Monthly Archives: June 2009

The Bitch in the House

When I was eleven years old, I landed in the home of my maternal aunt and her husband.  My aunt was in her mid-thirties with six-year-old and one-year-old sons.  Suddenly, she was raising my teenaged sister and me.  She made quite a muddle of it, I must say.  Intellectually, I knew that it must have been hard figuring out teenagers she hadn’t raised from early childhood.  Emotionally, I was pretty sure she just didn’t like me very much.

The biggest issue was that my aunt was a bitch of the first order.  She was petty and self-absorbed.  “That’s what happens when a smart woman stops working to stay home with the kids, even though she has a housekeeper and puts the kids into daycare,” I would say rather smugly to friends.  “She just has nothing else to keep her occupied.”

You know what?  I am now more or less the age my aunt was when I moved in, and baby, I get it.  I might have known the reasons when I was younger, but now?  Now I get how The Bitch so easily becomes default mode.

I just finished The Bitch in the House, a collection of essays edited by Cathi Hanauer.  What surprised me about this text was how much I recognized myself in so many women’s voices.  So many of these women started out sassy and fun, only to degenerate into shrews.  Kids or no, fat or thin, married or single, they all have felt the rising of what one woman describes as the inner bitch.

Femaleness is a complicated state of being in our present society.  Expectations are high, both internally and from those around us.  This book layers voices examining how, in response to those demands, we so often awaken our Bitch.  It is a must-read for any woman who often finds herself wondering when she became such an unpleasant person.

Because so many of the contributors are writers, the prose is strong, although I think the primary weakness of the text is a lack of professional diversity.  I found myself wondering whether bitchiness was rampant only among writers or if perhaps we could have heard from chefs and investment bankers, too.

The Bitch, formerly known as The Shrew, has been around for a long time, as long as men have had nasty words for women who spoke their frustration about their situations.  The time has come for women to own her, and The Bitch in the House makes The Bitch ours to define.

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Life of Pi

I rarely stop reading a book in the middle.  Once I have made the commitment to start, I feel like I am somehow breaking faith with the text if I stop midway.  This has probably resulted in untold damage to my brain cells from forcing myself to finish thousands upon thousands of crappy pages, but so be it.

I almost stopped reading Life of Pi right in the middle.  It just wasn’t doing it for me.  Yeah, yeah, I get it.  There’s a kid, there’s a tiger, there’s a boat and an ocean.  I pretty much gathered that from the picture on the cover.  I felt we were just sitting there together on the lifeboat, which is all well and good for the kid with no options, but for those of us with dishwashers to unload… well, I really wanted to leap out into the water and swim the hell away from Pi and Richard Parker.

And then, right when I was ready to bail, the narrator mentioned the number of days he was at sea, and suddenly everything got interesting again.  I decided to stick around and see where it all went.

Damned glad I did.

Maybe it’s because I am tired or maybe it’s because I am out of practice, but I just didn’t see the end coming.  I don’t mean the part about finding land – I sort of figured that was how a “lost at sea” book usually winds up, unless it concludes with a guy nailing a bird to the mast of a sinking ship, in which case there is still one guy in a life boat who makes it to shore.

What I didn’t see coming was the part with the Japanese dudes who come down to interview Pi.  I don’t want to say a lot more for those of you who haven’t read this (have I mentioned that I abhor spoilers?), but just when I thought we were talking about one thing, it turned out the whole had been about quite another theme altogether.

If you HAVE read the book or don’t care if I reveal something, then read on.

My son, Zachary, is almost five years old.  These days, he draws pictures to process the reality that is not quite what he would like it to be.  It is his way of controlling the story and of shielding himself from the pain of a world that doesn’t operate how he prefers it to.

Reading Life of Pi, I realized how much we all do that.  Children are, of course, especially adept at weaving yarns, but adults need it just as much.  Fiction allows us to process the complicated odor of reality.  And, yes, television serves this purpose, as do movies.  Books, in my humble opinion, do it better because they require more work on the audience’s part, but that is definitely my bias.  But we do it all the time.  We fantasize about losing weight or having time to cook or having sex with Christopher Walken.  OK, maybe not the last one…  We also choose which story to tell, so that sometimes we show our darkest selves and other times we get to be the hero.

None of this is news, of course, but I think Life of Pi sheds a hell of a positive light on the way fictions function in our lives.  As to how that ship sunk, well, all I can say is someone was down there with a key letting out all those wild animals.

Mama Ph.D.

            I went to graduate school when I was twenty-six.  I wanted to become an English professor, perhaps for all the glory and prestige attached to the job.  I loved the reading and the digging and the thinking.  What I did not like was living in a different state from my significant other.

            We lived apart through our whole engagement and the first year of our marriage.  I finished my coursework a year early due to a sanity-breaking schedule of extra-classes, teaching, masters’ thesis-writing, exams, wedding-planning, and back-roads-of-Virginia-driving, and so I decided to move up to Philadelphia to be with my husband.  I arranged with the department to take my next set of exams from afar, with a great deal of support from the (female, young, mother) chair of the graduate program and my (female, young, mother) dissertation director.  I would write my dissertation from afar, and I would adjunct at Villanova, in my new neighborhood, due to help from a (male, older, father) member of my committee.

