Shauna Niequist Interview
I had the opportunity to sit down (virtually) with author Shauna Niequist to discuss her new book Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living. The book hit the #2 spot on the New York Times bestseller list.
What a title, right? If you’re anything like me, a busy mom with a hectic schedule that is usually more marked by chaos than connectedness, you’ll probably read this book like I did … in 24 hours, with clenched teeth and white knuckles, immensely thankful for Shauna’s wisdom and gentle challenge to her readers, but also ready to throw the book across the room because of the way it pierces your idols and beckons you to leave your busy-ness at the Cross. I couldn't be more grateful for it, and I recommend it so highly.
It was a great joy to talk to Shauna, to hear more about her journey and the impact it has had on her family.
MR: I kept telling myself, “this is awesome for her but I don’t know how this works for me” … it strikes me that you probably on your journey had similar thoughts, like how does this work practically? What would be practical steps that you would suggest for people to take toward finding their best selves and living out their best selves?
SN: One of the first things that I did that I think really helped me was talking with the people that I was closest with and letting them know that this was a journey that was really important to me and I wanted help and support and accountability on.
So instead of my husband being like “wait a minute, what’s going on here?” … Instead of him viewing it as “oh wait, now she’s doing so much less,” because we were in it together, he was saying “she’s connecting so much more deeply.” And so those trade-offs felt more valuable when he knew they were for a purpose as opposed to just like “so wait, you’re just going to do less and I’m going to do more?” …
So I talked with my closest girlfriends, I talked with my husband, with my small group, with my mentor and said “I feel like I’ve been getting the math wrong in my life, and I’m not asking anybody else to change, but I’m asking you to help support me in this process in my life. So when you see me choosing connection and simplicity, when you hear me saying no, please know that that’s really hard for me, but I’m asking you to honor that. And know that this is probably going to feel awkward for a while, but I believe that the way of living we’re going to find together on the other side is going to be so much more beautiful, so much more connected, so much more healthy.”
MR: I think that picks up on a theme that is really in all your books, about your cooking club and your family and I know that one thing that we hear a lot from parents - from moms in particular - is how hard it is to find friends when you have kids running around. So what are some practical ways that you would suggest to people to find that kind of community?
SN: You know, I think it’s kind of interesting because we talk so much about how to build our marriages, as we should. We talk so much about parenting, as we should. But we don’t talk very often about friendship and how hard it is, and how hard it is to make friends.
And so I would say, don’t expect it to be easy. If it’s a priority to you, put time and effort into it the same you did maybe back when you were dating. I had no shortage of energy to put into dating, right? I was never too busy to date. But a lot of us, we think we’re too busy for friendship - and I would say friendship takes a lot more time and energy than we think. So put in a disproportionate amount of energy, especially at the beginning, knowing that once it’s built it will give you so much in return, but that it takes a lot of time.
My girlfriends, we get together once a month for sure. No matter what, once a month, and we’ve been doing it for almost 8 years. And that’s through dating relationships that have come and gone, through challenges in marriage, through losing parents, through postpartum depression, through babies, through miscarriages. What we’ve built now over 8 years is incredibly durable and very special to us, but it didn’t start out that way.
And so when you’re building friendships, keep in mind that it’s going to take some time to build something worthwhile, and it’s ok to be patient in that process. And I think again, it is a lot like dating. When you go to preschool pickup and you see a woman like 3 times in a row and you think, “I just like her. She seems like a nice person.” You take the risk to start a conversation with her. And then you take a risk to do a play date, and then a coffee date. It’s just as hard and scary and weird as dating is, and I think it is so worthwhile. Even if it’s difficult, even if it takes some risk and some awkwardness, it is so worthwhile.
MR: I love that. I think those are really practical steps. I had a question about the overall theme of the book … the more I read, the more I thought it was a book about identity. The answer’s not “quit your job and love on your family and everything will be awesome,” it’s about pursuing Christlikeness. And I think that’s something that a lot of parents struggle with - you’re so-and-so’s wife, you’re so-and-so’s mom, you’re so-and-so’s daughter, but you seem to live and write out of a wholeness. You are Shauna, and that’s Shauna the mom and Shauna the wife and Shauna the daughter, rather than being so-and-so’s someone. I find it really admirable and I wonder how you stay Shauna when you have to do all these things for other people.
