As editors of a dadblog that rarely produces anything particularly smart, we are keenly aware how little protein-rich writing there is about parenting. So at the end of May we were saddened, along with the rest of the Internet, to hear that the magazine Brain, Child would stop publishing. The magazine, run for 13 years by co-founders Stephanie Wilkinson and Jennifer Neisslein, had a unique style of parental inquiry, often expressed through searing personal essays, that seems quite irreplaceable. And yet, they are no more. Neisslein was good enough to chat with DadWagon about Brain, Child, its demise, and the future of writing about parenting.
DadWagon So let’s start at the beginning. Why did you start Brain, Child?
Niesslein The short answer: it’s something Stephanie and I wanted to read. The longer answer is that I didn’t feel as if I had a community (Steph was literally the only new mother I knew at that point), and I was irritated at the condescension directed at mothers.
DadWagon Let’s talk about that condescension. Where did you see it?
Niesslein Oh, holy hell–everywhere? From the ped office calling me “Mommy” to various dogma-based advice-givers warnings that if you don’t follow these parameters, you will almost certainly screw your kid up. We just really wanted something that was a peer-to-peer kind of vibe.
DadWagon The wonderful (!) thing is that those are completely different kinds of condescension, although they both would seem to add to a sort of forced identity change: you are a mother now, I’m going to call you Mommy and tell you how to raise your child
Niesslein Yep! The whole title is a play on, yes, I have a brain and a child, and it’s, as Steph says, not an oxymoron like jumbo shrimp.
DadWagon So that peer-to-peer conversation, did it tend to have its own tilt? That is, did it advocate for more of a free-range parenting approach, for example?
Niesslein Not really. We don’t have any particular parenting philosophy. Honestly, I couldn’t really live with myself if I thought I had all the answers for every family. Do what works for you. I think that’s one reason people liked the magazine. You get to step inside families like yours and families that aren’t like yours. For me, at least, it’s been a big empathy-strengthening experience.
DadWagon I guess that is a bit of a hallmark of the magazine, that open-mindedness. Do you think it’s still as rare now as it was in 1999 to find that kind of writing on parenting?
Niesslein No, not all. What I think is rare still are places to publish the length of work that we do. If you’re writing under 1000 words, there are some outlets, and if you’re writing a book, it’s possible to find a publisher, but if you’re writing long, meaty essays about parenthood, it’s a tough place to be.
DadWagon It does raise the question: your readers (including folks we’ve heard from) were passionate, you were doing something quite different then and now. Why did it fail?
Niesslein I don’t actually think of this as a failure. Maybe I’m being delusional, but we had a good long run, got to do things and meet people we wouldn’t have otherwise, and actually made a modest living for a number of years. The day we made our announcement, the message we got… that was probably the most gratifying day of my professional life.
I’m thinking of this as a transition to a different business model. Why are we having to transition? I wish I knew the answer. But I think it was a combination of rising postage costs, the simple cost of paper, and the internet. Or not really the internet but the perception that the written word should be free.
DadWagon The idea that something like Brain, Child should be free is amazing, because it was already quite a bargain to subscribe (I’m saying that, of course, as the kind of hypocrite who didn’t actually subscribe). But seriously, you were charging very little for some great content. If you had it to do over, would you raise rates, or is there something else you’d change?
Niesslein Hmm. I can’t think of what. All of publishing, from the big six to small independent magazines like Brain, Child, are in flux, it seems to me.
DadWagon You mentioned in your Transitions letter than e-subscriptions had been going well, but not enough to keep the presses running. Will you keep eBooks going? With your anthologies? What is the afterlife plan?
Niesslein It seems like you have to have an ereader version these days, doesn’t it? We still haven’t worked out all the nitty gritty of the anthologies yet. We’re uploading the Summer issue to the printer today, and then I think the plan is rest and vacation, then work on the new plan.
DadWagon Will you go back to journalism?
Niesslein I’m actually working on a novel now–I’m 25K words in. Who knows if I have any talent for fiction, but I’m having fun. It’s like the lamest mid-life crisis ever.
DadWagon Yes, from editing to writing isn’t exactly sailing around the world for a year, but I understand the vertigo.
Niesslein It’s about my speed.
DadWagon Final question: the world of (ick) “mommy blogging” and “dadblogging” has come into existence almost entirely since you started Brain, Child. What’s your view of the parenting blogosphere in general? What is it useful for, what doesn’t it do well?
Niesslein I’m not very well-versed in it. But I once interviewed Jenn Mattern (from the blog Breed ‘Em and Weep), and she made the point that writing is writing–parenthood is just one lens to look at the human experience. I think that’s true, whether you’re writing for a magazine or a blog. Like everything, the quality of blogs can vary and what people are looking to get out of them varies. Sorry to be so wishy-washy here.
DadWagon I can see the point. But to echo what you said before, longform is not a big strength in the blogosphere. I hope someone picks up where you left off, and pushes it forward. There. That’s my closing wish.
Niesslein I’m trying to think of something pithy to say here.
DadWagon Please let us know when the anthologies come out.
Niesslein Oh, definitely! Thanks for the chat.