Courtney Zoffness, SPILT MILK

Courtney Zoffness, SPILT MILK

“I found after becoming a mom that I was responding to various experiences or happenings in really particular ways.” Professor, author, and mother Courtney Zoffness discusses how the lens of motherhood inspired her new collection, Spilt Milk. She shares her own experience with childhood anxiety, ponders nature vs. nurture, and talks with Zibby about parenting techniques.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Courtney. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Courtney Zoffness: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Spilt Milk, first of all, love that you call it memoirs instead of just a memoir, which is so clever because you have it broken up into little sections. Tell listeners what this is about and what inspired you to write it, please.

Courtney: The book is about what we inherit from generations past and what we pass on to our children. I mean that not just biologically, but culturally, historically, spiritually. I take that understanding of passing on from various angles. In so far as what inspired me to write it, it came about kind of organically and also kind of by accident. I didn’t set out to write this as a book. I found after becoming a mom that I was responding to various experiences or happenings in really particular ways. Being a mom gave me new eyes, truly. I was processing things that were happening through that lens. When I started to look at the various pieces, I noticed this thread in common, and the book organically came together.

Zibby: I love that. That’s great. Take me back to, when did you start writing? How did you even begin this? Let’s end up where the book is.

Courtney: Start writing the book or start writing ?

Zibby: In your life.

Courtney: I’ve had a long gestation as a writer. I can take you back to early, early days.

Zibby: Go all the way, just for a glimpse, even.

Courtney: That really bad poem that I wrote in junior high that was published in my local newspaper, is that what you’re interested in?

Zibby: That’s cool. Yes, that’s amazing. That’s exactly the type of stuff I love to hear.

Courtney: I can remember my grandma talking about it with her friends. They wanted me to interpret it for them, but I didn’t even really know what I had written. I was like, yeah, I meant all of that. I’ve always loved words and language and stories. I think you have probably have too.

Zibby: I have.

Courtney: I would say my real first stab at becoming a professional writer, whatever that might mean, was going to graduate school at the young age of twenty-three. It took me almost two decades for this book to emerge.

Zibby: That’s okay.

Courtney: This is big. It never occurred to me to stop doing this thing that I love to do.

Zibby: That’s the most important thing, the love of the craft and the love of just producing it. Whether or not it becomes a book is one thing. What it does for you getting it out is the most important part.

Courtney: I couldn’t agree more.

Zibby: Last night, I had the book as I was finishing it up. I always read as my kids are falling asleep. I brought it into my daughter’s room. She’s seven. She loved the cover. She’s like, “Why don’t you read me that book tonight?” instead of the children’s book. I was like, okay. I went back to the beginning and read about your son who was afraid of going to school or had anxiety about it, which could not be more relevant to my life today. I read it to her. She was like, “Can we go back to my book? Just tell her that I really liked it.” I had to share that.

Courtney: Aw. That is such a funny thing to imagine, this being read as a bedtime story.

Zibby: Yes. I didn’t read her anything about your surrogate pregnancy.

Courtney: That would’ve been . I’ve caught my nine-year-old who’s now a pretty proficient and prolific reader with it on the couch. I’m like, not sure I’m ready for you to do that.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. What parts of motherhood as you were going through it inspired you to sit down and record? For instance, just even at the beginning when your son is afraid in school and you’re waiting there and the bathroom scene and all this stuff, would you take notes? I feel like I lose half the stuff that happens to my children.

Courtney: Oh, yeah, for sure. It depends on the what. I have a terrible memory, so I do often write things down. I wasn’t experiencing that with an eye toward making it concrete on the page, but it left an indelible impression because it was so upsetting to me as someone who had suffered from anxiety in childhood and maybe or maybe not still in adulthood. I came home and started quickly looking up, what can I be doing? What do I do? The narrative of what had happened sort of cemented in that process and made it just an easier transference into an essay.

Zibby: Tell me more about your own experience with anxiety.

Courtney: When I was a child, it manifested in a variety of ways, mostly through hyperventilation, which my parents didn’t understand, nor did I. They took me to pulmonologists and my pediatrician. I wound up at a pediatric therapist who was not especially helpful. I had bloody noses. I wore a mouthguard because I kept clenching my teeth, a variety of symptoms. It wasn’t treated in any sort of holistic way. I’m not sure if it could’ve been. Even still, those symptoms in isolation can be attributed to any number of things. It’s really hard for parents and medical professionals often to aggregate the right things to create an appropriate diagnosis. I don’t know what would’ve been helpful, but I do know that it sort of stalked me through adolescence. I had panic attacks and finally sought some professional help in my young adulthood. That has proved to be a reliable source of relief.

Zibby: I feel like anxiety wasn’t even a thing when we were growing up. I’m forty-four, so similar generation. It just wasn’t a thing. I still am like, wait, should I even be embarrassed? It just is what it is. Everybody worries all the time, don’t they?

