Laying Bare Our Truths: A Conversation with Marika Lindholm

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The morning of my Skype interview with Dr. Marika Lindholm, founder and director of ESME (Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere), I didn’t wear makeup. Lindholm is the woman responsible for producing ESME’s anthology, We Got This: Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart, and Humor. The stories and poetry of solo moms in this anthology encouraged me to be my authentic, everyday self for the interview, so I showed up bare-faced to the interview. When I told this to Marika—who wasn’t wearing makeup, either—she smiled.

“I appreciate that,” she said. “It’s like you understood this book is about laying bare our truths. It’s all about being truthful.”

We Got This is just that: truth laid bare. The words of solo moms—parents who manage their homes without the help of a partner, either by choice or circumstance—are remarkably transparent and inspiring. The book has a diverse representation, mothers whose backgrounds and experiences are varied. Some are famous, others are obscure; some are financially stable, others, barely making ends meet. Contributors include Amy Poehler, Ana Castillo, Dorianne Laux, Audre Lorde, Anne Lamott, Elizabeth Alexander, and asha bandele. Their pieces reside next to lesser-known writers, whose stories are equally important and powerful. The overall composite yields a book of surprising hope, women united in purpose, focused on the well-being of their children.

Lindholm, a sociologist and former professor at Northwestern University, founded ESME in 2015, after her own painful divorce. “During my first year as a solo mom,” she writes in the introduction to We Got This, “I was often sick, stressed and lonely.” Lindholm realized that solo moms needed a safe place where they could go to connect with others like them. ESME has divorced and widowed mothers, but also moms whose partners are deployed, incarcerated, deported, or (as Robin Rogers writes in the anthology) “lost to mental illness.” ESME is a conscious coalition, regardless of age, ethnicity, cultural background, sexual orientation, gender identity, or economic circumstances. Since its inception, it’s grown to be the largest networking site for solo mothers, providing information, articles, and resources.

Despite assorted interruptions (dogs barking, kids coming home, connection issues), Marika and I were able to discuss the book and her work with solo moms.

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The Rumpus: What was it like, putting this anthology together?

Marika Lindholm: If you asked me two years ago, I would have said, “It’s a piece of cake!” [Laughs] But right now, I’d say it’s been quite demanding. The biggest challenge was getting the rights to some amazing writers, but I had to keep pushing through all the bureaucracy, and it was worth it. We also received a lot of original content, submitted to ESME. My co-editors, Cheryl Dumesnil, Domenica Ruta, and Katherine Shonk, were amazing to work with. We had so much fun putting this together.

Rumpus: Was this an organic partnership, or did you purposefully seek out these co-editors?

Lindholm: Both! I had the passion and the drive to put this anthology together, but I knew I needed editors who were experts. We’ve all worked together before. Cheryl is a gifted poet, Domenica is a best-selling memoirist, and Katie has been an incredible fiction writer and editor her whole adult life. I’m a sociologist and not necessarily a professional writer, so I felt like the novice! [Laughs]

Rumpus: It’s unusual to have four co-editors listed on one book, but it seems fitting, since ESME is all about how networking brings you together and holds you up.

Lindholm: Yeah, one hundred percent. Of course, Cheryl was the one doing most of the reading and editing for the poetry part of it, and we really trusted her. As a memoirist, Domenica had a very strong sense of which personal essays worked. Katie and I divvied up the rest. I think we were the more grounded ones, saying, “You know, we have to fit these pieces together.”

Rumpus: Yeah, and they do fit together. That’s the beauty.

Lindholm: Thank you. As editors, we wanted to make sure the book spoke to not only different experiences, but also different identities. We wanted solo moms to find someone in these pages who they could connect with. As a sociologist, I knew that was important.

Rumpus: I was happy to find so much poetry in here!

Lindholm: Cheryl was definitely a big part of this. She knows how to network, and where to find contributors. Some of the poems are original submissions to ESME. We have a contest every year and we get wonderful, lovely poetry. I’m really not an expert on poetry, but I love the poems in this book. They tell stories with so much heart.

Rumpus: I agree. You have a poem in here by Dorianne Laux, “Return” about a mother welcoming her daughter back home after a visit with her father. As the daughter exits the plane—as Laux sees her child walking toward her—I had a visceral reaction.

Lindholm: Yeah, I just got goosebumps! I love that poem. Those separations are so difficult for both the children and the moms, but we all learn from them.

Rumpus: Another poem, “Notes to my Autistic Daughter” by Marianne Peel Forman, is one I read six or seven times. Gorgeous.

Lindholm: Yeah… [smiles] My mom just read the book and she said she was weeping after reading that poem. This was an original submission to ESME, and we loved it. So many moms are raising children with special needs, and looking at the data, we see how it puts added pressure and responsibility on relationships and marriages. Moms are usually the ones doing most of this amazing and heroic work, and this poem brings it home.

