Writer Mother Monster: Meagan McGovern
March 3, 2021
Meagan McGovern writes fierce, funny, and true stories about the American food system, homeschooling, social justice, and the odd quirks of American life. She lives on a farm teetering on the far edge of the country in Washington state, raising beef, chickens, and children. She recently went viral in braids and a Target prairie dress, but her children, 10, 16, and 20, don’t think it’s nearly as funny as she does. She’s just finished a memoir about growing up on the run with a mother who was a con artist.
Lara Ehrlich 1:19
Hello and welcome to Writer Mother Monster. I’m your host, Lara Ehrlich, and our guest tonight is Meagan McGovern. Before I introduce Meagan, thank you all for tuning in. And you can now listen to Writer Mother Monster as a podcast on all audio platforms, or the interview transcripts on writermothermonster.com. If you enjoyed the episode, please consider becoming a patron or patroness on Patreon. I’m a one-woman band at the moment, so your support helps make this series possible. Please also chat with us during the interview. Your comments and questions will appear in our broadcast studio and we’ll weave them into the conversation.
Now I’m excited to introduce Meagan. Meagan McGovern. Meagan McGovern writes fierce, funny, and true stories about the American food system, homeschooling, social justice, and the odd quirks of American life. She lives on a farm teetering on the far edge of the country in Washington state, raising beef, chickens, and children. She recently went viral in braids and a Target prairie dress, but her children, 10, 16, and 20, don’t think it’s nearly as funny as she does. She’s just finished a memoir about growing up on the run with a mother who was a con artist. We will talk to her about all these things and more in just a second. But first, welcome, Meagan.
Hi. Glad to be here.
Lara Ehrlich 2:49
Thank you for joining us. So first, let’s kick off with something I’m sure everyone wants to hear about: the infamous viral Target prairie dress. Can you tell us where this initiated and where it took you?
Meagan McGovern 3:04
Sure. I mean, it was such a funny thing that in the middle of this pandemic, when we’re all stuck here, Target thinks that what everybody wants is a prairie dress. I know there was a throwback to prairie dresses and Holly Hobbie and Little House on the Prairie. But you would think that now that everybody is on Zoom and doing high-tech things to connect with each other, the last thing people want to be reminded of is being their grandmothers and being stuck out in the middle of nowhere.
When I saw it, I was like, “Well, I live on a farm in middle of nowhere. Let’s go ahead and play that out.” And once I did, starting with the pictures, I realized that this is everybody’s worst nightmare. Every single job that was lost in the pandemic was a woman, and every single mother had to deal with childcare. Very few fathers had to quit jobs or anything else. And all of a sudden, people are cooking again, they’re making bread again, and we’re dealing with a plague, and it feels very much like you’re in the 1890s, stuck in the middle of nowhere, baking bread, watching children, and not allowed to go out and work and not allowed to go out in society. It was kind of a throwaway thing that I thought maybe 100 people would see. I didn’t imagine that it would have 55,000 shares, and that people would start following me. All of a sudden, I started getting friend requests. The next day I had 700 friend requests. Then it was 22,000 people following me. And I was like, I’m not really that funny. I don’t know if I’m gonna be this funny every day, but I’ll see what I can throw out there. You can always post pictures of baby goats. Those are always popular.
Lara Ehrlich 4:50
I have to say I love goats. I had goats growing up. Although we were not farmers. You mentioned being funny and the humor, and that’s something I cannot understate is how funny that post is on Facebook. And for all of you who aren’t familiar with it, make sure to read each of the captions under the amazing images. Because it’s sort of a satire of living in the 1800s on a farm during the end of the world, which had captured everyone’s feelings very precisely.
Meagan McGovern 5:24
What kind of life is it, you know? If you had said to somebody five years ago, you’re gonna be at the point where Donald Trump is president, you’re fighting over toilet paper in the middle of a plague in the middle of an economic collapse, and there going to be people storming the Capitol … I’ve had enough of the dystopian science fiction novels for one day.
Lara Ehrlich 5:48
Yeah, definitely. And it’s got some well-needed levity to the horrors that we are still living through, although Trump is gone. We were talking before the interview about being a public figure now and what that’s like for you, because you are, for better or worse, very visible on social media.
Meagan McGovern 6:11
It’s interesting. I’ve always been a writer, and I used to work for the Houston Chronicle. I used to be a newspaper reporter for years. And 5 million people would read an article of mine on a Sunday. But it was other people I was writing about—the president or what the mayor was doing or the Violence Against Women Act, something like that, where I could go in and sell other people’s stories, but I didn’t have to expose my own feelings. I had a curtain behind me in my words.
But these, if I screw up, everybody hears it. If I say the wrong thing, everybody comes back to me and says, “No, actually, these were your words.” A few years ago, I hurt a friend of mine’s feelings pretty badly. I said, “I didn’t mean that.” She said, “You’re a writer. You know what your words mean. Everything that you say has double the meaning. Because when you say something, you have every idea of what that impact is.” I was like, that’s not fair. Oh, maybe it is. Maybe I do actually have to be careful about what I say.
Lara Ehrlich 7:14
Yeah, and there was an interesting thread on your page the other day that I found myself following as a spectator, where you were writing about your experience with your son, who has autism.
Meagan McGovern 7:28
I have three children, and I don’t really like to label them, but they are all quirky. They all have challenges. I mean, they’re odd. They’re odd birds, all of them. But they’re my odd birds. They’re my little flock, and we do what we do to get through. And yes, we struggle with ADD—I mean, I am all over the place. If you read three of my posts, you will know that I am all over the place. I am out in the garden while I’m also cooking, while I’m also supposed to be writing a book when I’m doing an interview, while I’m also homeschooling. If somebody asks me what I do for a living, I have no idea. I’m a gluten-free baker, but I’m also a writer, but I’m also a mother. So, we all have ADHD, we are all scattered, and we just kind of pull it together.