SN: I think one of the things I’ve learned, and I think the more I’ve traveled and met people, I really don’t like being around people who are one person in one scenario and another person in another scenario. I don’t like it when I meet a speaker and they’re different backstage than they are onstage. I don’t like meeting a mom friend who is with me one way and then really different with another group of friends.
The people I’m drawn to are for better or for worse, they are who they are. That sort of non-compartmentalized authenticity, kind of that “warts and all.” If you were out to dinner with me and my best friends, you would see like they’re not perfect and I’m not perfect and we have a lot of weaknesses, and a lot of faults, but we’re not pretending.
I very intentionally surround myself with people who don’t put on different identities or selves or roles based on the different roles they are playing in their life. And I think that rubs off on me. And I think that’s what people are looking for. I think they are looking for people who parent, and work and write and create out of a deep, whole self so that it looks the same all those places.
But I would also say that’s a function of maturity that gets easier as you get older. I remember feeling in my early 20s, like I could just be a different person every day. Like I remember going shopping and being like, “what do I wear? What kind of things do I wear? Do I wear this?” And now age and life experience, even on a superficial level, I can walk into a store and tell you “that’s a thing I wear, and that’s not.” And I think that’s a good feeling. I like that.
MR: Besides your book, are there other resources or writers that you have found really helpful in this journey?
SN: I think Jen Hatmaker does a great job of just living in her own skin and her own identity in a really compelling, beautiful way. And she’s another one of those people that the way she writes and the way she talks and the way that she is onstage and offstage are very congruent. I think that’s really beautiful. Sarah Bessey is a writer who I feel a similar thing. She writes from a very deep place and she writes like a writer and a reader and you feel that when you spend time with her. I really am thankful for that. Those are the first 2 that come to mind.
MR: I know you talk a lot in your book about other types of Christian traditions that have been really helpful for you through The Practice (the church service Shauna’s husband started) and those things.
SN: I would say there are a lot of the Catholic mystics. Father Thomas Keating is the person who wrote most extensively about centering prayer. So his voice has been really helpful to me. I read a lot of Richard Rohr and Ronald Rolheiser, both Catholic priests. I think for any of us, whatever Christian tradition you grow up in, or you find yourself in as an adult, there are so many treasures beyond just that tradition.
For some people, it’s very meaningful to convert within Christianity from one tradition to another. For a lot of the rest of us, I think it’s just really enriching to learn some of the best practices and most significant voices from each of those traditions. And so for me, that’s been really important learning a lot from the Catholic especially the contemplative tradition has really enriched my faith.
MR: I did want to ask a few questions about parenting, your kids and how this journey has affected them. First, there’s a chapter in the book where you talk about how everybody was sick. And I thought “oh I can so relate to that” and I’m sure every mom and dad who comes to our site, like they know what that feels like - 24/7, everyone needs me. So in those situations, are there specific things that you pray, or verses that you meditate on to stay centered in a ground zero situation like that?
SN: Well, one of the things I remind myself is that as much as it seems like they’re going to be sick forever, that’s generally not true. The other thing I always try to remind myself when they’re sick especially in the night is just don’t pay attention to anything I think or feel in the middle of the night. Just nothing. None of those crazy thoughts about like how I’m going to die of tiredness or I want to run away. I never think good things in the middle of the night, so I’m learning just to not take myself seriously - whatever I think or feel in the night, we just wait for morning.
One of my practices I suppose, spiritual or not, is that I always let my best friends in to how hard it is. And so this group of girlfriends, this cooking club group of girls, we’re on a text conversation together, and it’s one of the really natural things we do. One of the girls will say, “my kids were up in the night” or “we had to take one to the ER” or one of them needs a breathing treatment or somebody fell or whatever - you can share that stuff and not feel like you’re carrying it alone. When you hear immediately back from your friends and they say “I’m praying for you” “Can I take your other child?” “Can I drop off dinner?” “Can I do this?” - you all of the sudden realize everybody goes through this stuff as a parent and none of us have to do it alone. And so we do a lot of bringing over meals and bringing over donuts and bringing over coffee and picking up each other’s kids, and I think that’s sort of the saving grace in all of it - that you don’t have to carry it on your own.
