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.

Janika Dillon | Taking a Stay-cation

“I don't even have the time or energy to hear myself think a thought, how can I possibly ‘dare to dream'?”
If this is your current plight, dear reader, I dedicate Janika Dillon's guest post (see her bio at the end of the entry) to you. She begins:

This week I've become a rebellious hermit.

Since last October, our family has been planning a spring break trip to visit friends and historical sites in Pennsylvania, a trip for which I had:

    • Researched where to eat, what to see (and best day to see it), entrance fees, hours of operation, parking fees, best driving routes, etc.
    • Made a neat pile of all my research and had a packing/things-to-do list two pages long.
    • Checked out children's books and tapes about Gettysburg, The Statue of Liberty, Valley Forge, and more.
    • Selected travel friendly activities for my children and bought lots of snacks.
    • Did all the laundry, packed all the bags, vacuumed & cleaned out the car, cleaned out the fridge, cleaned the whole house.

Are you tired yet?  I was.

Minutes before our planned departure I told my husband, “You know, I really don't want to go on this trip. I just want to stay home all by myself for five days.” He quickly agreed, discussed with our four kids, and within minutes they were gone. Without me.

At first I felt guilty and slightly rebellious–who am I to opt out of the family vacation?  I love my kids, was looking forward to some family time and was eager for them to learn about our country’s history with me as their tour guide!

But I really did need a break.  It had been three and a half years since I had the whole house to myself for a few days, and in fact, what I'd wanted last Christmas more than anything was “12 hours by myself in my own house!”


Courtesy:  Swallowfield

Once I gave a million kisses and waved good-bye, I found myself suddenly alone in a perfectly clean and quiet house. I had no desire to venture out of the house; I just wanted to luxuriate in time to myself. I made a long list of things I wanted to do, including some sewing, organizing and keeping in touch with loved ones.

I called my 88 year-old grandparents for a delightful hour-long phone call.  A few minutes later a dear high school friend called me, saying “I just saw your phone number in my book and thought I should call you.” We spoke for two hours, our friendship never missing a beat. I chatted with another out-of-town friend who happened to be coming to Boston this week; we've planned a day's worth of lovely activities.

I began to sort through files on my desk, finding long-forgotten scribbled notes on tiny scraps of paper with phone numbers and emails of friends I meant to contact months ago. One friend had a baby in December–still haven't been to see her. Another newly-discovered friend is an amazing artist, mother and person–someone I'd love to know better. My husband and four children going in different directions had left a wake of neglected friendships and missed opportunities.

More than that, I had filled my mind with so many to-do lists in the midst of mothering chaos, I had forgotten how to hear my own voice over the past few months. When a quiet moment did come, I didn't how to use my free time because I didn't really even know what I wanted to do.


Courtesy:   Swallowfield

With everyone gone, I thought I would feel lonely, that I would listen to books on tape all day to keep me company. But I'm not. I love the silence and the chance I have to hear my thoughts, to wonder what what I will think up next, to wake up early, my mind spinning with new ideas.

Just this morning I woke up with a plan for how to improve my town’s Patriots Day celebration. Paul Revere rides through our town each year complete with a mini-parade, a speech from the Mayor, the high school band and lunch at the Revolutionary-era funeral home.  But because the crowd (mostly comprised of young families and grandparents) waits about an hour between the time that the mini-parade is over and when Paul Revere actually rides in, the high school band runs out of songs to play and an awkward dead space ensues.

My early-morning idea was to involve the city historical society, the city family network, the local top-notch university and other city and business organizations to sponsor several historical activity tables for the children to learn more about Paul Revere and the history of our town.  I mapped out the layout, supplies, partners, activities and funding in less than an hour and realized that I felt so strongly about this project that, if needed (gasp! How scary is that to my shy self!), I could go talk to the mayor, business owners, historical society president, or whoever I needed to help get this event rolling.


Courtesy:  Swallowfield

It was so refreshing to discover that I felt strongly about something that I was willing to step outside of my comfort zone to make it happen.  In my normal ‘non-rebellious, non-hermetic' life, I often find myself pushing away really good ideas because I just don’t have time to develop or implement them.  Maybe, just maybe, this time away from the noise will allow me to set some priorities for myself until the next time I take an extended break.

