Leah Witman Moore, LOVING YOU BIG

Leah Witman Moore, LOVING YOU BIG

Zibby is joined by teacher and debut memoirist Leah Witman Moore to talk about her new book, Loving You Big, which tells the story of how Leah found her voice as a mother to children with disabilities. The two discuss when Leah managed to write during her busy days, which things she wishes society better understood about those with disabilities, and the moment in her classroom when she realized she had to tell this story. Leah also shares what she’s read most recently and her favorite depiction of families with disabilities in the media.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Leah. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time” to discuss Loving You Big: A Memoir: One Family Embracing the Unexpected.

Leah Witman Moore: Thank you so much for having me. I am very excited to be here.

Zibby: My kids, by the way, loved this cover. They were like, “What’s that about? Was it good?” I was like, “Yeah, it’s super good.” They just loved it. They’ll be excited that I spoke to you today. You start off by telling the reader that this is your experience with this particular rare disorder that your daughter, Jordan, was born with. Le Cat Cri, is that right?

Leah: It’s called Cri Du Chat.

Zibby: Cri Du Chat. I’m so sorry. I knew cat. Sorry to minimize. You took us through your relationship and falling in love with your husband. That was so awesome. I’m like, how great that you went to your in-laws’ before they were your in-laws when you were just friends with your husband and told them, by the way, I’m in love with your son, and that it worked. You eventually both fell in love and got married. That’s the best story.

Leah: I know. It was a bold move, but it paid off. Actually, today is our fourteen-year wedding anniversary, so it really paid off.

Zibby: Happy anniversary. Awesome.

Leah: Thank you.

Zibby: Why don’t you talk a little about the book? I’m summarizing too. You start from there. You go through what happens when you realize. Tell listeners what they can expect with your book.

Leah: Absolutely. I have three kids. My oldest was born was this very rare disability called Cri Du Chat, which I had never heard of.

Zibby: And you have twins, right?

Leah: Yes, a fellow twin mom, which is exhausting. I thought that would be where the chaos would begin and end. Then we fast-forwarded four years and had twin boys. They both had pretty significant medical needs. We thought one had cancer. We thought the other one needed brain surgery. My husband and I are just these everyday teachers. We were not prepared for any of this. I started writing as a way to make sense of it all and to cope with these things that I didn’t think I could handle as a mother. The book is broken up into three parts. The beginning is how we became a family and who we are. The middle is that everyday chaos of just what it means to be a family but have a family where you have two kids who have disabilities. My children are all healthy, but they do have very significant, different needs. Then the end was really about finding my voice. There was so much about disabilities that I had absorbed from society that I thought was something to be mourned. I thought it was something sad. It’s really a celebration of changing a lot of those ideas and making the world better for my kids and my students. That’s the journey. It was the book that I wish existed because I needed to talk to a friend. They have all those books when you’re about to have a baby, what’s going to actually happen. I didn’t feel like this book existed, so I wrote it in a way — super short chapters, vignette, so that people can manage it. It sounds like you’re talking to a friend who might also be there too.

Zibby: It’s so true. It’s very well-crafted, though. Your beginning and ending sentences and some of the passages, I did the top-of-the-page and bottom-of-the-page dogear. Let me read a few things, perhaps. Let’s see. When you were talking about finding out about loss, which I thought was — wait, I’m not even going to read this quote. I’m just going to talk about it because now I can’t find what I was looking for. Oh, here. No, it was this page. Yes. This is when your husband found out about his mom, which was also just gut-wrenchingly devastated. His sister rang. She also had cognitive disabilities. “‘Hi, Amanda,’ he smiled into the phone.” Then you wrote, “His face changed. It was not the face of an expectant father,” which you were at the time. “He exhaled, and his knees gave out as I screamed his name. ‘My mom.’ He was on the ground in the middle of a sea of people outside Madison Square Garden. We sat there on the sidewalk with his head against my stomach rocking in grief until our friend came to drive us home.” Then you say later, “Zach had spoken to her less than fifteen hours ago. I can imagine her cradling the phone receiver long after they’d hung up smiling into the night sky. She had probably let her dog, Frodo, out for one last evening run while she stood on the porch of her quiet country house. Amanda was probably asleep inside, the television still on.” Then you went on for her, all these things about her. Then you just said, “She couldn’t be dead. This woman had been invincible,” a single mother and so on. I’m so sorry that this happened to you. You can feel that pain, the way you wrote about it in that scene. Tell me about that and even the experience of going back to that to write about it.

