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Nora McInerny on how her blended family expanded her understanding of motherhood

Nora McInerny is an author, podcaster, mother, and something of an expert at talking about both love and loss. In 2014, Nora suffered a miscarriage, lost her father, and then lost her husband to cancer, all in the span of six weeks. Since experiencing such incredible losses, Nora has done a ton to help encourage conversation about the difficult things things that people are often too afraid to talk about.
In addition to hosting the podcast, Terrible, Thanks for Asking, running the non-profit Still Kickin', and co-leading the group The Hot Young Widows Club, Nora has also written two books: It's Okay To Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too) and most recently, No Happy Endings.
In this episode, Nora chats with Liz about meeting her second husband, blending their families, and learning just how expansive love really is.


Liz: Nora McInerney. Welcome to The Motherly Podcast.

Nora: Thank you for having me.

Liz: So happy to have you here. So. Okay, real talk. Nora. I have quite a cold that I caught from one of my preschoolers, so please just forgive me if my voice cracks a little bit today.

Nora: Of course you do. If I break into a spontaneous fever, same thing. Children are just honestly, they're just a jolly rancher. You dropped on the floor. There's just. There are living three second rule.

Liz: Yes, I completely agree. Nora. Something I'd like to ask fellow mothers is, what was your view of motherhood before you became a mother yourself?

Nora: Oh boy. Um, well, first of all, I would like to go back in time and tell myself not to be so freaking smug about everything. I had such specific ideas about what motherhood would be like and you know, I would never have an off road stroller. I would never push a Bob. That's who needs that. Okay. First of all, you do all right. You need it. I would never let my children eat processed foods or I wouldn't be a mother who cared about that. Basically, every strong opinion I had was decimated eventually, eventually, right. I was never gonna let my kids have screens and I'm like, I mean, you take the ipad just right. I mean, if it makes you stop screaming. So, uh, that's, that was my view of motherhood. And also I think especially as a teenager, I thought that it was more of like a, um, like a hobby than anything else. I really didn't see it as like work that I respected. And um, so I definitely, when I was younger, truly looked down on women who stayed home with their kids.

Liz: So how did that view change after you became a mom yourself?

Nora: So many of them changed in so many different ways. But um, I became a mother when my first husband, Aaron was dying of brain cancer. We got married a month after he was diagnosed and we had a baby about a year later and uh, he died before Ralph. Our child turned two years old. So I was taking care of our baby. I was taking care of my husband and we had such a good. We had a really good time. Those two years were really happy honestly. And yet also looking back, I can see how immensely stressful it was for me and how tightly I controlled everything that I could. So I had Ralph and because his father had cancer, which was not hereditary, uh, although cancer is so uncontrollable and I was so afraid, I was such a psycho about, uh, what he eight, which now I think is pretty standard, but in 2013 made me kind of extreme, oh, he'll never eat McDonald's. This could get some Mcdonald's now like once a week. So that is one way that things changed. And I realized, Oh my God, this is a lot of work. But Aaron died and I went from feeling like things were in my control to everything being really out of control and kind of leaning into that too. So the year after Aaron died, it was just me and Ralph and I had a in a fit of what I will call impulsiveness, but now I look back and see his suffering. I quit my job, I just spent my time kind of flailing and bringing Ralph traveling with me. I couldn't stay put, I couldn't stay at our house. We just got on planes and visited friends who had open bedrooms and couches and he just Kinda came along with me and he didn't have a routine and I didn't have a routine. So on a really superficial level, like I got a Bob Stroller and I was like, Oh man, look, this is a smooth ride. It can run with it and this is amazing. How dare I judge this? And uh, also you realize that so much of parenting is just crisis management and they're not. Typically, they're not actual real crises. Usually your husband is not dying. Usually you're not in an emergency situation. Although hat's off to all those mothers dealing with that stuff on the regular. But most of it is just like, oh my God, I have to somehow keep my head above water and this baby is like inconsolable. And I forgot that I was making eggs on the stove and the fire alarms going. It just, it just always feels like you're a day late and a dollar short and I just really could not care about the things that I thought I had to care about. Like I, I, I realized those were choices I was making and I could, I could let those things go.

Liz: How do you talk to your son, Ralph, about his dad?

