Deborah Copaken Kogan is/has been many things: photographer, television news producer, journalist, author, stage parent, and, perhaps most importantly, a mother to 14 year old Jacob, 12 year old Sasha, and 3 ½ year old Leo. Her most recent book, HELL IS OTHER PARENTS, is a collection of humorous essays on being a parent and surviving other parents. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, children and dog.
You can also follow Deb on Twitter: http://twitter.com/dckogan
Q: Pretend we're filming a virtual reality show of your family. What would the camera see in a typical day?
DEBORAH: Oh god! Getting up at 5:45a to walk the dog (getting the dog was my daughter's idea). Then I'd wake up my son at 6am. I have three kids in three different schools and my daughter at 6:30a, then baby at 7. Breakfast is chaos, as you can imagine. Luckily, the older kids can get to their own schools. I ride my younger son to school on a bicycle until it gets too cold, then we take the subway. Finally, I have a moment to sit and write from about 9am until about 3:30. Then, you can see me cowering inside my office to try to get a few more hours until the kids bother me. We live in Harlem now, so I have an office inside the home, which is nice. Then, I make snacks for them.
Q:: What's one of your favorite daily rituals with your children?
DEBORAH: Definitely family dinner. We insist on having family dinner together five nights a week. Every study says this is vitally important to family development and marital cohesiveness. My husband had been abandoned as a child and he did the emotional equivalent of that when the children were young, he would stay at the office late. But then I put my foot down and we worked through his issues and he stepped up and he's a wonderful father and a really good cook! I'm usually his sous chef. We end up having a late dinner around eight, but it's a fantastic meal with wine and everything. We all sit for an hour and eat and talk. That's where the children's stories about their day come out. If the baby starts getting up to walk around, I bring him back to the table, so everyone understands how important dinnertime is. If we didn't have that, we wouldn't be the family I wanted us to be. Family life these days is so much like a house of cards, so when we can just sit down as a family when no one's text messaging or doing homework or work, it means a lot to all of us.
Q: There will always something that leaves you challenged as a parent. What is it for you right now?
DEBORAH: My answer is very particular to me at this snapshot moment in my life. I have a 14 year old, a 12 year old and an almost 4 year old. Children between the ages of 5-12 aren't minimal, but they're easy to deal with. But toddlerdom and middle school are their own fiefdom. And, having a Freshman boy entering high school is a whole other ball of wax. I'm dealing with all of these spans, all at once. A toddler can suck the air out of a family needing more attention and having an actor in the family can also do the same thing. I feel like I'm being pulled in three different directions and I can't seem to do it all at once. Everyone's crisis seem to happen on the same day. And, I have a novel that's due in a year and I'm trying to put together a Planned Parenthood benefit for HELL IS OTHER PARENTS. I get involved in a lot of things work-wise and with my parenting, so I often find I'm still working at midnight and not sure if I'm giving enough.
Q: Your former jobs as a war photographer and television producer were both all-encompassing occupations. How do they compare to motherhood?
I decided to start a family after my career as a war photographer. The raw truth that no one wants to admit is that one parent needs to have a more flexible job. Either you have full time childcare to pick up the slack or, one parents has to have that flexible schedule where they can pick up a sick child, buy the last minute things for a school project or other small calamities. There's got to be a parent or well-paid caregiver for that. I'm not saying it has to be the woman or the man, but ideally, there has to be one person — especially if you're middle class (like us) and can't afford a caregiver. Ideally it would be a 50/50 split between both parents.
We in the US haven't caught up with some of the European countries. For the average middle class family, there's nothing here like there is in France and or Finland with a 6-12 month maternity/paternity leave. However, my husband actually asked his for paternity leave when our third son, Leo, was five months old, and he got it. This actually helped me to finish my novel, BETWEEN HERE AND APRIL.
Q: In your book, HELL IS OTHER PARENTS, you share instances of other parents giving you unsolicited advice. Can you share a recent example of unsolicited advice someone has given you?
Just yesterday, I was on the beach (we're on vacation right now) and I'm sitting under the umbrella reading a book, my daughter is enjoying her book, and my 3 ½ year old son is sitting in a big hole my brother-in-law dug for him. A woman (she had to a mother) came up under our umbrella and said, "we're at the beach and your child is sitting in a hole." I told her I new what he was doing. "Well," she said. "He could drown." We weren't even near the shoreline! I thanked her for her "advice" and when she left my daughter and I turned to each other and laughed. I wish I had been wearing my "Hell is Other Parents" tee shirt.
Q: Can you give us a little insight into what the life of a stage parent is like?
DEBORAH: It's hard being a parent on set. Films take a lot out of parents. There are parents that devote their lives to their kid's career. But there are also some of us who have other jobs, and it takes a lot of time and resources away from both work and home life. That's what I tried to convey in my essay, "The Adolescent Vulcan." When you're physically gone from home or when your attention is on one person, things can start to unravel at home. Kids need consistency in their lives and an acting schedule doesn't really allow for that.
