Tag : adrienne rich

July 2, 2019 by

Second Wave Feminism Comes Crashing Back

Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 5.06.18 PMIt’s common, if reductive, to describe American feminism as having come in waves, the first of which fought for the franchise at the turn of the century, the second of which, 50 years later, emerged from civil rights and anti-war movements to challenge sexism in society and our laws.

The third wave was associated with the 1990s and punk culture, with being individualistic, choice-oriented and fond of sex, and with the daughters of feminists like Rebecca Walker (Alice was her mom) literally calling their mothers to account for being too doctrinaire.

Today, feminism is so culturally ubiquitous that the “wave” seems more like an entire ocean, and it’s in these deep currents that many powerful second-wave thinkers have been swept back into prominence. This elevated status hasn’t always been theirs. In the early 2000s, immersing myself in “digital feminism”—a handful of blogs and websites—I found that second wavers were out of vogue, dismissed as essentialist for their focus on biological sex and elitist because their biggest lasting victories—work- place entry for professional women, abortion rights, liberation from Betty Friedan’s fabled mystique—seemed, decades later, bourgeois. Some of its radicalism had dimmed.

Rather than explicitly building on this preceding generation, many young bloggers took inspiration from the third-wavers of the 1990s—styling themselves as similarly “sex positive” and allegedly more inclusive of their queer, trans, and racially diverse sisters than previous generations had been.

Some of this generational conflict is inevitable—young people viewing predecessors as stuffy. Some of it is due to circumstance: bold second-wave ideas like universal daycare, wages for housework, a leveling of the sexual playing field and various forms of collectivism and radical disruption never fully took hold, after all. Furthermore, the wit and playful spirit of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s got obscured by the prominence of the anti-pornography zeal many feminists demonstrated in the 1980s and the now-clichéd “man hating” and “bra burning” stereotypes that emerged in that decade’s anti-feminist backlash.

As one might expect, the same social forces that 1970s feminists fought against—embedded classism, racism, homophobia, sexism itself—had also erased much of their real work. The radical street theater groups, the lesbian communes, the women of color who saw housing as the urgent feminist issue, common cause made between professional women and the rights of the women they hired in their homes, the underground abortion providers, the democratization of specialized gynecological knowledge—all these constituted the “wave” too. Yet over time, their contributions were less celebrated.

Meanwhile, the edgier ideas of the movement’s marquee thinkers, a great many of whom were Jewish, remained too hot to touch: relentlessly questioning heterosexuality itself, the sanctity of the family, the institution of motherhood, the possibility of sexual equality, the workplace as a site of liberation and the devaluing of “care work.”

Time has rolled forward. Young bloggers and activists had kids, or began to climb the fabled corporate ladder, and came up against barriers. Politically, the optimism and activism of the Obama era gave away to what we have now: an admitted serial groper in power, a series of #MeToo allegations that are in some cases so depraved it feels like even the most strident young feminists underestimated the pervasiveness of sexism baked into the very structures of our lives.

It is far from a coincidence that, in the last five years or so, younger feminists have been publicly revisiting the written work of their foremothers—in some cases, their actual mothers—reading their wisdom in new anthologies, or exploring their lives and ideas in long articles and symposia. Joyce Antler’s 2018 book Jewish Radical Feminism gathers together dozens of these earlier thinkers, writers and activists, noting that for many, the specific subject of their Jewishness rarely came up, even during consciousness-raising sessions that included discussions of identity.

A new generation of Jewish feminists has been poring through their works. As Michelle Goldberg wrote in a 2019 New York Times column about the unexpected resurgence of interest in the late Andrea Dworkin, seemingly the epitome of “man-hating” feminism rejected by younger women, “the obscene insult of Donald Trump’s victory…seems like something sprung from Dworkin’s cataclysmic imagination, that America’s most overtly fascistic president would also be the first, as far as we know, to have appeared in soft-core porn films.”

“I think Trump’s victory marked a shift in feminism’s relationship to sexual liberation,” Goldberg continued. “As long as he’s in power, it’s hard to associate libertinism with progress.”

