Sophie Brickman, BABY, UNPLUGGED

Sophie Brickman, BABY, UNPLUGGED

Journalist Sophie Brickman joined Zibby to discuss her first book, Baby, Unplugged, and the way childcare technology can make parents more anxious than at ease. Sophie shares how her husband’s love of technology led to them test out a variety of child-centered gadgets, and which among them were actually worth it. Sophie also tells Zibby about how her experience as a line cook in New York City led to her career in journalism and what inspired her to make the shift from food writing to researching parenthood.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sophie. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Baby, Unplugged: One Mother’s Search for Balance, Reason, and Sanity in the Digital Age.

Sophie Brickman: Thank you so much. It’s lovely to be here.

Zibby: I wrote this essay a long time ago called “A Mother’s Right to Sanity.” I feel like I have not yet found it myself, but I’m hoping that you found it in your search.

Sophie: Oh, no, not really, but I did my best. forward. I actually have a six-week-old right now. He turned six weeks yesterday, so I’m in the thick of it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, six-week-old baby and another child and a book, that’s a lot.

Sophie: And another child. This is my third kid.

Zibby: Oh, that’s your third child.

Sophie: Throwing gasoline on the fire at this point. I have two daughters, five and two, and then the baby.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, congratulations.

Sophie: Thank you so much.

Zibby: How are you doing all this?

Sophie: Caffeine. Coffee. Lots of coffee.

Zibby: I have various cups.

Sophie: I’m hanging in there. It’s been very enjoyable, actually. Keeping all the balls in the air.

Zibby: Oh, good. Then your topic is perfect. It’s like you’ve channeled your life into your work. That’s always the best way to go about anything. Talk about Baby Unplugged, what it’s about, the quest to sort through all the technological baggage that comes with being parents.

Sophie: My husband, Dave, is in the tech world. We lived in San Francisco for a while. He worked at a startup, and another one. He just loves technology. He likes strapping things on his body and monitoring various data points of sleep and calories and whatever else. None of it really phased me until my old daughter, who’s now five, was born. Then all of these gadgets started popping up in the nursery. This one was going to monitor her heartrate. This one was going to monitor her sleep. It was going to spit all this data back. It all purported to make parents calm and un-anxious, and it drove me up the wall. I wrote an article just loosely investigating the intersection of parenting and technology and was honestly very surprised at the amount of parents who reached out to me and were like, oh, my god, we’re grappling with the same thing. We don’t know what the right answer is. If we put our kid in front of a screen, is that horrible? Is it okay? Can we cut ourselves some slack?

I started researching. The journey is very personal. I started writing when Ella, my older daughter, was three and submitted the manuscript when she was around five. I am now in the thick of it again with the third kid. There’s just a lot of data thrown at parents. There’s a lot of conflicting headlines out there. I wanted to use my journalistic expertise for a very selfish reason, which is to figure out how to use technology in a successful way. I guess you could say I wrote this and proved my husband wrong about the tech he brought home. At the end of it, it’s a memoir. It’s a story about being a parent. There’s a lot of reporting mixed in there. My hope, honestly, is that it’s an enjoyable read for people and that there’s actionable takeaways, for sure, but that it’s kind of comforting to know that there are other people that are in your shoes when you’re in this bleary-eyed state with young kids.

Zibby: I love it. You have such a relatable voice and tone. It’s immediately disarming. I also, by the way, had the sleep alarm with the red light and the green light. It never worked. I have a whole closet of maimed traffic lights. I can’t bear to throw them away. Yet I can’t keep them out any longer. They make my blood boil because it’s a blinking light of my own failure.

Sophie: Sometimes we’re all looking for help. We all need help. It can come in a million different forms. When it comes in the form of technology, you’re like, oh, great, I’ll just plug it in. Then the kid will sleep through the night, or whatever. It’s like, no, they’re humans. They’re going to get up at four in the morning and ask to have a snack regardless of what the clock tells them to do.

Zibby: It’s changed so much. I have twins who are fourteen and then an eight-year-old and an almost-seven-year-old. The technology between those kids changed so much. I’m sure between my almost-seven-year-old and your baby-baby, there’s a whole new set of things.

