Published on September 1st, 2015 | by Meg Lemke1
EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED: An Interview with Jillian Lauren
I first heard Jillian Lauren on The Moth podcast, with a harrowing story about adopting her son, Tariku. She is great up at the mic, a snappy wit, spilling a gorgeous spirit with her telling. At the climax of the monologue, she was held in a bleak office in Ethiopia, due to a clerical error on a customs form—caught in uncertainty and terror that the baby, who she had struggled so long to meet, would be taken away.
Then, I had to turn off the radio. I am not sure why. I recall I was crying, so maybe that had upset my own small child. Or for likely a more mundane distraction, lost to the dailiness—wherein, like most parents of little kids, I live between constant interruptions.
Maybe I was too afraid to hear what happened next. I hadn’t caught the storyteller’s name when the piece clicked off, so the mother barred at the window with her baby remained anonymous, occasionally haunting my thoughts. When I recognized the scene again, in the first chapters of Jillian Lauren’s new memoir, Everything You Ever Wanted, I was grateful—maybe there’s a happy ending? Yes, there is joy. But, taking her son home was not even the first in a series of new challenges, new beginnings. Jillian writes about starting over again and again, about the process of remaking your self in becoming a mother—rediscovering and redefining your family. When Tariku settles into Los Angeles with Jillian and her husband (who is, p.s., a rock star, Weezer bassist Scott Shriner), he begins to present with special needs. She must learn how to help their traumatized son feel safe in the world. What does it mean to get “everything we ever wanted?” How do we dream of our self as a mother—and then break down and renew that vision, as we fall in love with and learn to parent the actual individuals of our child(ren)?
Couple other key-word facts I should list here about Jillian Lauren: she is a novelist, a former sex-worker, and a recovered addict. Her prior memoir, Some Girls, was a best-seller—it’s an alternately dishy and devastating book about joining a prince’s “harem” in Brunei. Margaret Cho called her a “punk rock Scheherazade.” I read her books out of order—rocked by the reverberating emotional currents between them. Memoirs are often sold as a “surprising true tale” of some set of perceived contradictions. But Jillian Lauren is not fractured—as much as she is a skilled performer, she is also, I feel, frank in embracing her whole and ongoing story. And she is an amazing MUTHA. – Meg Lemke
MUTHA: There’s a moving scene in Everything You Ever Wanted where you find a letter that you wrote yourself, when you were in the midst of a drug addiction. You were under the influence as you wrote it to yourself in the future, envisioning yourself as a mother.
And what is the reality? Are you getting towards “everything you ever wanted?”
JILLIAN LAUREN: In the movie in my mind, envisioning myself as a mother, I was like this Kundalini Yoga doing, bread baking, Earth Mother, wake up at 3:00am to get my writing done and then homeschool my five children. And I do know people who do that, but that turned out to not be my reality in any way.
I never factored in that my existing strengths would not be the most important assets for me as a mother. Like, I’m creative and I’m really free and fun. I love kids and I love curiosity. But, for my son, Tariku, who has some special needs, it was most important for him to be safe and comfortable in the world. I had to learn structure, how to provide strong scaffolding for him so the world would be reliable and consistent. This was completely alien to me. The growth experience hasn’t been a blossoming of all my Earth Mother ideals, but an opportunity to gain true self-esteem by having to work outside of what I was comfortable with.
MUTHA: It was a transformation, nonetheless.
JILLIAN LAUREN: It’s been an incredible transformation, more than I ever could have known. But how could you? I remember all these people, when we were trying to get pregnant or when we were in the middle of the adoption, saying to me, go see a movie. And, I’m like, “I have seen plenty of movies in my life. I want a baby now.” But, you can’t possibly know where they’re speaking from until you’re there.
MUTHA: When I try to give advice to pregnant or contemplating friends, you do say these cliché, desperate things. “Just take a moment and stare at the wall. Do it for me.”
