The Magician’s Land

The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman


I was very excited about this book, thanks to the first two awesome books in the trilogy and Lev Grossman’s visit to the Southern Festival of Books. It lived up to my expectations, and that’s saying a lot.

As this book begins, Quentin has been exiled from Fillory and is trying to find his way back. A new character, Plum, is introduced, an expelled Brakebills student with a secret family connection to Fillory. There are a few Fillory artifacts on Earth they try to steal. Quentin resolves to save Alice, his ex-girlfriend who sacrificed herself at the end of the first book and became a niffin (a kind of demon), and he and Plum attempt a spell to create a new magical world. Alternating chapters relate events in Fillory, which is on the verge of an apocalypse. Later in the book, we learn more about the Chatwin children and their original trips to Fillory. The weirdness and imaginativeness of the magical world and the way the narrative revels in the cool things fantasy allows characters to do are still hallmarks of the series.

Theological implications come up when you’re talking about bringing someone back from the dead and/or creating a world, and Grossman dealt with these about as gracefully as possible. He leaves it pretty open-ended because he seems not to have an agenda, or to be agnostic. I have the urge to compare this ending with those of the Narnia books, with their explicit Christian overtones, or the His Dark Materials trilogy, in which God dies and the final words are “the Republic of Heaven.” While I appreciated Grossman’s avoidance of didacticism, I found both of those other endings more inspiring than this one, but I don’t think Grossman was hoping to inspire in exactly the same way. In those books, the inspirational beauty happens to the passive protagonists, while in this one, the protagonist is the one doing the work and making the amazing things happen. Though what happens is still pretty awesome, some mystery or something disappears when the happy ending isn’t just handed to you. Maybe this reflects a difference between children’s/YA literature and adult lit: it’s like the difference between waiting for Santa to arrive and playing Santa for your own kids. That seems utterly appropriate to Grossman’s vision of this series as fantasy for adults.

A passage near the ending summarizes what I like so much about this series: it describes perfectly a feeling I grew up with and that I’m still constantly chasing. This series is one I wish I’d written because it is about this feeling and its pursuit. I just want to quote it at length:

“This is a feeling that you had, Quentin,” she said. “Once, a very long time ago. A rare one. This is how you felt when you were eight years old, and you opened one of the Fillory books for the first time, and you felt awe and joy and hope and longing all at once. You felt them very strongly, Quentin. You dreamed of Fillory then, with a power and an innocence that not many people ever experience. That’s where all this began for you. You wanted the world to be better than it was.”


Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


I read and enjoyed Adichie’s first novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, back before I had a blog, and since then her star has been rising, as Beyoncé quoted her on feminism in her album. I liked Half of a Yellow Sun, but I loved Americanah. I wonder if the difference is that this book is that much better, or if I am the difference. Half of a Yellow Sun is set entirely in Nigeria, but Americanah begins in the US and the narrative travels between the East Coast, Lagos, and London. For some reason the familiarity of the setting allowed me to connect immediately to Ifemelu, the protagonist. I loved learning what she thought about places and situations that are familiar to me, because it taught me to see old things in a new way. Meanwhile, the Nigerian setting of Adichie’s first novel meant that I had to learn about an unfamiliar place and characters both, which might have prevented me from forming such a strong connection. But the question is, why should it? I don’t like the thought of being a reader who can be so disoriented by strange settings that my human ability to relate to a character gets disabled. I don’t want to be limited in that way. I don’t know what to do about this idea except just note it and maybe be extra aware of it in the future.

Americanah is a love story about two young people in Nigeria, Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love as teenagers and are separated when they each seek their fortune in the US and the UK. Their long distance relationship ends abruptly, and they are reunited again in Nigeria years later. Most of the action of the book is about the adventures of these two as they try to make a living in the first world, dealing with poverty, immigration issues, fraught friendships and relationships with other Nigerians, African-Americans, white Americans and Brits, and their constant longing for each other.

I read Americanah while the news reports were full of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the contrast between reality and the hopes expressed by the book’s characters made me wish I could make every cop, judge, and legislator read this book. I feel like this book does a better job of explaining white privilege than anything else I’ve ever read. The subtleties of the way the white people Ifemelu and Obinze encounter don’t understand what their lives are like, sometimes despite good intentions and efforts, are the perfect thing to educate those who are well-meaning but ignorant. The many, many microaggressions endured by Ifemelu and Obinze are startling, and seeing the world from their perspectives makes the reader understand how wrong the assumptions people make about each other can be. The point is often as simple as this: When people whose experiences are different from yours tells you what their lives are like, listen and believe them. In this way, this book does exactly what fiction should do: it enlarges the sympathies of readers by exposing them to the inner lives of people who aren’t like them.

