“Everything was alive in the moment, which was an interesting process because I could see how my voice was changed by the experience.” Alena Dillon returns to talk about her latest non-fiction book, My Body Is a Big Fat Temple, which chronicles her pregnancy and looks at the parts of motherhood that often get brushed aside. Alena and Zibby also discuss how although the reward of pregnancy is always worth it, it does a disservice to everyone when we ignore the hard conversations and hefty costs it puts on mothers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alena. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss My Body Is a Big Fat Temple.

Alena Dillon: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Zibby: Are you still there?

Alena: Sorry, I thought there was going to be an intro.

Zibby: That was it. I’ll say your intro — I record that first.

Alena: Sorry about that.

Zibby: No, that’s okay.

Alena: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so pleased to be here.

Zibby: It’s such a joy to have you. I feel like I have just sat down and had a long coffee session with you having read your book and learned all about the ins and outs and your dog and your baby and the whole process. You’re so funny. I love your sense of humor and the way you look at the world. Your one-liners are fantastic.

Alena: Thank you. I know, that’s crazy. You know so many intimate things about me now.

Zibby: It’s true. I have a memoir coming out in July, so we can .

Alena: Yes, we’ll reciprocate. Then I’ll know all about you.

Zibby: I wonder what it does to making friends when two people have read each other’s memoirs and then they sit down. What happens then?

Alena: You just open your hearts, I guess. You’ve already gone through all of the small talk. You just start in the middle of a friendship.

Zibby: Yeah, you catch up. Maybe that’s how everybody just needs to do it.

Alena: We all just need to exchange our memoirs.

Zibby: It’ll really save time, oh, my gosh. Tell listeners a little about the timeline of this book and the period it covers and why you decided to write about this stage of your life.

Alena: My Body Is a Big Fat Temple covers from pre-pregnancy all the way through to when my son is two years old. I decided to write it for a couple different reasons. The first is that I write nonfiction just to figure out how I’m feeling about something. Sometimes I can’t even wrap my head around what exactly I’m feeling and why, so essays help me do that. It helps me put it into a proper framework. First, I was wondering why I was now in my thirties having been married for several, several years and still not adamantly wanting children in the way that I thought maybe I was supposed to, so trying to figure out if that was okay, if I actually wanted children and why. What was holding me back? That was the first few essays. Then the next thing was, when I decided that, yes, we did want to start a family, I started looking for narrative stories of this journey of motherhood so that I could try to understand what to expect and prepare myself. Also, because the experience is different for everybody, I wanted to collect a few so that maybe there would be something that I would ultimately recognize. I had a hard time finding a lot of narrative stories. There was some how-to books and the science of pregnancy and things like that which were all very helpful, but there wasn’t a lot of what it was like on the personal level for individuals. It occurred to me — . Sorry, my dog’s barking. Ugh, Penny! Well, she’s the first essay.

Zibby: I also know Penny. How are Penny’s knees? What’s going on?

Alena: She wants to contribute her thought, and the mailman’s here. I realized that because it’s lacking on the bookshelf that maybe there needed to be more contributions. It seems an especial shame because pregnancy and motherhood is such a practically universal experience. There’s such a dearth of material. Then as I went through pregnancy and hit different milestones, it occurred to me that a lot of the experience is not discussed. It’s kind of cast under a reverent lens. It does a disservice to people who are about to encounter that experience to withhold a lot of the anxiety and physical pain and the downsides because when they come across them then, they feel like no one else has gone through it. They don’t have a community to turn to. That was the last point of this book, was to expose all of the nitty-gritty, to start the discussion so that I could be somebody for a reader so that they don’t feel so alone when they come across the same experiences.

Zibby: Amazing. You started talking about, as you mentioned, your ambivalence. I really liked this one passage. Hold on, I have like twenty different place dogeared here. Wait, why did I do this one? I don’t know. This is really the height of my professionalism here. You have this whole section here. “Wanting a baby is supposed to be my biological imperative, but I’m beginning to think my maternal clock ran out of batteries or that the second hand snapped under the weight of hard cider and literary ambitions, or maybe I’m like one of those rat moms from the famous study who just wasn’t born with a nurturing gene and Phil will be the parent responsible for licking our pups. I’m afraid to have children.” Then you keep going on. Then you also say, “I fear trading in my current identity for mother.” Then you talk about how women are already at a disadvantage in the community and everything.

