Zibby Owens: I'm excited to be interviewing Deborah Burns today who’s the author of memoir Saturday’s Child: A Daughter’s Memoir. A former media chief innovation officer and brand leader for ELLEgirl, Metropolitan Home, Elle Décor, and Elle Global Marketing, Deborah has helped many brands and execs reinvent themselves. She founded Skirting the Rules, a firm that helps other women find meaningful futures. She currently lives on Long Island with her husband and close to her three grown children.
Welcome, Deborah. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Deborah Burns: My pleasure. Thank you, Zibby.
Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what Saturday’s Child: A Daughter’s Memoir is about? What inspired you to write it?
Deborah: This book is about my very unconventional, larger-than-life mother. I was an only child who danced around an otherworldly beautiful goddess of a mother. Life with her was really all I knew. She may have been a tad narcissistic, not a word I knew back then. She was always central to my life. When she was fifty-six, she got breast cancer and after some lingering, was not a survivor. More than twenty years after her death, always carrying her with me, my life was changing. I realized it was time to reflect on that critically important relationship to me. The book was born from that reflection, which was full of revelation. Then I got inspired to actually write a book when I was on a trip to London with my own daughter. The mother-daughter story continues.
Zibby: Aside from the larger-than-life personality of your mom -- obviously, I know having read it -- what do you think is the most distinctive aspect of your relationship with your mom? What did you think made this book-worthy?
Deborah: I was born into the prim, conservative 1950s. My mother was anything but. What makes this book-worthy is even though my relationship with my mother was a unique one, it was a very subtle one. It was one that had a lot of delicateness and intricacies to it. I lived in the world of gray with my mother, never too sure, is it me or is it her? Somehow through this one unique story, I managed to help readers see themselves and their own relationships in it, if that makes sense. I know everybody always seeks some sort of universal aspect to the book. I think the themes of narcissism, perception and misperception, illusion, are important and in everyone’s life to a degree.
As you know from interviewing so many authors, how this began is not necessarily how it ended up. I took many twists and turns, and fits and starts, and all kinds of things to get to the book that you just read. I'm so thankful that it did resonate with you. I feel that some of its book-worthiness is only becoming apparent to me now. Some of the reviews, not only from the industry -- I'm going to put those aside. Just the reader reviews, not a day goes by now where on Instagram or Facebook, people DM me and tell me how helpful the book was to them or tell me things about my mother that are there for the interpreting because I have no judgment in the book. There's an optimism to the story that is important to people. It’s becoming more and more book-worthy to me as more people give me their feedback and see themselves in the story.
Zibby: That was a great answer. There were so many things that made it interesting. Your life in general -- I don't want to give anything away. I felt like some scenes in the book could've been entire books in and of themselves. There was a lot of drama, the drama of the everyday, really. I liked how you realized that you had a “weekend pals” relationship with your mom. She came and go your whole childhood. She was always out Tuesday nights. That's just what she did. She worked all day. She did what she wanted on the weekends. Sometimes you sat on a couch and waited for her two hours until she was ready. I'm thinking to myself, oh, my gosh. My kids won't wait two seconds for me to get ready. You lived with your two aunts in your home who took over most of the mom-like functions when your mom was doing her own thing. I was wondering was it enough for you to feel loved by your mom without the time being spent? I feel like there's this trickiness to the time spent versus the amount of love. Is it correlated? Is it not? Talk to me a little bit about that.
Deborah: That's a very layered, interesting question that I’ll break down a little. This book has sparked a lot of conversation around mothers and daughter and women and work. On one level, my mother created a life, crafted a life for herself that suited her needs that mothers today would applaud. It’s like, oh, my god, she didn't want to do that stuff, so she got her two sisters-in-law who were unmarried to come in, live with her, and take care of absolutely everything. She never washed so much as a glass again. I applaud it because I want a piece of that. I'm sure everyone can see themselves in that. There's that aspect to it. I think if my mother were alive and reading this book, she would say, “But Debbie,” which is what she called me, “But Debbie, I did what every mother was supposed to do. I gave you a happy home. You were surrounded by love. I saw you occasionally.” [laughter]
There is a fine balance there, even today, for time and nurturing. There is something to be said for presence that needs to be in the mix. Like any other recipe, it’s all the balance of the ingredient. In that balance, things were little a skewed or off for me. I had more of some ingredients but less of others. Her absence and her gloriousness, in many ways, got mixed with an emotional reserve that she had. She wasn't demonstrative where my aunts and my father’s Italian family were. She also was kind of on high, so more distant. It was easy for me as a sensitive child for love and beauty and the quality to get a little tangled for me because she was the way she was.
