Photo: Garry Knight

Women We Read This Week

Laurie Penny’s “Women can’t have it all – because the game is rigged” in the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is excellent here on the myth of work-life balance for women. Via a critique of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business, Penny deconstructs the tired idea of “having it all.” “When did the message that ‘girls can do anything’ get twisted into the edict: ‘girls must do everything?’” she asks in the opening paragraph. It’s a question that seems almost disconcertingly simple, but it bears dwelling on.

The meat of the piece, though, lies not only in its nuanced observations about the relationship between work, womanhood, and the womb, but in a broader message: “The truth about ‘work-life balance’ is that it doesn’t exist. It never has existed, and unless we radically rethink our attitude to work and care, it never will,” Penny writes. “There it is. That’s the truth nobody wants to acknowledge.” Boom. I know plenty of people to whom that truth is resonant, and it’s urgent we start to understand it.

Candy Schulman’s “Just an Ordinary Miscarriage” in The New York Times

The stories you read about pregnancy loss are often the most dramatic, the most horrific, the most graphic, and they are important stories. But this one is, as its title suggests, striking in its ordinariness. Good: these are important stories too; let us not succumb to the belief that there is a hierarchy of grief that ought to render any one sufferer silent. Schulman writes sparsely, elegantly, about the complexities of this particular kind of grief: “You don’t lose a person you’ve known and loved,” she writes, “but an abstraction you’ve nourished and protected;” elsewhere, she writes of “the baby, or fetus, or whatever it was,” underlining the difficulty of finding language to talk about something which has different meaning to different people. Schulman is hopeful that the culture of silence that existed when she miscarried is changing, however. “Today,” she writes, “would-be parents talk far more, and more publicly, about their grief and disappointment.” To me this piece speaks a significant truth about miscarriage: that every woman who has ever gone through one could tell her story, and the narrative would not be repetitive, as no narrative about loss – however ordinary – is ever quite the same as the one that came before, or the one that comes after.

Miranda

Tyrese Coleman’s “What It’s Like Having PPD As A Black Woman” in BuzzFeed

I experienced postpartum depression after the birth of my first child, so many aspects of this heart-breaking, gorgeous essay feel unsettlingly familiar. I also did not realize what I was experiencing until much later; I also recall conversations with family where they told me they knew something was up, but didn’t know how to bring it up. Sometimes, you really can’t see the forest for the trees—and no one wants to be the one to tell you you’re lost in the woods. Coleman does a phenomenal job of evoking emotion and finding common-ground experiences that many people will be able to relate to, and then describing the elements of her family and personal history that make her story so unique. This is not your typical postpartum depression story—she doesn’t have an epiphany or offer tips to other moms—and she addresses the added layer of racial expectations. She was raised to be a Strong Black Woman who “only cried at funerals.” Much of the essay is dedicated to explaining just how far back this expectation of emotional resilience goes in her family, and just how ingrained in her this idea was when she was growing up. Coleman delivered twin boys very prematurely: they were each less than 2 pounds. There was a long NICU stay and open-heart surgery—in other words, her first months as a parent were understandably filled with fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. So when she begins to experience insomnia, nighttime bouts of uncontrollable sobbing, and crippling fear, she hid it as best as she could. She says her photos show that in public, she appeared happy:

I cannot imagine those moments separate from the visual reminders of them. I keep saying that they must’ve been real, but when I think about that time all I see are plastic boxes and two tanning palm-size babies with tubes down their noses and IV prick wounds…I see me pretending to cope with it all, embarrassed by the praise from others: You are so strong, you are so brave, this must be so difficult. But, I was not brave. I was not strong. Yes, it was difficult. I see nighttime, always nighttime, and my breasts are hard and painful and wet and the only thing I want to do is mother my children, and the only thing I can’t do is mother my children. I see me crying, hard sobs that shake the bed. I see me grieving in the dark lying next to my husband yet feeling utterly alone.

Olivia

Kathryn Schulz’s “Pond Scum” in The New Yorker

My dog is named Henry David Thoreau. And not because he’s my favorite writer, but because my dog is a dignified little fellow and my ex and I decided he needed a dignified name. We made a list of famous writers and thought he looked like a Henry. We’d both read only bits of Thoreau in school so we went by his reputation as a cool dude who really liked nature. Which is what most people do, says Kathryn Schulz in “Pond Scum,” and they really shouldn’t. “The real Thoreau,” she writes, “was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.”

Thoreau saw “the beginnings of evil everywhere”—he thought drinking anything but water was bad, sex was bad, living in anything but minimalistic housing was bad, and selling herbs off the land in town could lead him down a dangerous path. He claimed he had no need for other people; they “had the same moral status as doormats,” Schulz explains. He was an abolitionist, but for the wrong reasons: “slavery so blatantly violated his belief in self-governance.” And he mislead people—readers are meant to believe that Walden Pond was completely isolated, when actually it was only a twenty-minute walk to his home in Concord where he went often for his mother’s cookies and to see friends (the doormats he didn’t need).

But, as Schulz writes,

The hypocrisy is not that Thoreau aspired to solitude and self-sufficiency but kept going home for cookies and company…The hypocrisy is that Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one. Worse, he preached at others to live as he did not, while berating them for their own compromises and complexities.

I used to think it was kind of cute to tell people my dog’s full name. Maybe now I’ll just stick to Henry.

Rachel

Amanda Giracca’s “The Lure of the Hunt” in VQR

Full disclosure that I went to grad school with Amanda Giracca, count her a friend, and have been a pretty gushing fan of her writing from the start. For years, I followed her publishing quietly, not out of any sense of obligation, but out of the pleasure of reading someone who can so comfortably sink into solitude and nature in ways never preachy and always full of grace. Her latest piece, in VQR, is on falconry—something that if it weren’t for everything else she’s ever written, I might not suspect I would be interested in. But here I am, fascinated. Not because the sport itself intrigues me, but for the way Giracca reveals in it the strange balance between what is wild and what is kept; what is cruel and what is conservationist—or even, when the blurring of those lines allows for the exposure to the wild that creates conservationists. And for, at its core, the way the natural world—from the squirrels to the birds—comes alive in the prose:

When the bird dives, she seems to fall straight down, her wings cocked to the sides, flat and at a slight angle. She doesn’t plunge, but seems rather to flutter, twirling like a leaf in the wind on her way down, twisting through the branches without touching them, then extending her wings quickly to slow down as she descends upon the petrified rabbit. Her moves are elegant and efficient, her bulky body appearing suddenly weightless as she stretches out her legs, talons opening wide toward the prey. The rabbit is quiet.

I’m always impressed, in this essay and so many others, at not only Giracca’s ability to describe what is wild, but the reverence she shows it. In reading her description of a raptor tearing into a rabbit, you are not reading simple violence as much as you are reading the natural world writ whole; you are reading something you may not have seen often enough in life. And whether she suggests it implicitly or explicitly, she always suggests that something is lost when we are protected from wilderness, or even, strangely, when it is protected from us.

“While these steps have been crucial in protecting our natural resources and open land,” Giracca writes of the Wilderness Protection Act and similar legislation, “they’ve also had the effect of making the wilderness—and all the wild animals within it—a realm to admire from afar.” The piece is full of falconry, yes, but more broadly, it’s about all that is wild and bloody, which, in complicated ways, is both entwined with and at times almost ambivalent to human interference.

Katie Booth

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