I'm so delighted to share the latest volume of Coyote & Oak magazine, a central coast publication about California food and culture. Two of my dearest friends worked on the feature: writer Jaime Lewis and photographer Joy Coakley. It was written about a year ago when I was the primary caregiver for my two daughters. So much has changed, but my passion for bringing respect and dignity to what has traditionally been women's work remains the same. I hope you enjoy the article and take a peek at the other work of these talented women. (Full text below.)
Jenny Sargent gets tricked into talking.
By Jaime Lewis
Photographs by Joy Coakley
Jenny Sargent doesn’t want to be interviewed.
We’re driving around the Castro together in her red Hyundai on a bright summer morning, trying to find that unicorn of San Francisco life, a parking spot. At a stoplight, Jenny tucks a boot up onto her seat. Cropped bangs fall an inch above her round sunglasses, the kind that Jay Gatsby might have worn, masking her almond-shaped green eyes.
“I’m just―it’s so...” She sighs, leaning her head into her hand. The Hyundai’s turn signal tick-tick-ticks over the purr of Cleo, Jenny’s toddler and second-born, snoring in the backseat.
“I don’t want to promote an ideal that women think they can or should aspire to,” she says, suddenly sitting rod-straight. “That’s Instagram. That’s not real life.”
“Well,” I fumble for a side-door on an interview that might never amount to anything. “Can you at least tell me about what you make?” We pass a nail salon called HAND JOB, which I take as a good sign.
She shrugs. Jenny explains how she’s always made things by hand, whether knitting, sewing, quilting, screen-printing, weaving, or acting on whatever creative impulse blows by. About eight years ago, she started sewing and selling children’s clothing she made from exotic textiles imported via her husband Kai, a travel agent, who regularly journeys overseas. But since November of 2016, what sells best is a series of shirts, onesies and enameled pins, printed from an original stamp she made to say either “Smash The Patriarchy” or “Philogynist,” whose meaning, she says, is the opposite of misogynist.
“The world has gone nuts,” she says. “Misogyny is rampant, people are angry―I get it. But it’s actually good that people want those because I feel like making baby clothes...it’s sweet, but they take so long to make. I mean, making a pair of overalls by hand is not a recipe for financial success.”
The tension between money and art comes up a lot with Jenny, and for good reason. With the birth of her first child, Arlan, in 2013, she left a full-time career writing grants for nonprofit organizations; whereas creative work once offered her an outlet, now tension existed between profitability and the pure pleasure of creation.
“When it was just Arlan, I had a lot more free time because she was my only baby,” she says. “I was able to spend more time turning my creativity into a business. It thrived a lot more. But,” she says, glancing toward the back seat, “my attitude has shifted since I had Cleo.”
By that, she means she now identifies as a stay-at-home mom.
Jenny stops talking for a while, and I take her silence as a refusal to discuss further; I am so wrong.
“I feel like there’s something in the air where people are like, Oh, you stay home with your kids so you can have a little Etsy shop or this creative business or do this thing on the side, that you do that so you can avoid being ‘just’ a stay-at-home mom. And there are so many layers of crap around that. Do I really still have to find validation outside the home because caregiving isn’t valued or important or ‘real’ work? Caring for another human shouldn’t be something anyone has to pussyfoot around or make excuses for. It’s not a ‘break;’ it’s deeply important emotional labor, in addition to a ridiculous amount of house-cleaning and just general coordination. Sure, we can pay someone else to do it, but if we do it, it’s shameful? I just don’t like that narrative.
“I see profiles of artistic women who are the primary caregiver for their children, and they do creative work, which is great, but the focus and praise goes to the creative work, not to the caregiving. In our society, money and marketability are how we judge whether something bears value or not. I find it deeply shameful that, as a culture, we so undervalue the work of caring for people, whether that’s children or the elderly or the sick.”
I keep my distance. “Did you always plan to be a stay-at-home mom?” I ask.
“I had no intention of staying home with our children!” she says, laughing. “But we discovered it wasn’t financially viable for me to return to work. I have plenty of friends who work outside the home, and I bear absolutely no judgement for that. If you can go back to work, great. But I didn’t realize all of the cultural stuff around staying home with your kids until I did it myself. There are a lot of assumptions people make around who you are, what kind of person you are, the choices you make.”
I ask how she knows this.
“When people ask ‘What do you do?’ and I say I stay home with my kids, there are zero follow-up questions. It’s dead silence. But if I say I import textiles or I’m a designer or whatever, suddenly that’s validated with attention.”
The car goes quiet again for a bit, which, considering Jenny’s last statement, makes me feel sheepish. Cleo continues to snore.
“So...” I say, tiptoeing back into what has become something of an anti-interview. “When creativity strikes, what do you do?”
She laughs. “I don’t really have the luxury of following my creative impulses. Often I have to ask Kai to take the girls to his parents’ house for the weekend. When he does, I’ll literally not shower, eat cereal, and stay within the confines of our apartment for thirty-six hours to work.”
I ask what a story that honors a creative caregiver would look like to her.
“I don’t know,” she says, wistfully. “I feel like there’s my ideal home, my ideal self. I value beauty: I want my home to be beautiful, I want the work I do to be beautiful and I’d love to see that vision embodied in a magazine. But the reality is, if I’m creating something, I’m not wearing a bra, I’m in sweatpants, my floor is covered in thread and Cheerios. The process is not pretty.”
As if on cue, a parking spot opens up just as Cleo starts to stir. As we pull into the space, unclick seatbelts and gather purses and diaper bags, Jenny pauses and looks at me.
“Look. I get that we all have our aspirational selves. But something has shifted culturally where people are only sharing their aspirational selves and seeing other people’s aspirational selves, and I don’t want to be part of that. Being my real self is a political act now. I’ve never been one to hide who I am, but I feel like I doubled down after having kids. I have a renewed sense of importance around being really...real.”
And with that, I see she’s given me her blessing.