Editor’s Note: A few years ago I spent some time with Tracey Stewart, who was New York Family’s cover subject in January 2012. Tracey had created a unique and wonderful place called Moomah, a hub for families in Lower Manhattan, that was part café (up front) and part children’s enrichment center (in back). A few impressions that linger: She was lively, cool, candid, and fun; had an exceptional gift for creative arts projects for children; and she loved the life and family she had created with her famous husband Jon Stewart. With all the hullabaloo around his final week on “The Daily Show,” I know there are many people out there who would enjoy reading our interview with Tracey, who still nurture’s the spirit of Moomah but now as an online magazine whose mission has evolved to toward the goal of “ inspiring connection between our kids and ourselves with the world around us, [by featuring] great organizations and stories about people that are truly working to make the world a better place, accompanied by the same great crafts and activities we’ve always brought you.” I’m glad the crafts live on!
I thought of Tracey the other night when Jon, in a classy aside, took a minute to tell the world how wonderful she is and how she has a special book coming out called Do Unto Animals: A Friendly Guide To How Animals Live and How We Can Make Their Lives Better. With over 300 color illustrations by artist Lisel Ashlock, the book sounds like another kind of special feast to share with children.
I remember that her and Jon had a big chalkboard in their kitchen area that featured an idea of the week to share with their children—and practice that I regret not implementing myself. On the week we interviewed her, the big idea was “Be Reasonable.”
As much as think you’ll enjoy hearing Tracey reflect on their life as a family, based on my experiences at Moomah, I encourage you to also take the time to discover her magazine and new book. –Eric Messinger
Here’s the original interview from our January 2012 issue:
It’s easy to see why folks from all over town flock to Tracey Stewart’s cozy corner of Tribeca. At Moomah, Stewart’s café-cum-art-space, the walls dance with beluga whales while shelves house sea turtle shadowboxes and oversized jacks. Old-school diner booths with red trim bookend metallic tables inspired by vintage wallpaper. A virtual room—the Funky Forest—unpacks an interactive ecosystem for its wee visitors. Overall, the style is smooth and subtlety reigns supreme.
In the Stewart family home—which Tracey shares with her husband, “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart, and their children, Nate, 7, and Maggie, 5—the details are just as inviting. Santa, the resident goldfish, resides atop the kitchen counter while a wall-sized chalkboard that, for the time being, reads “Be Reasonable!!” upholds the household’s humor.
From where I sit, Tracey balances the depths of New York City motherhood and a creative career with grace. She—just like her home and workplace—echoes comfort, cool and a whole lot of funny. Read on for her family’s love of a certain cooking channel and why, above all, she believes there’s no place like home.
Moomah is your world. It seems to have everything!
I know—my friends call it my playhouse. [Laughs]
Describe it to me in one line, if you can.
Honestly, I think of it like a womb. I really do.
Ha. In what way?
It’s very therapeutic down there.
I always say to the staff: “When a mom comes in and she is screaming about her bagel and she’s upset—she’s
really not an asshole.” She’s just stressed and has no time for herself. Try to remember that and help that person along.
When did it all begin?
Prior to having children, I loved going out to eat, being in my neighborhood and visiting with my neighbors. And when I was pregnant, same thing. People open the doors for you, they give you drinks of water. They are happy to see you! And then the minute that baby is on the outside of you, they want nothing to do with you. I would try to go out and never felt completely welcomed. I tried to do the classes—dancing
around with your baby and singing really terrible songs. I wanted to shoot myself in the head. If I wanted to go out to eat, and the place was welcoming to kids—the music was terrible, the food was terrible. And it just felt like a part of my life had been separated that didn’t need to be separated. And I knew that I wasn’t the only one that was feeling like this.
So you created Moomah.
[I wanted to] create this space where you can really have quality time with your child. But the misconception is that people think that it’s motivated from wanting to build a magical place for kids. But the main motivation is for parents. Kids have it good nowadays. They’re okay. But who’s not okay? The parents of those kids.
Tell me about it! You opened the doors in 2009. What were the first two years like?
I have been so immersed. First, in figuring out how to do it in the first place. And then making sure that it was running right, that there were systems in place. And now that is all starting to happen. This year is going be about balance. This year is going to be about me learning that I have really smart, great people there and that it’s okay—they’re going to take care of everything. But definitely for these two years, I needed to be down there in the trenches figuring everything out.
What was the thought process like?
It was really just thinking about all my experiences as a mother and every little thing that would make a mom’s life easier. In the beginning, when the kids are young and you have to pack the wipes and the diapers and you’re sleep deprived and completely overwhelmed, sometimes you just want to have a sandwich. And so the bathroom has wipes, a beautiful changing table, there’s a potty seat, there’s a chair in case you didn’t want to breastfeed out in public. But I didn’t want it to be [exclusively] “Mommy World.” I wanted everybody coming in. So we got fantastic coffee. We also paid a lot of attention to make sure that there were things that kids would eat and were healthy but also were delicious. And we’ve got beer and wine. But that’s really for the moms.