Relating it to children today, I became the mother I needed, which I think is something that we all do. I made sure that even though I worked and I ended up with a career that grew and grew and took me away more than I ever intended it to at the beginning, what I tried to do at the very least was shape the relationship with my children so that no matter what they knew they came first and they were fully loved. That's how it worked its way out for me and for my own family. I had to go through a relationship with my mother so that I could process it. All mothers intend to evolve for the better. With each generation, you have to reject something from the generation before because that's the nature of progress and evolution. What I tried to do in my own life was work. I had another world. I had a life where I existed in another world beyond being a suburban mother of three. At the same time, I blended quality that made my children feel fully loved.
Zibby: That sounds like you hit it out of the park. That's really all we can do.
Deborah: Let's hope so. Yes, for all of us. I know you have four. I just said to you in an email, I watched in awe because you're building and branding and establishing yourself so thoroughly in an industry with a powerful footprint. I know the kind of time that takes, and energy. I'm full of appreciation for what you're able to accomplish.
Zibby: Thank you. That's really sweet. Let's get back to your book for one second. You have this one conversation with your mom which stayed with me a lot. She says, “It’s not easy being a grown-up.” You respond, “It’s not easy being a kid.” Then you ask her what the hardest part is for her. She says, “I guess it’s the difference between what you want and what you get.” I wanted you to talk to me a little about that. It sounds to me like you have ended up with what you wanted, but perhaps that she never really did. Maybe that goes to her relationship with the role of Dom in the book, which I won't get into.
Deborah: There was always an air of disappoint that I picked up from my mother. She never spoke about it. She never drove home points to me. It was very clear to me at an early age that my mother was an extraordinary woman living an ordinary life. That was a sore spot for me because I was always on her team and championing her and never judged any of her actions, never had any resentment toward her in any way, which I never really looked at carefully into I was in my own midlife. She did not get what she wanted. In so many ways, she had all the attributes to get what she wanted.
That was always a little bit of disconnect for me and a little bit of an insecurity in the sense that if this woman couldn't get what she wanted -- she looked like Rita Hayworth when she woke up in the morning. It only got better from there. She was also extremely smart and excelled in history and math. You can be, in life, too beautiful. When you're that beautiful, no matter what your other attributes are, your calling card is always superficial and how you look. That was no different for her. When you live with someone who is so unattainable and so majestic, what it does to the child who doesn't look quite like her is to say, if she's not happy, if she didn't get what she wanted in life, what hope is there for the rest of us? That notion of it being difficult to be an adult is something that I was always very mindful of at an early age. It shaped a certain path for me. Even though I might have been a little uncertain, I did not want to lead an ordinary life. I almost wanted to step in and be a completion of something for her to make things come full circle. Whether it was something I had to prove to her or to myself, not being ordinary became important to me.
Zibby: That makes sense. I feel like your mother, if she lived today, it would be so much easier for her to get the attention that she was craving back then. There just wasn't the means for it. She would do YouTube videos of herself. There she’d be all over the place. There wasn't a forum for somebody like her back then. It led to so much frustration. I don't know if it’s a good or a bad thing now that anybody can pop themselves onto the public scene.
Deborah: I've been asked a lot, “What would your mother do if she was born in another generation?” I do see her as an actress. With the whole hashtag movements that are around, I think she would have, in another era, actually become an actress. I see her as that with her own -- I don't know if it would be a YouTube following, but she’d certainly have her own Instagram persona without a doubt. I also always see her in relationship to someone else. I see her being very happy at someone’s side and helping them build something together. My mother was a man’s woman. She was a woman’s woman too. She had a lot of friends, but she was a man’s woman. She really liked that whole dynamic and fed off of it, very much liked being the different woman, the one who could mingle between the worlds of women and the worlds of men. That set her apart in many ways for her era.
It might not be the same now. Whether she would be married to someone like a Ted Turner, I could see her doing that kind of thing and loving to move the pieces around on the chessboard of life with someone important at her side. One or the other, or maybe both. Jane Fonda was an actress and married to Ted Turner. Maybe she would've done the same thing. My father, who was so musically inclined, would probably have loved the platforms of today. All of his efforts creatively never made it through the music industry matrix [distorted audio] life of the time and DJs or whatever. Today would've been different. He had a strong business sense. He would've loved it and probably ended up producing. That's how I see him today. They're both so important to each other's stories. I would wish them well, maybe even in independent lives from one another.