Nora: You know, he's five years old, so I don't think a day has gone by when I haven't said Aaron's name. Sometimes we pray at night and Ralph sleeps underneath a portrait of our family of three and shares a room with his little brother and is down the hall from his sister and his big brother and all the kids in our family know about Erin and talk about era. He's just a part of our lives. Um, so it's not like I'm like, now remember your dad is dead. Uh, don't forget your Dad's dad and he loves you. Your Dad, dad loves you and he's dead. It's just more that like when someone is still a part of your life, you can say like, oh, Aaron loved this song, or Oh actually, you know, Aaron used to say stuff like that. Um, and sometimes Ralph will ask, but truly, you know, he's about to be six. So it's, it went from being a real abstract to him to something that's sort of vaguely understand the ball and this is just a part of his life. It's a part of his life and it always will be. So how we talk about Aaron today is probably going to be different than how we talk about Aaron when Ralph is 10 or 13 or 16 or 35, which is how old Aaron was when he died. So I try to make sure that Aaron's name is not a four letter world with anyone in my life, a four letter world, four letter word. Things are fine. Um, so yeah, that's how we talk about Aaron. We just talk about him.

Liz: This idea of it's better to have a conversation about it even when you don't have the right words than to not talk about things at all is a big theme in your work and in your book, whether we're talking about grief or miscarriage or just having a really bad day, do you feel like people are starting to open up to these kinds of uncomfortable conversations?

Nora: I think so and I think not and I think it just depends on the person and the day, like everything else, but I do think that because there's so many different kinds of media, we have social media, we have podcasts. At least we can see all of these realities represented. Even if it's not. It does not mean that you need to see it from a famous person, which is usually like it used to be back in the day like there was only certain ways, but you get information. Yep. And it had to. There were. There were certainly gatekeepers to that information and now we have so much access to so many different points of view and usually the internet is the worst, but it does allow us to have peaks into people's lives and feelings that we didn't have before. And I think that we learn sometimes from, I don't think that everybody's learning it from me or Elizabeth Gilbert or people like me who have like, you know, had a, somewhat of a following with her. If I can at least show somebody how to do it in their lives, they can do it and, and bring that to their world. Absolutely. So it's just a starting point for people. Um, as far as like having those conversations as a parent when I know that we've done something right is when one of our kids will come into our room and just sit on the edge of our bed and they'll just start talking and we don't have to do anything. We just have to listen. That's all we have to do.

Liz: Tell us about matthew and how you two met.

Nora: So my current husband, matthew and I met through my friend Mo mo is also a widow. She's my high and Widows Club, cofounder and Matthew met none of what I thought that my dating criteria where it wasn't really interested in dating. Honestly. I was like, I've already had love. I'm good if I never have it again, I would just have some male, a consorts who come and go in my lives. Never meet Ralphie, but I'm good. And I met Matthew and he's a, he was a divorce dad of two. He was a young dad. His first child was born when he was 22 or 23 and uh, I didn't know that he was going to be at [inaudible] house when I went there, but we ended up talking and I liked him and we went out and, and I tell everybody now I'm like, if you're looking for a relationship, expand that view to include parents. It's such an asset to a person. It really is. When you see somebody as a parent, you will see everything you need to know about them. What did you see in, in seeing matthew as a parent? Our first date he told me all about his children and because I'm a, I'm a deep digger. I wanted to know. I was like, tell him about this divorce. Honestly, I just never. I didn't know anyone who was divorced yet and I was like, tell me everything like, my husband died, but your wife stopped loving you. That's fantastic. I want to dig into that feeling over appetizers. And he was like, cool, I've never heard it put that way. Um, and we, we just, he was so open and what I saw in him was that he was a person who had been through something really wrenching, something really difficult and that he had gotten through it and that he had gotten his kids through it and would always get his kids through it. And I knew then as like, oh, I'm really going to like this guy. And when I saw him with his children for the first time, I knew that I loved him. I just knew immediately.

Liz: So tell us about that first meeting when you, when you met his kids.

Nora: So you're going to love my second book, no happy endings. This is all in there. So I'm going to give you the light version. But we just decided to have like a casual, not like a, this is a serious relationship and like come meet your new mom kind of thing because we're both really tentative about that in both had said like, oh yeah, no, never meet each other's kids until you know, we're so serious. And there is something to be said for that. And also how jarring would it be as a kid to be like, wait, I'm meeting this woman. You were dating her for how long you were with her for a year, what are you talking about? Like what is this secret life? And, and, and that's kind of what I think about, like having some sort of transparency with your, with your kid. And that's, you know, we did not tell the big hits refers to he didn't give a crap either way, but we didn't tell the big kids like we were dating that first night, that they just, it just was so easy and like it wasn't awkward. And, and it's also like kids always meet their parents' friends and are like, "I don't know which one is this a again?" But we just, we all just hung out and watched movies and made Christmas cookies. It was the holiday season and, and it was just so easy. And the way that his kids treated him and looked at him and admired him was like everything and the way that his kids treated Ralph was everything to. And now I just say my kids because they're my kids too, like they're all our kids.

