10 Months (and a few days) of Motherhood

I passed my books to the clerk at the library, who then handed them back to me, saying, “Your due date is August 22nd.” I wanted to tell him, “No, my due date is and always will be September 29.” The phrase due date is forever imprinted in my mind in relation to the birth of my child, the most monumental shift in my identity and existence. 

One of the books I chose today is called The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby. I’d noticed it before in bookstores and passed on it, my own "fifth trimester" come and gone, but seeing it now, at the library, I reached for it to take it home for free. While I’m usually leery of books that make such lofty promises, I figured there was nothing to lose by checking it out. With a cover checkered with check boxes of to-do list items, it seems relevant, painfully so. 

It pains me, too, that this is a women’s problem--managing life after baby, that is. There are fatherhood books, but most are hyperbolically comic, the joke being that dads are helpless when it comes to babies. (Of course, this is patently false.) But I feel helpless when it comes to babies! I’ve figured a lot of things out by necessity: how to pack a diaper bag, how many extra sets of clothes to pack in a diaper bag, how to make funny faces and sounds to entertain the baby during a pungent diaper change, how long to bake zucchini until it becomes soft enough to be consumed with only the stubs of two teeth, how to read the fine print on nursing pads, how to weigh the merits of various baby gear sites in order to purchase the least frustrating option in a given genre of baby paraphernalia, how to cut a band aid in half length-wise and adhere it to the baby mid-squirm. 

The mental load, the all-consuming nature of motherhood, the endless to-do list: no matter how it is configured, whether as sociological phenomenon, physiological or emotion reaction, or task-oriented approach, motherhood overwhelms all else, most of the time. And when it doesn’t, when I neglect to order guacamole in addition to our burritos simply because the baby likes it, I feel guilty. 

I do not forget her tears. An hour or so after she falls asleep at night, I turn to my phone to re-watch a video of her from earlier in the day. I agonize over whether to keep a band-aid on her finger while she sleeps. I worry that she is too cool, too hot, too sandy, too sticky. Do I read her too many feminist empowerment books, so many that she’ll wonder why I keep insisting that she can be whatever she wants to be and do whatever she wants to do? 

Last year, when I was pregnant, I promised myself that my writing would not become all about motherhood or babies, as though there were something inherently wrong with that. My impulse is to write about what I know, and how I see the world, and with a child now, all of that has changed. From uncovered outlets and sharp coffee table edges, to healthcare policy and the gender pay gap, I am concerned for her, and I see all of these obstacles with her in mind. 

So when I happened upon Sarah Menkedick’s new book, Homing Instincts, I felt relief and validation: writing about motherhood is, indeed, real writing. The tedious parts of motherhood don’t render the experience simple. There is complexity and nuance in the experience of raising and caring for a human being. And just as I hope we all respect mothers out in the world (those who are feeding their babies, or toting them on planes or buses, or merely trying to buy groceries) because we were all babies once, and we all needed our mothers, I would hope that we can all see the richness in delving into the complexity of becoming and being a mother. 

Menkedick's op-ed in the LA Times just prior to the book's release captures this tension: 

I am standing before a small audience in Columbus, Ohio, apologizing for what I’m going to read. “It’s about motherhood,” I say, then quickly qualify, “but you know, more than that! It’s about stories, and self, and the meaning of home.” I have been doing this for months, explaining the book I’ve written as something along the lines of “about motherhood but not really,” until finally, in front of this audience, the absurdity of my intellectual scrambling strikes me. What male writer feels the need to atone for essays about, say, war? I imagine him hurrying to clarify: “But really they’re about the human struggle, triumph over adversity, and the meaning of self.”

As I carry on as a mother to my precious little person, and as I read and write about this experience, I feel the tiniest bit more reassured, thanks to her, in the daily struggle and worry and delight that encompass what motherhood is to me. 

