Zibby Owens: Hi.

Kim Brooks: Hello.

Zibby: I listened to your book. I listened to most of it in the car on a few drives, so I feel like you’re my friend. I’m so used to your voice. It’s all I’ve been listening to.

Kim: Thank you. It was fun to record. I’d never done anything like that before. By the time we got to the end, I was like, wow, acting is really work. Actors work. I guess I did kind of think they didn’t work. It’s hard to read something that long.

Zibby: I bet, but fun to listen to. Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, this was so great. The first chapter, I was like, wow, this person gets it like nobody else. I’m sure people tell you this all the time. I have four kids myself. I hadn’t even read your book. I don’t know how I had missed it. I read your fantastic New York Times article about divorce in the corona era. I was like, I have to talk to you. Then I read your book and I was like — . Anyway, here we are. Would you mind telling people who have not read Small Animals what this book is about and what inspired you to write it, particularly the incident?

Kim: The incident that kind of sparked the book took place quite a while ago now. It was about nine years ago now. I was home visiting my parents in Virginia. I live in Chicago. I was with my kids. My son who was about four and a half at the time — the day that we were leaving I ran to a store about a mile from my parents’ house. This is a very rural, suburban area where I grew up. When we got to the store, he asked if he could wait in the car. I was just going in to get one thing. I let him wait in the car for about five minutes, which was something that I honestly always remembered doing as a kid in this same area. I remembered waiting in the car while my parents ran into the store or went to look at furniture at Sears or whatever. I just always remember sitting in the car. It was a pleasurable memory. I thought, this is just a quick, five-minute thing. I pulled up in front. When I got back to the car, everything was fine. He was playing with my mom’s iPad. We headed back to Chicago. It was only later I found out that someone who I would never meet and never see had seen me run into the store and let him wait there and had called the police.

The police had then showed up at my parents’ house. They were looking for me and wanted to press charges because they viewed that I had done something dangerous. It was just this one incident that kind of snowballed into a year and a half of various types of difficulty, legal and otherwise, in my life, but that’s not really what the book is about. That’s the narrative backbone of the book. What the book is really about is me examining our notions of what it means to be a good parent and what it means to protect our children and thinking about why those ideas have changed so radically in the course of a generation or two. It was really the first point in my life when this happened that I started to think — until then, I was very much going with the pack, running with the herd of anxious parents. That was the first moment when I was like, you know, this is kind of strange how obsessed everybody is with protecting and safety and fear of public spaces in a way that is so different from just thirty years ago. Why have things changed? Is the world more dangerous for kids? If not, which is what I found out, then what’s happening? What’s happening to the culture of parenthood?

Zibby: I agree. I think that’s what your book’s about too. It was so interesting to get that lens. I don’t know exactly how old you are. I’m forty-four now. I grew up in a time where I sat in the back of the station wagon all the time while my mom went in. Okay, one time I crawled in the front and smashed into a dumpster. For the most part, I was left and I was fine. That’s just what happened. I watch even home videos. My brother and I are playing about to fall in the pool all the time. She’s sunbathing. That is the way it was. In your scene when you visited your family and your mom was playing mahjong or something in the other room with her friends and talking about how crazy we all are as a generation of parents and how they hadn’t done it, I just so related to that. There is, even within families, a sort of culture shock in parenthood that has everybody scratching their heads. You tried to explain it. I shouldn’t say tried to. You tried to unearth what the root cause of all of that was. I just so appreciated you trying to unlock the key to all of that because it affects me on a daily basis, and I’m sure so many other people.

Kim: I’m about the same age. I’m forty-two. It’s interesting that you bring up your childhood. I think about it a lot. I should say that there’s many strands to the mystery that I tried to tease out in the book. I do think that one of those strands is a reaction in people, our generation, against maybe some of the permissiveness of the eighties culture. Not all of us, but I think a lot of us feel like our parents were very distracted or very focused on themselves. It was a time where there was a lot of divorce. Women, on the one hand, were going back into the workforce, which was wonderful, but our country didn’t really step up to provide any kind of system for support, national daycare or leave or anything like that. There was this frantic sense of nobody’s watching the kids. That was a cultural anxiety. From the kids’ perspective, I think there was sometimes a feeling that there was a lack of adult presence in our lives. Some of that, I think people have very nostalgic, positive memories of that kind of independence in childhood. I also think have some of us have negative memories too. I think what’s happened with our generation is there’s been kind of an overcorrection. It’s funny, this is a slight digression. I was watching Big with my daughter a few nights ago. She’s ten now. We’ve gotten on this eighties movie kick. One thing I noticed that I thought was so funny was — have you seen Big?

