Interview with Later Mom: Author Gail Sheehy by Robin Gorman Newman
bestseller Passages, named one of the ten most influential books of our times by the Library of Congress. A multiple award-winning literary journalist, she was one of the original contributors to New York magazine and has been a contributing editor to Vanity Fair since 1984.
A popular lecturer, Sheehy was named AARP’s Ambassador of Caregiving in 2009.I had the opportunity to chat with Ms. Sheehy, and she was every bit the candid and inspiring force I anticipated.
Robin: You have two children, and how many grandchildren do you have?
Gail: I have three, and the third is turning 8 and is still in that totally admiring phase. I took her to see The Lion King. We were enthralled together. The funny thing is I’m showing her some of my tweets, and a picture of my memoir poppcd up. She asked, “What’s that?” I said, “It’s a picture of my memoir. It’s the latest book I wrote. It’s about my life.” And she said, “Well, how old were you in that picture?” I said, “I was in my 20s.” And, she said, “Boy, now you’re so old.” It takes a child to say right what you’re thinking. She asked, “What’s your job?” And, I said, ‘I’m an author…..that means I write books.” I had never talked about it really, and her older sister who is 10, I write with her sometimes. We pass a story back ‘n forth. Children do not think that writing is a job. They think you just kinda scribble in your corner. You never seem to be going to an office, so it can’t really be a job where you support yourself. I had to make that come together for her.
Robin: You became a single mom in your 20s and then adopted in your 40s. What is your take on it?
Gail: The number of women 30 and under having children has grown exponentially and really shocked me. Half of American women 30 and under are having children without a husband. At least one third of the time it wasn’t planned. Very often they were living with somebody or had been with them for a while. They get pregnant because they’re not taking birth control, and they decide to let it happen if it happens. He’s not really up for it, and maybe the baby daddy is around for a couple of years. In the average situation, he moves on, and she’s a single mom. Having been a single mom in my 20s when it was really really tough back in the 1960s — it wasn’t a cool thing to do — it was rather shameful and you really had to support yourself at a time when women weren’t easily achieving careers, including being a journalist. It’s much easier today, but it’s not so easy.
The children who have the best chance to take advantage of the opportunities out there are the children, this is statistically documented from Isabel Sawhills research — she’s with Brookings Institution, and she wrote about it in a book called Generation Unbound — from women and men who marry, go to the same type of school (good colleges), graduate, meet either at school or after school, get married before they have a child or children, and both are working. They have two careers and income and stability, have a child or children, and that child will be able to actually exceed the parents living standard and opportunities for growth. So, that old model is still working really really well. And, now we have the new norm which is having babies under 30 without being married, and we have yet to see how that’s gonna work out. There are loads of single moms who are strong, resilient, resourceful and making things work, but it’s a struggle. And, if the child hasn’t been planned for, then it’s all by the seat of your pants, and maybe the chips fall in your favor and maybe they don’t.
I had a really hard time making life work and being a present mother. The biggest deprivation of all is not really being able to be a fully present mother for the first year or two because you have to make a living and make a life without a partner, and that takes time. I’m a lone voice out there because it’s such a popular construct now, but I have to say that being a later mother — adopting a child in my 40s — was totally different than being a young mother in my 20s, who as a result of divorce, I did it on my own. I had full custody, but our daughter was only 2.5 years old when we divorced, and I wanted her to have a father as much as he was willing to participate. He was a good father. But, the divorce happened as a result of him being unfaithful. It was a very sad situation. He’d take her a couple of nights/week and every other weekend, and that continued until she was emancipated. We never took it out on her. But, it was missing having a real family life that made me really hungry and sad about getting to the end of my reproductive life and not having a child with a family.
Robin: How did the adoption result?