Recent-ish Reads

When I'm at home and not otherwise occupied (meaning, not vomiting or watching the Olympics or season 4 of OINTB), I've been reading. Pregnancy insomnia, plus sauna-type weather outside, plus part-time work grant me ample time to catch up on books that were published years ago. I've been diving into books that keep me enthralled and distracted from nausea, heat, and swelling feet. That said, here's what I've been reading recently-ish: 

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

This book's swirling tale of family dysfunction kept me up until the wee hours of the morning. I'm still not sure if it's more of a plot-driven book than many I've read or if there was something truly captivating about the writing. My suspicion, sadly, is the former. It turns out, not surprisingly, that my standards are much lower when I have little ability to concentrate. I wondered how the author generated so many of the particular plot elements: lamp-inflicted violence, boarding school tug-of-war, an obsession with President Nixon, an almost-kidnapping in Africa, and an experimental jungle-prison. At some points the sub-plots dragged on longer than necessary, but otherwise I found the borderline (or across the border) pathological characters fascinating. Guaranteed to make you feel better about your own family! 


The Vacationers by Emma Straub

Interesting, but nothing special. I read the bulk of this book on one plane ride, and while it kept me amused, I would not say I was particularly impressed. Straub encapsulates the struggles of a family on the verge of collapse through the novel's two-week portrayal of their vacation on a Spanish island. The characters weren't particularly quirky or endearing, but there was something about it nonetheless that made me want to see how the vacation ended. 


The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits

After a long wait for the Kindle version of this book from the library, I was finally able to read it! It's a series of vignettes, or diary entries, that are somewhat connected and mostly interesting. I wouldn't say the rest of the book was as captivating as the first 10% (which I read as a Kindle sample), but I nonetheless enjoyed reading about Julavits' exploits. As a sometimes-snob about books, this line about observing another family's collection of not-so-literary books in their vacation home struck me:

"I defended the family, knowing them not at all; bookshelves of summerhouses are filled with dishy nonsense, I said. They indicate how a person understands time that is meant to be wasted." (157) 


Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

At long last I got around to reading this book that everyone raved about four years ago. The format was not what I expected; rather than resemble a typical novel in structure, it was more reminiscent of a collection of short stories, all of which were tangentially related to the titular character, Olive. As the chapters unwind, Strout reveals Olive's fraught relationships and the accumulating impact of her presence on fellow town members. I found myself struggling at times to get immersed in each story, especially for those stories in which the connection to Olive was not immediately clear. Despite the format, I enjoyed the book, though perhaps not as much as some. 


The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

I picked up this book after finishing Olive Kitteridge, and I have to say, I liked it even better. It's my favorite of the Strout novels so far, though I'm only partway through Amy and Isabelle, one of her earliest books. Strout rendered the relationship between the two brothers (the Burgess boys of the title) in a complex way, avoiding too much partiality. The linear plot assisted in making the book more compelling, and it is definitely one I would recommend. I started to see common elements among the Strout novels character and plot elements: aversion to Jews, homophobia, homes in New York and Maine, suspicion of fundamentalist Christians, fraught marital relations, and more. 


My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Meh. I'm not sure what all the hype was about. The novella chronicles the relationship of a semi-estranged mother and daughter while the daughter, Lucy, is hospitalized; Lucy's husband, ever so irritatingly, won't visit her, and so she is left with only her mother to keep her company for a few days. I finished it, but I felt that something was missing. If you loved it, please tell me why! 


Family Life by Akhil Sharma

One of David Sedaris' recommended books (he recommends a book each time he goes on tour), this is a true gem. As the central family keeps getting dealt a progressively appalling fate, I found myself pulled in, unable to to take a break from the horror they were experiencing. Told from the perspective of the younger brother in an Indian family, the book chronicles the family's move to the US and subsequent difficulties they face. It highlights immigrant struggles, yet it does so much more. At the same time that I couldn't stand how the mother was reacting to her circumstances, I understood her impulses and sympathized with her conflicted feelings.  A heartbreaking, yet irresistible read. 


The Opposite of Everything by David Kalisch

After reading a compelling article in the NY Times by the author, I downloaded the sample of this book and enjoyed the first 10%. Yet the book became progressively trite and intolerable as it continued. I really should have given up on it, but I finished it anyway, hoping that it might redeem itself from its vapidity. It did not. 