In the book, you document how you try to navigate the industry around motherhood, from fertility support to education assessments. There is an awfulness in the surprise of the limitations of that experience. You write beautifully of the high and low—getting a promise and then what happens when that “expert” says I can’t help you after all.
Where you are now in the process? What advice would you give to a parent who is trying to get help—at whatever stage?
JILLIAN LAUREN: Well, I would say that there’s been a profound shift in the last two and a half, three years. My son is 7 now. In the years between when he was 18 months old and when he was almost 4, I would go to bed every night in tears because I felt like I wasn’t meeting his needs. I didn’t know how to address his challenges. I was overwhelmed.
We did seek help in so many places and there were places that were not helpful to us. Not every doctor knows what they’re talking about. Doctors were wrong talking to our parents. They were wrong talking to our grandparents. So why are they all of the sudden right now?
That doesn’t mean that some doctors aren’t helpful, but not every expert has the answer for you. You are your advocate for your child, who can’t speak for their own needs yet. Keep trying, keep looking. If certain models aren’t working for you, it may not be you that’s the problem. It may be that model. Keep looking until you find something that fits, that works for your family.
MUTHA: How do you deal with all the dogma in parenting advice?
JILLIAN LAUREN: Right, like not only here is something that may be useful to you, but here is something that is the only ethical choice.
MUTHA: And you’re a monster if you do otherwise. In the book, you document how you struggle with methods that may work only partway. Looking back, for example, would you do cocooning again with another adoption or would you advise other parents to try it?
JILLIAN LAUREN: So, for readers who don’t know, “cocooning” was what we did as an attachment promoting activity, when Tariku was first back in the United States with us, which meant that no one else fed or nurtured or held or even was around Tariku for the first couple of months. Some people do it for a longer or shorter amount of time. We would absolutely do it again, but it would be a different situation because now we have a child.
JILLIAN LAUREN: When there are extended family members in the house, or family is more present in your life, it might not make sense. I would use it again as a guiding principle rather than a hard and fast rule. For instance, when we were cocooning, I was like, we’re never gonna leave the house. For six weeks. And that made me crazy, so I started walking with Tariku and then that turned out to be an important bonding activity that we shared, and it helped me preserve my sanity.
There are so many methods that we’ve tried and altered that have still been valuable to us. We were both feet into this idea of nonviolent parenting, which in its more extreme forms means that you don’t ever punish your child and you don’t praise your child. It’s about not reinforcing behavior through power, but rather looking at the need behind the behavior. Now, that turned out to be way too freeform for Tariku. He needs very, very clear limits or he feels unsafe and his behavior manifests that feeling of un-safeness.
But it’s important to me that we learned the distinction of locating the needs behind the undesirable behaviors and not just focusing on behaviors.
MUTHA: You’re speaking to educating yourself about the philosophy or the research behind a technique, which can allow you to apply it in a more flexible way. I feel a lot of us get frantic when we’re afraid of sinning against the rules.
As I read along with your journey in the book, I found myself absolutely with you on the philosophy of cocooning. But when you did start taking a walk, it just gave me such a sense of relief for you. It was clear the isolation was hurting you.
JILLIAN LAUREN: We are going through another adoption right now, but we’re adopting an older child through the foster care system, dealing with different regulations. This child is not going to be able to sleep in our bed right away, and will have to go to school. Our cocoon will have to have some more porous boundaries.
MUTHA: I read your prior memoir, Some Girls, directly after I finished Everything You Ever Wanted.
You wrote Some Girls, which is about sex-work, addiction, and family, during the time you were going through the infertility and adoption process you explore in your newer book.
JILLIAN LAUREN: Right. Craziest thing ever.
MUTHA: I felt that pain reflected in the way you wrote Some Girls. And it made me think about a writer’s lens, of our current self, and looking back. For example, you wrote about your abortion. I wondered if the mourning around it may have reflected more where you were in your infertility treatments—as an older adult looking back on a younger decision. What does that mean as a storyteller?