Dworkin’s comeback, sealed by an anthology called Last Days at Hot Slit (its title Dworkin’s own), is only one of many opportunities for younger feminists of all stripes to begin to sift through the ideas of their predecessors. As a third-wave icon, Riot Grrl musician Kathleen Hanna, told an interviewer: “We’re not going to keep moving forward if we don’t look at people’s ideas from the generation before and say, ‘This part is totally interesting, and this part totally pisses me off ’. We should be critiquing, but we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

In doing this sorting, we may find much that makes us cringe based on today’s standards—especially on gender identity, race, and sexuality. And yet, without the caveats and considerations that make internet-era feminist writing occasionally feel rote, the prose often sings. In these earlier writers, energy shines through: sweeping ideas, imaginative leaps and, animating it all, anger—brilliant, beautiful anger that resonates strongly with the rage we feel today. It’s the anger of invention, and diagnosis, and unchartered territory. Yes, we can improve on that anger, and focus its target. But we can also learn from it. We have to.

Reading or re-reading what follows—choice quotations and excerpts from five Jewish writers, roughly of the Second Wave, rediscovered or elevated in recent years—you’ll encounter provocative, resonant, and prescient thinkers.

Grace Paley (1922–2007)

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“So men—who get very pissed at me sometimes, even though I really like some of them a lot—men have got to imagine the lives of women, of all kinds of women. Of their daughters, of their own daughters, and of the lives that their daughters lead. White people have to imagine the reality, not the invention but the reality, of the lives of people of color. Imagine it, imagine that reality, and understand it. We have to imagine what is happening in Central America today, in Lebanon and South Africa. We have to really think about it and imagine it and call it to mind, not simply refer to it all the time.”

“Of Poetry and Women and the World,” reprinted in A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017.


“Many women truly believed that the American care and ownership of these babies would be the only way their lives would be saved. But most women were wild at the thought of the pain to those other mothers,the grief of the lost children. They felt it was a blow to all women, and to their natural political rights. It was a shock to see the world still functioning madly, the world in which the father, the husband, the man-owned state can make legal inven- tions and take the mother’s child.”

“Other People’s Children” from Ms. Magazine, in A Grace Paley Reader. 


“What they really want to do is take back ownership of women’s bodies. They want to return us to time when even our children weren’t our own; we were simply the receptacles to have these children…abortion isn’t what they’re thinking about; they’re really thinking about sex. They’re really thinking about love and reducing it to its most mechani- cal aspects—that is to say, the mechanical fact of intercourse as a specific act to make children in this world, and thinking of its use in any other way as wrong and wicked. They are determined to reduce women’s normal sexual responses, to end them, really, when we’ve just had a couple of decades of admitting them.”

“The Illegal Days” (1991), in A Grace Paley Reader.


“…this is really where the women’s move-ment is very sharp and really good—but this really has been put over on [women], this idea that…you have to do it perfectly: you have to get them to the right school, and you have to get them to the right nursery school. Well, you don’t. First of all, you fool yourself if you think that you’re so goddamn important, you know? You’re just not that important. You’re important, but the world is bringing them up and insofar as the world is bringing them up—so that if you have a boy, he’s liable to be sent off and murdered in Africa or someplace like that— you better pay attention to the world too. It’s all related.” Interview in The Boston Review, September 1, 1976.


Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 3.35.51 PMEllen Willis 

Ellen Willis was a rock critic and essayist who co-founded Redstockings with Shulamith Firestone but later found
her sister feminists’ anti-porn critiques censorious. Her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, and a generation of female music critics and musicians, have helped give her work renewed prominence, anthologizing it most recently in The Essential Ellen Willis.


“Capitalists have an obvious stake in encouraging dependence on the family…If people stopped looking to the family for security, they might start looking to full employment and expanded public services. If enough parents or communal households were determined to share child rear- ing, they might insist that working hours and conditions be adapted to their domestic needs. If enough women refused to work for no pay in the home and demanded genuine parity on the job, our economy would be in deep trouble.”

“The Family: Love It or Leave It” from The Village Voice (September 1979), reprinted in The Essential Ellen Willis. University of Minnesota Press, 2014.