Leah: A lot of the book, I like to say it’s Shakespearean, what happened to us. That happened within twenty-four hours after finding out that we would have our baby and that she would be okay. Then it became my symbolic journey of balancing joy and sorrow at the exact same time kind of for the rest of my life. I like to say because I’m a high school English teacher, I also look for symbols and motifs wherever I go. The passage you just read actually took — I had to go back and do it again and again and again because it was emotional. Actually, a lot of the influence of listening to a lot of the authors you interview and the strategies they use helped me to unearth the rest of the story. I did imagine what that must have been like for her to hear she was having her first grandchild. That made it so much sadder. Also, that’s the memory I hold onto now. I have perfected the art of holding my sorrow and trying to find writing as a way to let it out. The book actually ends up pretty joyful.

Zibby: That’s no small thing.

Leah: Yeah, it’s no small thing.

Zibby: You continually see the positive. You have this very — I want to use the word effervescent even though it’s not right in this context, but that’s how I feel. You’re like the bubbles on top of the drink. You’re not letting it get you down to the bottom of the glass.

Leah: There are definitely parts where it is down. I call it the dark woods. It’s very Dante’s Inferno. I am lost. I’ve learned a lot of relying on, we call them feelings teachers here in our house for all the different people. What’s been so rewarding about writing this book is how many people who are in positions maybe like mine or maybe not — becoming a parent, you never know what’s going to happen. I’m able to say what a lot of them are just feeling in silence. Then we don’t feel so alone. I need the book to exist because I was so isolated. I didn’t feel like I had a community, so I created the community I need with this, which has been great.

Zibby: Tell me more specifics about the outpouring of fellow readers and everything.

Leah: As I can tell you, with creating a memoir, it’s super vulnerable to put yourself out there. What’s funny is I’ll be at the grocery store or walking the neighborhood, and someone puts their hand to their chest. “I’m so sorry.” Okay, keep reading. Keep reading. It’s going to get better. If I haven’t caught up with someone for a while, I don’t feel like there’s anything more I need to say because my entire life is now inside the book. I’m like, oh, you can just read the book. The best part has come from strangers. My best compliment has been a student who said, “I never read anything you assigned us, and I couldn’t put this down.” I said, “Thank you so much.” From other parents, whether they have the same condition that my daughter has or they’ve just happened upon the book, just saying, you gave us hope. A lot of the talk about the implicit biases about disabilities and how they’re seen in our society and how they’re perpetuated in different texts and movies and just people saying, “Thank you. I didn’t realize I was holding onto that. Now I can reflect or check in on myself,” that’s probably been some of the most rewarding takeaways.

Zibby: What should people who have not read the book but know they need a better or a different perspective on disability and what it means — educate us.

Leah: Oh, okay.

Zibby: You’re a teacher. You wrote a book about it. Come on.

Leah: I can do it. I would say specifically in the world of intellectual disabilities, there are these ideas that just continue, that people with disabilities are a burden. It’s pitiable. It’s so sad. There’s a lot of, my heart breaks for you. I feel so sad when I think about your family. I wrote in the book we got a condolence card when she was born. I know people are coming with the right intention. I know people are trying to say, I don’t know what it’s like to be around a child who’s nonverbal or maybe won’t be able to walk. My particular child is probably one of the most joyful humans that have ever existed. I like to say she dances through the world. She teaches you how to slow down and really appreciate everything. What I’ve learned are three really simple tips, which is giving someone wait time. If you see somebody on the playground or somebody at the grocery, you don’t have to finish their sentence. Give them the space to finish what they want to say. Another thing that people do a lot of is the uptalk. We talk to people with intellectual disabilities kind of like they’re puppies or babies. We don’t know we’re doing it. That’s a really nice one. Just check your voice, that you’re not saying, oh, hi, and somebody might be a forty-five-year-old man. Then the last one is redirection. If Jordan was here, she’d ask you who your celebrity crush was. I don’t know if you have one right now.

Zibby: I would have to think about that.

Leah: It’s a really hard question. She also asks who the president was when you were born. She really has some trivia questions.

Zibby: President Carter.

Leah: Then she’ll ask you again and again and again. She’s on a loop, so redirecting her and saying, we just talked about that. There’s nothing to be afraid of when talking to her. It’s just meeting her where she is and moving from there. I would say my biggest piece of advice is to do a little bit of an audit. Think about the way disabilities are being presented in the movies you’re watching, in the books that you’re reading. Are those ideas being perpetuated? If they are, start changing what stories you’re taking in. Then it might change some of your ideas.

Zibby: Interesting. Do you feel like there are any good role models in movies or books that you’ve seen, aside from this?