Then you say, “Mothers, the epitome of femaleness, are especially broken off from society. We expect them to raise their young and talk amongst themselves in kid-appropriate restaurants. We expect mothers to play their part, which means sacrificing everything else they are. They have to justify any time they are away from their family even when they are working. No one sees a father and asks, hey Steve, where are the kids? Because Steve is allowed to be more than one thing. He can have his job, his softball league, and his straight-razor hot shave because he isn’t just a dad, he’s also an employee and an –” I hope it’s okay I’m reading all this — “an employee and an athlete and a human who grows a beard. And good for Steve, but it isn’t equitable because women are defined in total by their relation to their family. When we see Mr. Steve so-and-so, and we can call her Mrs. Steve so-and-so, sipping beer with friends, we think, who granted this woman furlough?” I’m almost done here. “Her pursuit of happiness is an indulgence because any energy spent on her own interests is a direct deduction from energy she might have used to benefit her family. Therefore, she should always be in service because she is a mother.” That’s awesome. The reason why I read the whole thing is because it’s one of the most clear descriptions of this disparity of moms and dads and also the expectations placed on us and the underpinning for why we have mom guilt. It’s this. It is this very page of this very book that does the trick.

Alena: Thank you. Moms, they’re at the service of their family, and so anytime they’re pursuing pleasure, they need to justify it somehow. It’s never enough that it’s just to nourish themselves. Whereas with husbands, it’s like, oh, my gosh, he needs some time off. This actually just happened to one of my friends whose husband went away for the weekend after she had gone away for the weekend a few weekends before. When she had gone away for the weekend, everyone was like, oh, my gosh, who’s going to help the husband? Who’s going to help him with the kids? Then when he went away, nobody offered because she doesn’t need help. She’s the mother. It’s this crazy disparity. We certainly saw it during the pandemic when mothers were the ones that had to straddle all rounds, help the kids at home, counsel them. They were the ones, then, that suffered professionally.

Zibby: I always think there’s some evolutionary bias to things like this. Deep, deep, deep down, people know that — I don’t mean this to come off as gender-ish or whatever else, but my only explanation is that because mothers are physically the people who — without us, there would be no species. There would be no people at all. Not that men are so disposable. I just feel like there must be some evolutionary pressure that we all don’t articulate which leads to this.

Alena: I think you’re right. I think women are trained biologically to tolerate suffering from the monthly period that starts in their adolescence and enduring that discomfort once a month and that inconvenience once a month every month of their life that it just bleeds into other areas of their life. They are equipped to endure suffering. That struck me during pregnancy too. All of this stuff that we have to suffer, sometimes there isn’t even justification for it. These studies that have been done so casually and not carefully, they just decide, okay, they can’t have coffee, they can’t drink, and just this blanket decision that isn’t even necessarily true, or the whole truth or the most accurate truth. It’s easy to tell women, okay, you can’t do this, rather than really hunt down what exactly they should be withholding and denying themselves. We’re just used to telling women that they should deny themselves pleasure.

Zibby: Meanwhile, you decide to be a mom. All of this aside, you go forward. Then you have a very entertaining — although, I’m sorry for your experience when you were pregnant. I just wanted to read one more thing. You said, “I can’t write. Characters need my help getting out of trouble, but the light of the computer is gross. Thinking is gross. This is what makes pregnancy not so different from other sickness I’ve experienced. Even abstractions are repulsive.” It’s so true. I love that.

Alena: It’s incredible. It’s incredible just how disgusting life becomes when you have morning sickness.

Zibby: Yes, it’s impossible to do anything. I remember, at one point, literally stopping on the street and just grabbing hold of a building being like, I don’t think I can walk another step right now. I don’t know how I’m going to get through this next period of my life if it’s week eight or something and I’m already this nauseous.

Alena: Yes, you have the whole journey ahead of you. You have no idea how long it’s going to last, when it’s going to get better. It’s so daunting.