Clay Felker and I had been together for many years, and we were in Bangkok on a wonderful trip, and I was sad because my daughter was going to college and never had a family life of any length. He was reading a local paper and read about the children of Genocide who had survived and found their way into refugee camps, but they had no where to go. The Reagan Administration had shutdown the pipeline for refugees from Southeast Asia, and then Europe followed suit. Children who were 10, 12, 13 couldn’t go back to Cambodia. He said, “Maybe there’s a child for you here?” I was amazed. I had never thought about adopting. I was 43, and I really was at that time, in those days, one did not think you could have a baby at that age. There weren’t a lot of fertility specialists. This was the 1980s, and there wasn’t yet a growing concern. That didn’t really happen until the 1990s. Clay had been married once before but didn’t have any children. His child was New York Magazine (which he founded), and he was still very faithful to her — going out every night collecting stories, going to openings, and so on. So, this was a totally new idea…very generous on his part. That very da,y we went to a refugee camp — three hours away on a bus — but we couldn’t see any children because there had been kidnappings there.
As soon as we got back to New York, I called from the airport to the New York Times Magazine editor, who I knew, and said I’d like to do a story on the children America forgot. he said, “Where?” I said “Cambodia.” “That’s an awfully expense plane flight,” he said. I agreed to pay for half the flight expense, and a week later I was back there, interviewing children, now with my journalist hat on. The last child was unable to do the interview, so a little girl whose eyes I had seen darting behind the bamboo fences all the while I was in the camp, suddenly appeared. Her hair was all freshly washed. She had a pretty sarong on. And, she was completely serene and put together and presented herself as a substitute. As soon as we sat down in the tent, and I began talking, our eyes locked, and we just never took our eyes off each other. Half way through, I just fell in love with her. And, then, when we finished the interview, she broke down.
I had really gotten to her when I had asked, “Did you ever know a happy time?” And, her whole demeanor changed, and she began to describe her life in Phnom Penh. She was only 12 years old and living in a house with her siblings and her father leaving on a motor scooter to go to work– I think he was a military policeman — and at the end of the interview, we got to how one after the other her family members were taken away to be killed. She was sent away to a children’s labor camp, and her younger siblings were nearby, and she’d go out at night to try to dig for crabs and get them to them in an effort to save their lives. Risking her life because they would have shot her if they knew. She had an incredibly harrowing story. When we walked out of the tent, I was immediately surrounded by hundreds of people with letters to the U.S. Embassy, which they knew would be destroyed if they took them to the camp commander, basically begging me to take them back to the United States. I called out to her, since she had receded into the background and was quite far away, “What’s your name?” She said, “Mom.”
I came back to New York, and I wrote to her at the refugee camp, never knowing if it got to her. She wrote to me saying she’d like to come to the United States, never knowing if I got it. A year passed, and everything fell through. The former American Ambassador to Cambodia told me the Regan Administrations was going to punish me for writing op-ed pieces criticizing our refugee policy. And, they were gonna penalize me by never letting me bring this child out. So, I had really given up. One day I came in from a morning jog, and there was a message on my answering machine saying Mohm arriving JFK 8:30pm tomorrow night. So, she dropped into my life as if from the stork. It was on the night that the executive order forbidding refugees from being taken in by the United States expired….before it gets re-voted by Congress. So they took advantage of that window, and shipped 18 of the kids off on a plane, dropping them off in Chicago, Seattle and finally New York. I got to the airport. This little 12 year old girl with her tiny little limbs carrying all her worldly possessions in one little plastic bag, got off the plane and immediately recognized my face and broke into a smile. It was like it was meant to be. It was just by sheer luck that I happened not to be out of town and that I was ready to roll — otherwise she would have gone to Child Protective Services.
Robin: How did you feel parenting all over again in your 40s? Did you bring more to the table?