Sophie: A lot of sensors you strap to their body or sheets that can sense what their weight is and when they’re moving. It’s kind of miraculous stuff. I guess my quest was to figure out if we really needed to go to that extreme level or what we were really getting out of it at the end of the day.

Zibby: The short answer is no, correct?

Sophie: If you know why you’re doing it, there’s wonderful tech out there. For me personally, the aggravating thing is there are no right answers. Obviously, as any parent knows, what works with your first kid will not work with your second kid, even within a family. There isn’t only one takeaway. For me, ultimately, the trackers and all that stuff made me more anxious and sort of gave me too much information. I found it very hard to look away. I ultimately just went to my pediatrician. One of the best pieces of advice I got when I got pregnant was, pick a rabbi. My friend was like, “Just pick one person. Just go to that person. Don’t go to nineteen people or 35,000 people or your moms’ group. Pick one person that you trust.” He said, “We wouldn’t let the kid out of the hospital if we had to monitor this level of data in this detail.” I tried to take that to heart.

Zibby: I just think there’s so much that’s out of your control. Knowledge is power. You feel like if you can just — I know I’m regurgitating what you basically said yourself. Having markers, having more data on something that is such a confounding thing in your life — you don’t even know who your kids are at the beginning. Who are they going to turn into? What are their personalities? You’re bobbing and weaving all the time. Even though oxygen levels make no difference, at least it’s something. It’s something you know.

Sophie: You can control it. You think you can control it. It is absolutely so much about control. Part of the journey of the book was me thinking, okay, I can control my kid in a certain way, and realizing I had to learn to be out of control, which is a very big lesson that you learn in the first few years of your kid’s life. Every idea that you had is going to go out the window the minute the kid enters the room. You can do everything in your power to make them go to bed at a certain time or weigh a certain thing or grasp a ball at a certain — whatever the marketers are telling you to do when you’re sleep-deprived and you don’t have the support you need and all of the things that all of us parents go through every day. Ultimately, it’s learning to trust your gut a little bit and to let go of this need to make things work that are out of your control.

Zibby: I also think not everybody is super technologically adept anyway. For me, when they came out with the nursing tracker or whatever — you had to put in, right boob, left boob, the whole thing. I was like, I was fine with a pad of paper and a pen occasionally writing it down. That worked for me. Now I’m learning something else. I’m learning my kid. I’m learning what it is to be a mom. Now I’m having to master fifty-seven devices. I could barely get the sleep monitor to work.

Sophie: One hundred percent. There’s graphs and trackers. It’s all very sexy. It’s very appealing in a certain way. What I realized is there is a point at which there’s too much information. Why are we collecting that information? I had to miss one of my second daughter’s doctor’s appointments when they have a weigh-in. I was like, “What should I do?” He was like, “Just take her to a grocery store, and stick her on a scale. Literally, that’s all you need to do.” I literally took her to the grocery store and put her in the thing with the onion peels and stuff. I was like, “She weighs nine pounds.” He was like, “Great.” I was like, okay, great, so we don’t need to be — I do think some parents really do get a lot of calm out of this. I think that there’s something to that. I also think that they’re very outsized cases where you need to be tracking certain things at this level of minutia.

Zibby: I also second your approach to talking to the pediatrician. My pediatrician’s amazing. She has four kids herself. Every so often, I’d be like, “I’m so sorry to ask.” She was like, “You realize you’re the person who asks me things the least of every other family.” I’m like, “Really? I feel like I’m bothering you all the time.” She’s like, “People talk to me constantly.” Don’t feel bad. That’s the person. Not to overwhelm pediatricians who are already completely overwhelmed, but better off somebody who actually knows your child too.

Sophie: Absolutely, who knows you, knows your child, knows how they’re going to respond, how you’re going to respond to information. It’s very hard to not scroll around on the internet when your kid has a rash. Just send the picture to the doctor. Don’t crowdsource that kind of information. Just do it.

Zibby: Totally, a hundred percent. Tell me about your career. You’ve had such an interesting career. You were a line cook at Gramercy Tavern — is that right? — and a food writer and all this. Now you’re doing this. What happened after college?

Sophie: After college, I was working a job at a nonprofit. I was living at home and saving money.

Zibby: Where is home?

