Frisky Q&A: Writer Natalie Holbrook On Motherhood, Feminism & Creating Your Own Happiness

Natalie Holbrook writes the popular lifestyle blog Hey Natalie Jean, where she shares her thoughts on style, marriage, homemaking, and life in New York City with her husband and four-year-old son, Henry (also known as Huck). Over the years, Holbrook’s blog has followed her on a cross-country move from New York to a small town and back again, as well as through struggles with infertility. Now, she’s written her first book (also titled Hey Natalie Jean), a collection of essays and how-to’s. Holbrook had a chat with me about her writing process, motherhood, becoming better friends to one another, and of course, an all-important lesson on the virtues of no-shampoo life.

The Frisky: Can you tell me a little bit about the book?

Natalie Holbrook: It’s a collection of essays about marriage, motherhood, personal style and things that I think about life. It’s kind of a mess of everything!

What made you decide to write it?

I was approached by a few editors at [publishing company] Abrams about writing it, they asked if I’d ever considered writing a book and to be honest with you I hadn’t. My husband always hoped that I would and I think that my parents hoped that I would, but I had no interest in it whatsoever until they came to me and said “this is what we want you to write about, what do you think?” I was like “oh, well if you’re going to give me my topic, I’ll go for it!” It was like a homework assignment. It turned out to be one of the neatest experiences that I’ve ever had. It was hard! It was a good growing experience.

I know you’ve mentioned on your blog that writing the book was an emotional process and how it took a lot out of you at times. That must have been a transformative experience.

It really was. The blogging landscape is really interesting – some people approach you as if you’re a person that they know, some people approach you as if you’re a source of entertainment. So in that moment as I was writing this book, I had to face that whole sense of, “Who do you think you are Natalie, to be talking about your opinions? Who do you think you are to have anyone read this nonsense when you’re finished?” It was a moment where I had to really reconcile the things that I’d read about myself, both positive and negative, and find out how I really felt about myself. I had to find an inner source of confidence that said, “No, my story’s worth something, and the way I do things is fine and good and maybe valuable to someone,” because it was a lot of doubt to overcome when you put yourself out there on that kind of a scale. Blogs are one thing, because it’s just me and my computer screen, and even though people read it I don’t ever see them reading it. But having a book and having editors involved, it was very different for some reason. It was kind of like a joint blogging experience.

How has blogging impacted your life? It’s great to be able to connect with others in the way blogging enables but I imagine it would be a very strange feeling to consider which parts of yourself you want to put out there and which parts you don’t.

Yeah, absolutely. I came to it really slowly and organically because I started in 2005, when you had to pay extra to host photos because it took all this extra bandwidth, and I was blogging on Diaryland, I don’t even know if they exist anymore. For me it was just very personal, and it was what I did for fun! It was my outlet, it was how I communicated with my mom who was across the country. I was living in Brooklyn and she was in Portland and that was back when we had cellphone minutes, so you had to make sure you didn’t go over or you’d get charged, and so I would write the stories for her. Pretty soon it became something I did for myself to have a way to remember the good parts of my life and kind of brush aside the parts that I was struggling with. I moved to Idaho and it got really lonely and boring there, and it became this outlet that I really craved, that I could have a way of kind of controlling what little I could control in my life. Then when readers started coming, it was always this question – I mean the positives always outweigh the negatives, and they still do for the most part. So I’ve just kind of taken it one day at a time and been like, “well, I’m enjoying this still and there are people out there who I feel are really getting something out of this for whatever reason.” So it’s been this weird combination of a personal thing and a very public community thing. It’s been really neat to watch it evolve.

In both the book and the blog, you regularly highlight the fact that in many situations you can choose to focus on the small and positive parts of your life, even when things seem difficult or dull. I appreciate that you write about that because it’s something that we tend to forget when we’re so caught up in life’s craziness.

It’s true! Just remembering to take a minute to be like “hey, this right here is tiny and insignificant, but it’s really rad.” It’s amazing how those little tiny seconds can change everything for you, especially with motherhood — especially at the grocery store, the grocery store makes me crazy when I’m with my four-year-old because he wants everything and he asks all these questions and his little voice is so tiny, an I’m trying not to lose him and get stepped on. I have to stop and remind myself, “this is a fun experience, I’m going crazy and this is fun! And someday I’ll look back on this and be like ‘man, that was wild. That was hard and how fun was that?’” All it takes is just a tiny shift in perspective to remind yourself, “this right here is kind of a miracle!” I can love this while I’m in it instead of looking back and being like “oh, that really wasn’t so bad.”

Here at The Frisky, we’re a little obsessed with the no-shampoo/low-shampoo lifestyle, which I know you are a fan of. Is shampooing once a week weird at first? Do the oils in your hair have to adjust?

It’s a lot like going to therapy, because every day you look at yourself and assess the situation and you’re learning all these things about your hair, about its natural texture and your scalp and also how lazy you can possibly get! A lot of it too is learning to restructure the way you consider beauty and what you consider beautiful about yourself. If I were to stop wearing makeup, I’m curious about what I would decide I loved about my face that right now I don’t think that I like, you know what I mean? It was a nice way to stop and say “this is what God gave me, this is what I am on my own,” and I think that as women when we can finally embrace whatever weirdness we put out physically, naturally, there’s something really beautiful about it. So it was a neat process actually. I wrote in the book that it was a like a life-changing moment, how I stopped washing my hair and attained inner peace (laughs) but it really was kind of a breath, like “Oh, I don’t have to worry about my cowlicks, or whether or not I want to straighten this section, or this one part that always curls weird.” I can just look at it and go, “hey that’s cool, and that’s pretty, and I’m okay with it!” It’s really cheesy and very zen-sounding but it’s powerful!