Dietland by Sarai Walker 

Thriller meets feminist bildungsroman. Walker weaves the story of Plum, a fat twenty-something in New York City, into a larger narrative about a terrorist plot to reform media coverage of women while killing off misogynists and rapists. It is an unlikely coupling, but one that works exceedingly well. At times the media commentary feels a bit heavy, but it's so insightful that it's not bothersome. I heard about the book from reviews like this one that highlighted Walker's social critique of the mainstream media's typical portrayal of the female form. I am glad I picked it up when I did; as I grow larger every day (due to the fact that I am creating life!) its perspective on the female body was refreshing. For instance, take Plum's wrenching realization:

 "I’m every American woman’s worst nightmare. It’s what they spend their lives fighting against, it’s why they diet and exercise and have plastic surgery—because they don’t want to look like me.” (Loc. 1406)

Similarly, I have enjoyed the Kindle sample of Lindy West's new book, Shrill, as well as the recent episode on This American Life entitled, "Tell Me I'm Fat.


You'll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein

After reading Jessi Klein's article "Get the Epidural" (there's a longer version of the essay in the book) and hearing her interviewed on Fresh Air, I had to read her book. I'm glad I did; it was entertaining, enlightening, and resonated deeply. This comment about being called "ma'am" was one of many incisive yet amusing moments: 

"Men don’t have to deal with the fact that at some point in their early midlife, they will find themselves tossed into a linguistic system that will let them know, in no uncertain terms, that in the eyes of the world, essentially, they’ve begun to die. When you’re called sir, you’re being called the same thing that James Bond is called." (Loc. 2167)


In Progress ... 

Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout

I'm a few chapters into this early (1998) Strout novel. While it definitely feels like an earlier book, I'm enjoying reading about the unfolding, complex relationship between the titular mother and daughter. 

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

I think I meant to read this several years ago, but I'm just now getting around to it. There was no waiting list for the Kindle version at the library, so I downloaded it and began reading it this week. So far, I'm intrigued. 

Thanks for reading! 

Join me over at Goodreads to see more recommendations! 


New Reading Material for a New Era

It has become somewhat of a pattern that before I begin something new, or as I anticipate a new phase in life, I read as much as I can on the forthcoming change. Fiction, nonfiction, journal articles, blog posts, etc. So in the case of a change that's so much more life-changing than anything I've ever taken on before, I clearly needed to read much more than I ever have. On the topic of pregnancy (because yep, I'm pregnant!), there is more than enough reading material to last one the entire time it would take to raise a child.

Of course, typically only people with a vested interest in the subject read such books, and (with the exception of Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions and Some Assembly Required--accounts of the early lives of her son and grandson, respectively) until I started to consider that I might someday want this miracle to happen did it occur to me to look in that particular section of the book store (or online retailer, as the case may be). The sheer number of pregnancy-related books is astonishing, and while many of them are useful, a number are not. Some paint a rosy picture of the whole experience and others make it sound unbearable. Unfortunately, many of the books on the market succeed by appealing to pregnant women's worst fears. And there are so many fears!  

pregnancy books

Below, I include my thoughts about the fertility, pregnancy, childbirth, and early parenthood books that I finished and found worthwhile to at least some degree. It was harder than I anticipated to find deep, heartfelt accounts of the experience as well as evidence-based advice. 

Of the many myths floating around out there about pregnancy, none has been more notably irritating to me than the idea that you "glow." False! Wrong! There has been no such glowing in my case. Vomiting, yes. To be more precise, there's been intestine-convulsing, projectile-through-nose vomiting that leaves behind a nasty film of bile in the throat. Absolutely no glowing. If my comments appear tinged with some rage or despair, it's because there have been moments of both. People say that you forget the hard parts, but I don't think I'll forget puking in bed, or on the street, or in the bathtub.

