Published on March 4th, 2021 | by Jenny Traig


“I Didn’t Create Rules”: Courtney Zoffness Talks to Jenny Traig About SPILT MILK

When our first child was born, instead of jewelry—what use was jewelry?—my husband gave me the book Three Seductive Ideas by developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan. It was exactly what I needed: a reminder that childhood is not a fragile window of opportunity, and I would not irreparably damage our kid. I could screw up and things would be fine anyway. I desperately needed this reassurance. Always a high-strung person, having a child introduced me to a whole new set of ties, cords, wires to trip over and tangle into knots. The stakes are so high! It helped to be reminded that the bar, in fact, is low.

It also helps to know you’re not the only parent who worries about the whole enterprise, which is one reason I was so taken with Courtney Zoffness’s compulsively readable book of memoirs, Spilt Milk. In a series of thoughtful, provocative essays, she explores the ways anxiety, family history, spirituality, and cultural legacies shape who we are and how we parent. Every issue she raises resonates, troubles, and sometimes, reassures. Yes, the milk will spill. Cry, or don’t; you’ll have company either way. – Jenny Traig

MUTHA: Well, it’s been quite a year, especially for parents of small children. How’s it going?

COURTNEY ZOFFNESS: It’s going okay. It’s certainly been challenging, but we are all healthy.

MUTHA: You, like me, write about your children. How do you approach that? Do you have any rules or policies?

COURTNEY ZOFFNESS: I didn’t create rules at the outset so that I wouldn’t feel constrained. My decisions thereafter were pretty intuitive. My kids are really young in the book, mostly under 5, so I felt okay putting their likenesses on the page. Nowadays if I want to write about my oldest, who’s 9, I ask his permission.

MUTHA: Mine are 9 and 11, so we’re at the ask-permission phase now too. I’ll show them what I have, and offer to make cuts or changes. They don’t make a lot of requests, but when they do, I find it’s usually a good edit—it’s truer, and feels like more of a collaboration. Your children are now older than they were when you started writing the pieces in this collection. How have things changed?

COURTNEY ZOFFNESS: Fortunately my older son isn’t nearly as anxious as I feared he might be; the opening essay explores my childhood anxiety disorder and the symptoms I watched manifest in him as a kindergartener. The book also showcases my younger son’s obsession with dressing and acting like a cop, an interest he’s retained; we still live next door to a precinct station. The update is that he and I now have more sophisticated conversations about law enforcement tactics and the racist status quo officers uphold. He understands why Mommy won’t let him carry a weapon.

MUTHA: In “Trespass” you consider the way parenting patterns get passed down. Has becoming a parent changed your perceptions of how you were parented?

COURTNEY ZOFFNESS: In that same essay about my son’s anxiety, I describe how I’ve tried to create a home environment less intense than the high-stress one in which I grew up, and yet my older son still developed concerning symptoms. It’s easy to blame our parents’ choices for traits we regret in ourselves and something I question a lot in this book is the influence we truly have on our children. Can we tease out the contributions our parents made to our development? It’s convenient to create cause-and-effect narratives, but I think sometimes it’s hard to be sure.

MUTHA: That essay knocked me sideways with recognition, having been a kid who was anxious—like you, about breathing! among many other things—and now being a parent watching my genes play out in my kids. As you write: “I am too horrified that there might be a kink in human DNA that maps not just to childhood anxiety, but this precise presentation of it.” What surprises me even more is how this actually makes me less patient. I know exactly how anxiety feels, but my response to any anxiety my children express is not empathy, but annoyance: snap out of it.

How has becoming a parent changed you? How has it changed your writing?

COURTNEY ZOFFNESS: Spilt Milk was born out of motherhood. I’m primarily a fiction writer—or at least I used to be!—but becoming a parent gave me new eyes. I started to see past experiences, like my bat mitzvah and my job ghostwriting the memoir of a Syrian refugee, through a maternal lens. It’s a thread that binds this book.

MUTHA: Writing, or undertaking any kind of creative endeavor, while parenting is . . . trying, especially for mothers, as writers Rufi Thorpe and Jenny Offill have pointed out. What would make it easier?