I wrote a post about my quirky family that I embrace, and somebody wrote back and just pushed back on it and said that it was not the appropriate way to discuss this, and I was coming at it from the wrong perspective. The conversation around autism and about ADD has evolved over the last 15 years, incredibly, the same way that the conversation about race and about politics, and the conversation about who we are as Americans has evolved.
Somebody who hasn’t been following that, somebody who is new to the discussion about what autism is, or somebody who’s new to discussing race, if they jump into a conversation on a Black Lives Matter activists post about race, they’re going to have a whole different vocabulary, understanding, background, and semantics.
If somebody who is transgender and is 40 years old and went through this 20 years ago and is steeped in activism has a page and somebody else jumps in and says, “Let me tell you what I think about trans people,” there’s such a disconnect with layers and layers and layers of meaning and nuance, that every conversation you get into, especially online, you have to know where the other people are coming from and what their language means, what different words mean, in different contexts. It becomes harder to navigate conversations than it used to be.
Lara Ehrlich 9:42
Yeah, and especially on your personal page, when people are coming to your page to argue or to bring their agendas to where you have a following. How do you navigate that?
Meagan McGovern 9:57
Well, I have a very clear policy on my page. One of my favorite expressions is “the devil doesn’t need an advocate; he’s got plenty. I’m good.” And the other one is that on my page, you will treat people like you’re in my living room, and these are my friends. These are people I have invited into my living room, and they are people that I like and respect, and you will not come in and say unkind things to each other. You can say you disagree, you can have an interesting conversation, you can jump in and talk about whatever you want to talk about, but the minute somebody is disrespectful or unkind, I’m gonna ask them to leave the same way I would ask them to leave my living room. People have to realize that this is not a public forum, like the Fox News comments or the New York Times comments, but the page of a real person. You’re not standing in the middle of a public park arguing with each other. You’re standing in somebody’s house who has invited you in, and you can go away and go argue somewhere else if you don’t like it. My overall direction is to be kind.
Lara Ehrlich 11:11
Tell me more about your writing career. You mentioned some of the journalism that you’ve done. Take us from the very beginning, from the discovery of the power of words, to where you are now.
Meagan McGovern 11:24
Well, my mother was an interesting character. She was a reporter in New York City in the 1950s and 60s, and she got to interview The Beatles during their first concert, when they came to wherever it was—Madison Square Garden or something. She was 5 foot 10 and blonde and very pretty, and one of the first female reporters out there, so she got a lot of attention. She told us stories growing up—all we heard was she was a fashion reporter and a celebrity reporter. And she had quite a way with words. So, I had always been open to the idea that writing is a good way to make a living, and it’s an interesting way to tell stories and connect with people.
When I went to college, I was going to go for creative writing and write novels, and the people who were helping with my education said, “You can’t make a living writing novels. You got to have a career the day you get out of college. You can’t just live on a sofa for the next five years.” Alright, I’ll try journalism. And it was fun. I worked in Houston at the Houston Chronicle. I worked out in College Station, Texas, which is through A&M University, and I was a very liberal, young, naive person who had no idea what A&M was, or College Station, Texas, and that was eye opening.
I was a police reporter in Conroe, Texas, where I worked with the sheriff’s department. I saw my first deaths, I got to work with the police in arrests, and there was a flood that came through and killed a lot of people and I went to the scenes and saw the bodies, and that was a lot.
Then I switched to editing for a while, and that was a lot of fun, too, because it made me a better writer. When you see how badly these people turn in their stories, you think, “I can’t believe I ever did that.” Then I did feature writing. And then I had kids, and my kids were challenging, so I stopped working for money and started working for my kids instead.
All the time, I’ve been writing in the background. I’ve been writing a book about growing up with my mother, which I never published. I’ve been talking about it for years, but not done anything with it. I think the time has finally come that it’s the right time to publish, so that’s what I’ve been working on. And, you know, Facebook posts. That’s been my outlet. I used to have a group of women I wrote with every day. We would write 100 emails in the course of a couple days. And when Facebook came around, that turned into another outlet. It’s almost like a newspaper: you have a deadline, you can only write one thing, and then it goes away, just like a newspaper. It’s not like a book, where you go back and you have to edit and edit and edit. Once the Facebook post is up, and people have seen it, you need to move on to the next thing.
Lara Ehrlich 14:31
Yeah. Let’s talk about the memoir first and about your mother. You said in your bio it’s about your mother, “the con artist.” Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Meagan McGovern 14:46
That’s a two-word way to describe her, and I don’t know if that’s fair to her. She was a character. She was a writer. She was one of the most brilliant women anybody has ever met. She was sharp, but she had a troubled childhood. She had a fantastic life in New York City as a journalist, and then she met my father, an actor in New York City, around 1968 or 1969, and he was a drunk. He was a character. He wanted to be Jack Nicholson or Paul Newman. He ran with Jack Nicholson and Paul Newman and wanted to be one of them. He was always kind of on the outskirts of it and never managed to break free into next tier of acting. He did a lot of theater work. They both brought out the absolute worst in each other, and absolute chaos ensued.
He left his wife and small child for her, and she left New York City. They had run-ins with mafia, they had run-ins with debt, they had run-ins with police officers, and they ended up getting run out of New York City. After they left, they went to Los Angeles, where they started over again. They had four children in five years, and I was the oldest. They were okay, but my dad finally had enough of it when I was 10 years old, and my mom took the four of us and didn’t know what to do with herself. She had four little girls under 10 years old. We just went on a spree all over the country when she didn’t know where to go. We had $600 a month to live on and child support.
We went to upstate New York for about a year, and she had no money. She got renter’s insurance on the place we were living in, and she burned down the house with everything we owned, took that money, and took us to Texas. We lived in 8 or 10 houses in Texas, then we went back to Los Angeles, then we went up to Oregon, and then we went back down to Los Angeles. Then we went to Connecticut, at which point I was 17 or 18. I said, “Okay, I’ve had enough. I’m staying here.”