            Out one evening with a small group of graduate students and one male professor, I discussed my plans for finishing the program from a distance.  The professor, who heretofore had been very supportive of me, even though I had chosen someone else to be my dissertation director (at his suggestion), dismissed me. 

           “You’ll never finish the program,” he told me.  Damn.  Them’s fightin’ words.

            I kept those words in my head through the following three years as I struggled to pass exams, far away from the support of my peers and their study groups.  Those words echoed as I sought out a dissertation writing group from the English department at Penn.  Those words pounded in my head as I bolted down to North Carolina for a quick meeting with my dissertation director before I shot back up to Philadelphia for an appointment with my reproductive endocrinologist.  I heard his words quite clearly as I took a French translation class at Bryn Mawr to fulfill my second foreign-language requirement, seven-months pregnant and feeling Zachary kick when the teacher played Jacques Briel. 

            I flew down to defend my dissertation when I was nursing a six-month old, who got his first taste of academic life that day.  I nursed him at my graduation, handing him off to daddy before I went up to get my hood.

            I never did get the breast milk out of my academic robe.

            I managed all of this because of a supportive director, only a few years older than I am, who herself had borne her children while dissertating.  But, I never would have finished if I hadn’t wanted to send a giant “fuck you” to the man who told me I’d never do it.

            In his eyes (and many others), I am a huge disappointment.  I was doing well in graduate school.  I had publications – good ones.  I had a promising dissertation.  I was a strong teacher.  I had a damned good chance of actually finding a Job, which, in the vocabulary of the academy, means a tenure-track job at a four-year school.

            Except that I decided I did not want to be an academic.  All that time apart from the peer group removed the lemming-like need to jump into a life in which we would move to North Dakota to live on a crappy salary for 60+ work-hours a week during which I would produce articles on obscure topics published in obscure journals that eight other people might bother to read.  And all that prestige?  Um, somehow I had missed the memo informing me that professors are now treated like servants to entitled students, who cannot understand why anyone would give them a B.

            I realized I just didn’t want it.  But I finished the degree because I finish things.  And I was going to show that asshole professor that I could.

            So, I did.  And then I didn’t.  After graduating, I jumped off the track into the wild abyss of who-the-hell-knows-what-I-am-doing-now.

            It makes me feel tired and alone, this strange background of mine.  Except, it turns out it is not so strange.  There are a whole lot of us, as I recently read in a book called Mama Ph.D.  Some stayed, some left, but we all struggled to find our place in an academic world designed for men with wives at home. 

            The book was revelatory for me.  It made me realize that my choice was not just personal.  It was a response to a system that is not set up for women (or men) who want a work-life balance. 

            Reading the first part of Mama Ph.D., though I loved the writing and related to the women in the book, I did not see my own situation.  These were women who had found their way – some within the academy and some by opting out – despite overwhelming odds against them.  They decided not to struggle with the demands of the job, or perhaps they found a way to prioritize motherhood.  In one painful and beautiful essay by Jennifer Cognard-Black, she admits that putting career ahead of her daughter is detrimental to that relationship, “and I’ve slowly disconnected from my spouse—after fourteen years of marriage, we have almost entirely separate lives now” (134). 

            Ouch.

            And, then I found the essay, the one about me.  The one where Lisa Harper admits “I had lost interest in pursuing the writing necessary to achieve a successful tenured career…  In short, I wanted to leave the world of theory, and attach myself to a life lived more practically” (225).  That was just how I felt when I decided not to pursue the Job.  The truth is, even if the academy had bent over backwards to make it possible for me to be a mother and an academic, I might still have made the choice I did.

            But, the academy wasn’t going to do anything of the sort.  Let’s be honest: only the very best and very brightest gets tenure track jobs in schools located in actual cities.  Everyone wants to be in Boston.  Duh.  There was no fucking way I was going to get to choose to live somewhere my husband could actually find a job.  And all the talk these days in the academy about helping “trailing spouses”?  They mean other academics.  They can’t do crap to change the fact that there are no jobs in the middle of nowhere for partners who are not academics.  Nor can they change the fact that there are fewer and fewer jobs in the humanities or that some of us just lost interest in the circle-jerk of academic writing.

            Mama Ph.D. tells the story of why academia is such a forbidding zone for mothers, but it also opens up a discussion that is much larger.  Because, unless two people are employed by the same company, two-career families are bound to bump up against the reality of geography, crazy work-hours, and very difficult choices.

            I opted out.  I chose my husband’s considerably more certain career with an actual salary over chasing some dream I wasn’t sure I wanted.  I chose family over career.  I’ll tell you a little secret: I am not really all that pissed off about it.  I get it.  I got some serious benefits from having kids and choosing to devote time to them.  And some people get other benefits from not having kids or from putting their careers first. 

            We can and should work hard to make the workplace more accepting of families, and that same male professor should be burned in effigy for once saying of a colleague, “She won’t want to be Chair of the department.  She just had a baby.”  Yes, there are serious issues in academia – like so many other professions – and it can certainly do better at making space for parents who want to be present to their children.  However, there are some realities that cannot be changed, unless you have a plan to move Appalachian State to the middle of Manhattan.

            And we all live with regrets.  Just ask Jennifer Cognard-Black.