“The modern celebration of romantic love muddled the issue: now we want mar- riage to serve two basically incompatible purposes, to be at once a love relationship and a contract. We exalt love as the highest motive for marriage, but tell couples that of course passion fades into ‘mature’ conjugal affection. We want our mates to be faithful out of love, yet define monogamy as an obligation whose breach justifies moral outrage and legal revenge. We agree that spouses who don’t love each other should not have to stay together, even for the sake of the children; yet we uphold a system that makes women economic prisoners…”

“The Family: Love It or Leave It.”


“For women, buying and wearing clothes and beauty aids is not so much consumption as work. One of a woman’s jobs in this society is to be an attractive sexual object, and clothes and makeup are tools of the trade. Similarly, buying food and household furnishings is a domestic task; it is the wife’s chore to pick out the commodities that will be consumed by the whole family. Appliances and clean- ing materials are tools that facilitate her domestic function. When a woman spends a lot of money and time decorating her home or herself, or hunting down the latest in vacuum cleaners, it is not idle self-indulgence (let alone the result of psychic manipulation) but a healthy attempt to find outlets for her creative energies within her circumscribed role.”

“Women and the Myth of Consumerism” from Ramparts (1970), in The Essential Ellen Willis. 


“If you undergo the painful process of renouncing the ‘feminine’ aspects of your humanity and follow your father into manhood (and what choice do you have, really?) you will share in the spoils of the superior half of the race. Now, as men, they nd that the spoils are far more meager than expected. No wonder they feel betrayed.”

“How Now, Iron Johns?” from The Nation, December 13, 1999.

Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 3.41.54 PMShulamith Firestone was a writer and activist who was a founding member of three radical-feminist groups: New York Radical Women, Redstockings, and New York Radical Feminists. Perhaps her best known work is the 1970 book The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution which argues for the complete divorcing of reproduction from biology, via “bottle babies.” Raised an Orthodox Jew but estranged from her parents, she suffered from mental illness and isolation later in life.


“In my own case, I had to train myself out of that phony smile, which is like a nervous tic on every teenage girl. And this meant that I smiled rarely, for in truth, when it came down to real smiling, I had less to smile about. My ‘dream’ action for the women’s liberation movement: a smile boycott, at which declaration all women would instantly abandon their ‘pleasing’ smiles, henceforth smiling only when something pleased them.”

“Down with Childhood” from The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1970.


“Feminists have to question, not just all of Western culture, but the organization of culture itself, and, further, even the very organization of nature. Many women give up in despair: if that’s how deep it goes they don’t want to know.”

“The Dialectic of Sex” from The Dialectic of Sex.


Those bodies belong to us. We don’t have to appear in your courts proving our mental incompetence to you before we can avoid forced childbearing! …we will no longer submit to your definitions of what we should or should not be or do to become truly feminine in your eyes. For unless we have a part in creating the laws which govern our fate, then we will refuse to follow those dictates and laws.”

Notes on the First Year: New York Radical Women, 1968  (“$.50 to women, $1 to men”) cited in The Cut, “The Life and Death of a Radical Sisterhood,” November, 2017.


“The end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the rst feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.”

“The Dialectic of Sex.”


“It is naive to believe that women who are not politically seen, heard, or represented in this country could change the course of a war by simply appealing to the better natures of congressmen…”

Notes on the First Year.


“To be worshipped is not freedom.”

“The Dialectic of Sex.”

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Adrienne Rich was a major American poet whose
verse and prose writings on feminism, motherhood and sexuality have long been treasured by younger women. Her nonfiction has recently been compiled as Essential Essays: Culture, Politics and the Art of Poetry.





“The assumption that ‘most women are innately heterosexual’ stands as a theoretical and political stumbling block for many women. It remains a tenable assumption, partly because lesbian existence has been written out of history or catalogued under disease; partly because it has been treated as exceptional rather than intrinsic; partly because to acknowledge that for women heterosexuality may not be a ‘preference’ at all but something that has had to be imposed, managed, organized, propagandized and maintained by force is an immense step to take if you consider yourself freely and examine heterosexuality as an institution is like failing to admit that the economic system called capitalism or the caste system of racism is maintained by a variety of forces, including both physical violence and false consciousness.”

“Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience” (1980), reprinted in Essential Essays. W. W. Norton, 2018.


