Janika Dillon | Interview with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Janika Dillon holds a Masters degree in Organizational Behavior and International Development, and worked in Executive Education prior to staying home full-time with her four young children.  You can read her previous guest post ‘Taking a Stay-Cation' and full bio here.

One of the dreams that Janika is currently ‘dating' is pursuing a PhD in History.  This “has translated into reading many historical books, researching History PhD programs, contacting students and professors in the field, attending lectures on historical topics, and even mapping out a possible time line to completion of the degree.”

She continues, “One person that I wanted to learn from was Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History and other awards for her book A Midwife's Tale, a Harvard professor of history and author of several other fascinating books about women in history, including the more recently published Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History.

A few days before my September 2008 meeting (yes — asking to interview Laurel Ulrich took some daring), I mentioned the upcoming meet to a friend who promptly exclaimed, “Oh, she's my hero!”  I agreed wholeheartedly.   As you'll read below, Laurel Ulrich managed to raise a family and excel at her academic interests.  My thanks to her for sharing her time and wisdom with us.”

Janika:  Your life's work has been to study the daily lives of women in history. What do you think is the benefit to women today in looking back?  What can we learn from these women in history?

Ladies de pizanLaurel:  I think the biggest benefit is exemplified by Christine de Pizan in The Book of the City of Ladies written in 1405.  She wrote, “There is nothing in the world that women can't do.”

We have the notion sometimes that women's lives have been uniform and unchanging over time.  What's so interesting in Christine's book is the variety of things women have done.  They've invented things, been leaders, been good at gardening, religious heroines. They've been queens.  She's got something for everybody in that book!

It's a very, very simple lesson that I think has been lost.  There's a classic narrative that “Women have been confined to the home and then maybe 20 years ago there was a woman's movement and all these opportunities opened up.  Or conversely, all these terrible things started to happen”, depending on your point of view.  If you look at the long view, women have always contributed to the economy of their society — always!

Janika: What were some of the obstacles you faced in becoming the kind of writer you wanted to become?

Laurel:  Time.  Finding time to write and forcing myself to use the small amounts of time that I had.  I remember when I was doing Beginner's Boston, a guide to the Boston area.  When my kids went down for a nap, I had to choose between trying to write or taking a nap myself.  It was a hard choice.  It was so easy to let all the demands take over.  Kind of like that Steve Covey thing about the urgent and the important.  The urgent always pushes out the important.  Then I would sit down and the words would come so slowly because I was out of practice and I didn't know how to write what I wanted to say.  It was a real challenge to get one sentence written.

Midwife's taleI continue to face this same challenge every day of my life:  shall I sit down and be miserable for a little while until I
can make it work or not?  Writing is very, very hard, and it has to happen daily, inch by inch, sentence by sentence. It's hard to produce more than one paragraph a day.  Sometimes I let my students see my really rotten initial drafts.  It's comforting for them to realize, “Oh, she has trouble too!”

Janika:  Who helped you along this path and what kind of help did you need?

Laurel: The #1 help and support has been my husband.  He thought my interests were great and he often recognized better than I did what really made me happy.  He was also a great practical help through the years by doing his share with the children and being a good dad and then he had a good income.  Let's face it!  That helped.  I didn't have to work for money.  My first paying job was when I was in my 40s.

Second to my husband was my network of Latter-day Saint women.  Very important.  My good, supportive friends in the Boston area and New Hampshire.  I mean, I had friends who believed in me.

Laurel Ulrich Janika Dillon

Janika:  So, how did your kids fit into the picture?

Laurel: My kids were good.  My kids grew up with me boiling things over and destroying pots and they joke about my absentmindedness.  They were good sports.  I did my graduate degrees one course at a time.  My oldest was in elementary school when I began and he was in college when I finished.  It was a long process.  I got my bachelor's degree in 1960, my master's degree in 1971 and my PhD in 1980, when I was 42.  My oldest child was 15 years older than my youngest.

Janika:  I think it would be interesting for Whitney's readers to know, did you ever dream you'd go from a small-town Idaho upbringing to Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor at Harvard?   And what advice might you have for women pursuing their dreams?

Laurel:  Well, first, No–I never imagined that I'd be doing the kind of work that I'm doing now or be in the place that I'm now in.  So, I didn't plan my life.

Well Behaved Ulrich The advice I'd give people is that old cliche “Blossom where you're planted.”  That is, do whatever you do wholeheartedly and with joy: the joy really is in the doing.  I don't think we can expect or plan or attempt to win the prizes.  What I attempted to do was write with passion and in a way that would be accessible to other people.  I didn't ever want to just write books for other historians.   So I've worked hard to write in an accessible way.