And my mother went off on her way. She went to South Carolina and then the Bahamas, then Europe, and she just kept going and going and going and there was never any income—it was always insurance checks and kiting checks, and she would get $1,000 from relatives and start a new bank account, and you can write a lot of bounced checks on the $1,000. You can live for three, four, five months before they’re gonna arrest you. So, you go to the next town, and then you need $1,000 to set up, and you can do it for another four or five months.
I went to 27 schools in six or seven states, I think. I can’t remember. I was the only one watching my sisters when I was 10, 11, 12. When this whole thing started, they were 4, 6, 8, and 10. I watched them all and took care of them, cooked and cleaned and did all of that and swore I would never have children. I was never going to take care of little kids.
It was interesting. I mean, she was fantastic, in a lot of ways. She was funny, and she was smart, and she was clever. And she also was hard to live with, and you never knew which way was up and you didn’t know when you got home if the electricity was going to be on and if you were going to be having a playdate with your friend, or if there was gonna be a moving van in the driveway. It was hard to keep up with people. I ended up living in a world of books and literature, which also probably helped my writing a lot. My sisters, I think, had an even harder time than I did because they were younger. But we got through it.
There was a lot of laughter. One of the things that my sister keeps saying is your books aren’t funny enough. It was funny; I wasn’t. It was funny, but it’s hard to write about how funny it was. And one of the key things in my book that I ended up telling is that when I was 10, I found out about my father’s son from his first marriage and that I had an older brother, and I was like, “That’s impossible. I’m the oldest. That’s it. There is no way I have an older brother.” And eventually I got to meet him.
When I was 20 or 21, my mother finally started telling me some of her stories, and I found out that she had three children she’d given up for adoption before she had us. She was very Catholic and didn’t have the resources. She had this whole life before us. She hadn’t met my dad until she was 30. Then, a couple of years ago, two of the brothers showed up—two of the babies showed up, my older brothers. We ended up connecting through 23andMe. I met one of them last summer, and I’m talking to the other one via Facebook. It’s been an interesting journey, because they’d call up and say, “So tell me about my mom.” I’m like, “Oh, boy. Wow. Where do you want me to start?”
And I’ve always been pretty annoyed that I’m 5 foot 5, when my mother was 5 foot 10. One of the brothers is 6 foot 7. So unfair. I would have loved to have had older brothers when I was growing up. I don’t think they deserved the childhood I had. I don’t think anybody deserves that childhood. But it would have been interesting to have them there and to see what would have happened if they’d been around. And if there had been more openness, there would have been a way to connect everybody back then.
Lara Ehrlich 20:54
Yeah, that sounds incredibly challenging.
Meagan McGovern 21:00
It was a bad childhood, and I was very angry with my mother for it. But on the other hand, all children really need is the stability of knowing somebody really did care about us and love us. And my mother’s sisters were always around, and they were not able to step in and fix it, but we knew we had a place to go if things got really bad. We were never going to be homeless. Even though we were homeless, we weren’t ever going to be really homeless. It’s a safety net under the safety net kind of thing.
Lara Ehrlich 21:31
That makes sense. And you said that because of that, you did not want children, which I can understand. You had a lot of responsibility when you were growing up. At what point did you decide you did want children?
Meagan McGovern 21:46
When I was 27, 28, I was going to take my career as a copy editor and run away. I was going to go teach English in Prague or do something in Europe. I always wanted to have an adventure. I wanted to do my own life, get away from my family, not be stuck as being identified as the oldest of four or the oldest McGovern girl or any of that. I wanted to go find myself. I met my husband—sadly and wonderfully, I met my husband—and that was the end of that idea.
Because he had a job, and in order to make money, he had to actually go to work every day. I had never been around somebody who had to work nine to five, Monday through Friday, every single day to make money. I’m like, what is this? We can’t just run away? He had money in a savings account. I’m like, if you have money in a savings account, why aren’t we spending it and going to Europe? He’s like, that’s not the way it works. He owned a house, and I was like, if you own a house, why aren’t we selling it and running around?
When we got engaged, we flew to Paris together. He had the money to go, because he hadn’t been blowing all his money on wild things. It was eye opening and amazing to see the kind of things that you could do if you actually had a job and worked and saved money. We joke about it, and it’s kind of a silly cliche, but I build all the castles in the air, and he runs around under my castles, trying to build foundations, as fast as I can create the castles, and it has worked. It has been a very good partnership. When I met him, I said, it turns out I didn’t want any children, I want your children—you. Having your kids, that works. And it’s been really good.
Lara Ehrlich 23:44
Yeah, it sounds like he helped build a foundation, not just under castles but under your life a little bit.
Meagan McGovern 23:51
Yeah, and he would never have thought about going to Paris that way. That just wouldn’t have occurred to him. It was just adventure. We really complement each other well. It’s been almost 25 years, and we haven’t looked back from anything.
Lara Ehrlich 24:10
Tell us more about your kids. You have three, right?
Meagan McGovern 24:15
Three kids, and we have a bonus with us now. My nephew came to live with us a while ago, and he’s fantastic. He’s actually out on a boat right now. He’s a boat captain. And he’s 30. My oldest is 20, and he is in college in Minnesota. He’s a Dungeons and Dragons enthusiast and a medieval history guy, and he’s very, very into the stuff that he’s into.
We debate back and forth whether he’s geeky or a nerd, but he’ll call me up and say, “Did you know about the history of capitalism in the 1920s and how it affected gender equality?” No. No, I didn’t. And he gets very into that kind of stuff. He’s a good egg.
