TW Interview by William Gray
Journalist Mei-Ling Hopgood's How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm belongs on the shelf next to Bill Cosby's Kids Say the Darndest Things. They're both full of humor and surprising touches of wisdom.
Hopgood's first book, her 2009 memoir Lucky Girl, details how she reunited with her big, complicated birthfamily in Taiwan. In 2010, at the opening ceremony for a new Asian-American adoption archive at the U.S. Library of Congress, Hopgood was the featured speaker.
She grew up in Michigan, where she got her start as a reporter with the Detroit Free Press after college. But by 2007, when she had her first baby, Hopgood's family background and a move to Buenos Aires gave her a more international perspective than the average American parent.
Oh, and can she write—and give an interview. Our phone Q&A felt like coffee after dinner, preceded by a full meal of laughter and learning. How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm is due out in January 2012 from Alquonquin Books of Chapel Hill, but I read an advance copy before talking with her this past September.
Hopgood takes what she calls an "anthropological-journalistic" approach, reporting on parenting practices in Argentina, China, Polynesia, and many other cultures. It's not a ten-steps-to-a-happier-baby guide. It's a mix of the French diet, Pygmy fatherhood, and Japanese roughousing. I'll never forget one-pagers like "Managing Baby's Bottom."
The condensed version of our interview here conveys her open embrace of the many ways there are to raise children. In comparing other cultural attitudes with American hovering, she told me:
I should say that it’s natural for all these people. They don’t read obsessively about it on the Internet like we do. People just do things the way they’ve always known and don’t obsess about whether it’s perfect.
I'm not a dad yet, but this is the book I want to give all my twenty-something and thirty-something friends who are parents. It's been hard enough getting the advance copy away from those I've lent it to. I'd already dogearred the pages, because I had to tell everyone about split-bottom pants.
And, yes, you have to tell someone.
TW: Did this topic interest you before you had your first baby?
MH: It did, but when you have a child, you start thinking about what’s best for kids and how to raise your child, and that happened to be in another country for me.
TW: So you had to examine your own beliefs while raising your daughter in a foreign country. How did that work, for example, with sleep habits?
MH: All the parents around me in Buenos Aires were letting their kids stay out late at an early age. Most parents were pretty flexible about things like bedtime. Where and when a child would go to sleep. That’s a very stark contrast to all my friends in the U.S. There’s this mantra that you have to do things one way—get them in bed by 7, in a dark room, alone, and by a certain age you have to sleep train them.
I relaxed about it. It’s natural that you adapt your sleeping habits to the place where you live. But I did fret over it, too. I had that mommy guilt about what I was doing. And after researching and talking to people, I felt better about my decisions. I have to say the sleeping choices are organic and change as my kids get older.
You try and find a balance—that’s what parenting is. You kind of find what works for you. We laugh a lot about kids out late here.
TW: How did you decide to organize the book in this way? It has a chapter on almost all the major parenting hurdles.
MH: I tried to divide it as "one challenge, one place" as the base of each chapter. The narrative string is my experience as a mom and my voice.
TW: What did you leave out of the book?
MH: I didn’t write about where people sleep. It’s such a big subject for parents in general. I didn’t write about the fact that most parents around the world sleep with their children until one or two. It’s already so well covered.
TW: How did it feel to begin writing a book on the very controversial topic of parenting?
MH: Amy Chua's "Tiger Mom" book was a good lesson. As many years as I’ve worked as a journalist, I’m used to the debate. Everything is politicized—yes or no, right or not right. The parenting debate is very polarizing. It did give me pause, writing about this subject.
My first book was a memoir, so I had experience in writing about myself. But to be honest, I had second thoughts about this book at first. I knew it was a great subject—but a lot of my life is parenting.
TW: What was your writing schedule?
MH: My writing time was mostly in the morning. I had to make myself write and research a chapter a month. And I forced myself to set deadlines. It was an intensive amount of research. I had to kick myself into gear. I had to say a month for each chapter, because I couldn’t get my head around it for awhile.
TW: Are you going to write another book now that you have two children?
MH: I hope so!
TW: How did you land on this writing style?
MH: I thought it was very important to use my experience as a mother. To internalize and write about how I was feeling about what I was learning.
There’s a lot of great anthropological literature on mothers in different cultures. But that writing has a very academic tone. In my case, I’m a mom, I’m a journalist, I have a different kind of voice and perspective. I really thought it would be better to use my voice. That is also my comfort zone in terms of writing.
TW: Let’s talk about adoptees and adoption. Where does that fit in?
MH: I would say it has very little place. The idea to add the sidebar about adoption [a brief section at the end of one chapter] occurred to me because of my experience. But being adopted has no effect on whether you can be a parent or not. I had parents who raised me. I had a daughter. I am a parent.
I didn’t write Lucky Girl to be a spokeperson for adoption or adoptees. It really is my unique perspective. I never wanted to be the spokesperson or to exclusively write about the subject. I feel if I have something to say in that debate or area, I will. But for Lucky Girl itself, I wrote it because it was my story. Not because I wanted to write about adoption. This book is the same way—I had something to say about parenting.
TW: How did it feel to stand in that spotlight during the adoption program at the Library of Congress last year?
MH: It was fine. I talked about what I knew. Adoptees do have a place in Asian-American history. A great many of us now, especially the younger ones, have been adopted in the past decade. I think it’s important that our stories are part of Asian-American history. It was an honor to speak.
TW: So, what’s your favorite part of parenting?
MH: It gets back to the very simple things. Watching your children grow into what they’re growing into. Watching them change and adapt and become their own persons. Sophia is four now, and she’s definitely her own person—bilingual, bicultural. The other one, she’s still a little blobby baby, she’s obviously growing and changing, and it’s a lot of fun.
TW: If I handed this book to a young couple, what should they take away?
MH: I hope it would broaden their perspectives about how we as a society raise our kids. The main thing I hope parents get out of the book—or anyone—is that there are many ways in the world to be a good parent. We don’t have to be defined by the "how to" books. There are many ways to raise a happy and healthy child.
I think we get caught up in what we have to do right. We are obsessive about it. I am, too. We are obsessed with doing the right thing, eating the right food. There are a lot of ways to do things right. I think the obsession with perfection is damaging to our psyches. It’s good to step back and look at how people around the world have always raised their children in many different ways. A lot of those kids turn out just fine, and kids are very resilient. It’s us American parents who go a little nutty.
TW: Did you worry about this being labeled just another parenting book?
MH: I worry about that, and I think my marketing people worry even more. I wasn’t comfortable with a prescriptive, how-to tone. I’m not a perfect parent, nor do I get close to claiming to be one. I’m not a big parenting book person, but I'm obviously into good parenting. I hope I don’t get put in that category, but if people read it that way, so be it.
TW: Did you have fun writing this book?
MH: In the end, yeah. Looking back on it, it was tough to convince myself to move forward.
TW: Which chapter was most fun?
MH: The potty training chapter, although potty training wasn’t the most fun in practice. The whole pee on the floor thing and all that—not what I’m looking forward to most with my second child! But it was fun to write, because it was funny in the end. I had a great subject who was helpful and witty herself.
See Mei-Ling Hopgood's website for more about How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm.
[M]any Chinese parents have their children potty trained to some degree before the age of eighteen months, if not much sooner. Some babies go diaperless as soon as they can walk or even sit; I heard about twelve-month-olds who were trained in three days. Moms can control their baby's bladders by making a shhh sound, and preschool teachers can make fifteen three-year-olds go on command.
—from How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm, Mei-Ling Hopgood