Elissa Strauss, WHEN YOU CARE

Elissa Strauss, WHEN YOU CARE

Journalist Elissa Strauss joins Zibby to discuss her bold, brave, deeply researched, and deeply felt book, WHEN YOU CARE: The Unexpected Magic of Caring for Others. Elissa delves into the profound impact of caregiving on personal growth and the importance of viewing it not as a burden but as an enriching part of life. She also discusses her journey from being a prominent voice in the feminist blogosphere of the 2010s—writing extensively about motherhood and societal issues like the lack of paid leave and affordable childcare—to becoming an author.


Zibby: Welcome, Alyssa. Thank you so much for coming on Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books to discuss when you care, the unexpected magic of caring for others. Congratulations. 

Elissa: Thank you. I'm so glad to be here. 

Zibby: It's nice to have a book that doesn't demonize sort of caregiving completely, right? That's not just like, there's too much on your plate, take it off, but that embraces the fact that this is something that we do and, you know, we are still people even though we care for other people, right?


Elissa: Yes. Yeah. And in fact, we're sometimes more of people because we care for other people, right? You know, it adds, it takes away, but it also adds. 

Zibby: Agreed. So tell me about how you started writing this book. Tell me about your career before the book. Tell me about your caregiving. Just go, just go.

I'll just sit back. 

Elissa: Yeah, yeah. Listen, it's actually all one tiny story. So my career before the book, I've been in the kind of, of the, that was, You know, part of the great feminist blogosphere of the tens, which was a really fun moment in women's writing. And around the time I had kids, I wrote a lot about the intersection of motherhood and feminism, mostly focused on all the ways moms are left out, discriminated against in the workplace, the maternal mortality crisis.

The fact that we don't have paid leave, the fact that we don't have universal and affordable childcare, all these things that hold moms back that are so real, so very real. And I kind of wrote story after story. And at some point, um, actually there was a discreet moment. Where I saw a story in the New York Times in which a source was quoted about how poorly we treat, you know, new mothers in hospitals.

And it was the same source giving the same quote to the New York Times four years after I'd written about, you know, about the same story with the same source and slate. To me, it didn't mean like, Oh, everyone should stop writing about this. Like, absolutely. We need to keep, you know, banging on that drum as loud as we can.

But there was something in me that felt like, you know what, this is bigger than policy. We can say over and over again, Hey, we're the only industrialized country in the world that doesn't have paid leave, but. Like, it's not just politicians not figuring out how to make this work. There must be like something deeper underneath it, like cultural roots of the care crisis.

So that set me off. Meanwhile, the other kind of thread that led me to this book is When I became a mom, I felt very strongly. I had to almost protect myself from the colonizing force that I perceived motherhood to be. Now I want to be clear. I wasn't ambivalent about having kids. I grew up on a four. My parents seemed to just really genuinely authentically love being parents.

I always liked kids. So it wasn't the question of if I should have kids. And it also wasn't a question of ambivalence about my. You know, feelings for my kids. I was lucky to not have any real postpartum anxiety or depression. And that had relatively, you know, babies are kind of a nightmare. Even the, even the sweetest, cutest babies, easiest babies are kind of, you know, they're hard, but you know, a few years into it, like I was enjoying parenting.

I, I, it felt natural for me to be with Augie, my first son. But I felt very much like I had to keep motherhood separate from everything else. because it would make me unserious intellectually, uncool in creative circles, that it was kind of, you know, the part of me that I shouldn't talk about anywhere else except when I was being a mom.

So it took me a minute to realize that I had spent all this time being like furious at the world for not valuing care, but actually I didn't value care. I didn't see it as actually of a meaningful, interesting life in a deep way. And I, I, I, once I realized that I was like, Oh, you know, this, there's work to do.

Like this, isn't just about, Blaming everyone else. It's actually digging into myself and into our society and figure out like why don't we see parenting and caregiving as a hero's journey? Why do we view it as a footnote to life instead of the, you know, very material of life itself? 

Zibby: Mm hmm. 

Elissa: And so I began.

Zibby: It's funny because when I first saw the book, I was like, oh, this is going to be about elder care, which God knows why I thought that. There's nothing that. I was like, whoa. 

Elissa: No, it's, I think the word care is mostly associated with elder care and you know, that's part of like the challenge of the book is to really point out like cares everywhere.

We spend half of our lives in care relationships and some of us spend basically our whole lives on one side of a care relationship. So right. But it's, it's, it is. It's a tricky thing. We still don't have the language. I don't know. I don't think you're alone. 

Zibby: Interesting. Well. I mean, when you think about the importance of off putting, not off putting loneliness, stemming loneliness, right?

