In 1987, Teryl Zarnow, an Orange County Register editorial writer and education reporter who had opted for a more flexible schedule after starting her family, decided to write a column about what it was like to be a mother. In her own defense, she says that she had just attended a baby shower. She wrote three columns and submitted them to the newspaper. They described the ordinary events of daily family life, only with a healthy dose of humor.
Initially, the editors seemed baffled by the columns. They ran them as vignettes and placed the pieces on the grocery page, she recalls. But then - surprise - readers began to seek them out and to respond. And Zarnow, to her delight, suddenly found herself a front-page columnist in Accent, the newspaper's feature section.
Since then, Teryl Zarnow has been parlaying those funny family experiences into a weekly column. Syndicated over the Knight-Ridder wire, the column strikes a nerve with readers because it's so universal. "One of my favorite columns was about a time when my daughter took off her shoes and socks and left them in the living room, and I tracked the progress of them for days," she says. "It was absolutely nothing important, but it drove me nuts. The column gave me a way to get it out of my system."
Zarnow's column, the longest-running one in the Register, can be cathartic and therapeutic for her, she says. It also serves as a backdoor for sending messages to her family. "It turns out that it is a good way to ventilate," she says. "But it is also a great way to communicate with my kids and let them know how I was feeling about something they did. Sometimes, it's easier to put it in writing and show it to them, rather than trying to talk about it."
Currently, Zarnow lets her children - Zachary, 16; Rachel, 14; and Noah, 12 - read her column before it gets published, "so other kids don't say something to them about it first." Some things that happen in the family are "nobody's business, " and she carefully screens these out. Moreover she never refers to her children or her husband, David, an engineer, by name. In addition to protecting the privacy of her family, not using anybody's name makes the kids and their antics universal, she says."The easiest columns for me to write are the ones where I pick on my husband," Zarnow quips. "He's a tempting target, but I only do that every four or five weeks."
Zarnow says that her husband once told her, "You can write about what a fool I am, but just make sure I'm the fool you love."
While Zarnow pokes good-natured fun at family life, it is clearly her need for a career wrapped around family life that motivated her present career path. "It's isolating to be home with babies, and you have to develop a whole new infrastructure," she says. "On the other hand, when both parents work full-time, it can take a toll on the family."
Zarnow feels lucky to have the best of both worlds. She feels that "the Register supported and encouraged" her during three six-month maternity leaves and allowed her to go on a flexible schedule. "It's a lot easier to like an employer when you're working out of your home, but you also don't get to eat lunch with people and share ideas," she says.
In addition to her column, Zarnow writes feature stories for the Accent, Kidspace and Discover sections of the Register. She also serves as contributing editor to Orange County Woman and has had articles published in Child, Redbook, Working Mother and Ladies Home Journal. She enjoys "getting out and get connected in the community," she says.
The author of two books, "Husband Is the Past Tense of Daddy - and Other Dispatches from the Frontlines of Motherhood" and "The Mother Side of Midnight - Nocturnal Confessions of a Lunchbox Queen," Zarnow says the sales of the books haven't made her "famous enough to have been on Oprah."
Zarnow believes that the Register has expanded its coverage of the Orange County community, especially the Jewish community, over the years. She also feels fortunate that nobody tells her what to write. "The feature sections are impervious to the editorial sections, but I censor myself a lot," she says. "I don't want people to think: there's that woman talking about how great her kids are again."
Although the Register column does not have any particular Jewish focus, Zarnow muses that it has "the Jewish elements of self-analysis, guilt and angst, a la Woody Allen."
Zarnow, whose grandfather was a rabbi in Chicago, has served on the Sisterhood board at Temple Bat Yahm. Currently, her activities include PTA membership in the three schools her children attend and participation in a mentoring program at Newport Harbor High School.
Having decided early in life that she wanted to write, Zarnow derives great joy from the response to her column. She says that she gets "great mail," in which people identify with her experiences as a mother. Zarnow claims that she never runs out of material for the column, although she revisits some subjects occasionally."I've developed a voice in my column," she concludes. "It's not just what I say, but the way I say it."
By Ilene Schneider is an editor and writer who lives in Orange County