Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simões

Women We Read This Week

Megan Stephan’s “Portable and Infinitely Useful” on Public Books

I thoroughly enjoyed and whole-heartedly related to this fabulous essay on the significance of books as objects by English professor and writer Megan Stephan. In the piece, Stephan discusses how, in a way, she inadvertently rediscovered the meaning of books as she was introducing them to her young child. She explains how acutely she understood the importance of books and reading not only as a scholar, but as a new mother.

Being a first-time parent involves embracing so many unknowns that we may have overreacted to the introduction of a single familiar element. Books! We know what to do with those. But books for a baby cannot be all the things they are to us. … Books signify meanings as objects and commodities, beyond the words they contain.

She goes on to relate intriguing passages from Victorian to modern scholarship that describe the role of books in society and in people’s personal lives. I was raised a weekly library-goer, who regularly left with stacks bigger than I could carry. And like Stephan, I too have filled my kids’ bookshelves with my own favorite picture and chapter books from my childhood in an effort to pass down a love of reading by literally passing down the books that made me love reading. But part of parenting is realizing limitations. Stephan says of her son:

His relationship to literature was always going to be closely watched, infused with our memories of the identities we found in books. It is absurd, of course, to imagine that a toddler should have anything like the same attitude to books and reading as his narrative-obsessed humanities-professor parents.

Elissa Washuta’s “They Just Dig: On Writing, Coal Mining, and Fear” on Literary Hub

Writing is sometimes contrasted with mining, typically to illustrate the stark differences between the physical labor of mining and the lack thereof in writing, or to highlight how inflated a writer’s ego can be. But these quips oversimplify the realities of both professions. Author Elissa Washuta comes from a long line of miners, so she is uniquely suited to delve much deeper into the differences and similarities between these two worlds.

Maybe it’s because we think of mining as all brawn and no brain, all danger and no art, all stakes and no reward: just a brute action of the body meant to affect a result with no attachment to quality. But I see more: a sturdy belief that mining is in the blood, a striving so ingrained that a family will send its boys to the breaker even as the father’s black-ink cough sets in. I see work that is the foundation of identity.

This is an insightful essay on the craft and process of writing that artfully weaves deep self-reflection with fascinating research on the lives and experiences of miners and their families. Washuta is speaking specifically of writing about her experience of being raped; of how it was hard work to recall her traumatic experience and try to re-form it on the blank page choosing the exact right words.

It was work I keep wanting to call excavation. I keep wanting to say that the memories were buried. I know this is not how remembering works, but I need to label that feeling that I’m digging my hand into my brain and pushing until my fingertips are sliced by tiny jagged rocks.

Suniya Luthar and Lucia Ciciolla’s “Why mothers of tweens – not babies – are the most depressed” on Aeon

This Aeon Opinions essay was co-written by a pair of psychology researchers from Arizona State University. They say their studies have found that despite the assumption that mothers of newborns are most likely to be depressed, maternal stress and depression over the course of their child’s life takes the shape of an inverted V: that mothers feel worse when their kids are tweens, and better when they are young children and older teens.

As it turns out, despite the exhaustion and feelings of overload during the infancy period, mothers experience a great deal of satisfaction and fulfillment in caring for their babies. But as puberty approaches, mothers find less and less positivity in interactions with their children, and the challenges of parenting become far more complex.

As someone who has experienced postpartum depression, this finding is a rather somber one for me. People are always quick to offer that “it gets better” when you mention that parenting an infant can feel overwhelming. It would seem that it’s not so much it getting better as it is getting different. I often see parenting essays describing the phenomenon of parenting young children as being a very physical endeavor, while parenting older kids as being almost purely a psychological undertaking. In my 8+ years as a parent, I’ve found that toddlers can be just as mentally taxing as school-age kids.

One question I’m left with after reading this piece is how it works when you have multiple kids, all of different ages. I know a lot of people only leave two years or so between their kids, so maybe they are hitting these stages at roughly the same time, but my three kids are spaced roughly four years apart each—am I destined for one of them to be exasperating me to the point of depression until they become adults?

Olivia

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