Courtney: That’s right. I think figuring out what the threshold is of what constitutes something diagnostic is really mysterious. It is person by person. Some people want to power through and have various tools within themselves to change their mindset, change their behaviors. Others don’t.

Zibby: It’s also, you have to be on solid enough ground to be able to avail yourself of the tools that are there. If you’re drowning, you’re not going to be dusting off your cognitive behavioral toolkit if you can’t even grab a branch at that point, but I think it’s great. Today at least, there’s so much more attention on anxiety in childhood and even what happens when it goes untreated and how so often anxiety becomes depression when you’re a teenager if it goes untreated for too long and how you can sort of cut that off at the pass now. Before, I feel like nobody knew anything about that, so you end up with lots of great books.

Courtney: I also think that spectrum can dip too far in the other direction too. Suddenly, I’m a college professor and I feel like I have so many students with so many things. I’ve never gotten so many letters of accommodation before. This is fairly new.

Zibby: Speaking of your students, it just reminded me of the scene with your student who professed his, not even love, but sort of lust after you and how you had to handle that. You tie in a lot of the current, not Me Too per se, but just women’s sexualization, and in multiple contexts. Tell me a little more about that.

Courtney: That’s in a section called Hot for Teacher about a student who expresses his desire to have his way with his writing teacher. He read this piece aloud in front of the class. I am still puzzling over his aims there. He was removed from my class, though seemed really perplexed that he would get in trouble since he changed the color of my hair and the day the class met.

Zibby: Ridiculous. He kept your same outfit, right?

Courtney: Sure did. Even after that happened, I thought maybe it wasn’t as bad as I remembered. Riding the train home with his essay in my lap, I thought maybe I was overreacting, which I feel like women often position themselves as doing. I feel so used to having to encounter and respond to a range of misogynistic/inappropriate behavior. That experience parlayed into my revisiting a variety of sexually inappropriate or misogynistic experiences and then thinking about being the mother of two boys and how I can, if I can, run interference and prevent them from being the kinds of boys-turned-men who will do these sorts of things to women.

Zibby: I have two boys also. What do you do? What can I take away for myself from this conversation? How do you do this successfully? How do you do it? Is it through modeling, mostly?

Courtney: They’re still young. Jury’s out. Yes, I just try to have this conversation all the time. When I see something or when I hear them talking about something that I feel like is reflective of these enormous cultural forces, I address it. I’m thinking about the fact that I live next door to a police precinct station and how my youngest son likes to dress as a cop and how problematic I find that to be, in part because of the ways he plays that role, and how we’ve talked about that in terms of gender and manhood and masculinity and what that sort of culture perpetuates and how it ties into this. When we’re talking about why Mommy prefers he dress in other costumes, this is something that comes up.

Zibby: On the other hand, if no little boys are dressing up as policemen, we’re not going to have any policemen in forty years or something.

Courtney: His approach now is dressing like a kind police officer.

Zibby: That’s great.

Courtney: really the best thing. He likes me to play out these various scenarios. I just, through this sort of roleplay, push him to those places of responding kindly.

Zibby: I like that. Roleplay is so key with kids. I feel like that’s my go-to if I’ve had enough sleep to even remember what my strategies are. It’s always good. Do you think we should behave this way at this event we’re about to go to, or should we do the exact opposite? Then they get so into the game of it that they finally want to think about things before they happen.

Courtney: We’ve got plenty of strategies.

Zibby: Another interesting part of the book was thinking about how your older son who had more anxiety related to your younger son — how the interplay of that works, even as simple as waking up the other child. What do you do with kids who have totally different needs within your own family? How do you balance that as a parent? Is that something you still…?

Courtney: Yeah. My sons are very different humans. One of the questions I poke at in this book is how much influence parents have on their children. How identifiable is it? In terms of our own parents’ influences on us, it’s convenient to have this cause-and-effect narrative, the blame game, but I think it’s very hard to actually tease out the truth of what influences who and how. In having these two children two years apart, two and half years, in the same house with the same parent and seeing just how different they are — they do love each other even if they’re fighting often. It has me really thinking about what effect, if any, I can have as a mom.

Zibby: Yes. I’ve decided I have very little effect.

Courtney: I think it’s probably true.

Zibby: I think that parents, they can hurt their kids more than improve them. As long as you love your kids and you do a pretty good job, your kids are all going to turn out the way they were born to be. It’s only if you as a parent are negligent or awful to them or something where they’re going develop off in a different way. This is my theory.

Courtney: It’s funny. When you said you can do more hurt, I thought you said herd. That seems also true to me. They are already these . You can just usher them maybe closer to this side instead of this side. I do feel like I’m like Little Bo-Peep over here.

Zibby: I think you don’t realize that, maybe, until you’ve had more than one child. You feel like you’re in charge of every piece of their development when it’s your first kid and everything you do is so laden with meaning and future ramifications.