JILLIAN LAUREN: There is this fluid, narrative voice that lives somewhere in-between the narrator, the person that I’m writing about, who is (obviously) me. It’s a memoir, but it’s not me right this second in this chair. I try to honor that – who I was and how I was experiencing time in the moment, and then also convey the perspective and the wisdom from the other side of it. Yes, I think how I wrote that scene reflective of what I was living, in a now of the consequences of that decision, and the consequences of that time in my life.
I had absolutely no idea what that would be like to live with, what the ripple effect would be of my choices 20 years later. To me, that is the beauty of a memoir, and why I love reading and writing memoir. You can see that kind of evolution in the fabric of the work.
MUTHA: Your family—I don’t want to say disowned, but they stopped speaking to you after the publication of Some Girls, which was just after you adopted Tariku. They cut you off, honestly, right when you needed them the most. How has that influenced how you write about your family now? Many parents writing on MUTHA, including myself, think about the consequences of writing about our own children, too. Particularly as he gets older, do you speak to Tariku about what you’re writing about him?
JILLIAN LAUREN: I’m back in touch with my parents, and that’s a really nice development. They’ve been super supportive of this new book. I don’t know if they’re becoming seasoned veterans of having a memoirist child, or if we’ve all just changed over the years and want to have a relationship, so we’re overlooking a lot.
I bring a different ethical eye to writing about my son than I do to writing about everyone else in the world, because I am the holder of his narrative right now, but ultimately it’s his. It’s not my story. And so there’s certain stuff that I share and there’s certain private stuff about his history that I don’t. Now, my bar is much lower than most people’s, but we’re a family who does live in the public eye pretty comfortably and happily.
I came to this work with a strong intention that I sat down with every single day to write, which was that this book is a gift for my son. And that doesn’t mean that it presents a glossy façade of our life because quite the opposite. But it’s a story of love and a story of triumph. I knew that when I started, we were beginning to see the light. Otherwise, I might not have been able to write it. I started the book at a point where I felt like I had some hope to offer other parents.
MUTHA: How has being adopted influenced you as a mother, an adoptive mother? The book includes the stories of many mothers—your mother, your birth mother, Tariku’s birth mother, and yourself.
JILLIAN LAUREN: I hope that my experience as an adoptee brings a level of insight and a point of connection to my relationship with my son. I have fewer of the anxieties of other adoptive parents I talk with, because as an adopted child I know that my parents are my parents and I know what that connection feels like. And I also know that it was important to me to find my birth parents and to put those puzzle pieces in place in terms of my identity. All of that has been a wellspring of creativity for me. You know the difficult parts and the great parts and the themes around adoption, belonging, and family and how we create these constructs. It gives me another level of understanding.
MUTHA: You recently blogged about how your own consciousness about race and privilege had shifted after your experience with transracial adoption. There are scenes in the book where Tariku’s behavior and his needs make you feel very self-conscious in the trendy L.A. parenting scene. But, as Jennifer Gilmore’s review mentions, you don’t take on race in-depth. Like that moment in a children’s musical class, which we won’t name. Do you think that was also about race?
JILLIAN LAUREN: That’s the one thing everyone mentions to me, every mother. Like “I hate those classes.”
MUTHA: Oh, I actually loved our class, which made that scene sadder to me. But each group depends on who is up there leading it.
JILLIAN LAUREN: So, I think that particular moment wasn’t. But, I don’t think Jennifer was wrong. I thought that was a valid criticism and one that I knew was there.
My son was not aware of race yet at that time, but now that’s all changing. There is not in-depth addressing of the intricacies of having a transracial family because the book was so much about a time of interpersonal crisis. It was a little bit more theoretical at that point. Now, absolutely my entire consciousness around race and the necessity for change and for activism has completely transformed, because my heart is walking around in a 7-year-old black boy’s body. There are concrete realities around racism and discrimination in this country and in the world that are much more personal to me now.