Speaking of the mommy world…
That is actually the company I prefer to keep now. That is my circle! [Laughs] You want to complain and you want to find out an answer to something and they want to talk about the same stuff.
Where does the name come from?
Moomah was the name of my security blanket when I was little. I wanted it to be like a security blanket for moms.
What was your childhood like?
When I was young, my mom wasn’t being negligent but it was definitely considered okay that you would put your baby in the play pen, you’d watch your soap operas, and you would throw some toys in there for them every now and then.
And now you have your own children to shape.
[When] we decided to get pregnant, we figured oh you just “decide” and that will just happen. I decorated the room, got the crib and got everything ready…and then nothing. We tried for about two years and then did several In Vitro [treatments]. You’re waiting for something, you’re so excited. And then I got [Nate]. I was always a mildly anxious person, but once I had him, I became tremendously anxious and
vigilant and I had this feeling of having to protect him at all times.
Do your kids frequent Moomah?
Yes, that’s the beauty of it. I think they feel proud. They get to bring their friends and I can tell that they feel really good that this is their mom’s place and they even feel like it’s their house sometimes. Which is a problem because they are so comfortable. A lot of the classes that were created [were] based on what I knew they liked.
The art projects, too?
Initially I come up with some of the ideas that I want to do. What do my kids like right now? What’s happening in the world that kids are interested in? Then we’ll sit down in a meeting and the artists explode my idea. They take it so far beyond what I could even imagine.
What are Nate and Maggie like right now?
My son is very gentle, sweet, sensitive, emotional and kind. He loves “Star Wars” and football. He is going to be a really good husband some day and is a good cuddler. He loves to go out at night. Maggie is hilarious and irreverent, like her dad in girl form. She says the craziest things and is very dramatic. Like me, she could be in a fit of tears and be laughing a minute later. I always say that she’s me on the inside and Jon on the outside. And Nate is Jon on the outside and me on the inside.
Do you have any TV rules at home?
Before we had kids, we had all these ideas. First, it was that they wouldn’t watch TV. Then [when] we had them, [we said] ‘Well they are definitely going to have to watch TV because I need to sit down for a second.’ Then we realized that there was certain TV that they got so much joy from and that we all liked to watch together.
We are obsessed with The Food Network. We watch Restaurant Impossible, Cupcake Wars, Chopped, and Iron Chef. That’s pretty much all we watch anymore. Before, I was watching Little Bear and suffering. But now we all equally enjoy what we watch. And [the kids] get really motivated, so they want to cook.
What else do you do you like to do as a family?
We all love to stay home. Jon always makes a joke that if there was a heat-seeking satellite going above our apartment, it would just be a blob that would move from one room to the next. We just sit around and cuddle all the time. And every now and then, we’ll get invited to something and go. If we’re going to go out, it’s because food is motivating us to leave the house.
You don’t like being in the spotlight?
Oh no, no. That’s why I watch Jon and I’m like: “I can’t believe you love to do that, you crave to do that, and you’re comfortable.” It’s shocking to me.
How did you two meet?
A blind date—we had a mutual friend who knew that I found him extremely attractive.
And I hear you have quite the engagement story.
We used to do the New York Times crossword puzzle every night… It was two days before Valentine’s Day and he comes home and [says]: “I remembered to bring those crossword puzzles home.” So as I start to fill [it] out, there’s all these words in it that relate to us. And then the [clue] is “Valentine’s Day Request.” And it’s “Will you marry me?” And another one is “Recipient of the Request.” I’m looking at it saying: “It almost looks like my name could fit in there.” I look over and he’s crying and I’m like: “Is that what this is?” He had met Will Shortz backstage at Conan O’Brien and asked him to do it months ahead of time. It made it hard for everyone who got engaged after me!
Adorable! How do you and Jon navigate parenthood together as a couple?
We both think the same things are funny and we both value the same things. So parenting for us is very easy as far as our relationship goes because we always see eye to eye [with] the kids. When we were first dating, we used to play [this] hockey video game. He was really good at it and I wasn’t. I would get agitated and he’d say: “Let’s never play against each other.” So if we’re some place [with] a board game,
he’ll never play against me. He always has to be on my team. And I feel like that’s a philosophy that we keep in parenting, in our marriage. That we’re working for the same thing.
What’s he like with the kids?
Jon is such an incredible dad. He’s smart, sensitive and fair. He’s so present. I feel supported and the kids feel supported. Maggie will be having a tantrum and he’ll throw himself on the floor, fall and hit his head and she’ll start laughing. [Jon’s] the one that always brings everything back to having a sense of humor about things. We never get too sad at any moment because we’re always able to find the humor in everything—even in the hardest times. He’s the most reasonable [nods to the family chalkboard]. Then Nate, then Maggie, then me!
Any advice for a mom who is just starting out?
I’m very fortunate to be in a place where I can talk to other moms every day. I get great advice on a regular basis. If I was going to give my own, it would be to make sure that you get the emotional support you need. Loving these little creatures as much as we do can be very taxing. We need to take care of our families, ourselves and when time allows, I always suggest that we remember to take care of other moms. Sharing
our stories, our triumphs and our failures creates a sense of community and reminds us that we’re not alone.