My middle is pretty fantastic. He’s 16. He is the one who had autism when he was little. I know you don’t grow out of it, but when he was 2 or 3, he did not speak. We didn’t think he would be functioning as an adult and be able to speak. He was tough. He had a really rough start to things. His first 18 months, he didn’t stop screaming. Now at 16, he still likes what he likes. We talk a lot. He loves the platypus. He was, like, the world’s leading expert on the platypus for seven-year-olds for a long time, and we went to every museum to see every Australian animal we could find, we went to the kangaroo places, we did a marine mammal study because he was into orchids for a while.
And then, the year that Barack Obama got elected, I think he was 4, and I gave him an electoral college map because we’re homeschoolers. We’re those geeky people. And he started coloring red and blue into the states. That was it. He’s been hooked ever since. He’s been into politics. He can name every senator and most representatives and tell you the junior senator or senior senator from their state, how many percentage points they got elected by, what their biggest problems are in the state, why they’re going to get reelected or not.
He’s right now focused on the Del Rio Grande and the valley there and why they switched from blue to red in the last section and what they’re gonna do and how many percentage points they need to swing back. He’s got a whole Twitter account about it. He loves to take out his game board of the electoral college. Somebody will say, “I just don’t understand how the electoral college works and why if you win the popular vote, you might not win.” And he comes in.
He’s actually turned out to be the most socially adept of any of us, which I never saw coming. He likes to study other teenagers and people around him and say, okay, that’s how they dress, that’s what they do, that’s how they talk, and then he just goes and blends right in and wears those clothes, which I’ve never been able to do. I can’t figure out how to dress or what to wear. He’s good at it. And he gets kind of annoyed that we don’t try to fit in. So, for 16, he’s doing pretty good.
He was on the rowing team last year, and it’s been hard for everybody. He went from rowing three hours a day to no exercise at all. We got this farm because he needed goats. He needed animals. Right now, we have two or three cows and five goats, and he has chickens and a dog that he adores that sleeps in his bed, and he has barn cats and everything else, and he has everything he needs to thrive.
And then I have my little one, whose name is Scout, and she is 10. She was born when I was 41. The other day, she said, “Tell me what life was like pre-Scout.” I said, “Well, I kind of waited for you forever. I was gonna have a girl first. You were planned. You were my little girl. You didn’t come around until 10 years later. Everybody was already born, you had two older brothers. I waited and waited, and you finally showed up.” She said, “I wish you’d have had me when you were 30 instead of 40.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Well, because then you could take me to the park and take me places. You’d have energy to do stuff besides house projects.” I was like, “Look, kid, that’s not fair. Covid is the whole reason we’re not going anywhere.” She’s like, “Uh huh. We could go to a picnic, if you wanted.” I’m like, fine, use the guilt, twist all the screws. And of course, we ended up in the park having a picnic that night. She’s the one who really gets how things work and what to say and what to do. I write a lot of Scout stories.
Going back to being a public figure, that’s my favorite thing to do—to write about my kids and to talk about their personalities and their quirks. I’m okay talking about it here in a public broadcast. Do I want pictures of my kids in front of 20,000 people? Do I want their names and where they live and what school they go to and a picture of my pubescent 10-year-old girl on Facebook? It was great when it was my friends and family and people that I knew in real life, but 20,000 people, not so much.
Lara Ehrlich 29:52
How are you navigating that? Are you doing anything differently?
Meagan McGovern 29:56
Yeah, I’m doing a lot differently. I’m saying things like “my son” or “my middle son” or “my oldest son,” instead of “Sawyer.” I’m not posting pictures of my kids nearly as much. I might post one or two pictures, if they are innocuous, generic photos. I’m not posting videos of Scout singing her fantastic songs or her artwork or any of the things that sort of bring my page to life. People love to hear funny stories about Scout, because she’s fantastic, but they’re her stories, and I think that every person has a right to their own stories and their own privacy. Of course, she doesn’t mind me sharing them with my sisters and my aunt and the people who were on Facebook a while ago. Does she want me sharing them with people who are in Australia or Prague who don’t know her? I don’t know.
There’s a lot to navigate, there’s a lot to figure out—what to say and what not to say. I have felt not silenced by Facebook with having more followers, but certainly the depth becomes shallower. I don’t jump in and say, “Oh my god—did you hear about this thing in politics?” Because I can’t. Because not everybody’s going to agree with me. It used to be that everybody agreed with me, because that’s why they were friends with me on Facebook. Now, not everybody agrees with me. Not everybody wants to hear bad language. They don’t know who my kids are, and they don’t know my politics, and it’s hard to get into the depths of that. I find myself talking about things like gardening and cooking more, which are pretty innocuous topics, but they’re safe and they’re connectable. Gardening is relatable. My politics, maybe not so much.
Lara Ehrlich 32:02
Yeah. Yeah, you’re a human being.
Meagan McGovern 32:06
Right. It’s hard to make sure that I’m not at all stifling myself, but I also don’t want to piss people off. Last thing I want. And I really enjoy that I have people that that like me and that I am connecting with, and there are a lot of people that I am really having fun with on Facebook. At the same time, if you got 20,000 people turning on you, I’ve seen that happen. That’s not something I want to happen because I wasn’t careful with my words.
Lara Ehrlich 32:31
Yeah, absolutely. We see those in cancel culture. Let’s go back to something else I wanted to ask you about. I want to get to the farm, too, because there’s a lot there. But tell me about homeschooling.
Meagan McGovern 32:45
Homeschooling is fantastic. And now it doesn’t get a bad rap on it. Homeschooling is not at home, and it’s not schooling. That’s the best way that I know how to describe it. I’ve written an article about this on Medium, but I’ve talked about it for years. You are the contractor; you are not the builder. If you consider that an education is a home in the analogy, every child needs something different. My middle child needs probably a cabin in the woods with lots of animals around him. My older child needs Hogwarts and Oxford College and ancient, deep books and medieval language. Scout may need a place in new, cool, flat in New York City, where she could study gender equity and all of that.
