- Nicole Villalpando American-Statesman Staff
Jen Hatmaker is sitting in her office in a little outbuilding at the home her family remodeled in Buda — the home that became famous when it and the family landed on the HGTV show “My Big Family Renovation.”
She’s hoping no one will interrupt her as she’s talking about her new book, “Of Mess and Moxie: Wrangling Delight Out of This Wild and Glorious Life” ($22.99, Nelson Books). It’s a calculated risk, mind you, because it’s summertime and her five kids, ranging from college age to entering middle school, are loose.
“The inmates are running the asylum,” she jokes. “It’s a miracle; in the last 15 minutes someone hasn’t barged into the office.”
The Austin author, blogger and spiritual leader launched “Of Mess and Moxie” this week with a Facebook Live post and a press tour of Los Angeles and then New York. She’s hoping to come home to BookPeople soon.
The book is all about telling her truth, something she has never exactly shied away from, but now she’s learned to stop chasing perfection, and she hopes you will too.
“The thing about real life is that if you don’t know already that life is messy and hard and full of failure and loss and disappointment, then you need to live longer,” she says. “That’s just true.”
It’s a lesson she’s had to teach herself. She says she never would have been able to share so many of her shortcomings in a book like this 10 years ago. She was chasing the dream of some sort of life perfection, she says.
“I’m not playing that game anymore,” Hatmaker says. “Nine times out of 10, telling the truth, whether an easy one to tell or a hard one to tell, draws people in more than pushes them away. If it does push them away, they’re not going to be the right person for you.”
Being honest about failures and imperfections is hard, especially if you grow up in a faith tradition that says, “‘If you follow this template, you can guarantee a healthy and happy life. If you say the right words and check the right boxes and parent just like this and invest in your marriage, everything is going to be fine.’ The truth is, that’s not real.”
She wants us to give ourselves a break and to remember that “even the best of God’s faith had dark nights,” she says. “Life is hard, and it is for all of us. Faith does not inoculate us from pain, but it gives me the tools to endure, to stay courageous and hopeful in the midst of sadness. … It gives me tools to rebound and be better.”
The book comes as a reflection of what was happening in her life. “Our family two years ago crashed and burned on six different simultaneous levels all within a handful of months,” she says.
It felt like everything was going wrong. Her children were struggling, her brother was facing legal battles, her mother had cancer.
“Everything felt like it was imploding all at once. … We couldn’t catch our breath from one thing, then the next domino hit,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘We can’t recover from this. Even if we move on, we can’t undo what had happened.’”
That’s the mess part of “Of Mess and Moxie.” The moxie part came when they did rebound. “We reached to the only thing that ever worked: family, faithfulness and prayer.”
They clung to family and connectedness. “I’m grateful to see how far we’ve come,” she says. “How many things felt left in the rubble have been rebuilt.”
“Even in the very worst things,” she says, “even then, the sun will rise again.”
Hatmaker is the daughter of a pastor, and her husband, Brandon, is the pastor at Austin New Church, which meets at Bailey Middle School. It’s one of the key anchors of their lives, she says. What she loves about her “little weirdo granola church” in South Austin is that it’s not fancy, but the people are real. “No one is expecting anyone else to have it all together or to be perfect,” she says. “I need a faith community where the people in leadership are humble and honest and inclusive and kind.”
And that’s what she’s tried to be.
She’s surrounded by a greater community that has grown and catapulted women of Christian faith to the national level, including Jennie Allen, who created the IF:Gathering and movement, and Jessica Honegger of the fair-trade fashion line NoonDay Collection.
“Here out of this very kind of progressive but truthful city, women are rising up,” Hatmaker says. “I don’t know what it is about the soul of this city that is growing these strong women.” It could be, Hatmaker suggests, that Austin doesn’t have a community tradition of large organized religion centers with set rules. “It’s wheels off in Austin,” Hatmaker says. “Why women are finding their voices here than in other places, I don’t know, but I’m having it.”
Hatmaker’s “Of Mess and Moxie” is raw and filled with the truths we might all think but don’t always voice.
