On Writing, Motherhood and Mentorship

15 November 2016

lifteachotherup_libbyvanderploeg

“Hi, I’m Michele” said this impossibly gorgeous and tall British woman. “I’m Rina.” I replied.


I found myself bracing the frigid February wind to meet my new co-author. And like on any blind date, I was anxious and self-conscious. Just three months beforehand, another random stranger, Marianne Velmans, had emailed me suggesting I
write a book. After reading my preliminary book proposal, she asked – ever so delicately – if I would consider working with her former colleague Michele Hutchison.   


The story that Marianne had in mind was best written by two mothers – one who could write about pregnancy, babies and toddlers (early motherhood) and another who could write about childhood, schools, and teenagers. I wholeheartedly agreed with her. And so did Michele.


But could we trust Marianne to be the right matchmaker? The chemistry had to be just right.


Michele and I decided to meet in Utrecht – a city conveniently located in the middle of Holland, between her home in Amsterdam and mine in Doorn. I suggested the Japanese restaurant Moto because of my pregnancy cravings for udon and tempura.


I tried my best to come with no expectations and meeting in a public place would give a convenient exit strategy just in case it got awkward. I had a sneaking suspicion that she had similar sentiments too.

 

But when I saw her, I was already smitten and it seemed as I was saying hello to an old friend I hadn’t seen for a very long time.


I don’t remember much of our first meeting to be honest. But there were two particular instances that I can recall which left a lasting impression.


The first one was her gently letting me know how intense our relationship and contact would be. “You do know that we would regularly have to be in contact with each other,” said Michele.

 

“Sure, no problem.” I said. I could always use another real life friend. After all, most of my friends were what I called online friends – people who I regularly connected to on Facebook groups and messenger without ever having met in the real world, or who simply live thousands of miles away. My life was conventionally boring, filled with domestic chores, running after my three year-old son and being pregnant.

What I only understood afterwards, well into writing The Happiest Kids in the World was just how intense our communication had to be. We really had to be the best of friends, or it just wouldn’t work. Only after I co-wrote our book could I fully appreciate Michele’s kindness, openness and willingness to work with me. She also became my mentor, teaching me actually how to write a book. I’m ambitious (both by nature and as a product of Tiger parenting) but suffice to say, I had no idea what writing a book actually entailed until I started  doing it. And I guarantee you, it is not for the faint of heart to write a nonfiction book filled with interviews and an honest account of a foreign culture.


I also remember just how unexpectedly supportive Marianne and Michele were about me being an aspiring author and a mother. I blurted out, “Before agreeing with working with me, I have to tell you something. I’m pregnant.”


“Oh, I know. Marianne told me,” replied Michele.

I smiled. Marianne also had a similar positive reaction when I told her.  “Congratulations! What wonderful news, Rina.”


“You’re still willing to work with me?” I said.


“Of course!  Why should your pregnancy prevent you from writing this book?” Marianne said.


Where I come from, it seems that
motherhood and writing are incompatible. The creative life – if one wants to take it seriously and do well – is often romanticized as demanding all one’s attention, leaving little room and time for distractions. Motherhood – the all-consuming, martyr mother image that my American culture puts on a pedestal – demands so much energy that supposedly, not much is left over for creative endeavors, or even work at all.


Yet Michele and Marianne knew another secret. That one can reconcile one’s identities as both a
mother and a writer. The subject matter, after all, was about parenting the happiest kids in the world. Surely mothers should know a bit about happiness too. And apparently, Michele and Marianne were ready to show me the way.


(Lift Each Other GIF courtesy of illustrator and designer Libby VanderPloeg)

How We Became a Writing Duo

26 October 2016

how-we-became-writing-duo

 

I’ve just removed the card from Restaurant Moto in Utrecht from my wallet. I glanced to the right when walking down the Drieharingstraat the other night and noticed with a pang that it had gone. In February 2015, I’d visited the Japanese restaurant for the first time on a blind date with Rina. But my behind-the-scenes story goes way back, to 2002 when I’d just started working as a commissioning editor at Doubleday publishing house in London. It was a job I would keep for just two years, until 2004, when thirty-seven weeks pregnant with my son Benjamin, I moved to Amsterdam.