Leah: I really loved the — oh, I’m spacing on the name. She’s a British actress. She has curly hair. She was the mom of a child with cerebral palsy. Minnie Driver. It was a show. I thought it was done with such a beautiful sense of humor. It was really authentic. It wasn’t ignoring the fact this child has cerebral palsy. Also, the person who played the child actually had cerebral palsy. I loved that depiction. I would say that’s been my favorite. I’m so tired. I can’t even remember the name of it.

Zibby: That’s fine. We can google it.

Leah: Everyone, google it. It’s a really good one. They took it off the air, though, because it wasn’t making enough money, which is also part of the way stories get told. How they get told is a moneymaker sometimes.

Zibby: Tell me more about the writing of this book. I know you said short chapters and all of that. You wanted it to be a not-put-down-able type of easy-to-read story. It does feel very warm and inviting in your tone of welcoming in the reader. Tell me about the structure. When did you do this? You have three little kids. You have a lot on your plate. Why go through with it? How did you even structure it? When did you know it was a book? The whole thing.

Leah: I was teaching ninth-grade English. We were doing personal narratives. All of the examples I wanted to show them felt old. Suddenly, I’m really old, and they don’t know any of my references, which is a little disheartening. I have always been a reader. I’ve been a secret writer. I was going to be on Broadway long before I was going to be a writer. It was eleven o’clock at night. I said, “I’m just going to write an example so that they get something authentic. I can model it.” I remember my husband saying, “When do you have time to write this?” I was like, “I’ll just bust it out.” I sat down and I wrote the piece which eventually became the beginning, which was the irony of having a child who may never have words and being a person who loves stories and being married to somebody and falling in love with him because of our love of storytelling. It literally poured out of me in fifteen minutes. The next morning, I read it to my class and ugly-cried, just sobbing. I remember them whispering, is she okay? We had just gotten to know each other.

I came home, and I said, “I think I have a book in me. I think that there’s more stories that have to come out.” It was about eight years from start to finish. My boys didn’t exist when the book got started. I mostly just wrote every moment that came to me. Then I laid them all on a dining room table and said, how do these stories fit together? Then I ultimately landed on the three-parts structure, which was meeting us and the middle chaos, which I call the ladybug warriors of — ladybugs eat away at what’s ugly so the beautiful can survive. That was that last part. My favorite part of the journey was about maybe three months before I thought it was over. I was in therapy. My therapist said, “I’m not sure you’ve come to terms with your daughter’s diagnosis.” I said, “Oh, no, I have to because I just wrote a book saying I did, so I definitely have to.” She’s like, “I don’t think so.” I added about another twelve chapters being honest about that process. It has a gestational life of an elephant, pretty much, this book.

Zibby: How do you manage the back-and-forth of your own brain and your own attention with the kids? I would ask this of anybody with multiple kids. Particularly when one or two have needs that surpass others or have more immediate needs that need to be tended to or whatever, how do you figure it out on a day-to-day basis? Do you just take it as it comes?

Leah: You’re perpetually tired and have decision fatigue, which I think all moms of multiple children do. I have learned the art of the to-do list and chunking my time and asking for help, which I was not very good at for a very long time. A lot of this used to happen once everybody was finally asleep. Then it wasn’t necessarily my best work and my best working time, but it was the only time I had. First, I’d finish grading Romeo and Juliet papers. Then I would start writing. It made me resentful. It made me jealous of all the people that get to just write because it’s all stuck in there. I started to come up with ways to talk to myself throughout the day and record a sentence here or jot a post-it note there. That way when I did get that time to myself, it had already gotten started so that I could finish the rest of the thought. If I didn’t ask for help, it would never get done. That’s just a good rule of parenting a child with a disability or being a person right now in general.

Zibby: You don’t ever find it hard to ask for help?

Leah: I find it impossible to ask for help. Really, frankly, when my body started saying, I don’t think you can do this by yourself — your hair starts falling out. I just couldn’t keep up the pacing. I’m not a robot. I thought I was. It became easier to ask for help when my body gave me the physical signs. You’re not going to survive this if you keep trying to do it literally all by yourself.

Zibby: Who gave you the biggest opportunity to take this sigh of relief?

Leah: That’s a hard question. Probably, my husband would be number one. There were a lot of times I’d literally pass him a diaper of a child and be like, “I have a sentence. I thought of a sentence. Grab this kid.” Then I really am very lucky that I have an incredible support system. For example, I had COVID last week. A case of groceries showed up on my front porch from my friends in Canada. People know how to show up for us. It doesn’t have to always be in person. Just remembering that, again, I’m not alone and that there’s a community is what’s been helping. I love my support system.

Zibby: It’s amazing. It’s wonderful. It’s good role modeling for the rest of us. Do you find time to read?