Rumpus: Your own essay, “Butterfly and Sunshine,” the story of your daughter’s parakeet flying away, then getting a replacement, is about the tragedy and healing that follows divorce, the story of rebuilding a family.

Lindholm: Yeah, I wanted to write something for the book, and when I sat down, this memory just flooded my senses. I’ll never forget how heartbroken I was when that bird flew away. Both my daughter and I were crying, pounding the pavement, looking for that bird. My son was so little, he didn’t understand. That was a very difficult time for us, but we made it! Those kids are twenty-four and twenty-two now, and they’re resilient, strong, awesome kids.

 Rumpus: It’s all about our kids, isn’t it? You mentioned the data on solo mothering, so let’s talk about that. According to recent, reliable statistics:

– the average solo mother makes $41,700 a year, $90,000 below the median for married couples;
– 57% raises one child;
– 75% employed about thirty hours a week;
– 39% are forty years old or older

This says a lot about the feminization of poverty, doesn’t it?

Lindholm: Being trained as a sociologist is helpful when I look at statistics. My signature class at Northwestern was called “Social Inequality: Race, Class, and Power.” I had a whole section on the feminization of poverty. The data is rough, as you pointed out. Now I’m here at ESME, in the trenches of social media, in chat rooms, and every day I see women on the verge of homelessness, looking for food for their kids. Some don’t have the energy or stamina to leave an abusive relationship. Some of these moms are widowed, or their partners are deployed or incarcerated. I would love for policymakers to read this book and figure out some kind of reform for these families… [Sighs] There are so many issues, unfortunately!

Rumpus: The book addresses these issues, but it’s also encouraging and hopeful. Was this part of the design?

Lindholm: Oh, yeah! We didn’t want to be depressing, that wasn’t the goal. [Laughs] There’s a lot of humor—some of it, self-deprecating—and self-reflection. Some stories in there still make me laugh, like that story by Evie Peck, where she’s sexting while her child’s soccer game is going on… [Laughs] We wanted to show resilience, hope, and encouragement.

Rumpus: There are also fun quotes in between the chapters. Anne Lamott, who always makes me smile, has a quote in here: “Hope is not about proving anything, it’s about choosing to believe this one thing: that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us.” Those statistics we just read? That’s some grim, bleak shit! We have to balance that with hope, right?

Lindholm: Yeah, we wanted the book to be hopeful, but at the same time, realistic. That’s why Lamott captures it. The “bleak shit” is really hard, and we’re not denying that, but no one is collapsing in despair, they’re overcoming challenges. We wanted the book to be a love-letter to solo moms, not a big bummer or a downer.

Rumpus: It’s very easy to read. I could pick it up, even if I only had five minutes, and it energized me!

Lindholm: Our team knew this had to be readable for solo moms. Even with the articles we publish in ESME—they are relatively short—we respect that moms don’t have a lot of extra time. We wanted the book to be something they could just pick up and be inspired. Depending on their mood, they could go to specific chapters. Want to read about dating? Go to the section, “Isn’t it Romantic?” Want inspiration? Go to, “Here Comes the Sun.” All four of us wanted the book to be something any mom could pick up and be satisfied.

Rumpus: Jen Waite’s essay, “From a Beautiful, Terrible Thing” tells a brilliant story of a young woman who’s just had a baby, but she’s recently found out that her husband is a cheat and a liar and she’s leaving him. She’s thinking of how to tell her aunt, who is shopping with her. The way it happens is so beautiful—her aunt just starts weeping and hugs her. Sharing our pain with family is so important, isn’t it?

Lindholm: It is. That essay was a late entry to the book. I read her book and I said, “We have to include something of hers in the book!” The way her aunt had that instant empathy because she knew how hard it was going to be for her niece, but she also knew she’d survive.

Rumpus: Another newly solo mom, Amy Poehler, contributes an essay entitled, “My Books on Divorce.” I was familiar with her work as an actress, but she says something at the beginning of the essay that disarmed me: “I don’t want to talk about my divorce because it’s too sad and too personal. I also don’t like people knowing my shit.” When you think about it, for someone who is going through a divorce, even if it’s the best idea in the world, it’s still a deeply personal tragedy, isn’t it?

Lindholm: Yeah, it’s hard. When someone comes to me and tells me they’re going to get a divorce, one thing I think—I would never say this out loud—is, You have no idea how hard it’s going to be. What I do say out loud is, “It’s going to be hard, but you will find yourself and be strong and life will get easier at some point.” When the divorce starts, there’s usually a really, really hard stretch. I have a lot of empathy for someone who is about to embark on that journey.