Working at Doubleday was like stepping into a  warm bath. Tucked away in Ealing, it was far from the buzz of Soho, the Strand and Covent Garden, where many other publishers are based. Transworld – the group Doubleday belongs to – prided itself on its friendly atmosphere. Workers were part of a large family with gentle father figure Larry Finlay at its head. Larry was the kind of person who would give you unsolicited advice on breastfeeding, keenly in touch with his feminine side. Marianne Velmans, my direct boss, was also a nurturing, guiding presence, eager to help her young editors make their way to the top of the business. It was the kind of place people joined and never left, there was very low staff turnover. And unusual for the cut-throat atmosphere of London companies, it was understanding of family commitments; many mothers and fathers were able to juggle parenthood and careers there.

I too imaged myself tucked away in Ealing commissioning and editing wonderful books for a great many years to come. But life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. I married a Dutchman and ended up in Amsterdam on maternity leave. And though I was planning to return to my fabulous job in London, the advantages of bringing up kids in Holland got in the way. I ended up finding a job in Dutch publishing and it wasn’t until a merger had me commuting for 2.5 hours a day that I decided to go freelance. I’d been translating Dutch books on the side for some years and now I made this my sole business. Translation would be my career. It was similar to editing but even more engrossing, since you’d spend not weeks but months working closely on a text.

Until I got a phone call from my old boss Marianne. Might I be interested in co-writing a book on why Dutch children were the happiest in the world? She already had one writer, an American expat with a young son, but she wanted someone to write about older kids and add a British perspective to the mix. She’d thought of me because she knew I’d stayed in Amsterdam precisely because of the advantages of bringing up children here, and I had plenty of experience of working closely with authors in an editorial role. Perhaps I could bring both skills to bear.

 

 

“Behind the Scenes of The Happiest Kids in the World” are blog posts that give readers a sneak peak in the making of our forthcoming book The Happiest Kids in The World.

Next time: Rina’s account of what happened in the Japanese restaurant…

P.S. Can’t wait to get your hands on the book and you currently live in Europe? Pre-order here. If you happen to live in the United States, you can get your copy here.

Behind the Scenes of The Happiest Kids in the World

19 October 2016

“Behind the Scenes of The Happiest Kids in the World” are blog posts that give readers a sneak peak in the making of our forthcoming book The Happiest Kids in The World.

Sneak peak Happiest Kids

As I am writing this blog post in my home office, the soft autumn light from my window filters through. The leaves are beginning to turn shades of yellow, red, orange and brown – and as they fall, neighbours collect them into piles on the street which children will find themselves unable to resist jumping into.  It’s starting to get dark earlier. The crisp air officially signals the beginning of sweater-and-wool-coat-season.

 

For many, October is still fresh with all the back-to-school energy and momentum of work obligations and deadlines.  For me, it’s a special anniversary.  Two years ago, I received an unsolicited email from Marianne Velmans- a publisher in London. The subject heading: ” Book proposal?” A simple but life altering request.


Marianne had been following my blog and loved what she read. She asked me if I would consider turning my writing into why Dutch children are the happiest in the world into a book. She was particularly interested in me divulging the secrets of Dutch parenting.

 

Me? Rina Mae? The stay-at-home American mom who lives in a Dutch village, scribbling down random observations in my blog? Even more so – I didn’t know anyone who had ever written a book. Being intimately familiar with poverty, my parents – like millions of other Filipino parents – preferred their children pursuing professions with more job security and stability – medicine, law, teaching, or engineering. So wanting to be the dutiful daughter, I had my eyes set on one day becoming a doctor. But “life” happened – I fell in love with a Dutch guy and found myself living in Holland to start a family.


But I have always loved to write. Motherhood actually made me a better writer. And I also recognise that living in the Netherlands with a supportive husband, healthy kids and access to great childcare when the need arises gives me the space and freedom to develop my writing. Yet, I never imagined that what was essentially a hobby to connect with other moms on the internet could actually blossom into a real profession.

 

Here was my chance to have a voice as a published author, and to write about what I am passionate about – how to raise kind, self-assured, happy children using an intuitive, relaxed approach, the Dutch way.   

 

I managed to collect my nerves and give her a call. Unsurprising, I was a bumbling nervous idiot, rambling incoherent sentences interspersed with thank yous. But Marianne was gracious enough to see my potential. Not only had I “met” my future publishing editor, but I had gained a mentor with a generous spirit to hold my hand and show me the way.
Sneak Peak

Stay tuned for the next blog post in the series: Michele’s story. How we became a writing duo.
P.S. Can’t wait to get your hands on the book and you currently live in Europe? Pre-order here. If you happen to live in the United States, you can get your copy here.