Sophie: In New York City. I would find myself, after a day of sitting doing office work, just needing to make something concrete, and so I would come home and cook. I would make chicken for my parents. I didn’t know what I was doing, but it felt really tangible. I really enjoyed it. I actually had also read, right after college, Bill Buford’s Heat. I haven’t talked about this in a long time. He wrote about going to Italy and meeting Mario Batali and learning about Italian cooking. It sounded just so wonderful and appealing to me. I ended up going to culinary school in New York in the evening. I was working during the day until about six. Then I would go to culinary school from six to ten at night with my chef’s bag and come home sweaty and disgusting and then go and do it again. I found I really loved the kind of tangible quality of cutting an onion really quickly and learning how to do things that were not cerebral. After culinary school, I got a job at Gramercy Tavern. The story is that I was there to cut bread and watch everybody. Then my first day, somebody called in sick who was working the line. They literally were like, “You, can you do this?” I was like, “I don’t know.” I started cooking the appetizers at Gramercy Tavern during lunchtime. It was so much fun. You get an adrenaline high from cooking. It’s like this dance between you and everybody else. I did that for a while.

I realized that what I really wanted to do was write about it because it was such an appealing underbelly of society. Everything that Anthony Bourdain had written about that was so compelling, I was seeing it. I would go home and take notes after work. I ended up getting a job as a food reporter in San Francisco at The Chronicle. I had moved out there because my now husband, then boyfriend, got a job in Silicon Valley. I was like, okay, we’ll go. We’ll give that a shot. I ended up being a beat reporter in the food section. I took the little pool cars and interviewed chefs and wrote about the farmers and brussels sprouts and avocadoes and all this stuff and then came back to New York. I’m a native New Yorker and was very homesick. I came back and got a job as an editor at Saveur, which is a beloved food publication. I was there for a couple stints and freelancing for a couple stints. After, it was probably close to a decade of writing about food, I got tired of writing about brussels sprouts. My daughter was born. I got very, very interested in all things parenting related because they become your universe. I started pivoting to writing a little bit about Ella and using her as a subject and using my husband as a foil to me. The book came very naturally out of things that I was very personally invested in and very interested in. It’s a bit of a circuitous route, but sort of makes sense.

Zibby: I love that. I totally love that. I’m also a native New Yorker and spent a couple years in California and had to return as well.

Sophie: There are amazing things about California. I just missed the grittiness of New York.

Zibby: Yeah. I was just there for a month. I’m like, okay, I think I’m getting ready. I miss the real world. It just doesn’t feel real. It’s too nice. It’s too easy.

Sophie: Work-life balance, all of that, that’s ridiculous. Got to be neurotic and crazy. That’s how I live.

Zibby: Where are my people? Do you still cook? Do you ever cook for fun anymore?

Sophie: Ask me that in a few months when I don’t have a six-week-old. During the pandemic, I cooked an enormous amount. It was fun to get Ella involved. It’s a great activity, the measuring of the things. I’m not actually a good baker. Making cookies is her dream. She loves making cookies.

Zibby: You can send her to me for that. I can send my kids to you for the cooking. I can bake anything, but I’m not as good at cooking at all.

Sophie: directions, which is really what you need to do. I like to experiment. Experimenting with baking soda, it won’t be the right cookie or the right piece of bread.

Zibby: No. I’m like, give me the rules. That is exactly what I will do. Now here is my deliverable. Thank you very much.

Sophie: I like to throw things into a pot and see what’ll happen. Yes, I cook as much as I can, which right now is not at all. Hopefully, there is an end in sight when more than three hours of uninterrupted sleep is there. I know it’s there. We did it twice before. I know that it’s going to come, but we’re not there yet.

Zibby: But the baby face is so yummy. I’m kind of jealous of that little, tiny — oh, my gosh.

Sophie: You smell their clothes, even. It’s fantastic.

Zibby: Their skin. I’m about to invite myself over. I’m going to come and snatch your child. What next? You have this book, which is amazing. You have a full family life. Is this the dream? What’s the grand plan? Are we just going to stay in the moment like we’re supposed to?

