“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)