No gloss: Mommy mag lives to sell

"We didn't set out to be experts at all," Stephanie Wilkinson says.

On the contrary, four years ago when Wilkinson and her friend Jennifer Niesslein created a new magazine for mothers, they were rebelling against the advice-oriented publications that litter the parenting section of the newsstand.

"We were writing stuff about our experiences with being mothers," Niesslein says. "We'd show it to each other, but there wasn't a huge market for it."

Brain, Child is the sort of magazine these two literary professionals– who also happen to be mothers– longed to read as each was caught up in the drama of starting a family.

The two met while working with the Hook's editor at a local weekly in the mid-1990s. Niesslein was a staff reporter and editor, and Wilkinson wrote book reviews. Later, when the friends moved to the Valley and began working as freelance writers, they'd meet fairly often to share their stories.

Inspired by a column of unsentimental first-person essays in the online magazine, the two decided to gather their own quarterly collection of smart and sassy essays, features, reviews, fiction, humor, and readers' stories. No clich├ęs or glossy photos here. Subtitled The Magazine for Thinking Mothers, Brain, Child articulates the unsanitized experience of motherhood.

Now the two writers-turned-entrepreneurs have reporters from The Minnesota Observer and The Washington Times calling to ask their opinion on the future of motherhood and the difference in parenting styles between Boomers and Gen-Xers.

As if anointing its co-editors experts on all things maternal were not enough, in its first year of publication, Brain, Child was named one of the five best new magazines in the country by alternative press powerhouse Utne Reader. In 2003, an essay in Brain, Child won a Pushcart Prize and was listed under "Notable Essays" in Best American Essays 2002.

Despite the growth of the "momoir" genre in books, it's still the only magazine of its kind in print. Meanwhile, as other Central-Virginia based magazines such as 64 and Working Weekly died, Brain, Child, say the duo, now has an international circulation of around 30,000.

"It's really refreshing for new parents to have a publication as fun, serious, and sophisticated as Brain, Child," says contributor John Blackburn.

When one of his essays about his own impending fatherhood was published, readers told Blackburn how strongly it resonated.

"I think that happens a lot," Blackburn says. "Jenny and Steph are so focused on their readership. Everything [they print] just clicks with readers."

For Niesslein and Wilkinson, now 31 and 41, it's all about bumping up against hard-to-resolve issues and coming away with a deeper understanding of their own experience. As Wilkinson says, "Sometimes, even when you're living it, you don't get it."

Stephanie Wilkinson and Jennifer Niesslein