I'm thrilled to be interviewing Cathy Guisewite, the Emmy-winning creator the Cathy comic strip that ran in almost 1,400 newspapers for 34 years. Cathy’s book Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault is amazing and so funny. Cathy currently lives in California.
Hi, Cathy. How are you?
Cathy Guisewite: Hi. I'm great, Zibby. Thank you for having me. I love the name of your podcast.
Zibby: Thank you. I feel like I should be your one-woman marketing team because I've recommended your book to so many people. I've literally never laughed so hard at a book in my lifetime.
Cathy: Thank you so much.
Zibby: It was so funny. I knew from the beginning, your introduction, if I could just read the first few sentences, “I'm standing in the doorway of my closet, on the threshold of What Happens Next, clutching my last shred of personal power: a great big black trash bag into which I want to dump all my clothes. Nothing fits. I don't mean ‘Ha-ha, nothing fits.’ I mean nothing fits.” [laughs] Talk to me about how you decided to start your book off this way and how you decided to start your book off at all.
Cathy: I started the book off this way because that’s exactly the feeling of this time of my life. I just want to clear everything out to claim some control over these grown-up years where everything feels like it’s out my control. I want to dump everything in a trash bag, start over. At the exact same time, because everything is changing and disappearing, I want to keep everything. It’s a push and pull that informs pretty much the whole book and my life at this time, this push and pull between feeling I'm losing control and wanting to have some control. I did not set out to write a book. The book came together as a series of little stories about this time of great big transition. Just like I had, for so many years, dumped all emotions, all angst, all guilt, all shame, all triumph into the little four boxes of the comic strip, I worked all that stuff out of on paper.
When everything started changing in such huge ways after I quit the comic strip, it’s like I had to process it on paper. I had to write out what was going on. The act of writing helped me find the humor in situations that were not funny. One of the essays is called “Novocaine in the Waiting Room.” This grew from, like all the essays did, from a real experience of me sitting in the dentist’s office with twenty minutes to spare waiting for my appointment time sobbing over the parenting books in the waiting room, looking at page after page of all the beautiful mother-daughter stories in the books, all the things I should've, could've, would've, wished I had done with my daughter and desperately wanting to reclaim that time. If I were doing a comic strip, it would just be a little joke about that. In the essay form, I could write about all the hopes and dreams I had as a mom. I thought it would be so easy to add an infant to my life, how I could work from home, draw the comic strip with one hand while rocking my baby with the other hand, versus the reality of what happened. It’s a way to work out all of the emotion of that on paper.
Zibby: It came through and was so relatable. You allowed the reader to laugh along with you at some points. Also, some moments were just poignant and sad. That chapter you referenced, that tugged at the heartstrings. In addition to doing a lot of about your mothering, you talked about your daughtering, if you can make that a verb. I'm going to quote you. You said, “I became a full-time mom at the very moment my daughter” -- who was going away to college -- “decided to reject all input from anyone over age thirty. I became a full-time daughter the moment my parents announced they would barricade the front door if I tried to bring in anyone or anything to assist them.” I wanted to know what this moment in time has really been like for you, aside from the fact that now you have to eat chicken that's been in the freezer for twelve years from your mom’s house.
Cathy: [laughs] It’s been a great big tangle of emotions. It’s felt like everything is spinning out of control. I write about it feeling like the panini generation where I'm squashed between trying to care for my aging parents, and trying to care for my aging daughter, and trying to figure out my own aging body squashed in the middle, and not having time to do all the things in life that I thought I could do. Also, reflecting on those things like in an essay called “The Attack Mom,” it’s the very real experience of missing my daughter, desperately wanting to talk to her, express all the pride and love and encouragement and support when she went away to college, and then waiting in the airport ready to dump all of that on her when she gets off the plane. The second I see her, I criticize her hair. I criticize the dumpy clothes she's wearing. There's stuff pouring out of her bag. I'm like a one-woman home security squad, seeing all the wrong things that she brought off the airplane with her.
The book is a lot about the complicated emotions that we have at all times of our life. Some of the essays are looking back and thinking about the ways that my generation thought we were changing the world for women that aren’t changed at all, some ways the world has changed, that we did change, that I think make it even more complicated for young women. One of the essays is called “The Build-A-Boob Workshop.” I talk about the difference between my generations, where our moms put little hooks in all of our clothes so the horror of a white bra strap showing wouldn't ever be seen, versus shopping with my daughter who rushes in toward the magenta, push-up, power bra with the matching thong that is meant to be displayed. It’s meant to be shown on the outside. Essays gave me the freedom to write about the complicated feeling of being part of the generation that liberated women from feeling restricted in how they felt about their bodies, and then now seeing our daughters take that freedom, and me feeling that it makes the next generation more vulnerable in a way, literally more naked and more vulnerable. Not right or wrong, it’s just complicated.