I really didn't think I had achieved that with A Midwife's Tale so it was a surprise to me that it had the kind of success it did.  But, it was a joy to do.  I loved working on that book.  It was a transforming experience, really.  This may be a conventional insight, but it really is the doing that's fun!  The fifteen minutes of fame are exciting, but that's not what sustains any of us.

It's kind of like my husband, who likes to build things and I always want to see it get finished.  But I am gradually starting to realize that what he enjoys is the doing.  That's a really good lesson because if you don't enjoy the small pieces of whatever it is that your job is, you're probably not going to enjoy the end product when you get there.  I've heard that the best predictor of happiness in the future is enjoying what you are doing right now.


First off, ‘Atta Girl' Janika for reaching out to Laurel (that really did take some daring, as it always does with someone that we admire) — and for spending the time to transcribe the interview!

What have you learned from this interview?

Were you surprised to read about Christine de Pizan's findings?

As I read Laurel's remark that it's important to enjoy the small pieces of a job, I couldn't help but think of Bonnie White's Delight in the Doing, Christine Vick's Simply Living and Lisle Hendrickson's What Makes Me Happy.

Who would you like to learn about and from?  What if you were to contact and ask for the interview?  Even if they say ‘no' — what a victory it will be to ask for what you want.  (I did that this week.  No response, but I asked).  If she says yes, and you would like to publish excerpts from the interview here, we'd love to learn!

For a transcript of Janika's conversation with Laurel Ulrich, click here.

Mary Alice Hatch | Creating Something Beautiful

Mary Alice Hatch is a wife and mother of two. Six years ago she actively pursued her dream of starting her own interior design studio. For the last two years she has served as her own client designing and decorating two homes in New Hampshire and Wellesley, MA.  She is most happy when she is creating something beautiful.

After you read Mary Alice's post and view her images, will you leave a comment?  When you do, you will give Mary Alice the gift of being heard and seen.  And what finer gift is there?


Since I was a small child, I have always loved to create. I love to create something magnificent from something ordinary.  I love entering a new space and coming up with new possibilities.

As a young girl I would constantly create new room layouts; when my parents would go on a trip I would repaint my furniture and add new hardware. In college, I started to build furniture; I also love to arrange flowers.

Because I have always enjoyed design, I went back to school 6 yrs ago to take a correspondence course in Interior Design from a school in NYC.  Though I opened my own design studio in May of 2003, for the last three years, I've been my own client as I rebuilt an old boathouse and new guest house at our home in New Hampshire.

Hatch Boathouse

About 1 1/2 years ago, Architectural Digest had an Open Submission, the first time ever.  One of my life-long goals has been to submit my work to a first rate Interior Design publication like Architectural Digest. I knew the chance to be picked for the single published spot was slim, but I nonetheless photographed and submitted my boathouse, went to New York, and stood in line outside the D&D Building.

When my time came to meet with one of the editors, I was so excited.  As I showed her my “before” and “after” portfolio and listened to the editor's expressions of interest, I felt such a feeling of accomplishment.

Dock:  Before and After

MAH Dock Before

Dock after MAH


Master Bath:  Before and After

Master bath before

Master bath after


Kitchen:  Before and After

Kitchen-family room before-1

Kitchen family room after


Family Room:  Before and After


Family room before

Kitchen family room after2

When I was finished showing her my portfolio she asked me if she could keep it to show Paige Reese, the Editor-in-Chief of the magazine.  Of course I said “YES”, and then floated out of the meeting.  It was so validating to have someone at the top of my field like my project.  Unfortunately, I didn't win, but I was competitive — and that felt good, really good.

Since finishing that project, and as my children continue to grow, I have been doing a lot of soul-searching as to what my dream really is.  I haven't yet figured it all out — do we ever? — but here's what I know:
I love design.
I am glad that I went to Architectural Digest's Open Submission.
I love that because I work for myself, my children can be my number one client, and I have the flexibility to create anything I want.
I also know…

I am most happy when I am creating something beautiful.

Hatch Patio

Does Mary Alice's experience signal for us how we can know that we really want something?  Including being willing to travel to another city, and stand in line all day, so that our work can be seen?  And what kind of courage does it take to put our work in front of someone knowing that may like it, but they may not? 

As I read this post, I thought of Christine Vick's post Simply Living, and her comment that “for a task to be valuable, it doesn't need to be weighty, solemn, or make history, it just needs to matter to me.”