She also breaks up any chance of being too heavy with gems of humor. They come in the forms of how-tos that are also explained with “programming notes.”
A few favorites:
“How to Ruin Your Toddler’s Life
Pour him 1/8 of an inch less milk than his brother in a see-through cup.
Programming Note: If this doesn’t work, accidentally break his cookie in half as you lift it off the cookie sheet. Because broken cookies don’t taste the same! If these fail, give him the wrong kind of cheese or socks with weird seams. This should definitely destroy his happiness.”
“How to Find a Missing Child
1. Prepare to take a shower or go to the bathroom.
2. Shut door.
Programming Note: The missing child should barge in immediately, but should this method fail, silently open a candy bar or start a very important phone call. Look down: There is your kid.”
“How to Talk to Your Teenager
1. Slowly enter the beast’s cave, throwing darting glances side to side as you scan the room for living or dead things. The smell suggests a corpse. You hope for just an old glass of milk. It’s hard to know.
2. Assess teenager on bed or at computer. If thumbs and fingers are moving, texting or typing is happening. Wait for the teenage invitation: ‘What?!’ Ah, he sees you.
3. Initiate conversation, which is mostly just asking questions and deciphering which yes, no, I guess, and grunt go with each question. Good talk.
4. Casually ask teenager if he knows what aforementioned smell is and then retreat slowly as he death-stares you out the door. The smell does not affect him. He cohabitates with the smell. He defends the smell. The smell is only your problem.
5. Remind yourself he does love you and this is just a phase because everything is weird in his head right now, and rest assured you have the passcode to his phone (that you pay for) should you become concerned and need to read his texts later while eating popcorn.
6. Spray Febreze liberally on everything after he goes to sleep, including his actual body.”
The how-tos are reminiscent of the thank-you notes of truth she wrote in her book “For the Love.” She wanted to do a hook like that again, and after she wrote a how-to about raising a teenager, it got a lot of hits and comments. She knew she had found that hook.
Her readers helped her make these how-tos even more absurd. “The social media tribe always shows up and comes through every time,” she says.
What makes the how-tos funny, she says, is they are real.
“I just want women to love it,” she says of the book. “What I’m hopeful for is that ‘Moxie’ is going to hit a lot of notes for a lot of women in or out of faith, in or out of marriage, in or out of parenting.”
Even though she writes from a Christian perspective, she says she wants to pull more seats up to the conversation table.
“You can walk away from ‘Moxie’ encouraged and understood and included and entertained,” she says.
She wants you to know she’s a real person. Yes, when she sees you rolling slowly by her house and staring or when you stop to take a picture, she can see you. And while other HGTV people like Clint Harp have moved their family out of the house featured on their show, she won’t do it. They put too much work into remodeling that house, and it’s been the site of so many happy times, she says. “We love this house.”
Her personality isn’t just for the HGTV show or the books or the speaking engagements. She will wear the same yoga pants for six days in a row, at which point Brandon will tell her, “Today has to be the day you change out of those.”
And when she gets asked, “How do you balance it all?” “I want to throw my head back and laugh. I don’t,” she says. “Who told you I was balancing it all?”
The truth is that there are a lot of different slices in the pie that is her life, and those slices are never divided equally. If the family portion of the pie feels extra-large, she says, that means she’s probably not able to do as much work. When the work portion is larger, that means she’s not giving her family as much attention.
Working moms, though, figure it out. She’s in the H-E-B parking lot taking an important phone call because that’s how she can schedule it in. When school is in session, she’s not chaperoning the field trip (there’s a hilarious story about why in the book) or eating lunch with her kids. She’s cramming work in. That might also mean that it gets done when the kids are asleep.
And no, she doesn’t always like her children, and they’re not perfect, either.
“The worst years to be a living human being is fifth, sixth and seventh grade,” she says. “It’s a nightmare.” Now that her youngest is going into sixth grade, she is reminded of why she hates this age. “They are a mess, their friends are a mess, their brains are a mess; it’s just the worst.”
She tells moms everywhere, “Here’s what we’re going to do: We’re going put our heads down and get through it.”
All that mess will give them and you the moxie to move forward. She’s sure of it.