Liz: So how is being a stepmom different from being a mom? How do you think about that?

Nora: So here are the ways that it's different. The way that it's different is that I am not their only mom and, and for Ralph and the baby, I am, I'm their only mom for the big kids. Uh, I think especially at first I felt like I have to be even better for them than I am for the little kids because the little kids have really known all of this stability. And the big kids were definitely more cognizant when everything was, was falling apart. And like I can't get them the wrong donut like what? No, no, no, no. I have to be on. I have to be perfect. So the ways that it is different is just knowing that and remembering and honoring and like giving them the space to just say like, yeah, we are a different kind of family, right? Like, and this family is different than what you had five years ago or what I had five years ago and none of us in a million years would have passed each other in the street and been like future kids and like letting them have a space to. And reminding them to that I know like, Oh, this is complicated and that it is okay to be happy and to love your little brother and to acknowledge the pain of where all this originated from and that, that I feel like a very sacred duty for and where it is not different than I anticipated. It would be different. And I think this is different for different step moms and different situations, but I don't love these kids differently. I truly love them. The same as the ones who came out of me, you know, their, their pain is my pain and their success is my success and their failures or their dad's failures and that's how I feel about it. (Laughs)

Liz: You know, I think that what you shared there about, about experiencing the of a mother for children that you didn't give birth to is, is really important. How has becoming a parent to these children changed your ideas about what love is?

Nora: I, it has expanded it so much. I did not grow up with friends who had divorced parents and I thought that love was especially familial love. Like it was very clan oriented, right? Like I'm from a big Irish family. Like if you're a McInerney I love you Farley, I love you. You're a, (inaudible)I love you. I don't even need to know you. And, and the idea of that opening up beyond the, that seemed odd to me frankly. And almost like it would be a betrayal. Like as a child, I remember thinking like, Oh my God, if my parents weren't ever divorce, like I would hate anyone. My Dad married like, no way would I even be nice to another and I just think that's so odd and it really does reflect the way that we teach kids about love. Families are different now than they were when I was growing up and thank God for that because not everybody is born to a family that they fit into. Not Everybody is born to the family that they deserve and we can and should have a much more expansive view of what a family is and the more that we can see love is not like this finite resource, but as I. I mean I think I've said before that like it that meeting Matthew and realizing that I could love him and love Aaron. That one. Love does not erase the other. I thought that too. I didn't think that I would love really anyone. Again. I had a child I loved. I had Aaron and he was dead and I love him still and I met Matthew and I loved him and I was like, wait, how can both of these things be true? Because it's like our heart is like hogwarts and there's all of these chambers we have no idea exist until until we opened the door and then we're like, oh my God, I can love this new person and it doesn't detract from the love that I have for my dad, husband and I can love these kids and my heart is just bigger and Ralph can love them and watching truly I, I believe that I took the lead from the big kids because really right away without being asked, they called Ralph their little brother before we were married, before any of that stuff, they'd be, oh, this my little brother, and they've never said stepbrother and they've never called the baby their half brother and kids don't naturally think about love in degrees. We forced that on them.

Liz: How do you nurture that pure love in your kids or is it that they have that pure love and your learning from them?

Nora: I think that they have it and I reinforce it one time Sophie's friend over and she was new to, you know, she's new the house, new the family and honestly kids are just figuring out the world around them so they're not trying to be malicious and they're also echoing the things that they've heard their parents say. I think we're all examples to one another and sophie had said something about, oh my little brothers. And the friend said, well, your stepbrother and your half brother and Sophie's head like snap, like just one eight, like exorcism style turned and was like, I don't say that. I say brothers. And I was so proud of her because. Because what is that doing? It's, it's, it's putting space between you and this person you love in a way that isn't necessary. Like what is a half brother? Like what does that mean? So I'm learning from them and I'm reinforcing the beautiful things I see and I'm reminding them that the world is going to try to tell them that there's only a few ways to have a family and that that is absolutely false in there. The proof or the proof of that.

Liz: You have mentioned before that blended families as well as parenting older kids as you have done now. Those are both things that we really don't talk about in parenting enough. Why do you think that is?