I also couldn't help but think of how much time I spend visiting (and buying) Portabellopixie, Swallowfield, Sarah Jane Studios to name a few.  Why?  Because what I see there is beautiful to me.

As you think about your dreams, aren't they about creating?  Something not ugly, but beautiful?

Can you think of something that you wanted to achieve, and once you did, you were ready to move on?  

One final note:  All images are copyright of Mary Alice Hatch.

Christine Vick | Simply Living


In June, we will hear many thoughtful, compelling voices.

The first is Christine Vick, a stay-at-home to four kids who also enjoys editing and writing for the organizing website Store and Style she and her sister co-founded last November.  If she has a spare moment, she loves to cook, read and take walks.

After you read Christine's story, will you share your thoughts with her and us?  In leaving a comment, not only will you be eligible for a $75 gift certificate to a spa of your choice, you will be listening to another's voice — and what better gift can we give to another than to listen?


My college self would be disappointed with my life today.

Back then, I had it all mapped out:  graduate in three years with a B.A. in English (check).  Serve a mission for the L.D.S. church (check).  Get an M.A. in English Literature (check).

But then I started to go off course:  Get a PhD (ummm…)  Secure a tenure track position by the time I'm 28 (ummm…again).  Have three kids (oops, four) and a white picket fence (nope).

Turns out my 18 year-old self couldn't see the whole picture.  Like that I'd be burned out by academia after my master's degree and feel miserable about applying for PhD programs.  Or that I'd quite like what I imagined then would be very mundane tasks:  cooking, decorating, organizing and hanging out with my kids.  I rarely say this out loud, but I don't even mind cleaning (except for doing the laundry–which is my Achilles heel).

Image courtesy of and copyrighted by LaNola Kathleen Stone.

When I was younger, I dismissed any field or career that was less than rigorously academic as “fluff”.  I don't know where I got this idea, because my parents have encouraged all my efforts and never pushed me in any direction. Nevertheless, this philosophy guided my early decisions and left me feeling like a failure when I found my studies unfulfilling.

By the second year of my MA program, I was unhappy, frustrated and fed up, but I couldn't admit (even to myself) that I wanted to quit.  The dream of being a professor had always defined me, and letting it go made me panic.  What would I do?  How could my life be relevant?

Pride played a big role too.  I'd always been so vocal about my goals (I'm still learning the value of saying less, a lot less) that I was just plain embarrassed not to follow through.  Especially when my fellow students were busy being accepted into PhD programs across the country.

My pain eased a bit when I moved East and took a part-time job with a small community newspaper.  I was no longer surrounded by academics and it became clear that most people aren't concerned with the roles of Renaissance women, applying continental philosophy to modern texts or deconstructing old English manuscripts.  They're just trying to earn a living, balance hectic lives, and find a little free time.

Two years ago I was approached by a friend of a friend who was starting her own magazine about organizing (a favorite topic and hobby of mine).  She was looking for part-time editors and wondered if I'd be interested.

I said yes immediately.

One of the highlights of the job was a trip to North Carolina to interview the Flylady, Marla Cilley.  It was my first “business” trip, albeit with my 6 month-old in tow.  I enjoyed meeting Cilley who was fun, vivacious and full of empathy, hanging out with my boss, eating out, overcoming my fear of prop planes, and seeing the Biltmore Estate in Asheville.  It actually seemed more like a vacation than work, since I normally spend my days in Cinderella mode;  scrubbing, cooking, chauffeuring and trying to be patient with lots of little people with lots of needs.

ChristineVick2  Image courtesy of and copyrighted by LaNola Kathleen Stone.

Being a part of Organize not only gave me the experience to start my own website Store and Style, it taught me a valuable lesson:  for a task to be valuable, it doesn't have to be weighty, solemn, or make history.

It just has to be important to me.  If it's fun too, even better.

I love editing–knowing what to add, move around or rework so an article shines. I love organizing–helping people see how a little order can make life easier and more enjoyable.  And I love making school lunches, reading to my son on the front porch while waiting for the bus, baking cookies and painting my daughter's fingernails.  Lucky for me, my life can encompass all of these activities.

Looking back, I'm glad I didn't pressure myself into starting a PhD program–I know I would have quit.

I'm also glad my college self is no longer in charge.


Christine's comment about what she likes to do versus what she thought she should like to do is a valuable insight.  Have you ever made a list of what you enjoyed doing each day (made you happy/was satisfying) and subsequently compared that list with what you've stated publicly makes you happy.  I have. Yup — there were a few surprises.

And yes, LaNola Kathleen Stone's images are of Christine and her children in their home.

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