Gail: Oh yes….in every way. I knew who I was. I had had success. I had financial stability. I had a partner….Clay….what a first was kind-of shocked and wasn’t sure he wanted to sign up for this right away. I actually kept him away for the first few weeks because I had to bond with Mohm — I gave her an h in her name. I laughed with her and said we can’t both be called Mom. It’s too confusing. And, when he did finally come over, she opened the door and head-butted him. She wanted to know who this interloper was coming in to disturb the situation now that she had a new connection. But, she knew instinctively how to win him over. I had her in a Cambodian dance studio where they were teaching her what she already knew, and she had a little costume and a CD of Cambodian music. So, she came out and danced for him, and he was just besotted. We won him over, and he wanted to adopt her with me, and that’s how we wound up getting married. He rebuilt his apartment to make an extra room for her, and we became a family. He was in his 50s. And, he loved the years of being a daddy, having her live with us before she went to Wellsley College, he just threw himself into it 110 percent. We took trips, and he found her take on the world so fascinating from what she had seen and knew about politics, having lived through so much. For the first six months, I took her everywhere with me. I wouldn’t take any speaking engagement unless they’d pay for her plane fare too. She got to sit on stage with me sometimes. It was quite wonderful that the opposite of what I missed — and what my daughter Maura missed when I had to go on assignment to make a few dollars so we could eat the next week, and I couldn’t take her with me. I left her with my much younger sister who was happy to repay me for having kind-of rescued her from drugs. But, this time, she had a daddy and mommy and a mommy who took her on trips with her and could be there after school when she came home.
Robin: How did Maura react to Mohm and your new mom status?
Gail: There were two aspects to it. At first, being a very empathetic person, and her career is as a psychotherapist, so she helped Mohm so much being her older sister, looking out for her, showing her the ropes, and helping her when she’d feel like an “other” in school. She also was displaced because she had just started college, and we only had two bedrooms until we moved into Clay’s apartment, so Mohm was given her bedroom. For the first time, she came home and no longer had her bedroom. Sibling rivalry began to kick in. That was something we had to work with a long time until Maura got married and had her own child, and she had a different point of view. When you become a mother yourself, you recognize some of your own mother’s trials and tribulations.
Robin: Does Mohm have children?
Gail: Maura has three children. Mohm got married to a classmate from MIT but has never wanted to have children as a result of the trauma. Just was not able to have the confidence that in this world, and what she’s seen in this world, that she would be able to keep children safe.
Robin: Do you think parenting is tougher these days in this electronic age?
Gail: I do think it’s tougher. I think there’s a reason for helicopter parents. There’s a lot more dangers out there. When I was a kid in the 1940s, on Saturdays, you could get on your bike in the morning, as long as you got back for dinner. I was like 9 year old, and with my grandmother’s permission (and she held my secret), I would get on the commuter train to ride to Grand Central Station to look at the crossroads of a million private lives in order to write stories about them, and my parents never knew. That would never happen today.
I think we had the opportunity to become a lot more resilient as children because we learned how to take the scrapes. We climbed in the woods, I used to pole vault on icebergs in the Mamaroneck Harbour and get caught by police for snooping around an abandoned house. We learned a lot of stuff from being freer to be exposed to the world, and I understand why parents today want to be sure that they walk their children back ‘n forth to school. But, I do think it makes it harder for parents to balance their lives, and it holds children back somewhat in having the kinds of experiences that would make them more confident about being bold in the world.
Robin: What advice would you give to busy moms struggling to maintain their identity and find their purpose beyond parenting?
Gail: The key to that is to be a later mom. That’s the single most important key. My daughter waited until she was 34 to have her first child, and her third child when she was 42. She was established. She had tried a career as a journalist and found that she’d prefer to be an analyst and more of an academic, and so, having children for her — she was able to have three children and balance it — I was only able to have one.
Robin: The word balance is a tough one to grasp. Even those who opt to stay home with their kids and multi-taking so much these days.