Zibby: I saw it with my kids recently. Keep going, yes.

Kim: Obviously, there’s tons of things, you’re like, oh, my god. The lead woman character is smoking, a really funny thing. My daughter’s like, “Why is she smoking?” I’m like, “People did it.” The funny thing that I caught was that scene where Tom Hanks and the girlfriend are at the dinner party. The guy’s kid comes in, the guy who’s hosting the dinner party, and says, “Dad, I need help with my homework.” The guy’s kind of like, “Not now, son. I’m doing something adult.” I just thought that would never even be in a movie. It would be so unimaginable to show that scene where a parent says, “I’m doing an adult thing. Go deal with this yourself.” I thought, if they shot that movie now, everything would stop. The parent would have this very public display of, “I’m going to help my son.” It just was one of those small details about how much the culture has changed.

Zibby: I was thinking when I watched that movie, I couldn’t believe the kids were just wandering around the neighborhood by themselves all the time and biking and wandering. I’m like, what? They just go in and out of the house whenever they want. That was the part that I was like, wow. They were so little, too, in the movie.

Kim: Especially the friend. The whole premise is his friend keeps coming into New York City.

Zibby: Yes, that too.

Kim: He’s like, “I just got to be home by ten.” There were no cell phones. There were no GPS tracking devices. The two alternatives were either you kept your kid literally locked inside the house until they were eighteen or you gave them some independence and you tried to teach them skills. You gave them some freedom. I think now, maybe somewhat, it is caused by technology. There’s this sense that we can be watching our kids all the time and we can be connected to our kids all the time. Then there’s the question of, should we? What happens if we accept that?

Zibby: I have this confession which I haven’t even thought about in a while. I was so on top of my twins from the moment they were born. Now my last two kids, I’m much, much better. I’m not so crazy. My twins, I stayed home with them. It was my job. I was going to not let them out of my sight. Then when they went to school, for their first field trip, I was like, what do you mean you’re just going to take them on a two-and-a-half-hour drive? What if something happens? What if there’s an accident? What if? What if? What if? I got them these little GPS things. I hid them in their backpacks. Then all day, I was like, are they okay? It’s kind of raining. I don’t know. What if the road’s slippery? This is obviously my own issue. As I said, I’m better now. As a first-time parent, it’s crazy. I would go away with friends for entire weekends, and they’d be fine. Goodbye. Have fun in Woodstock.

Kim: Exactly. The technology has changed our notions of what is possible in a way that —

Zibby: — Not to jump around too much, but I loved your chapter on moms competing against each other and why everyone is so quick to put down each other’s choices and why, when we should all be lifting each other up and being one big community, moms are so quick to put down other people’s choices, which basically stems, of course, from not feeling confident, essentially, in your own choices and that so much of the time it’s not even really a choice. It’s where you just had to end up. Instead of being upset or something, you have to just own it, and so you double-down on it and are like, I picked this, so shame on you for not picking the same thing. That was a summary.

Kim: I should say, I feel like when I wrote the book, which was a number of years ago now, I was in maybe a moment of feeling a little bit disenchanted by that kind of competitive mom culture. As the years have passed and I’ve reflected on it more, I really wany to say that I don’t blame moms at all for feeling competitive or insecure or comparing themselves to other mothers. I think that we live in this culture that undermines women and undermines mothers in so many different ways both subtle and overt. We get the message that women don’t know what’s best for their own children. You have to defer to some authority figure. It’s things as outrageous as women being arrested for making reasonable parenting choices to small things, small condescensions that take place, or the culture that tells us the answer is in a book we need to buy, a product we need to buy, or a blog we need to subscribe to or whatever when really, most women know what’s best for their children. One of the good things that will come, I hope, from the pandemic in the aftermath is that I do think there’s been more and more women who are taking ownership of their choices and taking control of it and saying, maybe how my kid does on the standardized test in the context of a worldwide plague isn’t the most important thing. Maybe we can have different values. Maybe sitting in front of the computer all day isn’t the best way. I’m going to homeschool. I’m going to work with my neighbors or do things that a year or two ago would’ve seemed really radical and unconventional choices. Now we’ve been given an opportunity to do that.

Zibby: Very true. You also point out how there is no such thing as basically harassment of a mom. There’s sexual harassment suits and all these other ways. Other groups are protected, but not really for moms. Anyone can poke their nose in your business. A policeman can feel like he has a right to interrupt somebody at Starbucks like you wrote about or any of that. The moms kind of just have to take it. Whereas if it was a dad, you’d be like, oh, he must have had something really important to do. It’s no biggie. I found that very interesting.

