The realization that her and her friends’ daughters were not having children of their own prompted Debbie to delve deeper into the subject, eventually publishing UnPregnant Pause, based on dozens of interviews with health professionals and parents alike.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in suburban New Jersey in a highly dysfunctional family. I was the middle child, the only girl between two brothers. This is relevant because the expectations for me differed greatly than those held for my brothers. Both my parents thought my older brother was a genius (his burden) but had little expectation for me. I was encouraged to become a teacher so that I would always have something to “fall back on.” My mother was originally a nurse, but got her teaching degree to support herself when she and my father eventually divorced. The house was loud and tempestuous with outbursts of domestic violence directed at my older brother and mother. We saw our father hit our mother a number of times.
My mother supported my going to college, although my father thought it was a waste of money, as I would only end up staying home and having babies. But my mother prevailed. I graduated from Syracuse University with a dual degree in Early Childhood Education and Elementary Education. After a semester of student teaching, I decided I was not happy confined in the classroom all day. I needed to do something where I could interact with adults. I really loved learning about children’s literature when I was in college, so I chose to work in publishing instead.
I met my husband, Jeff, at summer camp, where I was hired during college to do scenery for the plays they produced; he was the director. I had done a lot of theater in high school and really enjoyed it. All that school and camp theater work really was the training ground for my later career path. We married the Thanksgiving after I graduated from college.
Jeff, at five years older than me, was my knight in shining armor and rescued me from my mother’s house. While my mom fought for me to go to college, she was a difficult woman who suffered from what would now be called bipolar disease. She was never easy to live with or deal with as an adult and required a lot of intervention.
Jeff and I raised our children in northern NJ—my kids attended the same high school I did. We had four babies: our daughter Bailie (first born) and our sons Ted and Mickey. Our second baby, Jillian, was stillborn. It was a sad time for us and Bailie’s first memory is of my husband telling her that she was not going to have a little sister after all. This loss had a profound effect on me and really created the separation for me from being a “kid” to being an adult. Death was an adult issue and this was my first real exposure to loss. Luckily, I had good support groups and excellent therapists to help me move forward from this devastating event.
I stayed home with my children during the day when they were young but worked in the evening at different youth group programs, since my husband was home with them after his workday ended and we could save on babysitting. Jeff is a financial planner and was able to be somewhat flexible with his hours and often covered for me when I had daytime meetings. He was also able to attend all the kids’ school events and coach their sports teams. I have been fortunate to have a husband who has supported me in all my creative activities even if they did not produce a significant amount of income.
Ironically, I did use my teaching degree during these years as schools and recreation programs were happy to hire a licensed teacher. I took a test in the late 90s for permanent teaching certification, so that I would always be able to use my license, but over the years, I have become fully convinced a contained classroom is not the place for me.
My work at youth group programs grew to be a pretty full “part-time job” when I became the Youth Director at a local JCC (Jewish Community Center). While at that job, I started directing and producing musicals with the students. This also grew and I developed a very busy theater program. From there, I was drafted by a big school district and went on to produce and direct high school plays and musicals for many years.
Because I always liked to write and to meet people and tell their stories—everybody has a story, you just have to look hard enough—I wrote articles for a local weekly, The Jewish Standard. They published many of my essays and often gave me the cover feature. They also just wrote a very nice article about me. I was also co-president of the PTA and eventually elected to the school board. You know the saying: You want something done, ask a busy woman. I loved being involved in every facet of childrearing and school/community life.
When did you start to think about making a change?
When my youngest child was about ready to finish high school, I started to worry about how I would fill all that time I had spent at home nurturing and in the community doing volunteer work. I began seriously thinking about what I could do that might synthesize all the creative things I loved and (my first AHA! Moment) I decided it was time to stop nurturing the creative development of my students and focus on myself. With the full support and encouragement of my husband and kids, I quit my job and started taking playwriting classes in New York City. I wrote a play, Gate B23: Carry On Baggage, that was accepted into two festivals, NYC International Fringe Festival and Winterfest! at Manhattan Repertory Theater. It was very well received.
I started directing and producing shows with professional actors, with very satisfying results. When I did The Last Five Years at Guild Hall in East Hampton, NY, it starred Broadway actors Julie Reiber (Wicked, Priscilla) and Matt DeAngeles (Hair, Once), Those were my biggest stars.
One of my favorite productions that I directed and co-produced was The Apronstrings Project in Riverhead, NY. I had written a story for Dan’s Papers in the Hamptons about an exhibit of antique aprons that was on display at the Suffolk Historical Society. When I entered the room where dozens and dozens of aprons were hung on clothesline, I was immediately struck by the many stories enfolded in their fabric. I dreamed about a theatrical presentation that would feature the aprons and tell the story of the women behind each one. Along with my friend and colleague, Cindy Clifford, a radio personality in Riverhead, we put together a team and solicited stories based on the aprons. We got over 100 responses from writers across the globe. We chose 90 minutes of material, including several original songs, and wove them together into a musical play. We pledged the profits to a women’s shelter in Southampton. We ran for three nights to sold out audiences and it was one of the most satisfying theatrical events I have ever staged.
As my family grew, I started to think about being a grandparent. I missed the nurturing stage of life, and it wasn’t enough to “mother” the dog. My daughter was approaching her mid 30s and, after a brief marriage, was single and involved with her career. My son Ted was newly married and Mickey was still in grad school.
I started talking to women I knew about when they thought they would be grandparents. One night, I looked around my book group. We had been together for 15 years, since the PTA days. There were 8 women with 7 grown daughters among us. No one was a grandparent by their daughter (two were by their sons). Why was that, I wondered (my second big AHA! moment). I started asking everyone I knew and discovered that it was indeed a trend.