In the book and on the blog, you talk a lot about buying clothes that are dependable, long-lasting and made locally if possible. What are your tips on finding local, well-made, ethical clothing?

Well these days, the internet is so amazing. On Etsy alone, you can find people who you never knew, and your own definition of local can change — either it’s your part of the country, your part of the state, or your part of the world even. I think the neat part about it is, as a reformed shopper — I used to shop for a hobby, it used to be my outlet and my way to relax — something that I realized is that when I know who made it and when I know where the materials came from and I know that there was a lot of effort put into it, I feel more beautiful in it and I feel special. I feel excited to put it on. That’s really for me what getting dressed is about, it’s not how I look necessarily but how I feel in it, and so that was kind of a revelation for me when I realized that. It’s like when you go to Barneys and spend way too much on a top, and then it turns out to be your favorite, just because it feels special, even if it’s no different from the cheap one you bought at H&M or whatever. It’s an emotional thing.

In a popular post of yours, you wrote about finding which aspects of religion feel right to you and carving out a way of being true to yourself and your needs. You mentioned an ongoing fight between who you are versus who you’re “supposed to be.” I appreciated you mentioning it because I think that’s a common thing for women to struggle with in various ways, and lots of women keep it to themselves and suffer with that conflict silently.

That’s something that I’ve struggled with. We’re all so alone and isolated as women because — I mean, we’re told all the time what it should look like and what it should feel like and how we should be doing things. Nowhere is that more obvious than when it comes to teaching your baby how to sleep, which is this weird concept, as if we can have any effect over another human being’s sleeping patterns. I get it, but it really isn’t possible, you know what I mean? I discovered pretty early on that if I let Huck nap in his stroller and if we co-slept at night, it was fantastic and I got this great sleep. But because all of my friends were really into sleep training and getting home for a nap, I felt like this big failure. I felt like I should be embarrassed, like I was cheating or taking the easy way out, and I struggled with that for a long time and looking back on it now, if I could say anything to myself as an early mom, I would say, “knock that off! Just be proud of yourself for figuring it out! Don’t even waste a second worrying about whether or not it’s how it’s ‘supposed’ to be.” In hindsight, when you realize looking back how much time you wasted feeling bad about it, it kind of helps you to put into perspective all the things that you worry about now, that you might someday be like “what the heck was I doing thinking about that so much?”

Is the way moms talk to each other about their parenting choices a tough part of being a new mother?

Yeah! It’s an undercurrent, and no one’s ever nasty to other people on purpose. We’re all coming from the same place of wanting to defend ourselves while at the same time wanting to — it’s just this weird thing. Because of it we all say stupid things and we react stupid ways, and I feel like that’s what we’re put on this earth to overcome. To learn how to just support each other and be open with each other.

I laughed a lot reading the essay in your book about your awkward misadventures at fashion week, because I have a feeling I’d have experienced fashion week in the exact same way.

It’s so funny because when I wrote that essay my editor said “I’m going to suggest you don’t put this in the book, just to save yourself some agony and angst because this is kind of an embarrassing story” and I was like “no, you don’t understand!” That’s probably one of my favorite essays in the whole book, it was just so humiliating and fantastic.

I think that story ties into the theme in your writing of being honest with each other about our less-than-glossy moments. Sometimes goofy things happen to us and it’s embarrassing, and we should talk about it! You mention in the essay that sometimes friends and acquaintances don’t tell each other the whole story, and how that can be awkward because you know they’re sugarcoating but it’s tough to address.

It’s a dance, isn’t it? I read Anne of Green Gables when I was 27 or 28. I’d never read it as a kid, I did see the movie as a kid and it made my stomach hurt because I was so embarrassed for her. The secondhand cringing was so bad that I had to turn it off! But reading it as an adult was life-changing because here was have this girl, and she is just a mess, and she’s all over the place, but she’s so proud of herself. She has such pluck! I just thought to myself, “we’re all Anne Shirley, we all make the biggest fools of ourselves constantly.” How fun to be able to realize that this is okay! We all can relate to these horribly embarrassing falling off the fence stories!

It’s a relief!

Yeah, there was definitely some kind of relief in writing it down and being like, “I am a screw-up, let’s all enjoy it for a minute!”

That said, if you could give one piece of advice to your readers, what would it be?

My one bit of advice is to always keep a Ziploc baggie of mini marshmallows in your bag at all times, because there is never a time when you will regret having it.

It’s hard to cover all the book’s topics in one sitting!

It kind of goes around and around! The one thing that I really felt when I was writing this book was the connection between femininity and feminism. How as women at this point, as third-wave feminists, we’ve been kind of conditioned to think we have to be a certain kind of woman in order to be a feminist and pushing the envelope and forwarding the cause. I used to struggle a little bit because I do love babies, and I love shopping, and I like thinking about what I want to wear when I get dressed. But I think that the one thing I really felt when I wrote it was that being a woman and embracing the fact that we like things like daisies and “You’ve Got Mail,” there’s a power in that. We can’t forget to take the things that are so stereotypically female and be proud of that too. It’s okay if we want to be moms and it’s okay if we like thinking about lipstick a lot. That’s great. It’s no different than loving the office life or being really good at jumping over hurdles in the Olympics. We all need to be proud of what we have. That’s feminism.

Hey Natalie Jean is available now for preorder and releases on March 17.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. 

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[Image via Hey Natalie Jean]