Kim: Unfortunately, I think it’s true. I think it’s still very true. I think that there’s kind of a sense that if we can pose something as being an issue of child safety, then mothers have no rights. Then that priority takes away any kind of rights of a mother and any kind of rights of a child. The children don’t have rights to do things either if there’s any risk to their safety. The problem is being alive is risky. Being a person in the world is risky. In the book, there’s a point where I interview this social scientist at UC Irvine. She makes that point where she says if some politician — I won’t name any in particular. If some politician got on TV and said, “I love women so much. We just need to protect them from something terrible happening to them. Women are abducted by strangers or assaulted, so women need to not be out in public by themselves just because I want to protect them,” we would say, thanks but no thanks. We’ll take that risk because we want to be people who move through the world. What this woman said, this social scientist, was that people will say that that same principle doesn’t apply to children. She said, “I don’t think that’s exactly right.” Obviously, it’s not the same, but children do have some rights. Children have some rights to some amount of risk.

Zibby: It’s so interesting, wow. Now the most recent article you wrote for The Times, which was so good — I am divorced. It’s been five years. I’m remarried. COVID has elevated some issues under the surface, as most stressful things are want to do, and so I found myself particularly relating to your essay. You almost point out that — why don’t you say more about it? There are so many different pieces of it that I found so interesting, not the least of which is that you had to do all the court stuff and finalize everything with your lawyers on Zoom, which is crazy. I also felt like having just finished this book, I was like, oh, no, they broke up.

Kim: That’s the thing. We did break up. As I say in the essay, he lives across the street. I live here with my partner who’s hiding upstairs. He lives with his partner. I should say, we were separated for a long time before we divorced. Some people have written to me. They were like, “How did you find another partner in the middle of a pandemic?” We were separated for some time. I think that there’s this idea that divorce sort of has to be a tragedy for children and for family and that if you get divorced from someone it means that you hate them and you blame them and there’s all this conflict and animosity. I’m not going to say that there haven’t been any moments of conflict. Obviously, there’s conflict when you’re dealing with a big change. Overall, I think that we both chose to take the view that this was something that was good for both of us and that the fact that we were moving from being husband and wife to be coparents and friends and next-door neighbors for the time being, that that didn’t have to be a tragic thing. It might be hard. It might be a transition. We were married for sixteen years. We didn’t kill each other. We brought two amazing kids into the world. We could cherish that and still say, this is the best thing for both us, and see it as a kind of growth and restructuring of our family as opposed to a destruction of our family, which is, I think, the traditional way we think about divorce.

Zibby: I love that the divorce lawyer said she was in family restructuring. That’s so genius. I loved it.

Kim: Can I ask you, though — I’m just curious.

Zibby: Yeah, sure.

Kim: You’ve been divorced for five years. Were your kids pretty young when that was…?

Zibby: Yes. They were very, very young. I have four kids. We separated when my youngest was about nine months old.

Kim: Oh, wow. Stressful.

Zibby: I’m not supposed to talk about it publicly. It had been brewing.

Kim: I just was curious more about, did you find in the years that followed that there was still a lot of stigma to being a divorced person with small children? That’s the thing that I found interesting. I guess I thought both things. I’ve internalized the stigma, but then I was also conscious of it. It is funny that it’s 2020, but that it’s still sort of stigmatized to have kids and to say, no, I’m getting a divorce and this is for the best. There were still so many people who sort of viewed it that it has to be a horrible thing. Did you have a similar experience?

Zibby: Yes, I did. I was shocked, actually, by the responses when I started telling people about it. By the time I finished telling and everything, I realized it has all to do with their own marriages. People’s responses, it’s all about how they feel. It has nothing to do with me and my kids and my kids’ lives or anything, but I didn’t know that at the time. I’ve tried to tell people who I know who are newly getting divorced, take all the responses with a grain of salt. I had people bursting into tears and being like, “But your kids.” I’m like, yeah, I know, but I actually believe strongly this decision is the best thing for my kids. I still believe that. It sucks. It’s hard. It’s not to say I don’t cry still a lot when they leave or if they get sad. Now my youngest is almost six. This has been their whole lives, my two youngest. My oldest are twins. They’re thirteen. They’re used to it. A lot of people were, “Are you sure? The poor kids.” I’m like, you don’t know what it was or what it will be. You just don’t know.

Kim: I think you’re right that it has more to do with people’s own insecurities. There’s a lot of people who don’t want divorce to be a reasonable choice. Obviously, people like you and I aren’t going around saying everybody should get divorced.