MR: I’d love to know what are ways you are passing on this style of living to your kids - helping them understand what it means to be present over perfect.
SN: Well, a couple things - one of them is we go away for the summer. We go to this little small town where my parents took us in the summer. My parents are there, my brother is there, a lot of our old friends are there. And what that means is they don’t do one million different day camps. They don’t do any summer sports. They don’t do like a busy summer thing - it’s the opposite of that. We wake up, we walk to the beach, it’s quiet, we don’t watch movies, there’s no tv. It’s very low key, it’s very outdoors, it’s very family-oriented. And I think for as busy as our life tends to be the whole rest of the year, to have these specific places … we always go away for Christmas, we always spend the summer at the lake, and to kind of recalibrate and say “now go outside, no you don’t need your iPad, no you don’t need to be busy, you don’t need a playdate, just figure it out - kind of reminding them of that way of living is good for all of us. I’m really thankful for it, and I’m really committed to it. So I like kind of getting out of the day-to-day and being outside.
The other thing I would say we do is try really hard not to overschedule our kids. We are home for bedtime most nights. We go for a walk together, we go for a scooter ride together, we lay in the hammock, we read books together. That unwind towards bedtime is a really sacred time for our family. And so we don’t do a ton of nights out. We really work hard that when we’re home, we’re home together, we’re creating a sacred space in those evening times for family.
MR: That’s really beautiful. Even that idea, because I think there’s this compulsion to get your kids into soccer, or theater, or student council or all these different things that they feel like they have to do, and it seems like they would start to develop this same rhythm of hustle really early. Have you seen examples of that in your kids and are there conversations you’ve had to have with them around those?
SN: I would say this is actually a situation where I learn a lot from our older son. He’s almost 10 and he is really able to articulate how he wants to live. He likes “lay low time” with just the family at home. He loves to watch movies together, he loves to read books together, he doesn’t like being out all the time, he doesn’t like being in a hurry, and so I had to really kind of reset my expectations a lot of times. So he’ll get off the bus and I’ll be like, “ok - we’re going to run to the mall, run to the store, we’re going to stop over and see this person …” and he’s like “mom, I really want a lay low night.” And I’m like “ok, I hear you.” He really leads me in keeping us home more, in keeping us together more, keeping us in a really more low key rhythm. And I’m really thankful for that.
MR: That’s amazing. Are there books or movies that you guys really enjoy doing together as a family?
SN: Well, we love Harry Potter so we love watching Harry Potter together. We just started again the other night - we’ve been reading the Jesus Storybook Bible for literally 10 years. I love it. I’m really cautious about the way we talk to our kids about faith, because it’s so easy to simplify the message into a way that just sounds like “you’re bad, thank goodness for Jesus” and that’s something I’m very sensitive to. I want the message to be simple, I don’t want it to be shame-based, and I really love the way Sally Lloyd-Jones articulates a vision of faith that’s about a love story, that’s about God’s love for us, and inviting us to be change-makers. And so that Bible is in their head and in their heart so deeply because we’ve been through it so many times - I’m really thankful for that.
The other one that I love and it’s not a Bible by any means, but I don’t know if you know the podcast the Sugarcrash Kids? We are crazy about it! It is so fun. We haven’t listened to podcast with our kids yet, we just hadn’t done it and a friend of mine is actually the producer on it. But I hadn’t listened to it! We just happened to be on a long car trip and it’s gold. We love it. It’s super creative, it’s super fun. So yeah that’s one of the things we’re really into.
BIG thanks to the lovely Shauna Niequist for sharing her heart with all of us, both in this interview and in her gorgeous new book Present Over Perfect. Pick it up today!
Shauna Niequist is the author of Present Over Perfect, Savor, Bread & Wine, Cold Tangerines, and Bittersweet. Shauna is a bookworm, a beach bum, an enthusiastic home cook and a passionate gatherer of people. She is married to Aaron, and they live in Chicago with their two boys, Henry and Mac. You can connect with her online at ShaunaNiequist.com.