Rumpus: There’s one essay I cried over: “I’ve Loved Before but Never Like This” by asha bandele. It talks about the love that a mother has for her child….

Lindholm: I wanted that essay so much! I thought, There is no better way of ending the book than that asha bandele piece! You know, her daughter actually has an essay in the book, too!

Rumpus: I saw that! I loved the appendix—not just ordinary author bios, but really tender details of how being a solo mom changed them. asha bandele’s bio says that her daughter, the subject of her story, is now at Columbia. THAT even made me cry! You can tell I love your book, right?

Lindholm: This is making me so happy to hear! You know, the one strand—there are so many themes in this book—but the one strand that runs throughout is a mother’s fierce love for their children. The resilience our children have is because of that love. These kids are going to be okay because Mom poured EVERYTHING into making them feel not only supported and loved, but ready to set out and have their independence.

Rumpus: When do solo moms find time to write?

Lindholm: Moms find time to write when they’re waiting in the car, when their kid goes to bed, or whenever they find a spare moment. I once interviewed a solo mom about this, and she said, “It’s not about the perfect cup of tea or having the organized desk. It can’t be that precious. You just have to dig in and do it.” It’s really about eking out those moments, and not expecting the writing to be perfect. Moms who write just do it.

When I went through my divorce—I was still teaching at Northwestern—I found a class for creative writing that was being offered at night. I ended up getting into writing workshops, and that was part of my healing. It helped me get through it.

Rumpus: Writing is cathartic, isn’t it?

Lindholm: It’s so cathartic! After my divorce, I had tremendous guilt. I’m the one who made the decision to leave the marriage. I had two very young children, and the guilt was overwhelming. I felt like a failure because I couldn’t make it work. My identity shifted when I became a solo mom. Friends chose sides. Women friends suddenly thought I was interested in their husbands. I tried to write on the days the kids were with their dad, because I still had those moments where I could open up my heart and be in another world.

I always encourage solo moms who write to get into a workshop or a reading group or whatever, because it’s nice to make some new friends, too. Writing and new friends are an important part of feeling strong.

Rumpus: Can we talk about ESME and how much it’s grown? Did you ever think it would be what it is today?

Lindholm: The learning curve has been so steep. If someone would have told me how obsessed I would be with this project, I might have been wary. It’s been interesting to see how we’re filling this need. I am validated daily by what I see going on. Even with social media, we can laugh and share our lives. Things aren’t always serious. At ESME, we’re always looking to see if we can find new ways of helping solo moms. So, to answer your question: No, I had no idea. [Laughs]

Rumpus: The concept of ESME was new in 2015, because it involved networking and pairing of solo moms, but in a place where someone could be absolutely anonymous.

Lindholm: Yes, that was very important to us. In terms of safety and protection, sometimes it’s necessary for solo moms to use a pseudonym. If someone is in the throes of making a difficult decision, they can log on and read stories or some articles. Some of these are about domestic violence, others are about finances. You can find what you need without ever having to disclose your identity.

Rumpus: ESME is also a safe place for queer and nonbinary solo moms…

Lindholm: Yes. If you are a solo mom, you are part of our community.

Rumpus: A big part of our population is mothers whose partners are deployed, deported, or incarcerated. Have you seen these numbers growing?

Lindholm: Yes, especially with the incarcerated. The “school-to-prison pipeline” is a reality we address at ESME. We have articles that address children who visit their dads in prison. Also, we’ve seen an increase in opioid deaths; women are losing partners because of that as well.

Rumpus: Do you have any parting words? Possibly some advice for solo moms?

Lindholm: My words for solo moms? You’re amazing and you deserve parades! [Smiles] You are modern-day heroes and we respect that you’re raising twenty-three million kids in the United States. I want to encourage you to practice self-care, because you need to care for yourself in order to care for your kids. In the long-term, you’ll need to feed your identity, your health, and get sleep. Take care of your health because that’s the way that you’re going to make it.

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For more information about We Got This: Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart, and Humor, go to wegotthisbook.com where you can check out events, information, and locations of book launch parties near you.

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Photograph of Marika Lindholm by Circe.


Janet Rodriguez is an author, teacher and editor living in Northern California. Her work has appeared in Cloud Women’s Quarterly, Salon.com, American River Review, Calaveras Station, and Lunch Ticket Magazine. Rodriguez has co-authored two biographies, published in South Africa. Her short stories, essays, and poetry usually have themes of morality in faith communities and the mestiza experience in a culturally binary world. Currently she is an MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles, serving as an editor for the magazine, Lunch Ticket, where a bunch of younger nerds keep her on her toes. Find her on Twitter @brazenprincess, or her personal blog, Brazen Princess. More from this author →