I would never build my son a log cabin, and I don’t think the people that are building Oxford are the same people who should be building log cabins. You need different people to do those things. My job is just to go find the people who can build those things and who are good at that, and then connect them with my son. If my son wants to learn about politics, I can’t teach him about politics, but I can get him into great classes, and I can teach him how to find what he needs to learn.
My older son took fantastic classes in literature through The Lord of the Rings, and he took classes in dystopian movie science fiction and dystopian movies. I think he’s taken five different classes in science fiction. I’ve never read any of those books. But he dives deep into them, and he’s able to work with great teachers and great writers.
I think people who think they can’t homeschool think that homeschooling is sitting in front of your kids trying to teach them, and I don’t teach my kids anything. I get out of the way and let them learn what they want to learn. And even now, when I moved into this house eight years ago, we had 3,000 books, and they were mostly homeschooling books. I had a bin of books about Rome and ancient Greeks and books about medieval knights and another box of books about Vikings and one about Shakespeare. And now, I’m finding that with Scout, we don’t use the books, and I’m kind of heartbroken over that, since I’m a writer and a book person and a book nerd. But it’s just as much fun to go and watch the Romans reenactment and watch the troops and watch the generals and see all of it on YouTube, as it is to read a book about it that’s static and everything else.
And of course, I want my kids to be able to dive deep into great literature, but you can do almost anything on YouTube. I tried to teach myself to knit years ago, over and over again, from a knitting book. Couldn’t do it. YouTube—I got it in a couple of hours. You could rewind and go, “Oh, that’s what you’re supposed to do.” I don’t understand how anybody is sitting in a regular classroom. I don’t learn through watching lectures. I would much rather have it on a piece of paper in front of me, where I can skim through it, get it, go on to the next, next, next, and not wait for somebody to finish all of their words.
If I have the option of sitting through a lecture in a college course or being able to watch YouTube, skim through all the PowerPoints, get through all the things, just get the points that I want to get out of it and move on to the next, why would I sit there for hours and hours and hours of lecture?
I think that school’s old fashioned. School is outdated. The idea that any child can’t choose what they want to learn is horrific to me. Why would anybody have to learn certain things in third grade and certain things in fourth grade and certain things in fifth grade? Why not, if your kid’s really into ancient Greek, let them spend three years learning all about ancient Greece? And then later on, learn about the other stuff. We’ve spent 20 years now, learning by experience.
We go to museums, and we’ve done other field trips. We did a fantastic trip I wrote about, the Little House on the Prairie road trip, where we went from here to South Dakota and explored everything from Yellowstone to Laura Ingalls’ house, and we got to sleep in a covered wagon on her property. That was our American history world tour.
Homeschooling doesn’t look the same for everybody. If it does, you’re doing it wrong. It shouldn’t look like school, and it shouldn’t feel like school. School is a way to teach 30 kids at once, and you do crowd control. Homeschooling is individualizing, customizing an education for each child, and farm school more than anything.
Lara Ehrlich 37:45
And you’ve set up a network, right?
Meagan McGovern 37:47
When we moved here, there was no network. The network here was for Christian home schoolers, and that’s the way that most homeschooling started out in the ’70s. It was for Christian home schoolers who didn’t like the government advocacy in their education, so they, to their credit, did a very good job in every state making sure that homeschooling was legal, and that homeschooling was controlled by the parents. Because of those laws there, everybody now has a fantastic network of homeschoolers in every state, but a lot of them are conservative Christians. The whole core of the point of the Christian curriculum is to teach that evolution is wrong, so a lot of the science is terrible, and a lot of the books are from a perspective I’m not interested in. They started from a perspective of having books to give to missionaries in other countries, so they had curriculum that they could send to missionaries in Africa to teach students. They were very, very traditional public schools. It doesn’t fit anything we’re doing.
When we got here, there was a Christian homeschooling network here, and we went to three meetings and said, “Okay, next.” And we set up our own.
Now we have, I think, 1,400 families in the network, and it’s mostly just a Facebook group. We have a “not back to school” picnic in September, and we have some classes, and every Wednesday—when there’s not Covid—we have a fantastic park day with anywhere from 50 to 200 kids running around on the beach or in the park and talking, and all the moms get together, some dads get together, and talk, whether they’ve got a kid who needs biology class that you’re in or how to get a biology class going or what the best writing program is. It’s been a good source for me to be able to share knowledge. I’ve been homeschooling for 20 years, so when people come and they say they’re having an issue with something, I’ve probably seen it before. I probably got a good curriculum to go to, and I’m a good resource to have.
Lara Ehrlich 40:06
It’s amazing. I am sure that a lot of women out there listening right now who have been homeschooling their kids in the pandemic version of homeschooling …
Meagan McGovern 40:18
They don’t get to see homeschooling. They see the worst of it, and people keep writing about why the homeschooling sucks. I’m like, yeah, it does. I thought you loved homeschooling. Right now, I don’t. I like homeschooling when we have park day. In this group that we’re in, we have homeschool skiing, we have homeschool ice skating, homeschool roller skating, park day, archery club, chess club, math club. I ran three different book clubs. We have a homeschool for each group with goats. None of the people who are pandemic homeschooling will ever see the best part, that we have all of the museums and all the parks to ourselves. Every day, the museums are empty. Every day, the movie theaters are empty. We get to go do all of that. Not anymore. We’re stuck at home.
And the other huge benefit to homeschooling is that you get to pick your curriculum. If your kid wants to be a chef, and everybody comes in and says what’s the best curriculum. Like, do you want to be a ballerina or a chef or an architect or a lawyer? That’s what homeschooling is. You go learn about what you’re interested in. Of course, you need reading and writing and math and everything else, and you don’t want to shut doors. The most key point to all of this is that you don’t want to handicap your kid by not teaching them things that they might need to do if they go from one path to another, if they change paths. But there’s nothing wrong with going down 100 different paths to find out what you want to do and follow your passions.