My one gripe is that this book makes it seem like money just drops in your lap when you write a blog. Ifemelu is able to make a decent living from a blog, without even seeking out sponsors. (Her blog is so amazing, they seek her out.) Overnight, she receives a vast audience of both popular and scholarly readers. She even leverages it into a fellowship at Princeton. Then she shutters her blog and moves, and is able to open a new, equally successful one almost instantly. If monetizing a blog were that simple, I’d have a much larger house.

Best of all, there’s going to be a movie starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo!

Mothers Deserve Bodily Autonomy Too

I wrote most of this response to a viral blog post when it was first written 13 months ago, and am posting it now as part of my efforts to empty my draft folder.

Of all the headlines I never thought I would need to post on my blog. This post came to my attention almost two months ago, and it shouldn’t have taken me so long to respond to it, but I’ll plead end of semester and baby’s first Christmas. Matt Walsh’s blog has a few faithful readers among my more conservative facebook friends. I have agreed with a few of his posts, like the one about leaving childless people alone, and disagreed with most of the others, but none have disturbed me the way that this one, written by his sister Chrissie, has.

The headline is, “I’m not the only one who has a right to my body.” That, to me, is an issue worth talking about in itself. The saying and the idea that ‘you are the only one that has a right to your body’ is meant to be about rape and sexual abuse. The idea of no one having a right to any other person’s body is related to the legal fight to outlaw marital rape, among other things. Feminists started saying “you are the only one that has a right to your body” in response to the persistent idea that husbands are allowed to have sex with their wives whenever they want, regardless of the wife’s wishes. (Many parents and teachers have also started using this idea to instruct children in how to resist those who would abuse them.) By headlining an article in a way that contradicts this fundamental idea about bodily autonomy, the author, Chrissie, lines herself up with people who say that men are entitled to do what they want with women’s bodies. I don’t think she intends to support rape culture, but she does.
This post takes this idea of bodily autonomy out of the context it was meant for (rape and sexual abuse) and applies it to motherhood. Chrissie says that her children “missed the cultural memo” about feminism and do, in fact, have a right to their mother’s body. (This article also has a subtext about abortion that I don’t care to address here.)
I disagree with Chrissie on this central point. Children do not actually have a right to their mother’s body. They have many legitimate needs, and they have the right to have those needs met, but their mother has the right to choose whether she is the one to fulfill those needs from minute to minute, or if she will arrange for someone else to do so instead. For example, a baby has a right to be fed, and if he is not fed, he is being neglected and his rights have been violated. I totally agree with that. But no baby has the specific right to be breastfed. Just because “breast is best” does not mean that an unwilling mother is obliged to sacrifice her body to provide milk for her baby. Another example: every child needs to be held and soothed, but not necessarily by her mother every single time she is upset. Fathers, family members, and paid caregivers can also fill this need. In fact, pretending that a mother is the only one who can care for a baby and meet his needs is insulting to the loving fathers and child care professionals who do this work every day. Recent research has proven the importance of “alloparents,” adults who have strong relationships with children but are not their parents (see Overwhelmed); Chrissie would deny her children these formative relationships by keeping them selfishly to herself. A child may prefer to have his mother fill his needs instead of someone else, but a child may also prefer to eat candy for dinner. A child has the right to have his needs met, but does not have the right to demand a say in who meets them. Children need to learn the difference between preferences and genuine needs, and to understand that they must sometimes wait to get what they need, that their needs are not always the most pressing in the universe.
By phrasing her argument in terms of the “rights” of a child, Chrissie implies that there should be legal consequences for other parents who do not make the sacrifices she makes. She seems to say that some parents who are inferior to her are violating their children’s rights all the time. Does she really believe that it should be a crime not to breastfeed, not to cosleep? Is formula feeding equivalent to abuse or neglect?
Just because a woman has a baby does not mean that she stops having needs of her own, whether that’s an hour to exercise, three square meals, eight solid hours of sleep, or privacy in the bathroom. And just because a baby’s needs are usually more urgent than an adult’s doesn’t mean that the adult’s needs are less legitimate, or that they must always come second. A family is a unit that must balance the needs of its various members against each other, and make no mistake, those needs will often conflict. My baby’s need for nursing and comfort at night definitely conflicts with my need for uninterrupted sleep. Every night I have to make the choice to meet my baby’s needs or my own. But I don’t sacrifice my sleep because I am obligated to, or because I feel I would be violating my baby’s rights if I did not. I do it because, for now, my need is less urgent than the baby’s need, and the family as a whole is best served by prioritizing our conflicting needs in this way. But there may come a time in the future when I am so incredibly sleep-deprived that if I do not prioritize my own sleep I will be jeopardizing my sanity and safety (and my baby’s, though carrying him or driving with him while drowsy). When that night comes and I put my own sleep first, I will not be abusing or neglecting my son. I will be doing what is best for my entire family, including the child.
