She started out on a conventional enough route, pulling up stakes in New York 14 years ago to follow her young husband to his new job in Minneapolis. There, with one small child and another on the way, she blended right in as a homemaker and occasional volunteer.
Then she concocted a baby-food cookbook as a childbirth-group fundraiser, and its unanticipated commercial success changed her life. Today, Feed Me, I'm Yours has nearly 2 million copies in print, and 43-year-old Vicki Lansky is a national phenomenon.
She's the gregarious, energetic "Heloise" of the child-care market: the author of some six book-length compilations of child-care tips and a weekly newspaper column. She's the publisher of the respected bimonthly "Practical Parenting" newsletter with 5,000 subscribers, the cofounder of a small literary agency and the distributor of such products as the fold-up potty seat she totes in her briefcase. She has a six-figure income, a lake-front home and evident satisfaction with her life. "I'm amazed," she says. "I feel blessed."
Today, also as a result of her commercial success in the burgeoning how-to-parent market, Vicki Lansky is divorced and grappling with the effect of that seeming incongruity on her public image.
Suppose, for example, she writes the book on divorce she's been toying with since her own split in 1983. She imagines the marketing reaction: "Right now, I'm salable to publishers because of my name in child-rearing. You know: America, apple pie, motherhood . . . and divorce?"
And then there's her readers' response to consider. While Lansky offers tips on handling divorce and separation in at least two books, she's deliberately steered clear of allusions to her own marital status. With one exception: her newsletter did broach the subject once, without much stir. Lansky says she was relieved. "I was worried about losing my credibility," she admits, even if she reasons: "If I'm divorced or not has nothing to do with my material."
What sets Lansky apart from legions of self-purported experts in childrearing is that she has never set herself up as an expert. She admits to modest credentials -- a B.A. in art history, her own parenting experience and a natural flair for promotion. "My expertise is in sharing tips from other parents. I'm not an expert," she says.
The real experts hold this in her favor.
Says Dr. Burton White, pediatrician and director of the Center for Parent Education in Newton, Mass.: "These days everybody and his sister is writing about raising babies and very often they don't know what the hell they're talking about. Vicki is an exception. She's smart enough to have good epistomological standards -- she knows when she doesn't know something . . .
"She solicits ideas from parents and passes on what seems to be reasonable. She solicits opinions from experts . . . and sometimes asks to reprint something we do in our own newsletter. She's not the world's leading expert, but I'm a pretty tough critic and I think she's pretty good," says White.
Also in her favor are a genuine affability and a self-deprecating humor. About Feed Me, I'm Yours, she says, "People tell me, 'I raised my child by this book.' I think, 'Oh my God. Are they going to send me their shrink bills too?' "
Among Lansky-collected tips: Use peanut butter to remove gum from hair. To get a restless child back to sleep at night, put scent on the back of her (or his) hand. Tell her to lie back and breathe the scent until she can't smell it anymore. Others: Convert old pants pockets to toy pouches. Entice school-bound kids out of bed with hot chocolate. Ride with them on the school bus. Put love notes in their lunch boxes.
Books like Practical Parenting Tips for the First Five Years and the new Practical Parenting Tips for the School-Age Years (Bantam, $5.95) contain literally thousands of these.
"To some extent," she confides, "these are 'guilt books.' "
Lansky points out the boxed message printed on the back of one book cover: "Warning: This book can be hazardous to your mental health if you think you must try every idea listed. Trying them all may lead to a nervous breakdown. Thinking you should is guaranteed to produce an intense case of guilt."
There goes that theory about what drove her husband away. Lansky laughs at the thought. "I never did all those things," she says. "What I'm doing is saying to parents, 'These are choices you have.' And I say that with humor and while being very supportive and showing everybody makes mistakes."
Her own marital problems, she says, were largely business-related: "We got divorced over our business. It broke up our family."
Back in 1975, Feed Me, I'm Yours abruptly became a joint venture for Lansky and her husband, Bruce, when the book's publication coincided with the loss of his job at Pillsbury. Bruce, with his marketing background, was quick to seize on the book's sales potential after the first thousand or more copies of the baby-food cookbook were grabbed up. The Lanskys formed Meadowbrook Press, named for their residential street in Deephaven, Minn., to publish more.
Marketing the book themselves, the Lanskys sold 100,000 copies out of their house in two years. "We had what we called a 'relative marketing strategy,' " says Vicki. "We went where I had relatives." B. Dalton Booksellers, headquartered in Minneapolis, would display the book wherever she went. Still, it took time for Lansky to adjust to her new role: for a long while, she says, she was embarrassed to put her name on the cover or call herself an editor or author.
In 1977, they sold the book to Bantam as a mass-market paperback. Meadowbrook Press, meanwhile, was working on a new title: The Taming of the C.A.N.D.Y. Monster, a collection of Lansky alternatives to store-bought junk food for kids.
At first, says Vicki, she and her husband's different business approaches were not a problem. Eventually, though, she says, he wanted to expand Meadowbrook and she did not. Finally, reluctantly, she offered to give up her share in the business, but by then it was too late to save the marriage.
In many ways, the handling of their divorce is as pragmatically unconventional as her parenting tips. He got the business; she got their lake-front home. Bruce, who lives three miles away in the family's original house on Meadowbrook Lane, is her office-building landlord. "People really think we're weird," smiles Lansky. They share parenting of Doug, 14, and Dana, 11, housing the children on alternate weeks, and attending school conferences together. The kids, she says, are doing well.
"For Doug's birthday, his request was that the four of us go out to dinner together. I began to realize for kids what a terrible thing it is that their parents can't sit together peaceably for two hours." The Lanskys, apparently dismissing concern for their own discomfort or for the kids' need to accept reality, acceded to the request. Says Lansky, "They just beamed to have us all together. Why can't everybody do it? . . . I like the fact we can do that for the kids." As far as the divorce goes, says Lansky, "it works. In an imperfect world, I think we did the best thing possible."
For Lansky, divorce has brought other personal changes. She's dieting (although she doesn't appear overweight), growing her nails "for the first time in 43 years," windsurfing, and treating herself "a little better." She went to an Arizona spa over Thanksgiving.
Businesswise, Lansky's got a number of pots on the burner. Book Peddlers, the literary agency she co-owns with Jonathon Lazear, has had some success selling novels. Lansky saw two new books out in the fall (one on toilet-training and one on second babies) in a Bantam child-care series, with two more slated for publication this summer. Meanwhile, her newsletter, while not worth much on the balance sheet, keeps her well-posted on readers' needs by way of parent polls. "I never read the answers," says Lansky. "My editor has to do that. I don't have time."
If her style of motherhood differs from the domestic model she first planned, her kids may have the most reason to be thankful, Lansky argues. "If I can put this much energy into my business, imagine if I only had my kids to focus on," she says, in mock horror. "I think my business has been a great thing as far as they are concerned."
Her days are a busy and, to a large degree, unpredictable mix of business, errands, travel and volunteer work. Combined, of course, with the varied demands of motherhood: "I juggle stuff," she says. "The kids, the dental appointments, the carpools -- but it's good stress."