The importance of not being lonely. 

Elissa: Yeah. 

Zibby: Caregiving is the immediate antidote to that, right? And people live longer when they're with other people. I mean, you point, I mean, obviously you're the expert in all of this, but it seems like so fundamental to caregiving. Longevity, and life itself, and satisfaction, and all these basic things to be in a relationship in which you care deeply about the person, whether you have to, you know, brush their hair or change a diaper or, you know, wheel them down the hall in whatever, a wheelchair or a stroller, whatever.

Right. Right? Then you're, you've got this immediate protection against ever feeling that loneliness and, Isolation. 

Elissa: Yeah. And you know, and it can be like lonely too, right? As a caregiver, you know, I know new moms. They can have high rates of loneliness, but I think it's, but at the same time, like, right, when we kind of invest in our relationships and we see relationships as part of self actualization of learning who we are and what it means to be a human, and it kind of changes.

It's right. The whole experience and, and, and, and makes it a place of growth and excitement and challenge and struggle, but not one that only somehow detracts from who we are. One that brings us more fully into ourselves and into our connections with other people. 

Zibby: So when you approach this as a book, how did you conceive of this originally? How close is this to how you set out to write it? All of that. 

Elissa: Yeah. So I think originally it was, um, a mom book, you know, it was just going to be about my experience with motherhood and my agent thought that it would be interesting to expand it to care more broadly. And, you know, there's a challenge to that because caring for Kids is generally a more optimistic endeavor than caring for someone with terminal cancer, obviously, or Lewy body dementia.

So there is a challenge to it, but I still felt like I wanted to rise up to the challenge and really kind of dig into just the reality that humans depend on other humans, that we'd like to think of ourselves as these like independent beings that can always take care of ourselves, but that's just not the reality of life.

And so that's one way it changed. And then I think, yeah, the other way it changed was seeing that, like, my story really had to be part of it, that it's, at first I thought it would kind of just be in the introduction and then bow, you know, pass it over to the research. But it actually, and then, you know, the first pass with my editor, she's like, where are you?

And I was like, I thought you didn't want me. I was just another Brooklyn mom, like who needs to, you know, and then she's like, no, we want you. And that actually was a whole other layer of challenge. So we have a chapter on care and philosophy and care, you know, that parenting and caregiving is like a real philosophical awakening, but also one that Western philosophy ignored until like literally 1980.

The fact that, you know. We're not, we depend on each other in relationships. It's like, didn't occur to most Western philosophers. Um, so I had an, so not only did I dig into all these amazing philosophers who are digging into care and showing how it's this place of like real epiphany of what does it mean to be a person, to live a good life, to do the right thing, but actually had to think about like, what does that mean for me?

And the same with a chapter on care and spirituality or theology. And there's all these like amazing, right, kind of feminist theologians that are like, why isn't care at the center of the religious experience? Like what's more kind of holy and whatever that means to anyone, whether that there's actually God behind holy, or just the sense of like transcendence and otherness and being part of something bigger, that You know, what's really more holy than care?

It's like honoring that, that holy quality, the divine in another. And, um, and I had to think about how actually my experience with something, some days I call God, even if I don't know what it means, was totally changed by care. And I'm Jewish and it like deepened and enriched. Enriched my, my practice as a Jew and my, like, my kind of, you know, it sounds so big and mighty, but my, like, sense of connection with the universe, caring for my kids.

And also now I love Shabbat because it's like a Friday night dinner. We actually talk to each other. There's no sense of homework. And, uh, It's like that ancient technology on a practical level is huge for my ability to like appreciate and enjoy and grow from care. So that's, you know, that was like the second layer of this book was not just looking at how this is working for everyone else and all these really cool thinkers who are thinking about, you know, care and economics and care and psychology, but having to bring it to myself and really put myself to the test and be like, how are you Alyssa being changed by care?

And so how have you changed the most? Yeah, so I think the biggest thing for me, the first, my first big, like, epiphany by way of care came with, uh, Augie, my first son, who, he was always a very practical, reserved kid. He, he didn't, he wasn't your typical tantrum toddler. I had one of those, Levi, so don't worry everyone, I know what it's like, but Augie was always like, almost.

Too reasonable, too rational. If he, you know, had taken that, that marshmallow test that, you know, if you wait, you get a marshmallow. That's that there's this psychology test that teaches kids ability to like think of the future. And he would almost do too well on it. You know, he would, it's like, like, you know, he was the kind of kid.

You're like, just eat the marshmallow, eat the marshmallow, stop like thinking through everything so much. So I, this kid really wanted to understand the world who, who didn't actually rely on intuition and impulse. It's like most. Peers, uh, but really had this like need to figure it out. And at the time I was, you know, back in that feminist blogosphere, it was literally my job every day to send my editor six ideas of pieces I would write.

