Mother Knows Best

Raoul Benavides

Last spring, The Mommy-Track Mysteries author Ayelet Waldman sat on the Fitzgerald Theater stage at one of Garrison Keillor's "Literary Friendships" talks. Her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, was at her side as she talked about her battle with mother/writer depression. When it came time for questions from the audience, I asked her if she felt any kinship with Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath, and if she ever feared the same fate.

"I do, but the one difference between them and me is that they didn't have psychopharmacology," she said, matter-of-factly. Which is one way of saying that we all get by how we get by, and the way Nanci Olesen does it is to create a community around Mombo, which started as a radio show 15 years ago and now continues as a CD series, website, and a podcast produced in the host's south Minneapolis kitchen. There's also a weekly Mombo e-mail, in which Olesen writes about parenthood and life in general with openness and none of the chipper frivolity that often characterizes the parental-lit racket:

"There's something a bit unsettling in the late afternoon these days, especially on rainy days. It gets dark quickly. I find myself gnawing at the window, even as I pull the shades and try to say cheerful things about getting ready for supper. It happens every year, this closing in. I should think of it as snuggling in, maybe that would help.

"My kids seem unfazed. They don't have midlife 'issues' crowding around them. They have some homework, a flute or clarinet or electric guitar to practice, and a few chores. Then they want to talk and snuggle in. Is this the year that I take my cue from them? Is this the year that I don't brood over the upcoming holiday season but just relax into it and set my expectations low?"

"I feel like I keep doing the same show over and over," says the 45-year-old Olesen, sitting in the cozy art- and toy-strewn living room of the home she shares with her three kids and husband, Theatre de la Jeune Lune's Steve Epp. "Or, I feel like I have the same thing to say: 'Try to pay attention, and to be present to what's happening. To admit you might not understand [parenting], and to admit that it's got so many levels to it.'"

Olesen graduated in 1981 from Gustavus Adolphus College with a degree in theater and wilderness studies. She signed on with the Royal Lichtenstein Quarter Ring Sidewalk Circus, which led to stints as an actor, musician, and director with In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater, Illusion Theatre, Jeune Lune, Actors Theater of St. Paul, and Quicksilver Stage. All the while, she took catering and waitressing jobs to make ends meet--she still waitresses a couple of shifts a week at Lucia's--and took up drawing.

She has been the "narrator on stilts" of Heart of the Beast's May Day Ceremony in Powderhorn Park since 1983, and she's currently rehearsing La Befana, which opens later this month at HOTB. Be that as it may, things are drastically different from when she was a key player in Minneapolis's expanding indie-theater scene of the '80s.

Olesen and Epp's son Henry was born in 1990, around the same time she began hosting the KFAI show Artifacts and interning for Minnesota Public Radio's Take Out with Beth Friend. Suddenly, her newfound passion for radio dovetailed with the new weirdness of parenting.

"I started to care less and less about the theater scene and the arts scene, and I was starting to care more about other women I knew--and men--who were turning into parents and trying to sift through what their priorities were," she says. "I thought it would be easier to be a parent than it is. I thought it would be like any other freelance project, and it wasn't."

So she combined her two budding interests and created Mombo, a mix of essays, interviews, music, and general commentary on motherhood. While at KFAI, the show was syndicated by the Pacifica network, and Olesen went on to do specials for Public Radio International. Out of a desire to bring it to a bigger audience and to try to get paid, she stopped doing the show on KFAI in 1998. In its current incarnation, Mombo is a CD and website ( and, Olesen admits, at something of a crossroads. She doesn't get paid much for her efforts, and her Lucia's tips aren't floating the multiple production expenses she alone absorbs. And, perhaps most importantly, she'd rather spend time writing or raking than marketing herself or gunning for Oprah.

"We've done all these different proposals to all these different places, and we've gotten some astounding replies," she says. "People say, 'Parenting is not a topic we're interested in.' Or, 'We don't do kids.' And you kind of go, 'Well, what about the people who are raising the kids, who are driving in their cars who might want to hear something besides the latest news about McDonald's or Northwest Airlines--and not in a cute way, like, 'Have you figured out how to help your baby sleep through the night?' More like, 'What's the underbelly of this? What's really going on?'"

As Olesen speaks about the struggles of an independent radio producer/storyteller/marketer/start-up podcaster, her three children giggle amongst themselves in the kitchen and eat takeout Vietnamese food. "Do you want an egg roll?" says middle-schooler Nora, to her mom's visitor. All three break into song throughout the evening, and the squabbling is at a bare minimum. There's no TV going, and no need for Super Nanny. To a visitor for even a short time, the Epp-Olesen home teems with warmth and creativity. If this were the only side of parenting that Olesen and her fellow Mombos presented, it would be beyond saccharine. Luckily, that's not the case.

The fact is, parenthood is as terrifying and as humbling as it is joyous, and, more often than not, Mombo goes after it: The Mombo essayists are at their best when they stop entertaining their audience and expose themselves. The tagline to everything Mombo is "love your kids and be good to yourself," and that is its core philosophy. But Olesen's writing, in particular, has become more naked of late, as this recent middle-of-the-night riff attests:

"I listened to the furnace and wondered if I should have the furnace guy come check it. I tried to imagine the day ahead: Would I find time to practice the piano? Why did I sign up for piano lessons if I never find time to practice? I fretted about our checkbook balance and our work/home balance. I wondered how my sister was REALLY doing on her pregnancy bedrest for the umpteenth week. I planned new ways to keep her spirits up. Then I started thinking of our Dad, and how he had died so unexpectedly and how odd it was to wake up in the middle of the night and feel him gone.

"Then I wondered if I should just go iron my shirt for work so that it was all ready. Then I started trying to remember all my friends' phone numbers in grade school. Then I listed all my teachers from kindergarten through senior year of high school. Then I remembered old boyfriends and clumsy first dates and unresolved break ups. I moved on to the big stuff: global warming, the indictments and scandals in the administration, whether Mt. St. Helens was going to blow again, and a recent article I had read about the horrors of the war in Iraq. I got up to get tea. I stood and looked out the window. I pictured myself standing there, ten years from now, with no kids in the house, drinking tea in the middle of the night."

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