Zibby: It is so daunting. Although, I was so grateful that I was actually pregnant. Still, then I went right into the complaining.

Alena: The reward is ultimately worthwhile, but it is such a hefty cost. We don’t talk about the cost. Why can’t it be both things? Yes, our children are so worthwhile. We love them, but we pay this price. Both things exist simultaneously.

Zibby: PS, you pay the price continually. I have two fourteen-year-olds and an eight-year-old and a six-year-old. It doesn’t end. There’s always stuff. I love my kids more than life itself. I will do anything for them, of course. I don’t even need to say that, but it’s hard.

Alena: It’s this complexity of contradictions. It’s like, get out of the house. I miss you. Come back. It’s all this thing that you’re wrestling.

Zibby: In the book, you also admit to some of these secret things. You say, “People always say, I don’t care about the sex. I just want the baby to be healthy. And that is true for me too. Healthy, yeah, yeah, of course, and for it to be a girl.”

Alena: Yes, I wanted to raise a strong feminist, and I’m still doing that. I wanted to redo my mistakes, make the girl that I could’ve been but wasn’t because I was too insecure or self-conscious, but you can’t decide who your kid is going to be. All these identities just reveal themselves to you over and over again through their life. That’s part of the delight, is seeing who they become apart from you, but yeah, I wanted a girl.

Zibby: I think that’s one of the most important things I’ve ever learned about being a parent. I feel like if someone had told me, I wouldn’t have necessarily believed them until I had four very different kids of my own. I thought I had all this power with what I did as a parent, that I was so responsible for who they became, but really, you’re just not. You can damage them, but can you really — I just feel like it’s so on the margins of who they are, what parents — but maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know.

Alena: No, you’re right. That’s what I was learning too. I thought that I would have much more influence. You’re just there to love them. That’s all you can do is love them and try to impart some values. Part of the wonder is seeing what their passions are and their hobbies and how surprising they are. They come completely outside from your home. They’re just of them.

Zibby: My daughter, the other day — maybe I shouldn’t even say this. She literally was like, “I feel like sewing.” She’s eight. She’s like, “Could we go to some store and find fabric?” I was like, “No. Where do you even find fabric?” First, I was googling where to find fabric in New York City. Finally, I was like, “Take any of my scarves. I never even wear my scarves. Just take anything from this particular drawer.” She’s like, “How about this blanket?” I was like, “Okay. I don’t even know where that blanket came from. Go ahead.” Next thing I know, she comes back downstairs an hour later and has made the most adorable skirt, A-line skirt, fits her perfectly, sewed the whole thing herself. I was like, oh, my god, where is this coming from? It was one of the coolest moments I’ve had as a parent. It was so cool.

Alena: That is so cool. She was taking pieces of you and creating something for herself. It was the perfect metaphor of motherhood.

Zibby: Exactly. All to say, you never know what your kids are going to be up to, the skills they have. I could never do that in a million years. I just couldn’t. Of course, I couldn’t because I’m not her.

Alena: It’s your joy to witness her.

Zibby: It is my joy to witness. All I can do is give her the fabric. Let’s just keep that metaphor going. All I can provide is the fabric and the thread and let her spin it into a beautiful creation. There we go. So tell me about writing this as you went through it. It felt to me like you literally would get to the end of the day and then just write about it. Is that what happened?

Alena: Yes, that’s what I did. It seemed to me that when I talked to other mothers, the more time went by, the more the pain and the discomfort got filed down and was replaced by the joy. It just got buffed. I wanted to preserve all of the stuff that was the most accurate in case there were pregnant women who were reading it as they were pregnant and just wanted it to be charged with life as it was. Every stage I wrote in the present tense as I was living it. Then, of course, I went back and revised it a little bit and cleaned it up. Everything was alive in the moment, which was an interesting process because then when I had the whole thing, I could see how my voice was changed by the experience. It was this evolving narrator from the beginning to the end. The writing process, the narrator was alive and changing. It was literally a living document from beginning to end. That seems to be a very satisfying experience for me as the writer and then, I hope, for the reader too, to see how motherhood changes a person.