Gail: Exactly. They are expected, even if they work part time, to keep up with emails and more. But, I do think that people can find a way to use the internet, social media, Skype– there are so many tools now where you can work from home, it makes it possible to keep your hand in your career and not to drop out for 3 to 5 to 10 years, if you have more than one child. That’s when I wrote PASSAGES. Most women would come back in their early 30s to try to regain their career, and they really didn’t have any confidence. They didn’t feel they knew the ropes. Times had changed. And, because they lacked confidence, they had a hard time building a career. Eventually, people in that situation, in their late 30s or 40s, went back to school. And, then they came out and were ready to roll. Today, it’s much easier and really important, at least after the first couple of years of motherhood (I hope people take the time to be present the first 1-2 years during that vital time of brain and emotional development), it’s important to stay involved in whatever way you can and keep growing in your confidence, and your competence.
Robin: Your book THE SILENT PASSAGE particularly resonated with me. At MotherhoodLater.com, we talk often about hormones/peri-menopause. Was that a challenging period, literally for you, and what are your thoughts about hormone replacement therapy (HRT)?
Gail: Peri-menopause threw me for a loop. This was 1990 and the very word “menopause” was taboo, so few mothers and daughters even talked about it. And no one – least of all women in our 40s, and most of their gynecologists—knew there was a “peri-menopause.” In the 3 to 5 years prior to the end of periods, lots of women wrestle with night sweats, mood swings, memory lapses, heavy flow, and find low dose hormone therapy a short-term survival strategy.
Being half Irish and petite, and having watched my mother suffer from severe osteoporosis, I welcomed HRT to protect my small bones. This was before the women’s health study. I shifted to a low-dose estrogen patch and became an exercise nut. 25 years later, bones still strong, I stopped HRT. A year later, first sign of osteopenia.
Robin: You have written 17 books — is PASSAGES the one you felt most compelled to write, and why?
Gail: Yes. Following a traumatic experience of being caught in crossfire in Northern Ireland on Bloody Sunday, I found a new concept that helped to explain how we proceed – or not – through the stages of adult life. We confront predictable crises – I named them “passages.” They throw us into disequilibrium but offer us the chance to change and grow. It came as a particular revelation to women that we live long and have many different seasons to grow into wholeness.
Robin: What was your motivation to write DARING, and what do you hope readers will take away from the book?
Gail: Having spent almost 40 years interviewing thousands of women and men, I thought it was high time I examined my own passages—tests, traumas and triumphs. Only when I was nearly finished excavating my life did I discover what got me through: I’m a normally fearful person. But hanging back made me feel worse. So I developed a habit: When I fear, I dare. I hope readers will be inspired to be more adventurous. If you’re willing to take the chance of falling on your face, you will eventually fail forward. And only those who are willing to get up at least one more time than they’re knocked down will find the way, buoyed by hope, grace, and love.
Robin: Can you tell us about THE DARING PROJECT which you’ve created? How do people participate?
Gail: It’s a website that grew out of the memoir. I invite women of all ages to send me a capsule of their most daring passage. I call the most interesting correspondents, interview them, and post the story and send it to my newsletter subscribers. Here’s the link: www.SheehyDaringProject.com.
Robin: How can people learn to embrace passages in their own lives as they age and come to terms with their choices, regrets and what remains on their bucket list?
Gail: Accept that you are not in control. See your Second Adulthood as a progress story, not a decline story. Relish the unexpected. Accept both the dark and the light. And don’t be fooled by the anti-aging movement. Instead, wander the spiritual path as you age, asking the deep questions, pausing to savor the wonder, and showing compassion for yourself and others.
Robin: What would you say to your younger self that you now know about life?
Gail: Be slower to blow, quicker to forgive, and less in a hurry.
Robin: What’s up next for you?
Gail: I’m researching women’s ways of courage. I want to reframe how we feel about fear and can use it. As the philosopher Charles Newcomb said, “There are always two voices sounding in our ears, the voice of fear and the voice of confidence. One is the clamor of the senses, the other is the whispering of the higher self.”