“[W]hen we look hard and clearly at the extent and elaboration of measures designed to keep women within a male sexual purlieu,it becomes an inescapable question whether the issue we have to address as feminists is not simple ‘gender inequality,’ nor the domination of culture by males, nor mere ‘taboos against homosexuality,’ but the enforcement of heterosexuality for women as a means of assuring male right of physical, economical, and emotional access.”  

Essential Essays.


A movement narrowly concerned with pregnancy and birth which does not ask questions and demand answers about the lives of children, the priorities of government; a movement in which individual families rely on consumerism and educational privilege to supply their own children with good nutrition, schooling, health care can, while perceiving itself as progressive or alternative, exist only as a minor contradiction within a society most of whose children grow up in poverty and which places its highest priority on the technology of war.”

Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, W. W. Norton Company, originally published in 1976.


“The mother’s battle for her child—with sickness, with poverty, with war, with all the forces of exploitation and callousness that cheapen human life—needs to become a common human battle, waged in love and in the passion for survival. But for this to happen, the institution of motherhood must be destroyed.”

Of Woman Born.


Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 4.25.07 PMAndrea Dworkin was a radical feminist, activist and writer particularly known for her critique of pornography, including proposed legislation to outlaw it. Much of her work on sex, sexual assault and domestic violence has been met with resistance and sometimes scorn. Her essays have recently been compiled in Last Days at Hot Slit.




 “As women, we must begin this revolutionary work. When we change, those who define them- selves over and against us will have to kill us all, change, or die. In order to change, we must renounce every male definition we have ever learned; we must renounce male definitions and descriptions of our lives, our bodies, our needs, our wants, our worth—we must take for ourselves the power of naming. And most importantly, in freeing ourselves, we must refuse to imitate the phallic identities of men. We must not internalize their values and we must not replicate their crimes.”

“The Rape Atrocity and the Boy Next Door” from Our Blood (1976), reprinted in Last Days at Hot Slit. MIT Press, Semiotext(e), 2019.


The technology of beauty, and the message it carries, is handed down from mother to daughter. Mother teaches daughter to apply lipstick, to shave under her  arms, to bind her breasts, to wear a girdle and high heeled shoes. Mother teaches daughter concomitantly her role, her appropriate behavior, her place. Mother teaches daughter, necessarily, the psychology which defines womanhood: a woman must be beautiful, in order to please the amorphous and amorous Him. What we have called the romantic ethos operates as vividly in 20th-century America and Europe as it did in 10th-century China.”

“The Herstory,” from Woman Hating, 1974. 


“It is in male bonding that men most often jeopardize the lives of women. It is among men that men do the most to contribute to crimes against women. For instance, it is the habit and custom of men to discuss with each other their sexual intimacies with particular women in vivid and graphic terms. This kind of bonding sets up a particular woman as the rightful and inevitable conquest of a man’s male friends and leads to innumerable cases of rape. Women are raped o en by the male friends of their male friends. Men should understand that they jeopardize women’s lives by participating in the rituals of privileged boyhood. Rape is also effectively sanctionized by men who harass women on the streets… who act aggressively or contemptuously towards women; who tell or laugh at misogynistic jokes; who write stories or make movies where women are raped and love it; who consume or endorse pornography; who insult specific women or women as a group; who impede or ridicule women in our struggle for dignity.”

“The Rape Atrocity and the Boy Next Door.” 


“The argument that work outside the home makes women sexually and eco- nomically independent of men is simply untrue. Women are paid too little. And right-wing women know it. Feminists know that if women are paid equal wages for equal work, women will gain sexual as well as economic independence. But fem- inists have refused to face the fact that in a woman-hating social system, women will never be paid equal wages… Feminists appear to think that equal pay for equal work is a simple reform, whereas it is no reform at all; it is revolution. Feminists have refused to face the fact that equal pay for equal work is impossible as long as men rule women…”

The Politics of Intelligence” from Right  Wing Women. Perigee, 1983.

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September 27, 2018 by

Writing Motherhood in an Age of Anxiety

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 10.44.41 AMWhat I found most remarkable about pregnancy and early motherhood was the contrast; here I was, experiencing a profound physical and emotional alteration, growing new life inside me—and here were dozens of my Facebook acquaintances, going through exactly the same tectonic shifts, documenting them with hashtags, to boot.