It can seem, these 9 months and some additional days, like such a glamorous, romanticized time. In some ways it is glorious: having this little other person grow inside oneself is nothing less than incredible. In other ways it's a time full of tremendous physical change and anticipation of even more changes to come. If anyone ever needed a book for guidance, now is certainly the time. 

Let's begin at the beginning! 

Taking Charge of Your Fertility, Toni Weschler

Seriously, this is the best, most informative, most thorough book about all things fertility. It has everything you wish you already knew (or wish someone had told you) about a typical cycle, as well as how to understand your body's particular cycle. As a fertility expert, Weschler approaches the subject with a neutral tone. She doesn't assume much prior knowledge--which, given the state of sex-ed in this country, is fair. I liked having the Kindle version of this book because I could search for anything I needed, though at times it would have been useful to look at charts and diagrams in the paper version. 


Making Babies: A Proven 3-Month Program for Maximum Fertility, Sami S. David, MD &  Jill Blakeway, LAc

I borrowed this book from the library because, to be honest, its subtitle made me a bit skeptical of its claims. Really, three months? How can you be so sure? The authors, an obstetrician and an acupuncturist, frame the book around four different fertility types, and they then explain how to prevent as well as troubleshoot problems associated with each type. I ended up appreciating this book because it offered precise markers to look out for as well as questions and tests to bring up with your doctor. Also, they approach the body more holistically than some others do, with chapters about the endocrine and immune systems, for example. Brief vignettes throughout the book chronicle the (seemingly too easy to be true) remedies they tried for women struggling to become or stay pregnant. 


Expecting Better, Emily Oster  

Finally, finally! Actual evidence! Emily Oster trained as an economist and approached her pregnancy with that training in mind. When doctors told her "don't do such and such," she would ask about the risks, and they consistently failed to give her numbers of percentages. So, she looked into the studies upon which many pregnancy recommendations are based and found many of them flawed, outdated, or both. She approached pregnancy and all it entails as a series of decisions. In order to make good good decisions, she teaches her students that they need two things: 

"First, they need all the information about the decision--they need the right data. Second, they need to think about the right way to weight the pluses and minuses of the decision for them personally. The key is that even with the same data, this second part--the weighing of the pluses and minuses--may result in different decisions for different people. Individuals may value the same thing differently." (xii-xiii) 

The rest of her book provides the costs and benefits of many of the decisions that pregnant women make. In many cases (with the exception of smoking, in which case the evidence is clear that it is terrible to smoke), there is not one right answer, but a weighing of risks. This is why when people say, "Oh, you can't have X because you're pregnant," it makes me livid: this baby is part of my body, and I (as the fully formed, functional human) am making informed choices and taking calculated risks to have the best outcome for both me and my baby.  

Oster debunks a number of myths through the book, such as that hair dye is toxic and sushi is dangerous. Both carry very minimal risks. It's difficult to determine exact risks for other decisions, such as whether or not to drink alcohol and how much caffeine is safe. While it's clear from numerous studies that both are harmful in excess, there are no randomized studies (due to ethical concerns) showing that low amounts of either are problematic, and there are some studies that show that moderate consumption can be beneficial. It's not as clear and tidy as the OB or society would like you to think! 


Bumpology: The Myth-Busting Pregnancy Book for Curious Parents-To-Be, Linda Geddes

This Q&A format book has useful advice, though the style is not especially entertaining or enthralling. Most of the information can be found elsewhere, so it's nothing all that special, but the format does make it useful for looking up (or skipping) answers to certain unsavory questions. It's unfortunate that we need a myth-busting book, but we definitely do because there are so many myths out there. Geddes refers to recent research in her answers, which I appreciated, though I sensed a bias against the natural childbirth movement. 