COURTNEY ZOFFNESS: I’m sure other modes of motherhood come with their own challenges, but in so many cultures, child-rearing is communal. Families live in multi-generational homes and/or various relatives take turns watching one another’s kids. The American model seems so capitalistic, which is to say: most of us with reliable childcare are those of us who can afford it. The only way I’ve been able to write and teach, especially before my sons were school-aged, is by hiring a sitter.

The woods at the MacDowell Colony, where Zoffness spent time writing

MUTHA: Thank goodness for alloparenting. The sociobiologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has an excellent book on the subject called Mothers and Others, which argues that alloparenting is likely what allowed us to become humans in the first place; when childcare duties were shared, we retained the resources we needed to develop the larger brains and complex social relationships that characterize Homo sapiens. Unfortunately, alloparenting is hard to arrange, when so many of us live far away from our extended families and others who, in the past, would have shouldered some of the childcare duties. Somehow, we’re still spending more time with our children than any previous generation in recorded history. It’s a set of factors that’s pretty much guaranteed to produce parental burnout.

When my mother got married in 1968, friends gave her a copy of How to Be a Jewish Mother, a humor book that’s mostly about harnessing guilt and anxiety to produce the children you want. Fifty years later, I’m wondering what “Jewish mother” means now, something you touch on in “Holy Body.” Do you think there is such a thing?

COURTNEY ZOFFNESS: Hawman, your poor mom! I think certain stereotypes have persisted in popular culture, but at least among the Jewish mothers I know, that phrase lacks a singular definition. It reminds me of the fused phrase “Jewish writer,” which also encompasses a broad spectrum of human beings.

MUTHA: Yeah, it’s nice that there’s some more nuance to that now, an acknowledgment of all the different ways of being Jewish (and a mother!). The anxiety, though—I’ve got that part down.

You’re parenting two boys during a time when the definition of boyhood, and manhood, mean something different than they did when we were growing up. Our kids will (mostly for the better) have entirely different ideas about gender than we did and do. How are you shepherding two boys towards that? Is it something you plan to explore in writing?

COURTNEY ZOFFNESS: I hope you’re right. Conversations about gender fluidity are more mainstream, but there are still cultural forces that prop up disagreeable notions of boyhood and manhood. I describe some of the ways I try to run interference in the book by role-playing with my cop-costumed son. “Hot for Teacher,” about a brazen male student who hits on me in front of the class, also prompts me to think about what my sons are assimilating. Last night my six-year-old, who likes things Just So, was planning out his life, including when he would marry his “wife” and I reminded him: “or husband.” It feels important to normalize the range of what boys or men may prefer and to challenge my kids’ assumptions. I try to clarify that everyone should make choices that feel right for their minds and bodies.

MUTHA: Kids do a good job at challenging our assumptions, too. Norms are so hard-wired. My graduate work was in gender studies, and still, all the time, I have to stop myself from treating my son and daughter differently, setting different standards and expectations for them that have everything to do with gender norms and nothing to do with who they actually are. Which they’re happy to remind me. 

I love the way you use writing to work out something that’s puzzling you. Do you go in with a conclusion, or does it emerge or evolve as you write?

COURTNEY ZOFFNESS: I rarely begin with a conclusion in mind, and I think many of these essays avoid a neat resolution. One of the reasons I adore the essay form is that it encourages asking questions, not necessarily answering them.

MUTHA: What issues are you planning to examine in future work?

COURTNEY ZOFFNESS: I’m back to fiction: inventing characters and imagining my way into their lives. I do suspect I’ll continue to circle parenthood and womanhood, regardless of genre. They were among my preoccupations even before I became a mom!

Courtney Zoffness won the Sunday Times Short Story Award, an Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Center for Fiction, the Creative Nonfiction Prize from Arts & Letters, and residency fellowships from MacDowell. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the New York Times, Guernica, The Southern Review, and elsewhere, and she was listed as a “notable” essayist in Best American Essays in 2018 and 2019. Her debut, Spilt Milk, was named a Most Anticipated Book of 2021 by Publishers Weekly, LitHub, The Millions, Refinery29, Books Are Magic, and others. Courtney directs the Creative Writing Program at Drew University, and lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.

SPILT MILK has just released from McSweeney’s Books—pick it up from your local indie

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About the Author

Jenny Traig is the author of Act NaturalWell Enough Alone, and Devil in the Details. She has a PhD in literature, and lives with her family in Michigan.

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