So I was both special and banal.

What compares to this duality? Maybe the only similar experience is adolescence: moments like the first kiss, or that initial disillusionment with the adult world, the kind of awakenings that feel like one’s universe is exploding even as a thousand other combustions take place in the same hallway.

Like “coming of age,” each experience of becoming a mother has both universally recognizable features and a unique story. My Facebook feed is always filled with happy, pro-forma birth announcements, but behind the baby in telltale swaddle and pink-blue cap I always search for the other story, a half-bared shoulder, an IV pole next to the bed, maybe a bruise or bloated face. I wonder about the passage: was there suffering? Joy? Fear? Power, or powerlessness? Alongside the baby, after all, a mother is born, crossing a permanent threshold. (“Welcome to worry,” my grandpa told my mother shortly after my twin brother and I arrived.)

There’s a term for this phenomenon: psychologist Dr. Alexandra Sacks’ viral New York Times essay, “The Birth of a Mother,” recently revived interest in the anthropological category “matrescence”—the counterpart to adolescence or senescence—for motherhood. In a follow-up article Sacks writes: “Matrescence, like adolescence, is an awkward phase for most women, leaving you feeling out of control and disoriented.”

Among the challenges of matrescence that Sacks lays out are learning to live with ambivalence (what psychologists call the push-pull of motherhood); the dream of motherhood being supplanted by its reality; societal stereotypes of the perfect mother—all on top of physical and hormonal stress. In an interview with Lilith, Sacks noted that American women have a particularly rocky minefield to navigate because of our family-unfriendly policies, the worst among developed nations, but she said the new mother’s fraught identity shift can be found worldwide, across cultures.

Sacks’s work certainly struck a nerve. Take a look at recent books, films and comedy routines. We are living at a moment that I’ll call “peak demystified motherhood,” especially, it must be said, for mothers who have the time and money to be invested in demystifying. But this is not merely a trend among the privileged. Groundbreaking journalism throughout 2017 and 2018—a series in ProPublica and NPR, a New York Times Magazine cover story, a VICE episode—all laid bare the dismal state of maternal health in the U.S., especially for black women. This muckraking, mostly by women journalists, feels animated by a sister energy to the growing number of celebrities copping to postpartum depression, the memoirists, the comics. It’s a concerted desire to show the world how bad motherhood can get, how ignored mothers can be, a wave of pressure that’s enabled and amplified by the internet forums where stories about birth, postpartum depression, miscarriages and breastfeeding struggles are shared with strangers, then dissected and analyzed.

Whether they are reporters, memoirists or comedians, contemporary women seem determined to batter old taboos and injustices around motherhood by sharing the truth with each other. But it’s not just about consciousness-raising: behind all of it, there is a drumbeat, a demand that men and the powerful witness the labor, the suffering, of early motherhood. Alexandra Sacks compares it to the #MeToo movement, with this same dual purpose of solidarity and activism that is often nimble across lines of race, class and profession. Today, she says, there’s a new impetus to “talk about things we’ve always known but haven’t always had the right places and permission to share.”

This year alone a hefty stack of books on the subject of motherhood landed on my desk, many by Jewish writers, from Jacqueline Rose’s cultural commentary, Mothers, to memoirs, novels and essays. In the past few years, nonfiction books have specifically addressed topics like IVF, infertility and stillbirth, alongside revealing novels like Elisa Albert’s After Birth and Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation, both of which probed the conflict between motherhood and meaningful work, between motherhood and meaning itself. The Perfect Nanny, the bestselling French thriller by Leila Slimani about a caregiver who murders her charges, interrogates the primal terror of the working mom who tries to replace herself with hired help, while Elena Ferrante’s unflinching description of unhappy mothers on the brink propelled her to bestseller lists (she’s the subject of an entire section of Jacqueline Rose’s book). The New Yorker has published short stories that add to the canon, like Samantha Hunt’s “A Love Story” and Karen Russell’s “Orange World,” both of which address the fears that emerge in early motherhood—and both of which felt so deeply rooted in the maternal and domestic that one was surprised to encounter them in the pages of any rarefied high-culture magazine. (“From Hunt’s story: “I realize that what I’ve learned about being a middle-class, hetero mother who went to college could actually be boiled down to one or two fortune cookies. I write, HORMONES ARE LIFE. HORMONES ARE MENTAL ILLNESS. I write, EQUALITY BETWEEN THE SEXES DOES NOT EXIST. And then my job is done.”)