The homeschooling pandemic version, where you have to sit in front of a computer and click all day long and sit in front of Zoom meetings all day long—it makes me want to throw up, thinking about it. So many people are miserable. I’m like, of course you’re miserable. This is not homeschooling. I don’t know what this is.
Then I get the pushback—well, the teachers are doing the best they can. Of course, the teachers are doing the best they can, but it still sucks. And of course, this is a miserable way to do it. There are hundreds of thousands of children whose only meals come from school, the only human connection they get is from teachers, teachers are the only people who are safe. I would never take that away from people who need public schooling. But at the same time, I don’t think anybody is served by Zoom meetings all day long.
Lara Ehrlich 42:54
No, definitely not. I want to follow that thread, because I do meetings all day long for a different reason. You do so many things, and you have been doing so many things for 20-plus years, even before you had kids, and now you have a nephew there and you have this homeschooling network, and you have a farm with all these animals, and you’ve written a memoir, and you have a public persona through which you’re writing. How do you also fit your writing in? Let’s talk logistics.
Meagan McGovern 43:32
You know, I would love to see an article about Tolkien and Lewis. You always hear how Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were good friends, and they’d talk about the writing at Oxford and everything, but nobody ever said to them, “When do you feed your kids?” and, “When do you do the cooking and grocery shopping and your laundry?” You know, and who gives the kids baths? I would love to see an article about their children. And we know the answer to that. We absolutely know what the answer. Tolkien had four kids under 10 when he was writing Lord of the Rings, and he didn’t do laundry, he didn’t clean up. He had a maid and a housekeeper and a wife. Maybe the wife was the maid and the housekeeper. I don’t know.
But the answer to that is I don’t do a lot of things. I don’t clean, I don’t do a lot of dishes, I don’t do a lot of laundry. My house is a mess. I don’t care. And I don’t have housekeeping standards for somebody else. My husband does laundry because he doesn’t mind doing it, and he’s good at it and I suck at it. My kids do dishes. I do the grocery shopping and cooking because I like it and I’m good at it and I’m fast at it. And some nights we have scrounge nights. We have leftovers.
One of the key things I did learn from my mother growing up is that your life doesn’t have to look like other people’s lives. You don’t have to fit what other people want you to fit in.
There are days when I go around my living room and think, oh my god, I need to figure out how to put a rug in that matches this, and I need to get end tables. People need end tables. They need lamps. Why can’t my living room look like everybody else’s living room? And there are other days that I have piles of things, and I think I’ve gonna put all this away, I’ve got to do this and that. No, I don’t. I want to write.
I don’t want the piles to take over my life. There are people who would argue that if you were organized and on top of things, you wouldn’t have piles and they wouldn’t take over your life and you would have time to write. Okay, maybe that works for you. For me, I gotta have my piles of things and my stuff, and I just I don’t feel guilty about not having a perfect house. I don’t feel guilty about not having perfect clothes for my kids. We don’t do dry cleaning. We don’t do nice clothes. We don’t go to church. We don’t have a lot of social activities beyond homeschooling. And yes, we have to take care of cows, we have obligations. The kids yell at you if you don’t feed them, even though I keep forgetting. But the things that are not important, we let go.
I think one of the most key things you can learn is that the only things you have that matter are your time and your attention. That’s it. If I put my time and attention to having a perfect house or to making sure that it looks like other people’s houses or to make sure that other people approve of me, then that’s where my life will be spent. And I don’t have any interest in that. I just don’t. If that means that some people disapprove, I’m okay.
My next-door neighbor doesn’t approve of me. She hates me. She has a beautiful, clean yard. She doesn’t like dandelions. I have 10 acres with cows. I’m gonna have dandelions. She wants me to use Roundup on my yard. No. It’s just not gonna happen. Things like that are just not things I’ve just learned to slide off my back.
Because of that, I don’t have a lot of time for writing, but I do make it a priority. That’s what I do: write. Even if it’s just a post on Facebook, I now have a draft folder of things I want to write about, things that are important to me. Even if it’s only 30 to 40 minutes of sitting down and fleshing out an idea or working on one chapter, I think it’s worth putting my time and attention into something that has value. Because otherwise, I’m useless. I’m not good to other people. I’m not a good mother, I’m not a good wife, I’m not a good friend. I’m stuck. I am never more miserable and unhappy and grumpy and nasty as somebody who is taking care of others and there’s no light for myself. You don’t want me around you. I mean, I’m just a miserable human being and I turn bitter. I would much rather be a happy, easygoing mother with dishes in the sink and not do them. I know there are people who cannot go to sleep when there are dishes in the sink and there’s laundry to be done. I don’t care. I’d rather write.
Lara Ehrlich 48:45
I love that. That’s very freeing. And Kristin Varley had a great comment here that I’ll just put up for us. She says, “I wish I’d been told that even once before I was 25. I figured it out at 43.” Me, too.
Meagan McGovern 49:08
It is very freeing. It’s not even knowing that; it’s living that. It’s very hard to live that life. I didn’t know I had ADD. I didn’t know what it was. I knew that I couldn’t do what other people did. Stupid workarounds for me. I can’t hang clothes up. I just can’t. I had the idea of taking clothes and hanging them on a hanger and putting them in the closet. I tried that for 25 years. All I ended up with was piles on my end. I finally figured out that if I took out the bar in my closet and I put bins in my closet and I just threw T-shirts in one bin—I put a label on that said “T-shirts,” another one that said “sweatpants,” another one that said “jeans”—and all of a sudden, my clothes got put away. I
had no cabinets in my kitchen, no open upper cabinets. I took everything off and I put upper shelves instead, because cabinets are where things go to disappear and never come back out. Anything in a drawer or behind a door gets hidden, and if I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. I think because I’ve always been so quirky and had different ways of seeing things, it has enabled me to realize that I’m not going to look like other people, no matter what I do, so I’m going to stop trying.