Q: Since you are an urban parent, any little tips for other urban parents on the forum?
Something you learned or thought of that's made your life easier?
Yes. I decided that at age 8-9, my kids could walk to the corner store (without crossing the street) to buy something I needed for dinner, like an avocado. At age 10 I decided they could take a bus to get to where they needed to go, and age 12, a subway. I can't tell you what it's done for my children's self-esteem to get where they want, how they want.
Adding to that, I'm also doing something that my parents did for me, which is not giving a curfew. When my parents did that, I felt they were handing me a lot of trust and responsibility, and actually, I never really came home that late. I've done that with my own kids (the older ones) and my older son hasn't taken advantage of it. Yes, he's come home late a few times, but he's always called to let us know where he is.
Our job as parents is to push them out of the nest and I feel we're able to do that a little earlier in the city. That's a reason why we chose to live here, to give them that edge. My son and I were in Port Authority recently and he said to me, "thank you so much for letting us grow up in the city." I asked him why he said that and he told me it's because there's always something going on around him. There's chaos, there's always something to do or to see. And that's why we chose to do it, I just never expected to get any recognition for it, so it was unexpected, but really nice.
Q: Are there any traditions you and your husband have taken from your childhoods and pass on to your children?
DEBORAH: Apart from the family dinner, my husband is Russian and one thing that Russians do before they depart for a trip is that they sit down on their suitcases before they go. It's about stopping to think about a new place/transition before moving on. It's just about a minute and in that time to stop and think; it calms the family down before a trip. We stop thinking about last minute things to pack, what we may have forgotten, what we over-packed, and we think about the experience and where we're going.
Additionally, my Dad made a point of spending alone time with each of his daughters (I'm one of four girls). It was incredibly important and it's in my bank of memories. I do that same thing with each of my children. Like right now, I'm on vacation, and my daughter wanted a kite. We went and got a kite and flew it and I love that my daughter has that memory of her and I flying a kite alone together on vacation.
My Dad used to take me on bike rides on the back of his bike. I remember being on his bike when I was about two year old, the sun hitting my cheeks and the wind rustling my hair. I made sure to have a bike seat on my bike so I could give my kids that same memory.
Growing up, what was your favourite book?
Catcher in the Rye. I remember this being the moment where I transitioned from childhood to adolescents I read it on the beach in CC when I was thirteen and I remember this was the defining moment of that time. As for a children's book, Hansel and Gretel. I thought it was crazy how a mother would send her children out in the world to die. My older children weren't into it, but my younger son, Leo, is and asks for it every night.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I saw it when it first came out and three times afterwards and I thought nothing had ever matched the experience of watching that movie. And I swear to god, that bubble scene and seeing them float up to the ceiling and thinking they're going to get killed and the gobstopper scenes, they're still, to this day, the images that come up when I know I'm doing something wrong – it's a gobstopper moment.
What did you most want to be when you grew up?
? It changed over the years. In my Dr. Suess book, my book about me, I wrote "a violinist and a mommy," at about six or seven I wanted to be a writer. That stayed the same for a long time until I got to high school, but there weren't really any creative writing classes in my high school and college, there really wasn't a creative writing dept. The one class they did have in writing, I didn't get into. But I got into film and photography. These classes lead me to pursuing photojournalism, and I got really into that and did well at it. Then I got into TV and that sucked the life out of me. Then it was back to writing. So I'm finally doing what I wanted to do at age seven.
Who was your inspiration(s) and why?
Helen Keller. I saw that movie about her and then read the book, and I thought if this woman who is blind, deaf and dumb could accomplish this, then I, with all of the advantages I have, could accomplish things, too.
My father was also very inspiring. Both because he could be very into his work and love what he did, but leave it at the door at the end of the day. When he came home, we had "Dickey time" (his name was Richard), he'd rall us up and do airplane, etc. even some of the neighborhood kids would come over for Dickey time. I liked the fact that he could wear both hats, he could be a great lawyer by day and come home and really be an engaging parent at night. When I thought of who I wanted to be as a worker, I though of him and how he inspired me to be good at both things.
Teachers have also been an inspiration. My English teacher, Mr. Gillard, was a big one. I can still recite all of the prepositions because of him. He was a true inspiration. As was Christopher James, my photography teacher in college. He really inspired me.
And, John Glenn — I was born in 1966 — who wouldn't be inspired by him then? I wrote my first school report on him and still remember looking him up in the encyclopedia …
If you could tell your younger self one thing you know now, what would it be?
Don't be afraid to fail. Keep failing. It's what allows you to succeed. I was a perfectionist kid, anal in many ways. I wish I could tell that anal, straight A child that she didn't have to be the best at everything. If she didn't like Math, she could fail at math. Just be happy.