There are a couple of trends currently cresting in the literary-movie matrix: one is that a lot of memoir material is being bought by the studios, and the other is that we’re seeing a surge of “alternative parenting” stories (i.e. projects penned by modern-day moms and dads).
My friend Erika Schickel’s recently released book You’re Not the Boss of Me (Adventures of a Modern Mom) sits right at the nexus of all this. Erika, who comes from a long line of writers (you may be familiar with the work of her illustrious dad, film critic/historian Richard Schickel) writes with pithy, witty, refreshingly open candor about the Modern Mom experience, and not surprisingly, some film producers have come a-calling, perhaps attracted by stories such as Journey to Another Girl, which begins…
Kathleen picks me up at my house for our evening out. My daughters are bathed and in their pajamas. “Where are you guys going?” they ask.
“Oh, just out for a drink,” I say, kissing their damp, fragrant heads. I blow a kiss to my husband and we head out into the night. We are off, not for Cosmos and girl talk, but to a West L.A. strip club to get lap dances.
Thinking that you Living Rom-Commers might find food for thought in the musings of such a writing mom, I e-mailed Erika some apropos questions, and here be the results.
Living Rom-Com: It seems to me there's a fascinating "off screen" story in between the lines of this one -- mainly, how is the romance sustained in a contemporary married-with-kids relationship? I’d love to see a marital rom-com that took on this theme. Your Journey story indicates that the occasional lap dance for Mom can help spice things up. Thoughts?
Erika Schickel: Yeah, I think my marriage is more "com" than "rom" these days. Our relationship has lasted a remarkable eighteen years, and it’s more due to the fact that Doug and I just get along. We had a lot of fireworks at first, and then settled into the business of just really liking each other and not getting in each other's way. We are kind of an "opposites attract" couple. I'm all about blather and adventure, he's an introvert and sensible and likes to stay at home. So it works, in a non-glamorous, un-cinematic way. The thing is we just really "get" each other. We don't put head trips on each other or play games, which is incredibly rare. People are so addicted to drama in their relationships, and me and the hubs like it sweet and simple. The problem is we've all seen too many movies which make our arrangement seem like an anti-climax. Everybody is looking for a lifetime of fireworks, and maybe that's possible, but in my experience it’s a lot of simul-flossing and reading each other funny bits out of the newspaper.
As for the lap dance thing, that's just an example of our marriage at work. When we first got engaged I was worried I wouldn't be able to deal with the monogamy angle (I'm all about new experiences). My husband is a pretty secure fellow, and never had a problem with the idea of me in a titty bar. The lap dances were a fun outlet, but of course the big, stanky 'ho in me was really in the strip club for the material. I knew it would make a great piece. Everybody focuses on that piece in the book, and I'm sure my readers must think I'm out there with a wad of singles, knocking back seltzers at the tip rail every night. In fact, I pretty much explored that and moved on. But I do think married couples owe it to themselves to explore all available outlets. Monogamy is a tough sentence. Human beings really aren't programmed for "happily ever after" which is why all the rom-coms are about getting together rather than staying together. The day-to-day of monogamy is rather dull, but it sure is good for raising kids, and as Doug and I toasted our 18th anniversary together last weekend, we felt pretty darn happy with our lot.
LRC: Your book is particularly intriguing in its exploration of Old School Mothering versus... whatever we've got now. How would you define the term "Modern Mom?"
ES: It’s funny, motherhood in some ways changes as women's role in society changes, or rather, our expectations of it change. Back in the '70's, when my mom was raising me, women were struggling to define themselves outside of the domestic sphere and I inherited the expectation that I would make something of my life professionally and artistically. Of course, the minute you push out your first baby you are slammed into the ancient, hardwired, unchanging rituals of childrearing, and it can throw you into conflict with yours and society's expectations. A lot of the book is about that conflict. Because motherhood is so stubbornly unchanging. For us "liberated" child-bearing-and-rearing women, we are shocked to discover that in fact, biology IS destiny. You are physically attached to your baby for the first five years. Period. You can't change it. You can't go conquer the world when you're pinned under a nursing baby, and often, you don't even care to.
There was so much tension I felt as a new mom, of wanting to just cocoon with my baby with my nose in her hair and never have the moment end, and at the same time wanting to run screaming out of the house. We can feel a lot of guilt around both sides of that. We are raised to want it all and then having a baby kind of yanks the rug out from under you. I think "modern motherhood" is about staying flexible and open-minded, finding the delicate balance between work and home life and above all, maintaining a sense of humor and perspective. Until our backward country figures out stuff like paid parental leave and universal health care and affordable, decent day care, women's rights are pretty much academic posturing. Because in the end, it’s usually women who are left holding the diaper bag.
LRC: How does a writer who's also a full-time mother of two manage to write?
ES: Daycare! Pre-school! Kindergarten! Elementary school! I started farming out my kids to paid professionals at a young age. Though at first it was only a couple of hours a few mornings a week, now they're both in school and I get six hours a day to work (AND grocery shop, AND exercise, AND enjoy the occasional girlfriend lunch.) Basically, I squeeze my entire non-kid, work life into whatever hours the [school] schedule allows me. I'm no good at the end of the day, and I like to spend my evenings doing "research" on the boob-tube, or reading a book. Before I had kids I thought a lot about writing but had too much time on my hands to get anything done. But when you only a few hours in a day you really learn how to crank it out. Having kids cured me of writer's block.
LRC: How does being the Modern Mom affect the nature of what you write?
ES: Well, I use shamelessness as an antidote to shame. I've done a lot of embarrassing things and made many huge mistakes. My hope is that by laying them all out, nobody will bust me for them, since I've already busted myself. Also, I kind of see my book as a tribute to fucking up. Because we're all doing it -- just not that many people want to admit it. Especially parents, where there's this expectation of being perfect. So my book is kind of a celebration of being a cranky, horny, brash, dorky, mistaken, bored and deeply flawed parent. My saving grace is my love for my kids. Love is kind of my golden lasso -- I'm the Blunder Woman of parenting!
LRC: Which are the stories that have attracted movie biz interest, and why these, do you think?
ES: You know, my agent has fielded some film inquiries, though nothing too concrete yet as far as specific pieces are concerned. Everyone says this book should be a TV show -- then in the next breath says every studio in town has this show in development already. But of course everyone talks about the lap dancing and pot smoking. It's too late to create "Weeds" (though I'd LOVE to write for them). But what I dig about that show is less about the drug dealing and more how Mary-Louise Parker's character is just screwing everything up. Her life is a mess, but her love for her kids is pure, and it’s going to be the thing that lets them all survive. I just don't see that much on TV and I love love love it.
The subtitle of the book "Adventures of a Modern Mom" is tongue-in-cheek. I don't leave a five mile radius of my home in the book. As a restless soul stuck at home with kids, I had to find adventure in ordinary life, whether that's at the playground, the zoo, or the grocery store. But those Joseph Campbellian themes all apply. The hero's (or heroine's) journey is no less poignant, whether you are Luke Skywalker conquering the dark side of The Force, or me, out to find a girdle to wear to a rock concert - it is a psychological journey mirrored by a physical journey. The heroism of domestic life is an area rife with drama, laughs, and heartbreak and so, so underrated. I'd like to see a little more of that in film and television, and of course, I'd like to be the highly-paid person to write it.
LRC: Who do you want to play you?
ES: Laura Linney. Smart, funny, pretty enough and REAL.