She would pick one and by the end of the day, I would turn out, you know, 800 words with a hard edged opinion on something that was happening in the world. I was just a little opinion machine. And I didn't realize until being with Augie and having to take a step back and not just know everything and, you know, like, I had this sense that I was just understood the world and I knew exactly where everything stood and like, this was good and this was bad and this was okay and this wasn't okay.

And we do this, but we don't do that. Yeah. Yeah. And then I have this Kiragi, who like Needs actually me to not be that way, needs me to make space for him, needs me to get him not to listen to me, but listen to himself and it really, you know, I joke like motherhood ruined my career, but not how people think I got really tired of thinking that way and it made me realize what a closed way of living that was, and that was actually, you know, thinking I understood everything and thinking I was getting everything right, but actually was just constantly like Slamming the window shut on other possibilities.

And it was really profound for me to, you know, we, I think we speak a lot about how do we be less certain and how psychologically healthy that is. But I rarely see caregiving and parenting as like a vehicle for that. You know, people go on meditation retreats and do all sorts of things. And for me being so close to another human and having to look at the world through their eyes, held this mirror to the self that was like, unlike anything I had ever experienced.

Zibby: Hmm. So interesting. You know, it's funny. My husband and I were talking, I have four kids and, you know, one of them is sort of going through, just like responding to things differently than the other ones and whatever. And, and he was like, you know, my husband's a big football fan. He's like, you can't call the same place.

Yeah. You know, like, every kid is different. Like, you have to change how you are parenting. Right. Because the same thing is not going to work. And I was like, I thought I was good at that, but actually I guess I'm not. You know? He's like, you like to do everything right away, but that doesn't mean your kids are all going to, like, get everything done right away.

And I was like, everybody doesn't like that, right? Like, let's just order the shoes. You know? But I think you're right. You know, you have to, if you don't look at yourself, you can't be as good a parent. Right. You know, and it's humbling because it never ends, you know, like just never. Right, 

Elissa: exactly. And it's, you know, I feel like we, people seek this kind of realization, self actualization all these places all the time that they get celebrated for, you know, if someone hikes Mount Everest and, you know, you go to a dinner party on one side of the table, there's a parent of a four year old.

three year olds and a six year old. On the other side of the table, there's someone who just hiked Mount Everest. Everyone's eyes are on, you know, Mr. Everest as the one who like learned a lot about what it means to live and be a human. No one's eyes are on the parent, but I feel like that parent, like they both should be on the menu.

You know, that parent's also learning a lot. Right. And it's constantly changing and it's, and it's just this like constant source of kind of growth and renewal and challenge. And sometimes it just sucks. I don't want to ignore that. Sometimes it's just hard and there's not this kind of necessarily positive growth, but I think so often the hard stuff is actually so bound up with this kind of expansion of self that's so meaningful.

Zibby: So where do you go from here? In terms of care or writing? In terms of, in terms of everything, like, is there, I'm waiting for you to say, like, and I've started a non profit, we're dedicated to, you know, like, are we doing advocacy, education, more writing, like, where, where do we take this message? 

Elissa: Yeah. I mean, I think for me, like, honestly, the, the most important thing I want people to get from my book.

Is real curiosity about care. If that is what we get, I think it's a win. I want people to in curiosity about themselves. You know, again, when I say as caregivers, parents and caregivers, like view what you're doing as a hero hero's journey view yourself on this, like. Oh, you know, I, I was, I, in December, George Clooney had the book, that's right, had the movie come out, the boy in the boat.

And it was kind of a classic Hollywood hero's journey trailer of the music kind of gets slow and then it's faster and louder and like, listen to that soundtrack for yourself as a parent and caregiver, like see it as this big, amazing thing. That's as important as anything else people do. And not, again, this footnote to life, but like life itself.

And um, and I really hope this book helps us understand that we're not going to solve the very real care crisis that we're in until we look at the cultural roots of it. You know, we see, right, in Christianity, for example, and so many cool Christian theologians I spoke to for the book, one points out that if you go and volunteer and care for a stranger, you're like literally a saint.

I mean, Mother Teresa, you're like, Actually, it can be, you care for strangers, saints, you care for it. As you put it, the naked and poor in your home, no, one's even interested in you. No, one's trying to make the religious community work for you. And it's like, these blind spots are so woven in to our culture.

When they were creating the GDP. Back in the 40s, it was something they created after the Great Depression, a female economist, Philistine, went with the group of economists to Africa to figure out like, how are we going to determine a nation's wealth? Like, what would this even look like? And at the time, she was like, I think you guys are forgetting something, like you're forgetting woman's work.