More importantly, she burst my red-hair-dream-bubble with the following:

"Hair color is similarly complex, with one exception: red hair. A gene called MCR1 seems to be the key player in deciding whether or not a child has red hair, and the flame-haired variant is recessive. This means that if a child has one copy of the red-hair variant and one copy of the non-red-hair variant, he will not have red hair (although he will be a carrier, so his children might have red hair— and carriers often have freckles)." (61)


From The Hips, Rebecca Odes & Ceridwen Morris

Written in a casual style with lots of graphics and bright colors, this book provides both medical information and useful advice. Nothing about it is particularly unique, though I did appreciate the blurbs it included from a women who had different experience dealing with the same things. It normalizes pregnancy by providing numerous alternative viewpoints. There were women who had no vomiting, ever, women who had relief precisely at twelve weeks, and women who threw up every day for the entire pregnancy. When you read From The Hips, you feel like you're reading a magazine--and sometimes that is a welcome relief from the doom and gloom books and the books with the front-seat color photos of birth. 


My Pregnancy, Virginia Beckett, MD (editor) 

This is a DK book, which means it's full of color photos and diagrams--some of which I wanted to see, and some of which I didn't welcome quite so much. But it's incredibly comprehensive, up to date, and neutral. It's not trying to persuade anyone to do anything. It tells you when to seek more tests and when not to worry. I like it much more than the pregnancy apps that tell you what size fruit your baby is comparable to in a given week because it's not trying to sell me anything or encourage me to participate in some inane forum. It's similar to From The Hips, but better; if I were to get only one, I would get this one. 


Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood, Anne Enright

I found this book when I was searching the library catalogue for the other Making Babies book. This one popped up, too, and I thought I would give it a try because Anne Enright is a famous author who had won the Man Booker Prize. Well, I just didn't get into it. I had high hopes, but the style didn't suit me. Maybe she was too far removed from the experience to capture it without portraying it in an overly sentimental way? I gave up a chapter or two in. I probably was just irritated that she used these long, flowing sentences to write about pregnancy when all I could think of was vomiting. I have to say, the cover freaks me out a bit. Let me know if you find something redeeming in it, please! 


Mama Tried: Dispatches from the Seamy Underbelly of Modern Parenting, Emily Flake

This book had me laughing SO hard. Flake's drawings are impressive, and so much more realistic than, say, any others you can find anywhere. She writes and illustrates scenes of the seamy, unpalatable  trials of pregnancy and birth with running commentary on how society perceives pregnant women. For example: 

"I have been steeped in a culture designed to make me view my pregnancy and my child as amazing, an incredible journey, a wildly difficult and world-changing thing. Bullshit. I'm just another lady that had a goddamn kid, and so you are, and so is everybody else" (40). 

And it  just tickled me how she makes fun of luxury baby goods and placenta encapsulation (see below), which maybe you wish you could un-know. Sorry ... 


Waiting for Birdy, Catherine Newman

Catherine Newman wrote this book during her pregnancy with her second child, affectionately dubbed "Birdy." I couldn't put this book down; it so accurately captured my experience with pregnancy. For example: 

"Sometimes, during the late afternoon especially, I feel so genuinely rotten that I worry it won't ever end, not even after the baby's born. I worry that I will always feel like throwing up, and that, for the rest of my life, that's all I'll have to talk about." (Loc. 280) 

And her take on conventional pregnancy wisdom and all the advice given to women is likewise refreshing in its honesty. Here she finds herself grumbling about a line from the famous pregnancy book, What To Expect When You're Expecting, which several people thankfully advised me to avoid. 

"And that whole “best bite” pregnancy diet? Please. “Is that the very best bite for the baby?” Michael likes to tease when I’m hunched like a criminal over a bag of gummy bears. “Be sure to indulge yourself at least once a week,” the book advises. “A fruited yogurt makes a nice treat.” A fruited yogurt! As if. A pound of cookie dough washed down with a quart of half-and-half— now that makes a nice treat." (Loc. 1299) 


Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood, Naomi Woolf  

This was my first Naomi Woolf book, and I have to say, this woman is opinionated. And for good reason! She put words to the irritation I feel when people (and doctors) act like you, the pregnant lady, would do something unreasonable to put your baby at risk, when she said it's as though society is trying to protect the unborn baby from you, its mother. I returned the book to the library a while ago, otherwise I'd quote something about how society thinks pregnant women are public property. At times, the book rambled, but the message is worth considering--especially when there are crazies out there like Texas State Rep. Dan Flynn (whom Samantha Bee so beautifully skewered) and Indiana Governor Mike Pence whose recent actions motivated quite the Twitter campaign