Nora: I don't know. I think that. Okay, so when you have a baby, which you have a ton of women, you're about to have another, but um, you know, like you're, especially if you have kids all around the same time, you're sort of looking at your, oh, is he crawling yet? Oh yeah. He just, you know, are you feeding him this yet? It's sort of like this sense like, oh, we're all new to this and we're all in this together and especially if you're sort of dropped into the middle of a child's life. Uh, like I was, there aren't a lot of resources, I would say. Right. Like motherly, I would say most of the content on motherly even is about like babies, little kids, right? It's not like, you know, oh, like get on your 17 year old snapchat and see what people. But then it's also this sense that by the time they're 10 or the time they're 17, like you should know what you're doing and also the sense when a kid is 17 or when a kid is 11, that their struggles are a pure reflection of your parenting skill and not a reflection of them just growing and learning and learning from mistakes, which is what we literally all have to do. So it feels a little bit to me, kind of like shame. I also wonder if a part of it is that when a kid is a baby, you're not so worried about their privacy, right? You're like, you know, you're like, oh yeah, he hasn't pooped in two days. Like you would tell somebody that, but you're not going to say that about your 17 year old. You're not going to say like, Oh, you know, my kids dealing with really bad anxiety. Anyone else dealt with this? Like you just aren't, you know, and there's not a lot of a mommy bloggers who are dipping into that area either. But. But it is, it is different. Yeah.

Liz: So tell us, tell us what you've learned sort of stepping into the lives of these young adults and is there a difference in, in your approach as a parent to a really little kid versus how you parent those teens?

Nora: I'm a way better big kid parents. It's like I just am. I my dad, you know, I'm like, I like a baby who can't talk back at that. And then I like a big kid I can reason with and the middle parts. We have that two year old and he is, we are at odds with each other. I woke him up this morning, he said, I don't want you get my dad stone cold as like, good, I will get your day. Great idea. Fine, fine. Your Dad has a lot of patients. But um, I try to be the grownup that I wanted when I was at that age and I really do spend as much time as I can before I react. Trying to put myself in that mental space of being a, being a 12 year old, being a 17 year old and seeing beyond like the behavior at hand or the conversation at hand to like what else is going on and also I talked to the kids all the time about what our adult lives are like and again, not being like my, I'm really, really stressed about making the mortgage this month, but like just that they know that it's not as if dad and I have everything figured out. I think the most important thing that I've learned about big kids that I also try to apply to the little kids is like, kids need to see you be humble and not know everything and say sorry. And to say like, I reacted too quickly. I'm so stressed out today and I responded so inappropriately to you and I'm sorry because that, that hurt your feelings. Not. I'm sorry if that hurt your feelings. There's a big difference, right? And not. I'm sorry, but like not I'm sorry, but here's an excuse, but just I'm sorry. And they need to see you do that with other people too, like they need to see you work through difficult conversations. We don't really fight in front of kids, but we, you know, we will have conversations where matthew was like, okay, so you actually didn't tell me that you had a business trip next week. And I'm like okay. So I feel like I did. He's like, it makes me feel really unimportant. Like your kids need to hear you try to articulate your feelings so that it can help them try to articulate the mess that's happening inside that. And like if you think you're a mess right now, all of these things are worrying around in their little brains too.

Liz: One last question before we go. So something we talk a lot about here at motherly is this idea that becoming a mother helps us discover these hidden super powers within ourselves that we. That we didn't know we had. What superpower have you discovered since becoming a mother?

Nora: Yeah. May I feel like it's really all my weaknesses for a claim. And more importantly like that, my weaknesses don't matter. Like all of the things that I, that I thought were so important to being respectable or admirable, uh, are, are really unnecessary. Like I remember being this going to be the worst. And I like honestly, I do. I hate pass Nora for this feminine. Just be honest. Like I used to be when I was 17. I was a lifeguard at a public pool and like all 17 year olds I was hot and I remember like seeing mom sewer, the Mbn, like, oh my God, like I will not let that happen to my body. I was, it was so ingrained into me that the most important thing a woman could be in a mother can be. It was like beautiful. Like I was just like, Oh God. Like I will never let that happen to me. And I'm like, Oh, you know why she had more important things to jail than care about how she looked. And I'm like, God willing. We could all walk through the world with the confidence of a 35 year old mother. Who knows when she goes to the pool that it doesn't freaking matter black. It doesn't matter what your budget looks like or whether your nails are done, if your happy and your kid is happy and you're just in the moment splashing in the water and those women had a superpower that I needed, which was perspective.

Liz: Well, Nora. It was so fun chatting with you.

Nora: I would love to talk to you just as a friend. A million hours more.

Liz: Yeah, oh thank you. This was lovely. Thank you again, Nora, and we'll be in touch.

Nora: All right. Later!
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