Published on December 22nd, 2016 | by Danielle Leshaw0
WHAT MAMALEH KNOWS: An Interview with Marjorie Ingall by Danielle Leshaw
Marjorie Ingall was my first parenting cheerleader. I read her column in The Jewish Daily Forward, a print newspaper that found its way each week from the lower east side of Manhattan to my mailbox in the woods of southeastern Ohio. From picturebook picks to conversations about stranger danger, unnecessary hugging in extended family systems, the benefits of releasing a few good curse words, and social justice imperatives for growing kids, Marjorie helped set my compass. I studied how she parented her own children, Josie and Maxine, and applauded as she celebrated her husband and her parents in the pages of The Forward. When her father got sick, and eventually died, many of us witnessed the struggle she endured to be her best parenting self in the midst of deep loss.
Kids grow. Parenting changes, so what does a person like Marjorie do with all of the writing and the mad skills and the celebration and the sadness? She writes a book, of course, and a damn good one at that.
For a long time, Marjorie reminded me that while I was raising my kids in the least Jewish place on the planet — the foothills of Appalachia — I was, in fact, raising Jewish kids. She would shake her cheerleading pompoms of literacy and humor, tradition and morality. And best of all, she never told me that there was one perfect formula for how to raise a great kid. Marjorie lays out her parenting philosophy in Mamaleh Knows Best, a philosophy based on Jewish wisdom and culture, and for somebody who followed her lead and feels pretty good about how things are turning out, I’m very much telling you to grab a copy of her book. Then you should read it (important Mamaleh value: reading!) and when she’s on tour this year, find her and hug her. Marjorie will cheer you on as you figure out how to be your own best parenting person, and she’ll throw in a good round of swear words just to make you laugh at your own foul Mutha mouth. – Danielle Leshaw
MUTHA: Confession: I wanted to breeze through the book. Because look, I’m really busy. But I found myself going slowly and stopping periodically to think about my kids and how we’ve raised them. And then, after I’d close the book to stroll down memory lane, I had to send them texts in the middle of their school day, to retell all the things I remembered about their younger days, as a way to share our family stories, as a way to feel close. This is something you emphasize – tell your family narrative. Tell their stories. Tell other people’s stories. Read with them and read to them as long as they’ll let you.
MARJORIE INGALL: I know this seems radical right now, but it’s really not — literacy should be viewed entirely separate from education. It’s worth emphasizing that reading thoughtfully, and broadly, and for pleasure is one important way that we learn to question authority and the ethos we’re dealt. Reading allows us to acquire knowledge for the sake of knowing more, and also because reading helps us become better adults, equipped with the skills necessary to challenge the status quo. But we’ve largely forgotten that reading is a real source of pleasure. Reading alone or with kids is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and it should be done slowly and intentionally. Reading promotes closeness. Reading promotes curiosity. The chapter I titled Emphasize – but don’t Fetishize – Education, is the only chapter in the book that I allow myself to get prescriptive.
MUTHA: So yeah — tell us about the writing of Mamaleh Knows Best, and things that writers battle – authority, doubt, and all the competing voices in our heads.
MARJORIE INGALL: I thought, upon embarking on this project, that I knew how to write this book. I had a good sense of what the chapters were going to be, and I thought it was going to be a breeze. But turns out I had no perspective, and I wasn’t sure how much research to include, or how much funny-bloggy voice to include, or when to access my journalism voice. I had several different editors from start to finish, and they each imagined a different product. One wanted a conventional parenting book, complete with the horrors of sleep misery and new mom hypochondria. Another wanted to make sure it wasn’t too Jewish. They all wanted to make sure the book could cross over, and be of value to lots of different types of parents.
MUTHA: It’s hard to be all those things – and while I knew the ages of your kids before I even opened the book, it was apparent while reading that you’re not in baby or toddler land. You’re firmly in young adult land.