I became interested in this new wave of motherhood lit a few years ago, when a spate of sparse, compressed nonfiction hit bookshelves, including Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, which memorably describes her baby as a “puma” who comes to stay, as well as Maggie Nelson’s queer family masterpiece, The Argonauts, among their ranks. I read many of these lilting, polished books while pregnant myself and they gave me comfort: I could be a true intellectual and a new mom too, if I just kept my paragraphs short and my sentences dagger-sharp. But what differentiates the more recent crop of books from that elegant 2015 batch are the viscera: both the graphic details of birth and its postpartum wounds, but more crucially the visceral anger that pulses through their pages, anger that at times overmasters the writer’s attempts to be poetic or controlled.

In her 2018 book of cultural exploration, Mothers, Jacqueline Rose writes that “today, in public, the bodily necessities of mothering are brushed under the carpet and/or consigned to another hidden, intimate world,” because “the shameful debris of the human body, familiar to any mother, must not enter the domain of public life….” Tell that to Rose’s fellow mother-authors: to Body Full of Stars author Molly Caro May, suffering from postpartum incontinence, who tried to hang her urine-soaked pads up on the wall to remind her husband of her ordeal, or to Jessica Friedmann, who writes in her postpartum depression memoir, Things That Helped, of what mothers call being “touched out.” “When you have been stroked and suckled and grabbed so much that you cannot bear a second more of physical contact, like a cat that turns vicious out of the blue.” And in her memoir And Now We Have Everything, Meaghan O’Connell describes a group of non-mother friends coming over. She defiantly lifts up her shirt, showing them giant purple stretch marks, and notes their revulsion.

These truths are coming to us not only in books. The feature film Tully creates a horror story out of a magical night nurse who helps a new mom on the brink. And a new group of mom comedians, led by Ali Wong, insists on detailing the ick. In her recent “Hard Knock Wife” special, Wong describes the reality of afterbirth in language so obscene I gasped before I laughed. She tackles breastfeeding thus: “When they’re hungry and they’re crying it makes your hormones spray milk all over their face and their neck, which then becomes very slippery and hard to grip, and then you gotta slam them on at just the right time.” And she polishes o a C-section with this joke: “they put up this curtain so that your husband can only see your human side, and not your cadaver side.“ This is the project of most of these writers and artists: to rip open the curtain, to make their viewers look at the cadaver side, make their fellow mothers sigh with recognition, and spur the non-mothers to gasp with a mix of horror and sympathy. The cadaver side is something many of these books and films deal with: the proximity of birth to death, both in that the mother’s life is endangered (and far too often in America, lost) in the process and that in giving birth, she has created a future death. This is what Jacqueline Rose thinks causes society to scapegoat mothers: motherhood’s reminder of our animal, violent, vulnerable nature. (One can debate whether that’s the precise distillation or not—one critic in The Nation thinks this explanation fails to account for capitalism’s exploitation of the free labor of motherhood).

Regardless of how all-encompassing her theory is, Rose has hit on something: if the world scapegoats mothers, mothers are hitting back. The books, the comedy routines, all seethe with retributive anger: mostly at husbands (O’Connell realizes she’s probably had postpartum depression—PPD— for a year, and immediately gets angry at her husband for not noticing), at doctors and midwives—and often, just free-floating anger with no object. This is important. Popular psychology reminds us depression is anger that has no outlet, and turns inward; many of these motherhood writers believe there’s a social element to PPD along with the obvious medical one, and Dr. Sacks agrees. “Postpartum depression is a real illness, which needs more advocacy, awareness and treatment,” she told me. “But social isolation and shame adds fuel to the fire.” For Jewish women, many of whom still face communal and family pressure to be both joyful stewards of the home and outwardly successful in the work realm, that pressure and isolation may be compounded.