Understanding Your Moods When You're Expecting, Lucy J. Puryear, MD  

Thank goodness for this book! Lucy Puryear, a reproductive psychiatrist, is versed in all the things that can go awry in one's mind when creating life. It's a shame that this book isn't more widely distributed or advertised, as I think it would help a lot of women realize that what they are feeling is actually quite normal and natural--and that those feelings only grow more intense if you try to suppress them. She provides numerous anecdotes of successful treatment of pregnant and postpartum women that provide hope and rational thought, both of which are useful, even if everything is going smoothly. I found a very cheap used copy through Better World Books, though I would pay full price for it now that I know what's in it. 


Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother, Beth Ann Fennelly

I loved, loved, loved this book. I bought this book several years ago when I had a hankering for a dog and my mom thought I wanted a baby. Ha! I really just wanted a dog then, so I didn't end up reading it. But I was so thankful for it when I found it on my shelf a few weeks ago. Beth Ann Fennelly is a poet who writes letters to a young former student who has just married, become pregnant, and moved to Alaska, where she knows nobody. Fennelly writes her frequent letters about raising children, the discomforts of pregnancy, and the story of her first child's birth. This is the heartfelt book about having a child that I was looking for. 

For example, in describing to her friend what being a mother does to you, she writes, 

"First, you understand yourself as lodged in history in a way you didn't before. Your beliefs will be tested, your hypotheses put into action, so you'll consider them in a new way. Whether you're explaining where pets go when they die or teaching your child to recycle, your philosophies have ramifications. For the rest of history, echoes of your voice will be heard." (20) 


Bringing up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman

So many people have written about this book that there is not much left to say. I enjoyed Druckerman's self-deprecating perspective as she related her attempts to raise her three children in France. By the end, I wanted to be French! I will say, though, that it made me skeptical of snacks. Now, when I see kids eating in strollers, at the park, or on the bus, I silently judge them, even though their parents probably have a good reason for feeding them at those times. I just think to myself that we should all be like the French and have three elegant meals every day. I think there is some useful wisdom here, though it's easy to get frustrated at America after reading it. I actually listened to this book on Audible, and it was easy to follow along, though the narrator's attempts to approximate a French person speaking English were amusing, if not annoying, at times. 


Birth Day, Mark Sloan, MD

I'm not exactly sure how I happened to find this book (because I'm not reading about birth just yet), but I'm glad I did. Dr. Sloan, a hospital-based pediatrician, has made a career out of working with newborns and their families. In this book, he provides history and commentary on the evolution of the human head, the first few minutes after birth, pain relief options, fathers, and how doctors examine newborns. His narrative style makes for compelling reading, and I found myself unable to put the book down. 

The most interesting chapters to me were those on the discovery and spread of pain relief options for women in labor and doctors' reluctance to adapt their methods. I also learned, to my dismay, that one of the pain relief options available to women outside the US (with the exception of one hospital in San Francisco), nitrous oxide, is not an option at the hospital where I will deliver. 

"Nearly half the women in Finland, Sweden, and Canada inhale nitrous oxide during labor, and over 80 percent of them feel that it was at least somewhat helpful. [...] As we've seen, it's a moderately effective pain reliever, easy to administer, inexpensive, safe for mother and baby, and all the rage in most of the rest of the Western world." (147)

It's seen as a "good enough" option in many places, with fewer side effects than epidurals. Yet, due to the overwhelming prevalence of epidurals here and the fact that there is no money to be made on nitrous oxide, it's unlikely that we will see it here anytime soon. I find this infuriating. I'm convinced that if men were the ones giving birth, the problem of pain would have long ago been solved. 


