Photo: Svante Adermark

Women We Read This Week

This might come as a shock, but this Sunday is Mother’s Day. Yes. Perhaps you’ve seen things about it in the media. With that in mind, I’ve selected a few pieces on the subject, perhaps unconventional (in that they might make you deeply disturbed instead of brimming with sweet gratitude) but so well done and important.

Also, this week I wrote about how Louise Erdrich gave me permission to be a woman for The Paris Review, and on Vela I wrote about weaning my daughter the same week my first book launched. Finally, Lit Hub featured an excerpt of Homing Instincts, about Mexico, anger, pregnancy, and place.

Okay, now read:

1.  Alexandra Sacks’s “Birth of a Mother” in The New York Times

This piece hinges on the simple assertion that a woman’s transition into motherhood is just as deserving of scientific and cultural attention as an infant’s development. It’s shocking how relevant, even urgent, Sacks’s points feel when they are so fundamental: of course the mother’s transformations are just as important as her infant’s. And yet medical and cultural doctrine have shifted so far in focus towards saving, studying, and nurturing the infant that the mother is left floundering, to the detriment of both her health and her family’s.

As the Yale psychiatrist Rosemary H. Balsam showed in an article in February in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, the history of psychiatrists ignoring how pregnancy impacts a woman’s development can be traced back to Freud. Women are often left with a false binary: They either have postpartum depression or they should breeze through the transition to motherhood.

2. Nina Martin and Renee Montagne’s “The Last Person You’d Expect To Die In Childbirth” on ProPublica

Warning: if you’ve had a childbirth injury or a traumatic birth, you might not want to read this. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and had to go lie down next to my daughter in bed when I finished. Martin and Montagne do a masterful job of using the heart-wrenching story of one mother’s death in childbirth to illustrate a growing problem in the U.S., and its causes: primarily, the dramatic disparity between medical, clinical, and research efforts directed towards infants and those directed towards mothers. This is an alarming read for Mother’s Day but an incredibly important one, which reveals that for all our of saccharine societal rhetoric about mothers, we often sideline their needs in ways that are deadly.

In recent decades, under the assumption that it had conquered maternal mortality, the American medical system has focused more on fetal and infant safety and survival than on the mother’s health and well-being.

“We worry a lot about vulnerable little babies,” said Barbara Levy, vice president for health policy/advocacy at the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and a member of the Council on Patient Safety in Women’s Health Care. Meanwhile, “we don’t pay enough attention to those things that can be catastrophic for women.”

3. Susan Dominus’ “Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?” in The New York Times Magazine

I saw this all over my Twitter feed, and finally sat down to read next to my husband while he streamed the NBA finals on the computer. As soon as I finished I wanted to read again. Dominus looks at the subject of nonmonogamous marriage through the impartial lens of a reporter, but she also uses her own marriage and her conventional understanding of it as a  counterpoint to her subjects’ openness, playing the two against one another in order to move past her assumptions. Looking at academic texts and research, the experiences of nonmonogamous couples over years, and her own understanding of marriage, she exposes the willful simplicity of our cultural notion of happy marriage.

Married for 14 years, I felt that same visceral resistance, an emotion so strong it made me curious to understand how others were wholly free of it, or managed to move past it. The divide between those who practiced open relationships and those who found the idea repugnant seemed inexplicably vast, given that members of those two groups often overlap in the same relatively privileged demographic (anyone holding down three jobs to keep a family together is not likely to spend excess emotional energy negotiating and acting on a nonmonogamy agreement). The more I spoke to people in open relationships, the more I wanted to know how they crossed a line into territory that seemed so thorny to their peers.

4. Monica Heisey’s “Hottest New Novels to Buy at the Airport” in The New Yorker

Just in case you might need a a break from contemplating maternal mortality and the neglect of women’s health and your own marriage, here’s a spoof of the spate of popular girl literature.

“All the Kidnapped Girls”

A small town in northern Ontario struggles with an unprecedented problem: someone is stealing all the girls! Rugged, alcoholic detective Sgt. Dad Chalmers is brought in from the big city to stop the kidnappings before there are no girls left. Sexy thirty-nine-year-old girl Amanda DeTorné thinks she might know who’s to blame, but, after one steamy night with the detective, she, too, disappears.

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