Zibby: It was great how you were able to weave in that layer of parenting in different decades, different eras, with all the moment-to-moment crises about parenting and also about just being a mom yourself. You were talking at one point with a bunch of your fellow mom friends from when your daughter was in kindergarten. You were all sitting around commiserating about taking care of your parents, which I thought was such an interesting vantage point. Can you talk about how it’s been trying to deal with them at the same time, or how it was when you wrote the book?
Cathy: Essays like “Helicopter Daughter,” that essay is about trying to get the car keys away from our parents and literally the challenge where, at this age, it feels like we’re being parents to children, except now we’re being parents to our parents. There aren’t instruction books. There aren’t guides for this time. There aren’t all those books saying this is normal at this stage. It’s the sadness of watching all the develop milestones go backwards. Mom and Dad could run. Now, they can walk. Then they can walk slower. Then they're walking with a walker. It’s depressing.
It’s very comforting, as it always has been, to have the support of other women and know other women are going through the same things and reaching out with a hand to each other. In an essay called “Helicopter Daughter,” I talk about chasing my parents around the house trying to get them to wear their security alert pendants to keep them safe when my sisters and I aren’t there. How wonderful it is that they feel so independent, that they don't want anybody to think they're old or see anything in their house that makes them look old. They're so independent, yet they seem so fragile to me. It’s scary. It’s scary to be a parent to my parents. It’s a little bit sad. It helped me process it by working it out in the essays.
Zibby: The humor, again, you were so funny. The chapter when you were helping with the laptop, where it was duct taped down to the desk and you were trying to get your dad to move it, he was saying the battery might not be charged. You were like, “It’s been charging for three years.” [laughs] So funny. It was hilarious. I also like how you have a commentary on life as it is today in your chapter “I Would Wash My Hands of This If Only I Could.” You talk about how you can't get those automatic sinks to work in the ladies’ room. I was laughing so hard. I have the same thing. I felt like I personally was cursed, like I'm the only one who can't figure those things out.
Cathy: Why is that?
Zibby: I don't know. It’s crazy. Who thought that would be easier?
Cathy: Those little moments stack up on us. When you look around and even the old ladies, even the little, tiny toddlers are sticking their hands under the sink and it’s recognizing them as human life forms getting water. They can get soap. They can get the towels. When I stick my hand under the same sink, nothing happens. It’s like I don't exist to the automatic hand washing system. They're frustrating little moments. It’s frustrating to even be bothered by the moments. I'm sayin’ that those little moments where the world seems to work differently for everybody else than it works for me, they stack up in us and on us. By the end of the day, a day that starts out so triumphantly, when all those little things stack up on us, it chips away at your sense of confidence and competence and your sense of yourself. We need to know it's happening for everybody.
Zibby: That's very comforting for me. Thank you. [laughs] Another essay that I was crying laughing at was when you were in the sporting goods store and you were trapped in the sports bra in the dressing room. You said, “I've been stuck in this sports bra for seventeen minutes, have contorted my body every way possible to get out of it, tried to wrench it upward, tug it downward, pry it away from my crushed ribcage.” You go on and on about it until you're imagining you're going to be found in that dressing room and never escape. It’s just so great. How great to shine light on, as you said, these little frustrations that make up life? When you're going through these moments, are you thinking to yourself, oh my gosh, I have to write this as an essay?
Cathy: I'm not thinking I have to write it, but when I got home from those moments, I did write it. I found comfort in writing it out exactly like I used to find comfort in writing the comic strip. I loved that I could make a bigger point about some things. I have the time and space in that essay to talk about how sports bras are a perfect example of something that was invented for women that should liberate women to participate in sports. It should be a very freeing piece of clothing. It makes it possible for women to run and play all those sports like the boys do. Yet if you can get one on, most of us can't get it off.
It becomes, like a lot of things invented for women that seem like they're making the world better for us, are actually just constricting us in new and differently packaged ways. It helps to be aware of that. It’s like how my generation burnt bras and got rid of girdles. That was done. We were free of that. We now can love our beautiful, healthy bodies in all shapes and forms. My generation helped liberate us. I was in the airport yesterday. There’s a Spanx store in almost every airport I go into, as though a woman can't even get on a plane without buying the new version of the girdle, which is pretty much chest-to-knee Spanx intended to help mold a person’s body into a shape that it isn't exactly. Why are we doing that at a time when we’re supposed to feel so good about ourselves? It’s complicated. That's all I can say.
Zibby: It links back to all the time you spent writing about food and trying to find comfort from food yourself, and then obviously the aftereffects like the scene you wrote when you were counting out the almonds and trying to measure because of course, the 436 grams of almonds, what does that even mean? You were trying to portion it out for yourself. I just love your inner dialogue about eating.