For this reason alone, the project of augmenting the “motherhood canon” with an outpouring of new art and writing feels crucial. But are all these books actually breaking new ground, or did my generation just start naming this “canon” when motherhood was on our brains? To put it another way, are previous generations’ motherhood books hard to find, or have they just been made invisible? Jacqueline Rose is particularly reverent towards Adrienne Rich’s groundbreaking Of Woman Born, which came out 42 years ago, declaring that motherhood, the institution, “has alienated women from our bodies by incarcerating us in them” and detailing Rich’s own push-pull between love and rage at her condition—an ambivalence I saw described as a revelation on a popular women’s blog just this week. Yes, a friend snarkily said to me, every generation of writers thinks it’s discovering motherhood as fodder for literature, and perhaps discovering the indignity of “middle-class, hetero” mothering in the modern age. But couldn’t the same be said of adolescence, that perennial subject of art? Or growing old? Or male writers delving into middle-aged boredom and desire? Isn’t it good that each new generation of writers would tackle such a major subject as the creation of life?

Two years into my own motherhood journey, I still struggle to be honest about its darker side. When I think about my particular hardships—a traumatic birth, a miserable experience going back to work, fatigue that made me feel like I had morning sickness for over a year after birth—I am embarrassed. It feels so self-indulgent to complain about these deprivations, when I am not being torn from my child by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or killed by neglect due to racism. When mother-writers on the internet kvetch about being “touched out” or having no time to write, I feel an initial wave of identification followed by an undertow of shame, thinking of the working nanny who wants not to find fulfillment through work, but to snuggle her own kid instead of someone else’s. I wonder of my sister privileged moms: shouldn’t we stop yapping endlessly about our birth stories and try to end maternal mortality disparities? Where are the trendy memoirs by queer moms, single moms, moms of color and working-class moms that challenge the deeper underpinnings of Rich’s “institution” (maybe some are too busy surviving to ruminate on their lot and get book deals for doing so)?

But I also know this: the guilt that would push my own pain into hiding would end up paralyzing me, preventing me from doing the work in the world that I so desperately want to do, especially as motherhood has increased my sense of affinity for families everywhere. Because mothers—even privileged ones— wandering around looking for a place to pump, with gaping wounds ignored by doctors, with absurd expectations to “have it all” and no maternity leave, constitute an oppressed class in America. If we at least felt less isolated and ashamed, we could more easily access solidarity.

I hope that’s what the “matrescence canon” is being born for. To teach us that with every birth, no matter how joyful, there is a loss—the loss of a life unlived, the loss of a former, undivided self, the loss of a degree of physical wholeness. To read these accounts of women’s rocky roads into motherhood is to see them process their losses. And to catch myself judging them is to understand the ways I judge myself. This is why, despite my skepticism, I have derived strength from reading so many honest accounts, why they have even sent me to find mirrors of myself in generations past. I found something I will carry with me forever just a few pages into Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich. She admits that she avoided writing about herself as a mother for months, burying herself in complex historical research as a shield against her own painful truth-telling. Yet she eventually surrenders her story, because, “I believe increasingly that only the willingness to share private and sometimes painful experience can enable women to create a collective description of the world that will be truly ours.”

Sarah M. Seltzer is Lilith’s digital editor.


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The Lilith Blog

August 2, 2018 by

What the Lilith Staff is Reading Now

Welcome to another installment of this occasional recurring feature in which Lilith staffers reveal what books are on our nightstands, our e-readers and tucked in our bags for the commute. Share your own summer reads in the comments!

Kira Yates, Intern:

This summer I’ve decided to read two books at once: The Guide for the Perplexed by the Rambam himself, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Though one was written in 1190 Spain and the other in 1940s Georgia, the theological treatise and the novel explore God and the actions of human kind. In his investigation of Jewish philosophy, ben Maimon seeks to prove that God does not have a body–an assertion that became a scholarly sensation across Europe. McCullers, on the other hand, tells the story of four struggling people in a small Georgia town, a reminder of what it feels like to be forgotten and in search of human connection. Published 750 years apart, these books present parallels about the human need for understanding and unity with something greater than the self. 

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