End. We still don't count as part of the GDP. And, you know, so that's, it's like these, these blind spots to care so woven. And if we counted care economically, it would be worth basically as much as the whole retail sector. It is a huge part of the economic engine, but we don't. And I think caregivers moms, we internalize that when I took, I've been, you know, I'm no economist.

Mathematician, but I did some back of the envelope accounting after I like learned how these economists like figured out the value of care economically. And I did it for my own household. And I was like, wait a minute, I earned as much as my husband. And it was so profound and not that we should feel like we only matter, you know, our worth in the world is connected to how much money we make or don't make.

But let me tell you, there's something of like realizing that if we actually valued care, if we, if we're able to put a dollar sign on it. Like I'm not, this is, I am not contributing to the wage gap. We're both contributing to the economy in equal measure. So I think we need to pull off all these layers of these cultural narratives that ignore care and put it back at the center of the human story where it belongs.

One more example, Charles Darwin. We all think like survival of the fittest, right? Humans are competitive. Actually, Darwin was equally invested in sympathy, or what we might call care today, as one of like the main reasons we evolved and we survived, survived as a species. But like, we don't, who learned that?

None of us learned that. We just think survival of the fittest, survival of the fittest, competition. So, That's the big objective with the book. Put care back at the center, where it belongs, see all the ways it's been kind of systemically like pushed aside over the years. And then from there, hopefully build a world that actually values and supports moms and other dads and all types of caregivers.

Zibby: I love that. On the writing front, how did that go? And then what advice would you give for aspiring authors? 

Elissa: Yeah, the writing, you know, I, I think because I've been writing on deadline forever, it's just been my job. It's that part is, you know, it was training. I had spent 10 years on, it's like a mostly online journalist again, churning out stuff.

So that part went okay. It's a slow process, which I think, you know, many people know, like publishing is much slower than online journalism, but it's also for me, such a gift to have time to digest, dig deeper and think. And I think we're aspiring authors. It's, it's so hard to like believe this was the, I think the big thing for me, right.

And to believe your story matters, to believe what you think matters. It's still something I'm undoing. I'm learning that, you know, I did something and I think it's, we can definitely attribute it to the patriarchy. As a woman, like that your ideas matter, that your story matters, that especially domestic care stories, these things that happen in our homes, they really matter.

And again, we've always seen them as somehow smaller than what happens outside the home. And they're not, they're just as big. 

Zibby: And a quick writing advice, any writing advice? 

Elissa: Writing advice. That is a good question. Why doesn't it write? Just let me think. 

Zibby: Or research. I mean, you did so much research. 

Elissa: Yeah. I think for writing advice, don't be afraid to take your time.

I think, you know, there's a sense that we're in a hurry, but like this book, you know, it's here now and it lives here and it's this bound object. And I'm glad I took my time. You know, I'm glad I started. Spent a year thinking of this as a motherhood book and then another year realizing it's a caregiving book and then selling it and then having these long breaks between edits.

We live in such a fast culture. We live in such a time of like, you know, it's either it happens now or never immediate gratification and a book is an object that lives on, you know? And so I think it just really enjoy that, enjoy the slower pace. of writing a book and let it be almost like the Shabbat of, you know, your, your writing career that it's a time to slow down and be just in that moment and, um, and have patience with it.

Zibby: Maybe that could be a new writing technique. Only writing on Shabbat, you know. 

Elissa: I have, I know someone in San Francisco who does Shabbat. 

Zibby: Yeah. Oh my gosh. Yeah. How many Shabbats would it take to write a book? 

Elissa: I mean, there's something to write, like you, if you can really, like, it just creates a one more tool to kind of push the noise outside, push the like hustle culture aside and just be in your head.

And it's a gift. 

Zibby: Plus wine. 

Elissa: The book's for you too, right? You know, it's not just for, it's not, it's for your readers, but it's also for you. 

Zibby: It's true. Plus, you know, wine, challah. It's a good deal. 

Elissa: Yeah, exactly. Fire. 

Zibby: Yeah, fire. Family. I don't know. Couldn't make it any better. 

Elissa: Yeah, exactly. 

Zibby: Well, Alyssa, congratulations on When You Care.

Well done and, you know, very important and really important for everybody to read and internalize and. You know, lots of marrow to suck out of this one. 

Elissa: Ah, thank you. 

Zibby: All right. Well, take care. Thanks so much. 

Elissa: Thank you. 

Zibby: Okay. Bye bye. 

Elissa Strauss, WHEN YOU CARE

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