Zibby: Tell me about the publishing journey of this book relative to your other books like Happiest Girl in the World, which I know we already spoke about. How did this one come about?

Alena: This was a little different. It was part of the reason, then, that I became so determined to get it published. With nonfiction, and you’ve probably found this too, it’s almost harder to get published than novels. I was initially a nonfiction writer. That’s what my education was in. I had a hard time getting published twelve years ago when I was writing nonfiction. I kept hearing the same thing. You need an extraordinary experience or a strong platform, which means you need to be famous or have this harrowing thing that’s going to get a hook. I started writing novels. I had tried to get my nonfiction published for a long time. Then I was like, this is not working. Let me just write a novel. I turned to that for a while, as if writing a novel is so easy. That was its own challenge. Then ten years later, I have a few novels, but it wasn’t that easy. Anyway, I went back to this because this was the first nonfiction project that demanded my interest again. I kind of heard the same thing again, which was, your experience was a little too ordinary. I had postpartum depression, but it wasn’t drive-off-a-bridge postpartum depression. It’s a spectrum. I thought, it’s essential that we publish these ordinary experiences because everyone is experiencing this. We aren’t talking about it. I ended up reaching out to a couple small publishers. Woodhall Press was so thrilled with the project and has been so excited. I’m going through them. Amy Schumer endorsed it. She’s been so supportive.

Zibby: I saw that.

Alena: She’s optioned Mercy House, which was my debut novel. She had been an advocate for difficult pregnancies and women’s issues. A lot of my book talks about maternal health and the same kind of culture issues that she’s interested in. I figured I’d reach out. She’s been so super supportive of my work. She came back very quickly with an endorsement. That’s been extremely validating. I’m really excited to get this out there.

Zibby: That’s really awesome. What’s next?

Alena: I have a novel slated for next fall. My edits are due November 1st, so I’m in the heat of it. I think I’ll make it now. There was a moment where I was like, oh, man, this is not going to happen. Yes, I’m going to get there. That one’s about a woman, an air force service pilot. It’s a dual timeline. We see the woman air force service pilot during World War II, the first women to fly domestic planes. Then sixty years later, we see her daughter finding out about this secret that her mother had kept. The WASPs had been dismissed after World War II. Even though they thought that they were going to get military benefits, they didn’t get any of that. They were just sent back to their houses, some offered jobs as stewardesses, not pilots. This character was kind of bitter about the future that had been stolen from her. The book looks at how bitterness can be bequeathed to your children and how that affects the next generation.

Zibby: Inherited bitterness, add it to the list.

Alena: The parallel of what women are still fighting for, all the lengths that we’ve gained, but what we still are trying to accomplish.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Alena: I feel like I only give one piece of advice. I keep giving it. My biggest piece is to gather yourself a group of writers and to have these people in your life as a community. I am a person who really benefits from reader feedback. After a project is through, I see that it’s not as strong as it could be, but I have a hard time pinpointing how to bolster it. I really rely on other people helping me. It becomes a big collaboration. Also, just because it’s a hard journey. All experiences are different, so it’s nice to compare notes. My agent is doing this. Is that a normal correspondence? I’ve had three agents now, so now I can compare what’s to be expected. On your first, you’re not sure what the relationship is supposed to be like. It’s nice to have this community so you can have those kind of discussions. What’s your publicist like? What’s your editor like? What should we be expecting? Just have that transparency in that community. There’s a bunch of different ways to gather those people. From my MFA, that’s where that came from. There’s so many resources, online communities, and ways to meet people.

Zibby: Amazing. Awesome. Thank you for this. Thank you for taking me back through. I feel like I kind of blacked out all of my pregnancies. They’re hidden in some recesses of my brain. Reading this, all of it came flooding back, so thank you?

Alena: For better or worse. There’s a reason your body might erase those things.

Zibby: Exactly, oh, my gosh. Thank you so much. Thank you for coming on. Thanks for discussing this book. Thanks for sharing your experience to help other people. It’s awesome.

Alena: Thank you so much for having me. It’s such an honor.

Zibby: My pleasure. Have a great day.

Alena: You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


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