Lara Ehrlich 50:22
A surprising number of writer moms on the show have given some of this, like, Home Ec. advice, like the ones that you just did, and it’s amazing. Like the baskets in the closet. I’m going to try that, because the idea of hanging things up—I do the same thing. There was someone on here who has a sock basket, and she doesn’t match socks or roll them up, she just puts all the socks in there, and they don’t have to match.
Meagan McGovern 50:51
We did that for all my kids. My kids don’t have bins in their closet because I’m not hanging up their clothes either. I mean, I’m not. We’ve tried a hundred different things, and at one point, we had all the kids’ clothes in bins next to the washer and dryer, and we had shelves with their names on them. It’s somewhat organized. That way, they couldn’t keep them in their room, and they couldn’t have them on the floor of their room, they couldn’t have messy rooms, and their clothes were just kept downstairs. You took them out of the washer, and you put boy shirts in one and girl shirts in another and girl pants in another, and they were all right there next to the washing machines. They were clean. And the kids came down every night, got clothes for the next day, and put their dirty clothes in the hamper. There were no clothes in the room and their closets were empty. In the closets, they could keep all their books and all their toys and all the stuff in the room. It was fantastic. Just because other people figured out how to use hangers doesn’t mean I’m ever gonna figure it out. I mean, there’s certain things I just don’t want to spend my time doing.
I have a lot of envy for people like Einstein, who just wore the same thing every day all day long. I mean, I would, if I had any choice. I remember in high school, a girl came up to me—and I was an odd duck in high school—and she said, “We really like you, and we want you to be part of our group. I’ve really tried hard to get them to accept you, but you wear the same pair of jeans every day, and they won’t let me be friends with you since you wear the same jeans every day.” I was like, “Oh. People notice?” She was like, “Yeah, they notice.” I had no idea anybody ever looked at anything I wore. She said, “Do you have other clothes?” I was like, “Yeah, I just don’t know how to hang them up and put them away.” And she’s like, “Well, if you just start wearing other clothes, then you can be part of the group,” and I’m like, whatever. I don’t think I wanted to be part of their group as much as it opened my eyes to the way that other people see me, because I always felt invisible and that nobody cared what I wore. I did start wearing better clothes. So, your life doesn’t have to look like anybody else’s, but if you want friends, you kind of have to know what people are gonna think is creepy and off kilter. I do try to do the bare minimum to fit into basic society.
Lara Ehrlich 53:18
I think that’s a valid goal. I have one outfit I wear in pandemic times, too. You know, it’s like the Target prairie dress is perfectly acceptable or the sweatpants you wear every day to Zoom meetings.
Meagan McGovern 53:34
If Target really wants a great outfit to sell, instead of the prairie dress, they should sell the Zoom outfit, where you have a fancy thing on top and sweatpants on the bottom with big pockets, and you can wear it all day long. That way, if you’re walking by a Zoom meeting, you can just drop in and then go back to what you were doing—stain-proof, wine-proof, coffee-proof.
Lara Ehrlich 53:55
I always have to be careful when I stand up in a Zoom meeting, because not only do I wear sweatpants, but I haven’t worn a bra in a year.
Meagan McGovern 54:06
That’s something I wrote about on Facebook right before this, that I had to go get makeup for this show because I haven’t worn makeup in a year. I just sent away for makeup. I started Googling how to do makeup. And I was like, I don’t have any followers because these makeup people at 8 million followers! I mean, that’s viral. And they’re using words that I don’t understand. They’re using things like contour and glitter and this and that and you get the perfect cat eye. I’m like, I have no idea what’s going on here. I really screwed it up the first couple times I put it on because I didn’t know how to use it.
Lara Ehrlich 54:42
I think you look great and yeah, I’m with you. I had a photoshoot last week, and it was literally the first time that I’d had my makeup done. Even for my wedding, I did my own. I sat there, and she did all this stuff, and I was like, wow. She gave me a set of brushes. It did inspire me to get new lipstick.
Meagan McGovern 55:16
It was fun to try it today. It was good to have new makeup. And now I can do it without looking ridiculous. But boy, the first couple times … I even tried the false eyelashes, too. I put it on halfway and was like, no. There are things I’m never gonna do again. I’m never gonna wear high heels. I’m never gonna wear pantyhose. I’m never gonna do false eyelashes. And I’m okay with that. I can live with that as my legacy.
Lara Ehrlich 55:39
Yeah, I think you’re onto something there. And as Robin Jorgensen said here, “Patent that Zoom outfit idea. I will buy it.”
Meagan McGovern 55:50
That’s what Target should be doing. This is our audience, people who need something that you can’t spill your wine on.
Lara Ehrlich 55:58
Yeah, that’s a whole other conversation—the wine.
Meagan McGovern 56:03
Yeah, no kidding. And I’m joking, but one of the things I said a couple months ago was we’re all going through really hard times, it’s tough right now, and if you need to drink, drink. If you need to hang out with people and go see people, and that’s the only thing that’s gonna keep your sanity, do it safely. And if you’ve been sober for three years, don’t drink. You know, do what you need to do to keep you sane and happy, and don’t get into whatever the society pressures are right now, because this is a rough time for everybody. You know, this is hard.
Lara Ehrlich 56:40
Yeah. And I’ll remind people, too, that a lot of writer moms who’ve been on the show talked about trying to balance writing and motherhood, and a few of the women have really helpfully reminded me and listeners that if you’re not writing right now, that’s alright.
Meagan McGovern 56:58
Oh, yeah, I thought I was gonna edit this whole thing. And I thought I was gonna write another book about parenting and farm life and the things I write about on Facebook, gluten-free cooking and raising children and discovering two half-brothers. There’s a lot I’d like to write about. I didn’t get anything done this year. I mean, I did, but it was gardening, gardening like a crazy person, and I painted my bedroom, and I knocked down walls, and I remodeling the basement and put in hardwood stairs. I’m not a carpenter. I don’t know anything about putting hardwood stairs. But it was something that I could engage my brain in where I could learn a whole new skill and learn how to use the saw and learn how to use everything, because it kept my mind from the fact that we’re in a horrific situation.