Sophie: Grand plan, I can’t think more than three hours in advance at this point. Actually, during the pandemic, I started working on a book proposal for book number two, which, fingers crossed, might happen. I lived with my parents for the first time in a long time during the pandemic because it was so crazy. Obviously, it drove everybody up the wall. Also, it was incredible. My kids got to really spend time with their grandparents. My parents seemed to shed ten years every hour they spent with my kids. There was childcare that was built in. Everybody was really in a lot of ways. Then it got very — it’s complex having multiple dynamics in a household when you’re using to have your own household and their having their own household. I started kicking around this idea of the nuclear family, which really was completely exploding during the pandemic — nobody thought it really worked, but it really didn’t work during the pandemic — and considering alternatives to it. When I started poking around, I thought there would be a lot of hippy-dippy, commune, patchouli-scented people that I’d be interviewing.

In fact, there are a lot of really fascinating antidotes to the nuclear family that are communal but are not at all off the grid that are, speaking of my first book, very much rooted in technology as ways of helping people, of building wide systems that bring people together, that combat loneliness and specifically help parents. I’m in the thick of researching and reporting that and seeing what comes of it. Again, this is a very, very personal subject. I had a third baby on the horizon. I was like, we’re not going to have enough hands for all kids. What are we going to do? I’m not going to move back in with my parents. They were wonderful. I actually only live eight blocks from them in the city. They’re very integral to my kids’ life and to my life, which is just a blessing that I didn’t even realize was going to be such a blessing. That’s what I’m considering, that I’m doing now. I’m writing a bit for The Guardian and seeing this book see the light of day, which has been a really fun and crazy journey, particularly throwing in the pandemic which hit a week after my manuscript was due. It was an interesting time to have considered all of this stuff about technology when it became such a central part of everybody’s lives, inevitably.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. You should write for Moms Don’t Have Time to Write. We have this personal essay site.

Sophie: I’d love to.

Zibby: I’ll send you information or whatever.

Sophie: Please do.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Is there one piece of technology that you were like, this one, this is worth it?

Sophie: It’s a good question. I should have a quippy answer to that, which I don’t. I really should have an answer to that. I don’t have an answer. Ultimately, the analog things, for me, ended up really being the things that I needed around. You can’t read too much to your kid. There’s very little that’s more enjoyable than snuggling up with your kid and reading a book. You can’t do that twenty-four hours a day. Ella watched Frozen nine thousand times during the pandemic. I’m not a saint. Erring on the side of boredom and letting the kids find creativity by themselves is really a better thing to do than be constantly enriching them, which is kind of what this technology fuels, is this idea of not letting any moment go by without giving them some input. In fact, all the science says that that’s not really the right way or the most beneficial way to raise a kid. We got the SNOO for research purpose. It was amazing. Yes, it was amazing, but it also brought up a lot of questions for me about, why are we outsourcing rocking to a device? It can be incredibly helpful, but what does it mean about the bigger state of things? That’s a convoluted answer that I will work on.

Zibby: That’s okay. You work on that. You can email me the answer. Last question. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Sophie: I would find a cheering team, maybe one person, maybe multiple people, that can be in your corner when you’re writing things and you think you’re never going to either publish the thing or get to the end of the sentence or whatever. I was lucky enough to have multiple people in my life, a very close friend who was a first reader who basically was like, “Just throw me anything. We can bat ideas back and forth.” My father’s a writer. We took a million walks in the park. He commiserated with me about everything. Find somebody to tell you that what you’re writing is worth it and that no thought is too small and that every sentence on the page is getting you one step closer to the end of whatever it is that you’re writing. That was critical to me. I could not have done it without the support of a network.

Zibby: I think we should also throw back in your earlier statement, which is that you just like to throw a bunch of stuff in a pot and see what happens. I think that could also be good writing advice.

Sophie: Just write. Free associate. This book started as emails to a friend, just thoughts, random thoughts, bullet points. Then it becomes something. It takes a while, but you can get there. You can do it.

Zibby: I love it. So great. Awesome. Congratulations again on your baby and your book baby and everything else in this very exciting time of your life. Hang in there.

Sophie: So nice to talk to you, Zibby.

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

Sophie: Bye.

Sophie Brickman, BABY, UNPLUGGED

BABY, UNPLUGGED by Sophie Brickman

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