Elissa Schappell Peels Away the Labels with “Blueprints for Building Better Girls”

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Book_001.jpgElissa Schappell is an independent thinker, a mom, an author and a feminist. Based on those four labels, it’s likely you have already created an image of her in your mind. It’s that cycle of thought that inspired Schappell to write the book “Blueprints for Building Better Girls.”

After becoming a mom, Schappell worked to get her mind around what the “mom” label really meant for her. She began to observe mothers from a new perspective, which led her to think about all the other labels society has attached to women based on individual style, social position, career and personal association. She decided it was time to make people think about these labels – for good and bad – which she does in the pages of “Blueprints for Building Better Girls.” Following are excerpts from our conversation on her influences, parenting and inspirations.

You seem passionate about breaking down stereotypes of women. What influences in your life brought you to write about women?
I have always felt that it is my job to write about the experiences we all share but don’t talk about, either because we don’t think we should, or we can’t articulate our feelings. In this book, I wanted to address how at odds the reality of women’s lives are with the labels society has slapped on them. You want to rob someone of power? Take away their individuality. Good mother, bad wife, slut, party girl. Women are so much more complicated and dangerous than the culture would like us to be.

How have you learned to manage the many chapters in your career while raising children?
As a writer, you can always be working. When at my desk, I was thinking, I should be with my kids; and when I was with my kids, I was thinking, I should be writing. It took me so long to figure out that the only way to maximize my time writing and with my family was to dedicate myself to being fully present wherever I was. The only way to do this was to manage my expectations and compartmentalize.

You’re an accomplished author and editor, as well as mom to two teens – a boy and girl. What skills have you honed to wear all these hats and keep your sanity?
The ability to keep a sense of humor is, in my mind, one of my most essential skills a mother can possess; and realizing that you can’t do everything, and certainly can’t do everything well. I’ve come to terms with the fact that being really good at one thing inevitably translates to being really not great at something else. In my case, that’s housework. I used to beat myself up about it, now I just accept it. I do the best I can. Yes, my sofa is beastly, but I published a book this year.

What’s your parenting style?
Part pirate, part therapist, part etiquette coach. I’m laissez faire when it comes to climbing trees, making messes, the volume of music and the length of hair. I let my daughter wear fairy wings to school, dye her hair purple and pierce her nose. I let my son go without socks if it was above freezing, blow up things in our kitchen sink and sleep with the lights on. I take their feelings very seriously. I listen and try to be sensitive to when they need me close and when they need space. I’m tough when it comes to manners and kindness. I expect my children to give up their seats on the subway, to hold doors and to say thank you. There is no excuse for not treating everyone with respect and dignity.

I think there is a tendency today for parents to want to be their kid’s friend. I have friends who think that treating their children like their peer is empowering them – I disagree. I think you empower a child by teaching them how to think for themselves, giving them a moral compass and telling them you’re always there like the North Star. I tell my kids I don’t want to be your friend. You will have lots of friends in your life, and they will come and go. I am your mother. I’m not going anywhere.

How is parenting a son different than parenting a daughter? What are the things you want your son to know about women?
I have found the best way for me to get my son to talk to me is to act like I’m not terribly interested in what it is he’s talking about, and God forbid, don’t make eye contact. I am aware of the sexism that exists in me worrying less about him being out alone than I am his sister. I am afraid my son knows more about women than he would like to. The poor boy has had to wait in line in the drug store holding a box of tampons, shares a bathroom with his sister who, in terms of hygiene, is a cross between a princess and a frat boy, and as we often talk about politics at dinnertime is intimately acquainted with third-wave feminist issues. Something else I’ve told him he should know: Be sweet to your mother in public because letting girls see that you love and respect women is always a good idea, and girls like boys who are good to their mothers.

What do you wish women did more of for each other and themselves?
We need to support each other and think about where our power is located. It’s important to think about women’s issues and how they will affect generations of young women. Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to do something you want to do. We have to give ourselves permission to feel our feelings and take our lives seriously. A lot of women put themselves at the bottom and let their needs come after everyone else’s. Sometimes that’s the way it should be, but sometimes we get in a trap and then feel resentful. You have to take responsibility for yourself and own power for yourself.