Lara Ehrlich 57:50
With writing, until you have that book or even printed out pages of your manuscript, it is just sort of like this amorphous thing, either in your brain or on the computer. It feels really good right now, during this pandemic, to do something you can see, like plant a seed and watch it grow.
Meagan McGovern 58:12
Yeah, and for me, especially since I’m editing the memoir, that’s my current project. I’m revising it, trying to get it done. I don’t have an agent right now, and that’s my next goal, to find one who does memoir. There are a lot of genres out there. If I were writing something that was teen literature, right now, everybody wants that. But memoirs are hard. I’m working on this memoir, and a lot of it is not fun stuff to write about writing about—being on the run, or all the things that were bad with my mom. Who wants to dredge that up in the middle of this whole pandemic thing? I’m gonna go write fancy Facebook posts about fun things, about gardening and about flowers and about my son and his weird hobbies. I’m not gonna write about bad things right now. I think that’s okay. I think it’s okay to indulge, whatever you need to do to keep your brain happy right now.
Lara Ehrlich 59:06
Yeah. And you’ve obviously been connecting with so many people through those posts, because they provide a sense of joy and levity and a peek into your world, which you’ve described as quirky, but it’s also just amazing with farm animals and fields.
Meagan McGovern 59:24
That goes back to the whole “your life doesn’t have to look like somebody else’s.” I mean, nobody wants a ’50s farmhouse that’s falling down in the middle of nowhere with goats. This is not something that a lot of people want. They might like the idea of it, but the first time they stepped in the mud and the goats and everything else, it’s a lot. It’s a lot of work, and it’s not for everybody. But yeah, man, it’s fun to write about. There are so many good things. I mean, just collecting your own eggs every day and baking bread with your own eggs and things like that is a lot of fun. There’s a lot of upsides to this. So, you know, you write about what the goats are doing today, and then something bad?
Lara Ehrlich 1:00:05
I have so many more questions, but I know we’re coming up on an hour here. I want to ask you quickly about the farm. You mentioned you got the farm for your son. Tell us about how that came about.
Meagan McGovern 1:00:17
We were in Texas. My husband’s from Houston and he’s lived in Texas his entire life. My husband is pretty much the all-American man. He is a fantastic human being. And he’s 6 feet tall, and he’s an engineer and he’s good looking. And he was a Boy Scout. And his parents had been married his entire life, and they got married at 21 or 22 and had him at 24. He had been to one school K through 12, all the way through, and lived in one house the whole time. And for me, it was like marrying into Leave it to Beaver. It was this whole different family.
So, he’s from Texas, and we always lived there, but I didn’t always live there. I knew there were other places I wanted to live. I knew there were other worlds out there. I kept kind of nudging him. The last summer we were in Austin, we had 100 days over 100 degrees and 30 days over 110 degrees. I had a newborn, and I was like, I’m not doing this. I can’t take her out of the house until 9 o’clock at night when it’s 90 degrees. There’s no way I can live like this anymore.
At one point, on my mother’s random trips around the United States, we lived in Oregon for a while, which was gorgeous. When my husband was looking for jobs, we he started looking for jobs up here.
My son needed wide open spaces. He was 9 when we moved here, and he was a climber, and he would go to a park and he would look for the tallest tree and then he would climb it. He was the one that, when you go to the park, mothers are going, oh my god, where is her mother? The mothers of the other kids would say you can’t follow him. He’s the one you can’t follow. I mean, he was climbing light poles with his bare feet, and he’d use his toes and his hands to get to the top. He would be fine with 40 feet sometimes. And we did a lot of going to parks and we did a lot of going out. But at some point, you need more.
His special interest was animals, and the only thing he wanted in life was a goat. So, we moved to a farm. It’s a very small farm by farm standards. It’s 10 acres, which is huge by suburban standards, but it has an enormous barn. It was built in the 1920s and has a silo that we don’t use. It has work buildings and outbuildings and a chicken coop from 1920. When we moved here, the lady next door, who was 83, was born in this house, and she had been raised here and her father built the house. He built the farm. She was able to show us where the outhouse was, which had been built in the 1930s for farm workers so that they would stop pooping in the fields.
And she showed us what the barn was originally used for, and she and her brothers would collect eggs every day from the chicken coop, and they had 2,000 chickens and they would have to collect eggs before they went to school. It was originally a 40-acre farm, and they had 40 dairy cows, and some of the equipment was still here for milking. We started off slow with a couple of goats, and my son was in love with his goat. It was his pride and joy and he adored her. He was out in the field every day, hugging her and walking around with her and training her.
I started a 4H Club for homeschoolers that showed goats at the county fair, and we went to the county fair and we showed Sonora and he won a prize for goat showing. There was a costume contest where you actually dress up goats. I mean, we did all of it and it was good. It was really good for us. As he’s gotten older, the animals are not as important. My husband actually has enjoyed the farm, too. He’s got two cows, and they’re not a lot of work. He goes to a brewery in town and gets barley for them three days a week and he takes it to the cows. That’s his thing that he does. We just butchered two cows a couple of weeks ago, and I think we got 2,800 pounds of meat, something like that, and sold it. I mean, there’s work, but it’s not a working farm where that’s all of our income. We have the goats because they keep the blackberries down, and chickens are fun.
Lara Ehrlich 1:06:20
On that note, that’s amazing. Thank you so much for joining us. This has been really fun. You’ll see a lot of nice comments in the chat here, a lot of people saying that you’re uplifting and providing some much-needed humor and they’re vicariously living through you.
Meagan McGovern 1:06:48
Thank you for everything.