Zibby: Your relationship with your dad and the way you wrote about him was just as poignant. I know it focuses more on your mother. You did subtitle it A Daughter’s Memoir, not a mother-daughter memoir, which I think is important because your relationship with your dad was super relevant to all of it, and sometimes it seemed a reaction to your relationship with your mom. The way that you wrote about what happened to him after his hernia surgery -- I won't go into any details because I don't want to give anything away. The way you wrote about that and your feelings about him and the closeness, it was so good. I was wondering what you thought about when one parent takes up all the air in the room, what happens to that other relationship?
Deborah: My mother eclipsed everything for me, maybe because my aunts were there too. I loved them. I knew they loved me, but my prize was winning my mother. That chase and that longing was preeminent for me. My father and my aunts, as much as I loved them, were a little diminished by the qualities of the relationship with my mother. Had I been more certain of her love and devotion, it might have been different for the other people in the household, for the other adults in the household. Unfortunately, he was just not the same intense focus that my mother was. That said, he was extraordinarily important to me. By the time I finished the book, I realized I'm so much like him. This has been a completion not only for mother, but for my father as well. I was able to do things in my own life that fulfilled some hope or mission for him. Did I answer your whole question? I know I got caught up in my relationship with him.
Zibby: It’s great. I liked hearing a little more about it. I know we’re almost out of time now. I want to hear more about Skirting the Rules. I spent a long time on that website last night reading all the questions.
Deborah: Thank you. I'm a creator too. This has been a creative journey that has taken years to get to the book that you held in your hand. As I said, at the beginning it was sparked by this notion to write. It happened while I was in London. I was looking at portraits of maverick women and unconventional women from the eighteenth century. As usual, I was thinking about my mother and picturing her in their time. Then like a movie scene or a lightning strike, I got hit with this notion where I became compelled to write, to learn about these women and write more about them. The phrase “skirting the rules” came into my head. Fast forward six years later, Skirting the Rules is a trademarked brand. Even before this book came out, it opened the door to helping women understand themselves more deeply and to share the beginning of my own reinvention journey. The site is -- you're not there yet. Thank you for taking the quiz anyway. The site is more for women who need to reinvent their lives. My work world has really always been about invention and reinvention and working with brands, and even more so since the magazine brands that I worked on looked their digital future in the eye and really didn't know what to say next. Everything is in a state of reinvention in challenging times as everything accelerates and swiftly moves from an old story to a new one.
The process of writing this particular book, which took fifteen months of nonstop where I put everything else in a drawer and basically took my first sabbatical ever because the moment to write this book and tell this story was now -- I decided that there were so many lessons in that, that I would create a program that helped other women who were fifty-plus be the author of their own lives. I went through certain steps to get here. I thought that was a worthy endeavor to help other women. Always working in women’s media, I know there's one struggle. That is women are searching for something. My own authentic journey can maybe illuminate some spots and some paths in the road. I started doing it at library while I was writing the book. That was the one thing I did. I would have a Skirting the Rules course. It’s an eight-step program. I work with women. Now I’ll be starting to work with corporations on helping women invent and reinvent for their best futures. All of this came out of the book and that first impulse to write about my mother. It led to all of these other things.
Zibby: Wow. How great is that? You end up helping all these other people. That's wonderful.
Deborah: Who knew? Now it seems that there might be workshops for boomer mothers like me and their millennial daughters. I know we’re almost out of time, but it is an interesting point. My generation of mothers is really the first to have careers en masse. Now the world is changing, as we talked about. Millennials, who are our prodigy, want more balance in their lives. They may not want the same things that we wanted. I kind of unraveled the myth of my mother and humanized her as part of the process of writing the book. There are many myths around women and work and achievement, especially as the corporations that hired my generation are melting away and transforming from hundreds of thousands of corporations into millions and millions of untethered millennials trying to find their next thing. It’s a never-before-seen moment in time where our daughters may not be able to, at least on paper, title-wise, surpass the boomer mothers of my generation. That's fascinating to me. It opens the door to a gazillion new conversations.
Zibby: Do you have any parting advice to aspiring authors out there?
Deborah: I do. First of all, there's a stick-to-it-ness that is a part of writing. Everyone seems to go through the same motions of reading what they wrote and saying, “Oh, my god. This is the worst thing ever. No one will ever read this.” I'm an enormous fan of women’s voices. There are so many stories that need to be told. Getting it out in draft form and just accepting that every finished book is draft 392. Life is in the editing. The book is no different. Stick with it. Keep refining.
Zibby: That's great. Thank you so much. I really appreciate your coming on the show and taking all your time and sharing your story with us.
Deborah: It was so great. Keep doing what you're doing as well, so impressed.
Zibby: Thank you. Take care.