I worked up a book proposal and set about trying to get a deal to actually write a book about this topic.
What is your next act?
I am the author of UnPregnant Pause: Where Are the Babies? It is about millennial women and their mothers and its essential question is this: Did feminism turn around and bite us (the baby boomer generation) in the ass? Did we raise our daughters to be such empowered women that while leaning into their careers they forgot to have a family altogether? And hence: We have no, or few, grandchildren.
I have really loved exploring this topic fully. I have interviewed many doctors—fertility specialists and gynecologists, as well as psychologists—and many men and women about this topic. Their stories have informed me, surprised me, and ultimately moved me deeply. I feel honored to be able to tell their stories through my book, as well as share my own story. It has been a really gratifying experience to go out and promote the book and hear new stories from the women and men who read it.
How did you go about writing and publishing this book?
I had never stopped writing—articles, plays, poetry. The idea of a book came about because I thought there was too much to explore in an article. I had written two (unpublished) novels and felt that I could undertake the challenge. The largest part of the challenge was going to be finding a publisher. I already knew what was involved with that from my first job in publishing (children’s literature).
The first step was writing a book proposal. I already knew the basics from having worked in publishing, but I also Googled new formats and a friend who has published a lot showed me her proposals. I was not going to write the actual book unless I knew I had a publisher. It would have been too much time away from other projects that were not as speculative. I only met with two agents, who told me that although my topic was sharp and current, I didn’t have enough of a platform (read: celebrity) to be represented by them. I met my publisher at a women’s networking event at my husband’s office, which I attended just to help fill the room. She is a small independent publisher, Figlo Press. The publishing process was very collaborative. I was assigned an editor and he and I went back and forth on questions and clarifications. We didn’t always agree, but we came to a good place in the end.
I used a detailed outline and worked my way through it, writing chronologically as I put the book together. Then my editor had me regroup the chapters and reorder the book to build a better arc. I set very specific goals regarding time. I wanted to finish each chapter by a certain date. Often I shut down all social activities and wrote for a big block of days to meet my self-imposed deadlines. I am a great procrastinator, but I am NEVER late on deadlines (or anything else; I value promptness as a sign of respect) even if it means working very hard at the last minute.
When it came time to find people to interview, I broke my subject down into segments: the experts, the women themselves, the men who know/date/love them, and my own personal take. I explored the biology, psychology, religious, and ethical sides of the discussion and found an expert in each field to interview. Sometimes I got introductions, sometimes I emailed out of the blue. They were all very nice and forthcoming. The interviews were conducted in several ways. I did most of them in person, where I used both a tape recorder and my Ipad to take additional notes. I did follow up by phone and by email. A very few were done over the phone and with email questions because of the distance.
The process of writing the book has been challenging, gratifying, frustrating, emotionally draining, and overall very satisfying. It has been like birthing a child—from inception to delivery. I have been so very lucky to have good friends who opened their hearts to me as well as their list of contacts. Without that, I am not sure I would have had a book at all. These same women have been so supportive. They turn up at every reading and beam at me from the audience. They are the best of women!
What challenges did you face?
The frustrations came about mostly from my loneliness. When I wasn’t interviewing doctors or the men and women whose stories I tell, I was alone for many hours at the computer. Spending that much time by myself felt very isolating and I sought out opportunities to procrastinate. Sometimes I would take my laptop to Starbucks and write there, just not to be alone. I did too much shopping and lunching. I was keenly aware of how much I missed working collaboratively.
What advice do you have for women who are thinking of reinventing in midlife?
The biggest piece of advice I can give to women in midlife is that, if they can afford to do so, they should do that thing they have most wanted to do. Life is not a rehearsal. Time is short. People get sick. Do it now. Take the risk. I love the Teddy Roosevelt quote about taking a risk. It really helped me. It was better to try and fail, than to have spent a lifetime wondering what if.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
What advice do you have for women interested in publishing nonfiction?
I think that if someone wants to write a book, this is the best time ever to do it. Even if you can’t find a publisher, there are so many options for self-publishing and so many ways to promote using social media. And if they don’t know how to use social media, they can ask their kids or another young person. I did. They helped immensely with what programs to use, where to look for things, what was trending. I use Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. That takes up so much time as it is, I don’t have time for any other avenues. I did hire a wonderful publicist, Emi Battaglia at EBPR (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) who has been in the field for many years and is very knowledgeable.
If someone is interested in writing, I suggest adult or continuing education programs as a place to start. I took this one memoir class every semester at NYU for about three years because the instructor was so terrific (she has since retired). I learned so much about structuring a personal essay and was able to hone my craft. My two favorite writing books are Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Annie LeMott and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, who advises you to “throw out your darlings” (meaning that often you have to discard what you have written and are very attached to in the interest of a more cogent piece of writing). You need to learn to edit yourself, however hard it is to toss out those phrases you love but that don’t serve the work.
What are favorite nonfiction or fiction authors/books you love?
I am mostly a fiction reader. One of my all-time favorite and most recommended novels is The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. It is about motherhood and mothering, but in a most unexpected way. Another favorite is Tawni O”Dell’s Fragile Beasts. It’s a killer!
What’s next for you?
When I think about what is next, aside from promoting the book, I think about returning to playwriting. I have an idea that I am working on with my college roommate. We hope to write it and produce it, and I am looking forward to working on this together, to a sense of camaraderie. Working on a theatrical production is always a group effort and I am looking forward to having a little more of that back in my life. I also hope to continue writing short essays, as I am now a blogger for HuffPo50, and I really like the short format. Your write it. Polish it. Publish it. Someone hopefully reads it. And then you start again on something new. With my book, it took about three years from beginning to end. I am ready for a fresh topic!
Contact Debbie Slevin at email@example.com