Parenting lessons from 'Bridget Jones'
Helen Fielding becomes a mom: Do you feel old?
On a day when I felt utterly exhausted by my lengthy mom "to do" list (field trip, curriculum night, review homework, bake cupcakes, order food for birthday party, clean house, write this story and then collapse), I relished the chance to talk with "Bridget Jones."
OK, so I wasn't exactly chatting up the 30-something who seemed to speak to women everywhere (including this 46-year-old!) when she burst onto the scene in the '90s describing her struggles with, in no particular order, weight, relationships and work.
No, it wasn't Bridget, but the next best thing -- the woman who knows her best -- author Helen Fielding, who is out with her third novel in the massively popular series.
In the latest book, "Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy," Jones is still lovable and hapless and a singleton, to borrow one of Fielding's favorite words. But Bridget's also 51 now. How exactly did that happen? Yes, I feel slightly old just writing her age.
Besides entering middle age, Jones has changed in other ways. The one-time hater of "smug marrieds" is a widow now. (Spoiler alert -- the book begins years after the beloved Mark Darcy, played by Colin Firth in the movie versions, is killed by stepping on a landmine in Darfur.) She's also a mom of two young children, juggling lice infestations, video games, irritating mass e-mails from parents at school, and sex with a lover 20 years younger.
If this were a video, I would say, "Re-rack the tape." How many moms in their 50s -- or moms of any age -- are scheduling nanny coverage for rendezvous with their lovers?
Perhaps that's one of the many things we can learn about parenting in the modern age from Bridget Jones the mom and from Fielding, who's also in her 50s and a mom of two (her kids are 7 and 9).
Fielding, who says she loves being a "mum," doesn't like to talk about her kids publicly. We can certainly understand that, but she did share how grounded her two little ones keep her.
"When I was getting ready for the book tour, I was thinking, 'Oh, what am I going to wear?' -- which of course any woman would think," Fielding told me. "And I've got a red dress, and I was prancing around in front of the mirror and I was singing 'Lady in Red' -- and then my son said, 'Mummy, you look like a Virgin Air hostess.' Not that there's anything wrong with Virgin Air hostesses, but that wasn't really the look I was aiming for. So I love the way they bring you down to earth," she said.
Here's more of my conversation with Fielding. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Kelly Wallace: Is this book mirroring your life? You are a mom of two little ones and so is Bridget.
Helen Fielding: Well, I think it's always easiest and best for me to write about things that I know and understand. With all the Bridget books, it's all based a little bit on things that happened or might happen to me, or happened to me a little bit, that I exaggerate or change to make it funnier or into a story. And also people tell me things. I've found that women especially are always coming up to me and telling me funny stories of things that happened to them or things that went a bit wrong, almost as if I'm the Pope or something, like they want some absolution: "Bless you, my child, you are human."
Wallace: What are the similarities between Bridget the parent and Helen the parent?
Fielding: Well, I think the more interesting thing is what are the similarities between Bridget the singleton and Bridget the parent. Because Bridget was always trying or thinking she ought to be perfect, whereas in fact she was just human and muddling through. And I think it's interesting with parenthood that, as with being a woman, the bar is quite high these days, or seems to be, so Bridget again is reading self-help books about being a mother and thinking she has to talk in a sort of calm voice all the time and then going, "Come to the table, come to the table, one, two -- " and then not knowing what she's going to do when she gets to three.
Wallace: As a mom, as a writer, as an observer, why do you think we've gotten to this point where we, as women, feel we have to be perfect at work, perfect at home and perfect in every way?
Fielding: I think it's sad that that's happened. And I think Bridget's done something to make people feel it's all right to be human and kind and fun and, you know, keep buggering on, muddle through -- and that's something I feel really, really proud of.
Wallace: You write a lot about children and parenting, and also about sex as Bridget enjoys a relationship with a much younger man. Is there a message here for women and moms?
Fielding: She's a comedy character and these are romantic comedies, but to me comedy always comes out of truth, really, and sometimes painful truth. So when I was writing about Bridget in her 30s, it's funny, but it was painful for Bridget. She did want to have children. She had the usual confusions about it and the biological clock was ticking and all the uncles were saying, "Why aren't you married?" And she was still saddled with this idea of being a tragic barren spinster, which thankfully has now been replaced by the notion of the singleton, which is great. And so I did wonder whether to leave Bridget's age fake. But then I thought, "No, I'm going to say she's in her 50s, and she's still Bridget and life's still going on."
Wallace: You said you didn't write this book with a message. But we see Bridget as a woman in her 50s who is interested in sexual relationships and not just running around in her mom jeans. Aren't you saying a woman can be sexy and empowered even when she's no longer in her 30s?
Fielding: But of course. I think in this new book, you see Bridget's struggle to realize that. So when she starts off she is still grieving, even though it's five years after Mark's death, and she's still got all the baby weight and she thinks no one will ever fancy her again, ever, ever, ever, and the whole landscape of dating has changed since she was last single. And I think a lot of people find themselves in that position. When I first wrote Bridget, there was no e-mail. ... So now she's coping with Twitter, and the fact that, you know, lots of people meet online now, so she has to find her way around that and texting. But with the help of her friend she teaches herself to get into the game, and then she meets her gorgeous younger man on Twitter.
Wallace: You've been asked this in just about every interview, but I still have to ask: Why did Mark Darcy have to die? It's become a huge Internet outrage. So the question is why?
Fielding: I went to to a local restaurant and a man came running out after me saying, "You've murdered Colin Firth!" But he was very drunk. Stuff happens in life and no one gets to the stage of life that Bridget's at without stuff happening, without losing people and having to deal with tough things. And Bridget's always been a survivor. I think that's what life is like. People do find things to laugh about even in the darkest situations. It's about the heroine really getting through the tough things and finding herself as a woman again and finding fun again.
Wallace: What would you say is the hardest part of being a parent?
Fielding: I think the very interesting thing these days is technology. It is a new element, and children evolved in a sort of Darwinian way so that they know what all those 90 buttons are for on the three remotes to work the television. They just somehow instinctively know how to operate all these things. And I think technology's moving so fast, it's very hard for parents who haven't evolved to know what's safe in these devices, and how much they should use them, and what's good and what's bad. I mean Bridget says to (her son) Billy, "Come off your iPod, you've had your time." And he goes, "It's not an iPod." And she goes, "But it's thick and black and therefore evil." And he says, "No, Mummy, it's a Kindle. It's a book." And then she's really confused. He's reading Roald Dahl. And I think we don't know what technology's doing to children. We don't know what's good and what's bad.
Wallace: Is Bridget a helicopter parent?
Fielding: I think she aspires to be a helicopter parent but obviously she's never going to pull that off. But I think she also has that guilt when she gets a bit of time off, like when the nanny's taking (the kids) to school in the morning. Then she feels like sort of a Joan Craword figure who's going to drift down in a housecoat and say, "Hello darling. I'm your mummy. What are your names again? Do you remember me?" So it's that sort of, sometimes, exhausted and just wanting to read the paper in silence, but then when she's not with them, missing them and feeling guilty about it. I think a lot of moms probably have that dual thing going on.
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