Joseph Campbell wrote, “You must have a room, or certain hour of the day or so, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don't know who your friends are, you don't know what you owe anybody, you don't know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.”

As I carried on coherent conversations with my long-lost friends, many were at first shocked I would stay home, but then commented enthusiastically, “Oh, that is exactly what I want to do!”

It has been my perfect stay-cation and I highly recommend it.

Kudos to Janika for ‘asking for what she wanted'; kudos to her husband and children for saying ‘yes'.

For Mother's Day, your birthday, or even next year's Patriot's Day, why not ask for a Stay-cation? Everyone leaves, and you magically remain home alone.

For more on this topic, click to Making a Place for Your Dream, Spoiler Alert, When our Loved Ones Ask What about me?,  A Space for Women's Voices.

P.S.  In the spirit of full disclosure (she says with tongue firmly in cheek), I've purchased more than several pieces of art from Swallowfield, and plan to purchase many more in the coming years.  Jennifer Judd-McGee's art makes me happy!

More about Janika: (She asked me to shorten, but it was far too interesting!)

Janika Dillon originated in Ithaca, New York where her parents were in graduate school. She spent her childhood roaming her Wichita, Kansas neighborhood on a sparkly blue banana seat Schwinn bicycle and organizing club meetings in the tops of trees. Her teenage years were spent in Provo, Utah where she played violin in the orchestra, designed and sewed the costumes for school musicals and Shakespearean plays and dreamed of traveling to Europe.  As a student at BYU she studied Communications and German and had the time of her life studying abroad in Vienna, Austria and Frankfurt, Germany.  Two hours before departing for an 18 month church mission to South Korea, she turned in the final draft of her honors thesis about noted 19th Century woman's suffragist Emmeline B. Wells.

One month after returning home from her mission in Korea, she returned to work as an intern at a small manufacturing company in Seoul.  The fascinating experiences with the women in this office and other companies she eventually interned at inspired her masters thesis on “Women in the Workplace in Korea” for her degree in Organizational Behavior and International Development. Janika worked in Exec Ed for a few years before moving to Boston with her husband James and deciding to stay home full time with her four young children.

There’s Something About Susan

Hear, hear to all of you that sent me the clip of Susan Boyle. Some have said that Simon Cowell staged this. I wouldn't put it past him. But does it matter? Either way Susan Boyle took a risk.

If the heckling she experienced in this seven-minute clip is any gauge, Susan's been dealing with naysayers all her life.  At 47, that's a lot of naysaying.

Yet, there she was — and is — out on stage.

Daring to dream.


Janika Dillon was kind enough to share her thoughts with me in real-time.  Here's her take:

Susan Boyle is so ordinary-looking–and well past the age of most up-and-coming stars, yet she totally knocked their socks off!  How many amazing talents are hidden behind average looks, age, and ‘small villages'.  Though who knows what will ever happen with her singing, she had the courage to try out for the show, get on the stage, and do what she does best.

The audience was horrible to heckle her, but I guess that's the reality when striving for a dream for which we don't look the part.  We may be ‘too old', ‘too busy with young children', ‘too inexperienced', ‘too poor'. Some of these things we can change, many we cannot.  The quest is to accept our plight, determine if it is still worth trying for the dream, and then navigate our way through the obstacles.

I know a woman in her early 50s out West who is getting a doctorate in clinical psychology. She is amazingly talented and would make an incredible psychologist.  Unfortunately she has received little support from the faculty, while enduring many unkind comments about her age.  Nor did she get an offer for an internship even though she applied and interviewed throughout the country.

In casting about for a way to help decision makers look past her age and see her abilities, she finally decides to rely on her extensive social network.  After a month of calls, visits and e-mails, my friend landed one of the country's most prestigious internships.  She is thrilled to have her chance on the stage, and I think she will be prove just as effective (if not more so) as her younger colleagues.

Thank you Janika for guest-posting on the fly; I look forward to many more posts.

What did you think?

Why did Susan Boyle move you?

Click here to read what Boston Globe reporter Michael Paulson had to say.

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