Courtney: Yes. Even though I don’t actually think that anymore, I still find myself going to those places. You got to make the right choice. Even though if you try to take the bird’s eye view, it’s like, does this even really matter so much? It’s very hard to not play the self-doubt card.

Zibby: I totally agree, nor did I mean to suggest I was confident in all my parenting decisions because I’m not. I just feel like they’re so clearly who they are. Now I’m more sitting back like, let’s see this side of your personality come into the world.

Courtney: Exactly. It changes so quickly too.

Zibby: This book, yes, you’ve been writing it for twenty years, but —

Courtney: — I haven’t been writing this book for that long.

Zibby: Okay, writing. Tell me a little more about this particular book and when you even found time to do it, your process and where you liked to write and how it became a book.

Courtney: As a mother of small humans, I am not precious about being at the right desk with the right pen with just the right sunlight. I don’t have that luxury. I also have a full-time job as a professor. I would write on the train. I would write in my office if nobody visited me for office hours or in the evenings. I have writer friends who are regimented about getting up early. My oldest son, Oliver, wakes at five thirty. What is early? Am I getting up in the middle of the night? That’s just not happening. I also live in a modest Brooklyn apartment, so there’s not even a place to go to do this work. It came about in fits and starts. I was often working on multiple pieces at once because something would happen and I would have to commit it to the page in some form and then return to it. Hopefully, that process helped create a more cohesive sense in the book because a lot of them were being written simultaneously.

Zibby: Interesting. The idea of a writer’s retreat where you can sit in a cabin and —

Courtney: — You know what? I should say I did get to do that. I went to the MacDowell Colony, two weeks that were among the highlights of my life, truly, where I did no dishes, cooked no food, wiped no tushes, multiple ways in which — I didn’t even have good cell service. I was just like, goodbye world. That was the ultimate gift from the literary gods. I did really deep thinking, deep reading, deep work there for two weeks.

Zibby: When was that?

Courtney: It was in 2018. Gosh, it feels like a universe ago. That was in 2018. I was midway into writing it. There were some parts that I couldn’t just write in fits and starts like the police officer piece called Boy in Blue where I had read the whole history of policing. I had stacks of books about racial — I couldn’t do this sort of deep reading and thinking and meditating spastically.

Zibby: How do you feel now with it coming out?

Courtney: Relived and proud. One of the benefits of being later to bloom is that I spent a lot of time honing my chops and also deciding what I most cared about. This is not just like, hello, world, here’s something. It’s really a product I care a lot about.

Zibby: It’s really good. It’s really, really good and beautifully written, the pacing and the content and all of it. It’s so nice when the humdrum of life becomes literary fodder instead of just stress. It’s almost like seeing your life elevated to art is something that sort of validates what we’re all doing on a daily basis. That’s, of course, only one piece of the book. It’s lovely. What next from here? What are you doing next? Are you writing another collection of stuff? What are you doing?

Courtney: I think of myself as a fiction writer, which is how I started and where I got some attention earlier on. It’s my first love. Since this book sort of came out by accident, I was writing these pieces that coalesced, I’m back to fiction, which is such a relief. I’m so sick of myself, my gosh. It’s really nice to imagine my way into other people’s lives and heads.

Zibby: Can you say anything about that plot or anything?

Courtney: I’m not sure what shape the project is taking yet. I’m just playing and really enjoying being able to play.

Zibby: Excellent. I’m sure you have tons of advice given that you’re a professor, but if you could distill some advice for aspiring authors down, what are some tidbits that you could share?

Courtney: My biggest one is tenacity and persistence. Truly, this was a long period for me during which I wasn’t always getting over the finish line with things I was writing or getting into the publications that I most aspire to appear in. I do feel like there is a lot to be said for stick-with-it-ness and grit. I think about my first grad school program when I was twenty-three and how only two of us stuck with it, not because the others weren’t talented enough, but you have to make a living. There are so many reasons. Maybe you like other things equally as much. I think there is something to be said for holding fast.

Zibby: Excellent. Great. Courtney, thank you. Thanks for coming on my podcast. Thanks for your beautiful book, especially right now. I read it at the perfect time.

Courtney: I have to say, too, your post, I also have all the milks represented in my house. I have four people drinking four milks. That is just crazy. I love the idea of all the milks.

Zibby: All the milks. I was just like, how can I not? I’m reading this book surrounded by milk cartons. I have to post about this.

Courtney: Thanks for all you do for literature and for writers. It’s a really important service. I appreciate it.

Zibby: No problem. It’s a pleasure. I love it. I have so much fun doing it. It really benefits me. Anyway, I hope I get to meet you in person at some point.

Courtney: Likewise.

Zibby: Thank you so much for doing this.

Courtney: Take care, Zibby. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Courtney Zoffness, SPILT MILK

Spilt Milk by Courtney Zoffness

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