Zibby: No, no. It’s terrible. I wish I weren’t.

Kim: Of course. When people say, “But for me, for us, for our family, this was the best choice,” to some people who have put up with a lot or who have accepted really unsatisfying relationships, it’s like, oh, that’s a choice? That’s a reasonable choice you can make? It can be very destabilizing.

Zibby: Yes. So many people feel so trapped. They want to leave, but they can’t or they can’t afford to leave. There’s so many reasons why people stay. Even yesterday, I just saw this ad for Purina Dog Chow that said there’s this new initiative because forty-seven percent of domestic abuse victims don’t leave because they don’t want to leave their pets, which I thought was so interesting. Okay, so now there’s another wrinkle. It’s very hard. If you can and you need to and you’re able to, that’s one thing. So many people aren’t able to. You’re just a mirror. You’re just a mirror for their failings or their feelings of failure or their sadness at what they don’t have and whatever.

Kim: It circles back to the issues in the book about when — it’s true that it’s very hard for a lot of people to leave. Some of that, I think, has to do with our lack of autonomy as parents and our lack of a support system, our lack of wider community of social safety nets. People feel trapped sometimes in unhealthy marriages because women literally are trapped. They’re financially dependent, dependent in other ways. That’s something that hopefully will start to change.

Zibby: The only times that I really feel like I’m in a community — not to say I don’t have a lot of friends and people I love and people who are great with my kids, but it’s only when something absolutely terrible happens where I cannot move when I actually feel that. “Hey, can you pick up the kids today? Would you mind taking so-and-so home with you?” or something. Then people, “Of course.” I would love to help other people. I hope that this is different in some other communities where people — I feel like in your experience and mine, that’s not what it has been like, which is a shame.

Kim: It is a shame. I think it’s very much due to this culture of the nuclear family and this idea that it’s every mom for herself. It’s every nuclear family for themselves. To ask for help or to reach out is to sort of —

Zibby: — Impose.

Kim: Impose on people instead of, no, this is what humans do. They help each other out. One of the saddest parts of writing Small Animals was when I talked to this woman, Debra Harrell, who’s an African American woman. She was charged with endangerment or neglect for letting her daughter play unsupervised in a park while she went to work one day at McDonald’s because she didn’t have childcare. Her childcare fell through. The daughter was completely fine. It was a very busy park with tons of adults. There was a camp running there. There were a lot of kids. When I was doing that part of the book, I watched online — they since took it down. There was a video of her being interrogated by this police officer after she was arrested. He just kept belittling her and saying, “This is your daughter. She’s your responsibility, nobody else’s. Nobody else is responsible for this girl.” She was crying as he said this. It just was so heartbreaking. On the one hand, this woman knows that no one else is looking out for her kid. This is a single mom who’s taking care of her kid on her own. Second of all, I thought, it’s true, and isn’t that a tragedy? Isn’t that so heartbreaking that we live in a country where nobody cares about other people’s kids and that the expectation is that you look out for your kid and no one else is? No one’s going to do it for you. It’s really sad. Again, I hope that that’s something that we’ll change as we reexamine everything.

Zibby: What’s coming next for you? What are you up to and all that now?

Kim: I am actually working on a new book about marriage and divorce and female friendship and a bunch of other things. I think it’s going to be called Nobody’s Okay: On Marriage, Madness, and Rebellion. It’s a memoir and general nonfiction. It kind of takes up where Small Animals leaves off. It’s the last six years of my life in navigating all of these things. I’m very excited about it. My agent was going to send it out to publishers about a week ago, but we decided that everyone was too distracted by the election. Literally, I went to Starbucks, and the woman giving me my coffee wanted to talk about the debate with me. Everyone’s very anxious and focused right now. We said that we’re going to send it out after the election. That hopefully will be my next project.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Kim: Gosh. My advice is to just be compassionate with yourself and to see writing or whatever you’re trying to do as — to look at the long game. I write a little bit about this in Small Animals and more so in this new book. I think about the many years of feeling like I wasn’t a real writer because I hadn’t published a book and feeling like even though I was writing all the time, it didn’t count somehow. Of course, that just made everything worse. This is not very original. A writer is somebody who writes. Just because you haven’t reached the milestone you might want to yet doesn’t mean you’re not going to get there eventually.

Zibby: Love it. Thank you, Kim. Thanks for talking today. Thanks for your book and your article and all the rest. I can’t wait for your next book. That’s awesome.

Kim: Thank you. It was great talking to you.

Zibby: You too. Take care. Buh-bye.

Kim: Bye.