An Interview with Marjorie Ingall, Author of Mamaleh Knows Best
I started reading parenting books when I was pregnant with my first child. I started boycotting them before her first birthday. It seemed every book was telling me I had to do things a certain way or else I was doomed.
After a nearly five year hiatus, I dipped my toes back into the parenting book waters with Marjorie Ingall’s latest book, Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children. Rather than offering a one-size-fits all formula for how to be an excellent parent, Ingall’s book weaves academic research, ancient Jewish teachings, and entertaining personal anecdotes together to explain what Jewish mothers have done, throughout history, to raise children who become successful adults. I had the opportunity to interview Ingall for MazelTogether. Chatting with her was even more entertaining than reading her book, and that’s saying a lot.
MazelTogether: Tell us about the genesis of this book.
Marjorie Ingall: My mom told me this story about the physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi, who won the Nobel Prize. His parents were immigrants. He grew up in a poor, Yiddish-speaking home. He gave his mother so much credit for his success. He said, “The other mothers asked, ‘What did you learn in school today?’ but my mother always asked, ‘Did you ask a good question today?’ and that was what made me a scientist.” And I thought about how this fun, interesting story was so at odds with the stereotype of the fearful, narcissistic, guilt-producing Jewish mother.
Despite the Jewish mother stereotype, Jews have been so successful in many different fields, throughout history. We haven’t just been doctors and lawyers. We’re painters, songwriters, non-fiction writers, playwrights, and million other professions. As Jewish mothers, we’re the transmitters of values especially since Judaism is such a home-based religion. There’s something we’re doing, or have done right, historically.
So I wanted to write in an upbeat, inspiring way, about what we can learn from Jewish mothers, in a world that often tries to make all mothers, not just Jewish ones, feel like they’re doomed to fail no matter what they do.
MT: Many writers say writing a book is like having a baby. Does that resonate with you?
MI: Yes, absolutely. I’m used to writing for Tablet twice a week, writing for women’s magazines, and ghostwriting. I thought I had a handle on deadlines and how to do this thing. But writing this book really paralyzed me, to think this is a big, long thing. I had such a hard time organizing it. With the publishing industry being what it is, I kept losing editors. It ended up taking a year longer than it was supposed to.
I gave the first draft to my best friend, who is a novelist, and my mom. My mom was like, “This is so great. I love it!” My best friend was like, “This sucks.” The editor made me cut twenty thousand words. But the push and pull of my mom plus my editor plus my best friend and me learning to take deep breaths and try to sound like myself, all worked to make it a better book.
MT: You are one of the voices behind the blog Sorry Watch, which analyzes apologies in the news, history, and culture. Are your children exemplary apologizers?
MI: Nobody’s children are exemplary apologizers! I’m not.
MT: How old are your kids?
MI: My children are twelve and fifteen. It’s so much easier as they get older. Other people have said to me, they have monster teens and tweens. But I am very entertained by my children. I think, for the most part they have good manners. I think they’re both really interesting. Knock wood, spit spit spit. They don’t complain much.
MT: There’s a whole chapter in the book on the value of geekiness and why we should encourage it in our kids. What are your kids geeky about?
MI: My younger one is at roller derby right now. She’s also a collector of little things. She makes tiny paper dolls and tiny beds that the tiny paper dolls can go in. She’s quirky and hilarious.
My older one is hard-core debater. I know Bubbies and Zaydes can brag but parents really shouldn’t. But she won the New York City debate championship and she just placed twelfth in the nation. She’s going to nationals in Chicago this month. I’m glad we have the same politics. I could never win an argument with her. She can debate me under the table. It makes me really proud.
MT: Did you consider sending your kids to a Jewish day school?
MI: Oh yes. I visited this lovely little non-denominational day school school three times before finally deciding to enroll Josie, my older daughter, in public school. Maxie wasn’t in school yet. I really waffled but ultimately I feel like public school was a good choice for my family, and the particular public schools they were in, which were very progressive. Their elementary school is majority non-white. That kind of education is good for everybody.
MT: As a writer, how do you reconcile wanting to process your experiences through writing with the fact that your kids are people with their own boundaries?
MI: I was hired as a parenting columnist at Tablet and I wrote the East Village Mamele column for years when my kids were small. But when they were seven and ten, I wrote a piece for Tablet, publicly saying I am not going to be writing about them anymore without their permission. They shouldn’t feel like they’re at risk of me writing about them. Now that I have a teenager and a tween, I’m desperate for other people’s stories of their kids but the people whose experiences I’d want to read about are also the people who wouldn’t write about them.
That’s why we have friends. The same friend who said my first draft sucked (she loved the book, let’s be clear about that), is somebody who I can be totally vulnerable with about everything—kids, marriage, my own fragilities, politics, everything. It’s so important, especially in the age of social media. I do have addictions to Facebook and Twitter, which is not necessarily healthy.
MT: What limits do you place on social media in your family?
MI: My husband has a PhD in computer-mediated communication. One of his big things has always been privacy, so my kids are very aware that what you do on the internet is never private. Both of them are at a school that is super into project work. They’re always working in Google docs at the same time as their friends and chatting in the margins as they work. Neither one of them is on Facebook.
MT: Was it their decision not to be on Facebook?
MI: The younger one shouldn’t be. It’s against the terms of service because of her age. But no, neither one of them is interested in Facebook. For a while Josie was using Tumblr a lot. I wanted to know everything she was doing on Tumblr and I told her I was reading her Tumblr and she was quite mad. She was thirteen or fourteen at the time. Now I leave her. She has Snapchat. I don’t follow it. I trust her.
Also, my husband worked in TV research. Our TV set up was so complicated that only we could turn it on, and only me sometimes because it required all these different buttons. So the kids couldn’t just watch TV. Everything was on TiVo.
When Josie was about ten, we took a duck boat tour while visiting Seattle. The driver was trying to get her to win his trivia contest by asking all these Hannah Montana questions, but she’d never seen it. She was embarrassed she didn’t know the same pop culture as the other kids. But I hate those shows.
The single best parenting decision I ever made was not allowing my kids to watch live action shows. I love television. I think it’s the most awesome thing in the universe but those shows blow. The kids say mean things to each other and the laugh track acts like it’s funny. Everybody looks the same. Everybody has barrel-curled hair. When my kids were little, we were so into Phineas and Ferb, which is the best cartoon. It’s all about being creative and it’s funny.
MT: If you could go back in time, what parenting advice would you give yourself as the mom of two young kids ten years ago?
MI: Kids have their own timetables. Something that works for one kid is not going to work for the other. I always joke, you should never take advice from the parent of one child. They know what works for one child. When you have two, you see how “out of the box,” they were completely different. It’s not about birth order. I joke about how my kids were so different even at one day old, long before I had time to mess them up. Their reactions to learning to nurse were so different. Josie would get frustrated and would scream herself into unconsciousness and my mom would have to tickle the bottoms of her feet to try to wake her up to get her to feed again. Maxie would cry in this heartbreaking way and then she’d try again. And all these years later, when faced with challenges, Josie gets really frustrated and Maxie is more of the plucky try again kid. It was just so interesting to see this difference right away.
Also, I would tell myself, don’t worry. Josie read really early and Maxie only wanted to hear stories. I did worry about it even though I kept telling myself not to. As I said in the literacy chapter of the book, just keep reading to them. Don’t worry about it. Everything is this too shall pass. With Josie we had huge issues with sleep. Now I can’t remember exactly what they were but they were awful at the time. But everything passes.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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