A Life's Work, Rachel Cusk

I read Rachel Cusk's recent novel Outline a month or two ago, and when I found out that she had written a book on motherhood, I knew I had to have it. Cusk has some of the humor of Flake mixed the political outlook of Wolf, though her narrative feels more literary (and sometimes requires a bit of work to understand). She tells her story in scenes, so it doesn't have the comprehensive feel of some of the other books on this list. 

Weaving social commentary into her thoughtful reflections on her experiences of birth and early parenthood, Cusk both exposes her flaws and lays criticism where it belongs. In particular, she's spot on that being pregnant can make you feel like you're under someone else's watch and that you're not even a person yourself anymore: 

"Modern pregnancy is governed by a regime breathtaking in the homogeneity of its propaganda, its insignia, its language. No Korean cheerleading team was ever ruled with so iron a rod as pregnant women in the English-speaking world." (24-5) 

I promise that parts of this book exude Cusk's delight, but the more fun parts to quote are those that reveal her bewilderment. In "Colic and Other Stories," she writes about how she tries to quiet her baby: 

"We go to the bathroom, where I intend to change her nappy. Again, this strategy has worked before, although I am unsure why. I lie her down on the mat. Immediately the crying stops. Delighted at the speed with which I have disarmed her, I sit down on the bathroom floor and lean back against the wall. [...] I pick her up. Immediately she roars. I put her down again. She stops. [...] I try picking her up again in the hopes that something has changed, but it hasn't. She roars. When I put her down, she stops. I wonder whether it is possible to spend the whole day in the bathroom." (63-4) 

What I like about Cusk is that she is honest without being self-pitying and vulnerable without being self-satisfied. She relays her experience as it felt to her, whether painful, frustrating, or pleasurable. She doesn't make pregnancy and parenthood out to be a monolithic experience, and if I've learned anything so far, I know that it's different for each person. 


P.S. This is my first post as an Amazon Affiliate. If my recommendation spurred you to purchase a book, I'd appreciate you using the image link directly from this page if you choose to purchase from Amazon. I receive a very small portion of the sale, and every little bit helps me maintain this blog. Of course, if you prefer to patronize your local library or an independent bookstore, I salute you! Thanks for reading! 



Crazy Books, Continued

One of the wonderful (and possibly self-fulfilling or even egotistical) aspects of blogging about books is that some of their authors are alive, a smaller percentage of those authors are on social media, and an even smaller number of them actually respond when mentioned in a tweet. Well, lucky me, that happened! In my post earlier this week on books related to mental health, I mentioned two of Dr. Julie Holland's books. I included her twitter handle in my tweet about the post, and she favorited it. I have no idea if she read it, but I still feel like that is pretty nifty. 

So that makes me hesitant to mention some of the drawbacks to her earlier book. (What if she is actually reading this? Does that make her cool and in tune with her readers? Or overly concerned about public opinion? Or does that just make me seem paranoid?) Anyway, I feel like I need to qualify my earlier praise of Weekends at Bellevue. At some points, I was appalled by her hastiness and tough-guy attitude toward her patients. To be fair, she realizes that this attitude is problematic and off-putting to some, and she does work to change it. Nevertheless, it's concerning to see a physician relate patient stories in such a callous tone. Here's an example: 

After I spoke with the hand surgeon and got him to agree to come down, the patient changed his mind, and decided he didn’t want anyone to touch his hand. I got really pissed off then. I argued with him for a while and got nowhere, and then I called him a pussy ... “You’re just chickenshit to have the surgeons sew your hand.” I ridiculously believed I could double-dog dare him into having sutures. He was handcuffed to the chair.
— Holland, 65

It's admirable that she allows herself to be this vulnerable, on the one hand; though on the other, it's disarming and worrisome to see a doctor--a psychiatrist no less--not only think, but also express, such contempt for a patient. She writes more about her "need for self control" with her therapist, Mary. 

Medical school seems to be part of the problem, as she discusses early in the book: "Everywhere, instead of people, I learned to see pathology. I was learning to think like a doctor" (25). I want my doctors to see me as a person! To see only my pathology is to see only a small piece of who I am, and it may even mean missing out on key information that could lead to a diagnosis. 

