An Upper West Sider finds the humor in motherhood
BY ANGELA BARBUTI
Birgitta Karlén was 19 when she first arrived in New York to model for “Vogue.” Born in Sweden and raised in Minnesota, she came here alone and lived in a cramped studio apartment on Irving Place with three other models.
After what she calls a “culture shock,” she went on the typical modeling circuit — Paris, Milan, L.A., Miami. Although New York was always her home base, she lived out of a suitcase for 10 years.
Lots changed when she had her three children. “You go from that environment where you’re completely free and there are no encumbrances, then all the sudden I had three kids under the age of five,” she said. Although extremely content with being a mother, she did find it difficult at times, and quickly came to the realization that in order to stay sane, she had to find the humor in it all.
That is when she decided to write, “Ten Tips for the Frazzled Parent,” which was published in 2013. Each tip, such as “Lock yourself in the bathroom and cry” and “Bribery works,” is accompanied by an endearing illustration, designed to make parents smile even in their weariest of days.
Now in her 40s, with her three children now 19, 16 and 13, she is working on a full-length version of the book with child psychologist Elissa Gross. She also has plans to lengthen the series with additions for the frazzled parent of a teen, as well as step and single parents.
How did the book first come about?We just kind of had one child after the other. And I love them so much and they were just such beautiful little beings. And I was so happy to be a mom, but it was also just so crazy.... It’s really hard and I don’t think that you’re ever really prepared for it. And I think that was one of the reasons that I wrote the book. I was like, “Wow, this is insane.” [Laughs] And it’s kind of that thing where if you don’t find the humor it, then you’ll lose your mind.
What do you want readers to take away from it?I wanted to shine some light on the fact that people are not alone. That it’s normal to have conflicting feelings. And you love your kids, but you can be exhausted and take time off when you need it, and you should. Having lived in so many other places, I think America kind of glorifies parenting. And I think people are waiting longer, so it’s supposed to be this thing that’s so amazing all the time. And it’s just supposed to be this constant bliss and everybody’s supposed to be happy, but that’s not always the reality. You’ve got post-partum depression and it’s a big lifestyle change for many women who have been professionals.
What is the response like from parents?They love the illustrations. The illustrator [Michael Pugliese] that I worked with is so brilliant. Just watching him work was really a pleasure. I wanted a certain look for the illustrations, so gave him some picture books and characters that I thought were where I was leaning towards. But he created something so unique and original and I think really captured the emotions really well and people seem to really connect. And then the captions that go with them, there’s a lot of deeper meaning underneath them. And people end up really laughing out loud. I’ll give it to people, they’ll start reading and they will start laughing. One of my friends, I showed it to her when it was first published, and she started tearing up at the end and said, “Oh my gosh, you have to get this out there. This is so real.”
Highlight one of the tips and why you chose it.
Tip number three is, “Think back on all the bad things you did when you were a kid.” So you got a mom, she’s got her cup of coffee or tea and she’s kind of reminiscing about things that she did. And she’s hanging her cat over the balcony and left her toys on the stairs and her mom or dad is coming down with some box about to trip on a bunch of things. I think this highlights how we sometimes just forget what it was like to be a kid and that we did a lot of the same things that our kids do and to give them the space to be kids.
You went back to school at Columbia in your 30s. How did you balance being a mom with your academics?
That was tough. [Laughs] It’s kind of a blur. I would schedule my classes so the kids would be in school, and then I was writing a lot of papers. I was available for them, but they knew that I was studying. And I think it actually inspired them to work a little bit harder. To see their mom really focusing on something and really passionate about doing well and completing this process that I had stopped.
I’m in the composer mindset because I just attended a press event for “Mozart in the Jungle,” and read that your dad was a composer. What was that like growing up?It was a very quiet house. He studied at the Boston Conservatory with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, so he was very serious about music and it was everything to him. My sister and I studied violin; my other sister studied piano. And I was in a youth orchestra and traveled to Europe. The one thing that I remember the most is that his ears were so sensitive and we always had to be quiet. He had all girls, but if he had had boys, I think he would have had a bigger problem. I have two boys and they’re really loud.
You were also in a Tupac Shakur music video. That is so cool. He was interesting to work with. It was actually right before he was killed, so it was kind of sad. The song is called, “All About You.” It wasn’t one of his bigger hits, but it was about personality and presences, like famous faces always showing up. There were four of us cast as the main characters and we came up everywhere, the same faces. So everywhere you look you see the same supermodel.