MARJORIE INGALL: Exactly, which made the process confusing at times – sometimes I felt like I was really driving the bus, and other times, I felt like I had too many masters to please. And I wanted to please, because women are pleasers. I had trouble presenting myself as an expert. One day, I showed an early draft to a really close friend, who is also a writer, and she told me that it was obvious that I was afraid of my parenting authority. Because of that fear, the first version was very academic. And, as she also revealed, horribly boring. So I used the research I had amassed, but I also became determined to use my own funny, self-deprecating voice, which is my normal voice. And I knew that to finish the book, I had to keep balancing the notion that writing is both art and commerce.
MUTHA: You talk authority – about your own, about the ancient Jewish sages and their authoritative voices, and also about mainstream, conventional, parenting authorities.
MARJORIE INGALL: Jewish parenting is basically the same as most forms of American parenting, with a few exceptions. Historically, Jews have a distrust for authority, and nurturing this in our kids is, at least among most of us, considered a good thing. This reluctance to accept authority is part of our communal history, yet it bumps up against the landscape of conventional thinking. So, for example, Jewish mothers are usually the opposite of Tiger Moms. We don’t take authority at face value. We think innovatively. We do our best to work communally rather than focusing only on the individual family unit. We question authority while making sure to take care of those around us. Everybody talks a good game about how to raise kids who do social justice work, but Jews have a history of it. Historically, we’ve cared for widows and orphans, we’ve had Jewish burial societies for the poor. America is largely a culture of ‘Me first! Where’s mine?’ and this is really harmful in the shaping of good character. America can be a hard place to raise good kids. We want to innovate, but we also want to do good in the world. Our Jewish history – our authority, so to speak – tells us we can and must do both.
MUTHA: You have a wonderful, simple concept at one point in the book, where you tell the reader: If you don’t have a mother, email me. I found that sentiment really beautiful and inviting, because so many moms are parenting their children in isolated situations.
MARJORIE INGALL: My mom was on my shoulder through the entire process of writing and editing the book. She is my moral exemplar. She tells me when my writing is too irreverent, or dismissive, or reductive. So much of the book is not only about how to raise accomplished and ethical kids, but how to be a good person in a world that is pushing you to not be your best self. She’s doing that in her own life. I’ve had a terrific model. And I mean it when people should be in touch. But also, we need to push ourselves to find our people. Parenting is a long journey. When you get past the early playdate, after the babies and the toddlers, it’s hard to find and cultivate hangout time with other moms.
MUTHA: It evaporates.
MARJORIE INGALL: It’s replaced by social media, which is really so performative, even if you don’t mean to give the wrong impression of your life. My daughter informed me that there’s a word that teens use for having two Instagram accounts – god I can’t remember the term used — but one account is your real Instagram account, with all the honest, messy, dumb things, and the other is your curated Instagram, where you show the world all that’s wonderful and perfect.
MUTHA: Holy crap I think my kids have two accounts. Now I know why. (note: I later learned from the kinder that it’s called a ‘Finsta’ – Fake Insta).
MARJORIE INGALL: We curate our lives for online media. We also don’t want to burden other people with Oh My God this is really fucking hard, because who won’t judge us for that?
MUTHA: Everybody. Everybody will judge us for all the things. (deep sigh). Final thoughts, dear Mamaleh?
MARJORIE INGALL: Women are told they’re sucky parents. All the time. That’s part of the fabric of American misogyny. It’s our job to find your people who tell us otherwise. Let your home be a safe space for books. And eliminate the term ‘work-life balance’ from your vocabulary. Balance is one of those words I hate. Like the word spirituality, you say it and then you immediately feel bad and weird and guilty for not being spiritual enough. There’s no such thing as balance. Something is always out of whack. It’s a condition of living in a wildly connected world, never off the grid. We live in a wind tunnel of bullshit being spewed at you all the time.
So yeah. Fuck balance.
Mamaleh Knows Best, written by Marjorie Ingall, is available in stores and online. Visit her website to read more of her work, and follow her on twitter for all sorts of thoughts about cats, fashion, and bad apologies.