And I would have told you that would not happen, because I really thought that I was so liberal and so educated around race. I read books. But, as I say at one point in Everything You Ever Wanted, it’s like reading about parenting. You can’t learn to pirouette by reading about it. That is doubly true reading about transracial parenting. It’s like trying to learn dancing out of a book. You know you can’t—you have to learn it by doing it. It’s been a real lesson to me and I’m continuing to learn.
MUTHA: You go to Tariku’s preschool to talk about Ethiopia, and you are shocked that the other children don’t have an understanding of adoption and are asking you questions about it for the first time.
JILLIAN LAUREN: I went in ready to talk about Ethiopian food and antelopes. And I started out by saying Ethiopia is special to us because that’s where we adopted Tariku. All these hands shot up and the kids were like, what’s adoption? I froze. I hadn’t thought about how to answer that question developmentally with a group of four year olds.
People don’t talk to their kids about issues that aren’t directly related to them, for the most part. It made me aware in talking with Tariku about people with disabilities, about gay marriage, to make these issues present in our conversation and in our language, even if they aren’t present in our immediate family.
MUTHA: My daughter has at least one child in her preschool class who is adopted, and while I’ve talked to her a little about it, I am cautious because I don’t want to presume upon what her friend’s fathers are telling her, and inadvertently lead her to say something that could hurt another child.
JILLIAN LAUREN: I tell people you can always ask. Don’t feel like you can’t ask those parents. “What kind of language are you using to talk about adoption?” That’s actually a terrific question that I wish people would ask me more. And I’m sure that they will be thrilled that you’re talking to your child about adoption, because the fact is that our kids, our kids who were adopted, shouldn’t be the ones who have to explain it to their friends.
MUTHA: My daughter asked, where’s her mom? I said she had a birth mother and then she was adopted by her fathers. And she worried, is that going to happen to me? She was afraid. She has expressed fear of losing us. I was very positive about her friend’s family and their happiness, but it’s tricky to navigate because each child comes to these questions from their own position of ego. I am also aware of a trend in parenting that I’m certainly guilty of—explaining too many things to my child, perhaps, too soon.
JILLIAN LAUREN: You’re just trying to stay maybe one step ahead of their questions, but not five steps ahead of their questions.
MUTHA: Right! So what advice do you give? Give us some bullet points.
JILLIAN LAUREN: Great. I love that question.
The language around “real parents” always comes up. Who are your real parents and where is his real mom? And, I will say: “families are made in all different ways and some children grow in their mommy’s tummies and some children grow in someone else’s tummy and are adopted. Some kids have just a mommy [or a daddy], some kids have two daddies [or two mommies], some kids have a mommy and a daddy. All these families are just as real. As long as there’s love, there’s a family.”
When they repeat, well, who is his real mom? I’ll say, “Well, he has a birth mom and he has me, I’m his mom. We’re both real moms.”
It depends on each child’s particular situation. It gets intricate. Tariku has two friends, two boys who are adopted, two dads, but each one was adopted by the opposite dad because each one fathered one of the kids with a surrogate. So, I try to explain that.
MUTHA: We look at all the different parents we know, and I often use the language: “parents come together and put their love together, and that love becomes their baby.” We also know many single-parent families, solo parents by choice…
JILLIAN LAUREN: Some babies grow in their mommy’s tummy and some babies grow in their mommy’s hearts.
I think that it’s best to focus on the diversity of families and how families come together in all different ways. You don’t necessarily have to get super specific about that, unless you have a kid who is a real question asker. And in that case, I would definitely ask the parents what their child knows and what kind of language they use, particularly if it’s a close friend of your child.
MUTHA: What are you working on next, other than the next adoption process (congratulations)? I read you had difficulty adopting a second child after Some Girls came out.
JILLIAN LAUREN: We’re using a different agency now and I’ve been completely transparent with them. I’ve given them all the books. They’re terrific.
I’m also writing a musical.