Leah: Yes, all the time. I’m an avid fan of your podcast. My favorite game is, I read the book, and then I wait to listen to the podcast until after I’m done. Then I take a walk, and I listen to you. That’s my quiet time. I love it so much. Luckily, before I fall asleep, I can always just steal time for having a book in my hand. Then also, because of my job, I just need to keep reading to make sure I have what’s relevant for the students. Yes, I am reading all the time. It’s the best part.

Zibby: What have you read that’s good lately?

Leah: I just did The Eight Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, which I loved. I am just about to start Ayana Mathis’s Twelve Tribes of Hattie. Two days ago, I finished Nora Goes Off Script. I just listened. Annabel is a fellow — she lives in my area, so I know her. I was very excited to listen to that one. That one felt perfect because I had COVID, and I snuggled up with it. Those are the three in the most recent.

Zibby: I felt like my podcast with her — I had so many specific questions. I remember finishing and being like, I don’t think I did a very good job because I just was honing in on what I really wanted to know. Maybe it wasn’t broad enough.

Leah: No, I loved it. What’s helpful for you to know is we’re all listening with our own agendas. We’re coming in to enjoy the book. Also, we love your writing journey. You shared there you’re starting a fictional book. Your memoir’s about to come out. We love all that. Craft questions, on behalf of your audience, we love them.

Zibby: Okay, thank you. I’m interested. I hope other — I don’t know.

Leah: It was great. I did a whole load of laundry during that one, so thank you.

Zibby: Oh, amazing.

Leah: I’m so good at multitasking.

Zibby: I left the load of laundry in for the last seven hours. I have to go back and — I forgot to put it in the dryer, per usual. Anyway, how do you think your kids will feel? This is impossible to answer. How will they feel about this book? Is there anything you’re worried about them eventually reading?

Leah: Yes. I actually have been having a little bit of — I wouldn’t say it’s even writer’s block because I have a million stories, but now the stories — my kids are older. I don’t know which stories are mine and which stories are theirs.

Zibby: How old are they all now?

Leah: Jordan’s eleven. She’s the one with the significant disability. I’m not worried about misrepresenting her because I feel like part of my mission is that — I love that Own Voices movement. While Jordan can’t tell her own story, I feel like a vehicle, which is why the book opens with her sharing. My boys are seven. We’re at the point — in the first book, they love to talk about their penises. That cracks them up. Everyone’s favorite section is where my son is — he’s so upset because his — this is a spoiler, but it’s the best part. He’s hysterically, hysterically crying because it turns out he thinks my tushy is lonely because it doesn’t have anything to talk to because his tushy gets to talk to his penis. He is just inconsolable. We have to call my sister, make sure her tushy isn’t lonely. It’s adorable. He was four.

Zibby: It was very sweet.

Leah: It’s very sweet. As I was finishing it, I said, I don’t think, maybe, a six-year-old is going to want their name in this story. I just wrote “one of the twins” instead of their name. Now I’m not sure what stories belong to them. When I ask them, “Can I write this story?” now they say, “Yeah, of course. We think it’s cool you’re in bookstores.” I don’t think they’ll think that when they’re fourteen. I don’t know the answer to that just yet, but I guess I’ll find out. I think the next series is, what does it feel like to have a child with disability go through puberty? My daughter is very excited about her changing body and asks, “What do I do with these?” I’m like, “That’s your boobs. They just stay there.” There’s a lot of things that we don’t have books to read about, so we need to know more.

Zibby: Wow, interesting. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Leah: For aspiring authors, it’s the same advice I’d give my students, which is, you are all writers. Everyone is a writer. We look at the piece by Terry Tempest Williams, “Why I Write.” Only one of those very, very long lists of reasons is to make money. Yet a lot of the students and the people that I’ve encountered think somehow writing has to be synonymous with a job. I think writing is, there’s a story that you have to tell. It deserves to be told. We need more stories. We need those stories to have different perspectives. My advice to anyone listening, especially from a full-time teacher who never thought they’d be a writer, is if there’s something nagging at you, just get it out. See where it takes you because everyone is a writer.

Zibby: I agree. Everybody’s got a story.

Leah: Everybody’s got a story. They’re all interesting.

Zibby: Thank you so much, Leah. This has been so nice. Thank you for your patience while we got to this date to record and everything.

Leah: Yes, it’s my honor.

Zibby: It’s a beautiful story. You’re a great writer.

Leah: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Take care.

Leah: Thank you. Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Leah: Bye.

Leah Witman Moore, LOVING YOU BIG

LOVING YOU BIG by Leah Witman Moore

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