A few nights ago I stayed awake, even though I was tired. I’d spent the whole day away from screens, and I’d run around in the garden as Lorenzo looked for colourful eggs I would hide in the grass, hold for him when he found them, and hide them again when he looked away. It was Orthodox Easter, and everything around us in Greece evoked holidays: people BBQing, traditional music in the background, an old couple dancing on a terrace within sight, the palpable anticipation of lockdowns easing and restaurants opening up.
Lorenzo went to bed late. I fell asleep before him but woke up to schedule the washing machine to run while electricity is cheaper, in the middle of the night. When I went back to bed, I was wide awake and picked up my e-book reader to calm my mind.
But my recent selection had the opposite effect. US writer Lynn Steger Strong’s Want: A Novel charged me like two double espressos and a bucket of cold water. Its vivid world infiltrated my imagination. I became so anxious to know how it would continue that I could not fall asleep until I was done reading it – at 3:30am.
Want talks about being a woman, a mother, about white privilege and how Ivy League degrees will not help you get health insurance in the United States. The first-person perspective put me right in the middle of the main character’s mind, where I felt claustrophobic and uncomfortable, but also privileged to be there.
I usually pick up books without knowing much about them, trusting a few select people with their recommendations (one of them is academic and storyteller Roxani Krystalli, who has an excellent Instagram account with book recs). I initially thought that Want was the story of a life-long friendship between two women and how they grew apart as life got in between. That reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels and the friendship between Lenù and Lila.
Instead, I quickly found myself thrown into a different book. A reflection on what it’s like to care for a child with the baggage we bring into adulthood. An exploration of the fear of being incapable of looking after another human being after experiencing a miscarriage or living with depression and anxiety. A deep insight into the pressure that parents, especially mothers, feel with a fractured welfare system in the US and its overburdened, awkwardly focused approach to education. A sobering insight into how the #MeToo movement gets sidelined. The struggle to develop and identify in a career while being a mother. The female body: how it goes from a wanted object to a fragile and powerful initiator of life. “My body almost single-handedly bankrupted us. It also, with a little bit of help, made and then sustained the two best things of our life,” says the main character referring to her daughters and the hospital bills that piled up.
Some of the material in the book is autobiographical. In a recent piece for the Guardian, Strong says the US system is failing parents and children. She explains how broke her family is and how much the lack of public healthcare made her think twice and wait to get her daughter checked by a doctor after a fall. I’ve just signed up for her free newsletter, and I can’t wait to read more of her words.
Another US writer, Sara Fredman, has a newsletter called Write Like a Mother about writers who are also mothers, and she interviewed Strong about her creative process. Strong recounts how she wrote most of Want during a period in which her two children had childcare and she worked only one job (she usually works three or four), and she woke up at 4 am to do her writing. “I pretty vehemently reject the idea that children are the end of your career as a writer, but that is in large part because I have a partner who believes in my work and works very hard to help me to prioritize it during these stretches when it feels imperative to me to get as much work done as I can,” says Strong. I highly relate to these words, especially after three months of closed daycares. If my partner Nacho wasn’t with Lorenzo right now, and most of the day, this newsletter would be much harder to put together, maybe even impossible. I’m sure that many parents engaged in creative work perform a similar dance of dependency and priorities. What does it tell us?
Do you have any book recommendations for me?I would love fiction recommendations, especially from outside Western Europe and the United States, in languages other than English, with mothers as main characters. I want to find different ways to reflect on how motherhood is viewed and felt across the world. Post your comments under this story on the website or send me an email, please. If any of you is interested, we could even get a book club going.
What I’ve been reading
I really enjoyed this down-to-earth, honest read about how what’s wrong with the US approach to parenting is that the system in itself is faulty. With only segmented and ambiguous options to address healthcare and equitable education, parents are left anxious about their children’s present and future, says Kelsey Osgood. “I’m fairly certain that meaningful change for American parents lies not in fetishizing another culture, but in our government offering parents meaningful support,” she writes. A good addition to Lynn Steger Strong’s Want.
What I’ve been listening to
Can children’s creativity be supported? How can creativity be nurtured as a skill that a child can use later in life? And how can parents help? How creative can a baby be in the first few months of life? These are some of the questions driving a research project now underway in Leicester, UK: academics from De Montfort University are charting how creative activities will affect the children’s income, well-being and abilities in later life. This BBC podcast looks at Talent 25, this study that aims to follow children from birth until the age of 25. What I loved most about it is the sound of children playing and singing along. There’s some squeaking and a lot of laughter. Interestingly, parents are learning how to be more playful and creative themselves after participating in this research. Worth a listen!
What I’ve been watching
Beyond Men and Masculinity, a documentary by director Alex Gabbay broadcast on DW as What Makes a Man?, examines toxic masculinity – the expectation that men should not show their feelings or connect truly to others – and how its seeds are planted early in life. “We teach them to disconnect from their feelings, we teach them to disconnect from their vulnerability, we teach them to disconnect from other people. We call that being independent,” says Terry Real, a family therapist in Boston, USA. “We tend to forget the vulnerability and relational capability that boys have,” says Dr Judy Chu, a researcher who teaches a course on boys’ psychosocial development at Stanford University in California. The documentary explores how these early ideas we impose on boys have severe consequences on how men develop and connect later in life. Highly recommended.
Who’s been inspiring me
This tweet by Dr Karleen Gribble, whose work at Western Sydney University focuses on infant feeding, foster care, adoption and children with trauma, includes a map to describe many types of mothers from different perspectives. It inspired me to think more broadly about our definition of mothers, to include adoptive and foster mothers, mothers not genetically related to their children, surrogate mothers, mothers to wished-for children that never breathed outside their womb, and even fathers who carried their children and chestfed them.
What’s making me hopeful this week
Ecuador has decriminalised abortion in cases of rape, and this is a significant step forward in a country where the Catholic Church has slowed down and challenged the fight for reproductive rights. It’s also a step forward for Latin America, the region with the world’s strictest laws on abortion. And since I skipped this section last week, another hopeful bit of news: Channel 4, the UK broadcaster, launched a pregnancy loss policy for its employees to cover miscarriage, stillbirth and abortion. It’s good news because the taboo on pregnancy loss is being lifted, and governments and companies are starting to acknowledge its toll on people and that support is needed. Thanks to Tanmoy for putting this bit of hopeful news on my radar.
What members have said in the survey
Last week I sent out a survey. A huge thank you to all those who have already responded! If you haven’t filled in the survey yet, you are still in time to do so, here. So far, I’ve had some great answers, I’ve gotten to know you a bit better and I’ve received many tips. I will dedicate a whole newsletter to the answers when I can examine them at more length. For now, it looks like some of you would like to receive shorter stories, or get a monthly summary of what I’ve written about; some of you would like to read fewer personal details in these newsletter, and more reportage; My Greek word of the week is the least liked section here, so I may reconsider it!
My Greek word of the week
I recently learnt that panic, the word we have used so much over this past year, comes from Greek panikos, meaning “of Pan.” Pan was the half-goat half-human Greek god of fertility, pastures and shepherds. Like shepherds, he played the pipe and napped at noon. He represented human instincts, chasing nymphs and creating fear in humans, hence the current meaning.
With love and care,
📣 Catherine McNamara, a member of this community, edited and improved this newsletter with lots of love, logging in from Maryland, USA. Thanks, Catherine! (If there are mistakes, they are my fault, not hers!)