesslein, Wilkinson, and Brain, Child make motherhood and partnership a story for the ages.

By Virginia Moran

First published in Iris Magazine (Spring 2010)

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