Putting a literary lens on motherhood

Three years ago, new moms Jennifer Niesslein and Stephanie Wilkinson decided over coffee that having a baby didn't necessarily mean losing all intellectual stimulation. The result was Brain, Child, which bills itself as "the magazine for thinking mothers."

Don't expect the quick how-to advice found in most popular parenting magazines. Instead, Niesslein and Wilkinson say they're trying in this independent quarterly to document the real stories behind the experience of motherhood with a mix of original essays, fiction, humor, and debates.

In doing so, the editors have found themselves on the front end of a trend that is making motherhood a subject worthy of serious literary and journalistic treatment. Writers like Ann Crittenden, and Naomi Wolf, and British novelist Rachel Cusk are part of this trend, as are independent zine Hip Mama, Salon.com's Mothers Who Think columns, and the essays of Michael Lewis on Slate.com (yes, a dad has his say as well).

But so far Brain, Child is the only print forum devoted to putting motherhood in the serious realm of ideas without emphasizing a single parenting philosophy. Mothering Magazine, for example, bills itself as the magazine for the "natural family," and Hip Mama dedicates itself to young or disenfranchised moms.

In contrast, Brain, Child's latest issue includes essays by a gay man who ends up caring for his neighbor's children, a mom whose son's toy robot threatens to take over the house, and another who details her desperate decade-long effort to feed her underweight daughter.

Niesslein and Wilkinson sought to create a home for serious treatment of motherhood after they each gave birth. "We both were blown over by what a life-altering experience [motherhood] is," says Niesslein.

The pair met in Charlottesville, Va., in the mid-1990s, when Niesslein edited an alternative weekly that featured a column by Wilkinson, who was working on a doctorate in religious history.

They reunited after they'd each married, moved to separate towns, and found themselves with newborns.

Soon, the pair were writing their thoughts and trading essays, but they found no outlet for publishing their efforts in the category of motherhood lit. In fact, there was no such category.

Wilkinson and Niesslein went to work in their home offices in Lexington and Harrisonville, Va., respectively. Brain, Child debuted in March 2000 with 5,000 copies containing reprinted essays by Barbara Kingsolver and Susan Cheever, a feature on the new field of ethnopediatrics and a debate on the merits of the family bed.

Its later issues have emphasized original first-person storytelling. Its writers struggle with toilet-training a four-year-old and weaning a three-year-old, and ponder the effects of swearing in front of one's child.

"I used to buy Red Zinger and staunch Earl Grey," writes one essayist grappling with her young son's serious illness. "Now I buy Lemon Soother and Quietly Chamomile. I think I am subconsciously hoping my tea bags will talk me down off the ledge."

Such writing hasn't gone unnoticed. Utne Reader named Brain, Child one of five best new magazines in the country in 2000. Since then, circulation has tripled, mainly through word of mouth. The magazine is available in all 50 states as well as at national chains such as Borders.

But Niesslein still works out of a spare bedroom – which she jokes would be the new baby's room if it weren't for her other baby, the magazine. Wilkinson works in her refurbished basement. They edit copy and brainstorm at a Staunton coffeeshop. Neither has yet to earn a salary, but the publication's growth is exceeding their projections and readers' responses are beyond their expectations.

"I'm surprised by all the people who just like thinking about motherhood," says Niesslein. "I think, too, that motherhood is a lot of fading into the woodwork and putting kids at the center. And writing is a way of saying: 'Look at me. This is what my life is like.' "

• Brain, Child magazine can be found at www.brainchildmag.com.

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