Cathy: There's also an essay called “My Meaningless Midlife Six-Minute Fling.” I write about the experience I've had, sadly way more than one time, where I'm in the grocery store and realize that the single-serving snack bag that I picked up and ate while I was shopping, intending of course to pay for it but I ate it during the course of the shopping, realizing that it didn't contain one serving. It contained six servings and realizing that in my first few minutes of shopping, I've now eaten more calories than I'm supposed to eat in an entire day just because I didn't squint harder enough at the label.
Zibby: Then you cheat on your Fitbit. [laughs]
Cathy: I cheated on my Fitbit. Yes, I did. That was a powerful moment where I walked out of the house without anything counting my steps. Going back to the food and how I watched my daughter criticizing me for my relationship with Cool Whip, which is part of a long, long list of foods that are not allowed in my house under any circumstances because man, I just eat it frozen solid.
Zibby: Did you say you wanted to go back to talking about the eating, or was it about the Cool Whip?
Cathy: The interesting thing about eating, I also make some comparisons with men in the book. Men don't count their food. It seems like women, they measure all food, like the almond essay. I measure all food. I've never eaten a bowl of cereal in my life without measuring it. I cheat because I always have a little bit extra. I always congratulate myself with celebratory servings that I spill on the counter. When I talk about being married for a period of time and difference between the relationship with food that women have and the relationship with food that men have, it’s just wrong. Men have a lot more time and lot more freedom in their lives. That's all I can say. It’s among the things that are not our fault.
Zibby: I saw on Instagram that you were at a book signing recently with your mom. I was wondering how your family feels about all the things that you talked about in the book, about them and adopting your daughter and all the stuff about your family. Are they happy? She certainly looked very proud. I'm sure she is. Do they feel comfortable with that?
Cathy: My mom, in the book, I write about her being age ninety. Now, she's ninety-seven. She not only did the book signing thing the other day, but I'm the narrator on the audiobook for Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault. Mom narrated the mom parts of many of the essays in the Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault, which is, of course, an unbelievably meaningful thing for me to have Mom’s voice on my audiobook. Also, it was a blast for Mom. She has always had a great capacity for complete denial. She doesn't want to admit that it was her in the comic strip and doesn't want to admit that it’s her in the book. She has a great sense of humor about herself. When she doesn't have a sense of humor, then she just pretends I'm writing about somebody else. That's a beautiful thing.
For my daughter, we've been through the worst mother-daughter years. We’re now in the best ones where she and I are best, best friends. I write much more in Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault. Cathy never had a kid in the comic strip. This book is much more about the circle of life, about being a mother-daughter, mother-daughter, being part of that circle. My daughter appreciates her part in it. I think she really appreciates the fact that the essays I wrote about mother-daughter things, I wrote much more from the point of view of me as her mom, not who she was and is, the challenges of being her mom. One of the very first essays I did after I quit the strip and after I'd had this long year of being her mom while she went through her last year of high school, she was about to leave for college. I was walking through the house. She wasn’t home. I was walking through the house and this trail of her belongings through the house, the sweatshirts, the tank tops, the jewelry, all the stuff a teenage daughter leaves lying around. I was walking through the trail of the house just overwhelmed with grief that this time of life was over. She was about to move to college.
It would never ever be the same with her. I had quit the strip. I'd had this time. Now, it was done, never coming back, and the profound quiet and loneliness and emptiness of that. Then I realized that she had already left for college two days before. [laughs] This wasn’t what she was taking. This trail of her belongings was all the stuff she had left in the house for me to pick up. Then I moved from being grief stricken to being irritated with myself that I never taught her how to pick up, how to take care of her stuff. She was so spoiled that she left it all for Mom to do. I wound up on the bed of her room surrounding myself with stuffed animals and crying into the complicated emotions of all of that, of everything I hoped and dreamed for her, everything I wanted for her, everything she is, and the combination of sadness and irritation. That circumstance became the start of one of my favorite essays in the book called “It Took a Village,” where I talk about all that, the loss and the happiness and the letting go and the hanging on and what it’s like to be a mom.
Zibby: It was so great that you shared your experience. It was one of the best I've read, really. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors now that you've made it through your amazing book?
Cathy: I've never made anything up. I’ll just say that. Sometimes it takes a while to get to the truth of things. I've always written honestly from exactly what's going on in my life. I think that when people do that, it’s magically relatable to other people. It seems like we all go through a lot of the same things.
Zibby: I would definitely call this book magically relatable. That was a great way to put it. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books” and sharing your story.
Cathy: Thank you so much for having me.
Zibby: My pleasure.