Her softer side emerges at times. She conveys her conflicted feelings about leaving patients locked up all week while she went about her business in the outside world. She tells other stories of how she exceeded her duties to make sure a patient remained safe from him or her self. I was confused about her references to her attraction to other doctors and her brazen efforts to have sex with male doctors at the hospital. 

But what drew me in were the intense stories she tells of other people's madness. Stories of people who lose grasp of reality due to severe circumstances or childhood abuse are disheartening and frightening. We don't know what will put us over the edge and, possibly, into the hospital. On this subject, Holland writes, 

There is a diaphanous membrane between sane and insane. It is the flimsiest of barriers, and because any one of us can break through at any given time, it scares all of us. We all lie somewhere on the spectrum, and our position can shift gradually or suddenly. There is no predicting which of us will be afflicted with dementia or schizophrenia, who will become incapacitated with depression or panic attacks, or become suicidal, manic, or addicted. None of these states of mind are uncommon, and all of us have friends and family who are suffering with some degree of psychiatric illness.
— Holland, 292

Despite a few reservations, I truly applaud Dr. Holland for sharing her personal journey, as well as the experiences of so many psychiatric patients, with the world. By revealing all these stories, she helps to diminish the stigma that some people feel for having or seeking treatment for mental illness. 

Three Crazy Books

A few weeks ago, I went to see Dr. Julie Holland talk about her most recent book, Moody Bitches, at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. (I discovered her thanks to her February NY Times piece.) In a room almost entirely full of women, Holland spoke about her journey to the realization that many more women than men take antidepressants. She argued that the fact that 1 in 4 women take this class of medication reveals something deeper, something sinister even, about society's values, and especially about workplace norms. Because my friend Elissa is going to read the hard copy and then pass it along to me, and because I wanted to know more about this lady right away, I looked online and found that she had written a book a few years ago about about her tenure as a psychiatrist at the Bellevue Psych ER. Of course I was going to read this. 

Over the weekend, I finished Belzhar, a YA (young adult) book by Meg Wolitzer, author of, most recently, The Interestings. In Belzhar, the young protagonist Jam suffers from depression after her boyfriend Reeve dies mysteriously. Sent by her parents to a boarding school for "emotionally fragile" teens, Jam struggles to find the will to recover her earlier self. I don't usually enjoy YA books, but this one felt especially deep and genuine. Near the end of the book, Jam reflects: 

Words matter. This is what Mrs. Q has basically been saying from the start. Words matter. All semester, we were looking for the words to say what we needed to say. We were all looking for our voice.

Today, as I was poring over Holland's earlier book, Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift, it occured to me that there was a theme in the books I'd read recently: craziness. That's not the PC term, of course, but rather the sensation or the feeling one has when one's mind decides to work against oneself. As I began to write this post, I looked back to the "finished" folder on my Kindle to see if there was anything else I should include. Sure enough, Irvin Yalom's 1989 book, Love's Executioner, topped the list. He chronicles his experiences with a variety of patients, struggling to figure out the most effective way to help each one. 

Why is it so fascinating to read about other people's mental struggles? Why is it so enticing to watch other people waffle between sanity and psychosis? Why do we want to know what psychiatrists and therapists really think? 

Well, why wouldn't we? They're the experts on thinking and feeling, so of course we want to know what they think of other people. It's a shortcut to our own thoughts and feelings. It's like gossip, but deep. And true. Also, It's much easier, much less intense, to inhabit someone else's mind for a little and learn something than to dwell in your own experiences. Feeling grief vicariously seems immensely preferable to feeling it firsthand.

These books provide, in their own way--Holland's through personal narratives of a Psych ER, Wolitzer's through first-person fictional chronicle of a girl's depression, and Yalom's through a psychotherapist's interactions with 10 patients over several years--an immersion into emotions that can seem too oppressive, too uncomfortable, or too frightening to abide with on our own. I heartily recommend all three.