Some comments on the article attempt to correct Chrissie (and Matt I suppose) on their conception of feminism. “Feminism is about women having choices,” they point out. This is what Chrissie has to say about the idea of choice: “I can choose, of course, to deny my body to my children. I can abandon them. What I cannot do, however, is abandon my children and still be happy.” To this woman, “denying her body to her children” means “abandoning them.” To me, “abandoning” a child means leaving her in state custody, or walking out of her life entirely. Obviously, there are many things Chrissie could do to reduce the sacrifice she makes without abandoning her children. She could formula feed, sleep in separate rooms, share nighttime duties with her husband, use babysitters. None of these choices constitute “abandonment.” All of these options would allow this woman to fulfill her own needs, including her need to love and nurture her children, without violating her childrens’ rights. Chrissie’s rhetoric, her choice to ignore these options, and thus to equate them with abandonment, is insidious and judgmental. By her standard, every working mother has abandoned her children.
If Chrissie had said, “I could choose to let someone else care for my children sometimes. But I cannot do that and be happy,” then I would not have a problem with that. If she doesn’t feel comfortable putting her child in care, that’s up to her. But if she says that while also complaining about how she can’t sleep alone and can’t get over a cold because she has to drive around town so her toddler gets a nap in, then it’s a problem she has at least partly created herself through her choice not to accept or hire the help of others. She needs to take responsibility for the choice she made there, rather than pretending that she is suffering because it is an eternal truth that mothers are the only ones who can ever meet their children’s needs.
Chrissie’s ideas about parental sacrifice are wrong because they contribute to inequality between mothers and fathers, and thus men and women in general. It is certainly true that because of our biological makeup, there are some physical sacrifices that men cannot make, even if they want to. No man will ever have to give up his waistline to pregnancy or go through labor pain or breastfeed. But once the baby is born and weaned, parents can be completely equal if they want to be because both men and women can nurture. There isn’t a word in Chrissie’s entire article about fathers and the sacrifices they make, but presumably she does not expect men to give up their sleep, privacy, or personal space. When women are expected to make these sacrifices, but men are not, it is because women’s time, energy, needs, and bodies are valued less than men’s. Chrissie perpetuates the idea that women’s entire purpose in life is nurturing others, that women’s only value comes from the relationships they have with others, because on their own they are worthless. Chrissie may not have intended this sexist conclusion, but her article supports it nonetheless.
But I wish that were the worst I could say about the article. However, I truly think Chrissie’s words are not just wrong and unfair, but dangerous. Believing that motherhood inevitably means a loss of bodily autonomy is a recipe for guilt and overwhelm. Personally, when I feel guilty, it makes me a worse mother because it makes me depressed. Guilt makes me feel unworthy of the blessing that is my child, and that makes me want to withdraw from him. And I believe that when people are overwhelmed, that is when they are most likely to lash out or give up or take some other extreme action. In the very worst cases, feeling overwhelmed can lead to shaken baby syndrome or other forms of child abuse. Chrissie seems to be aware of the fact that her rhetoric can lead down this dangerous road, because she emphasizes that she doesn’t want mothers to overwork themselves. However, this protestation feels pretty meaningless when she has spent the entire post glorifying herself for doing exactly that.
Chrissie is obviously a great mother, but a woman who has a different attitude about sacrifice and bodily autonomy could also be a great mother. It is not necessary to romanticize sacrifice in order to give children the love and care they need to grow. I view sacrifice instead as a necessary evil, something I just have to get through and actively work to minimize, rather than something to make me feel virtuous and self-satisfied. Chrissie’s self-righteous and sanctimonious tone just provides fuel for “mommy wars” that divide women needlessly (and I suppose I’ve contributed somewhat by responding, but I’m judging her for being a sexist and anti-feminist, labels I’m not entirely sure she’d reject, rather than calling her a bad mom).
Chrissie says, “My children have a claim on my body that is as real as my own. Parental love is utterly premised upon this.” It is true that in my experience, there is a physical aspect to the love between a parent and child. I have a gut-level urge to hold my baby sometimes, and I assume he feels the same way about my husband and me. But that does not mean that my son has a “claim” or a right to my body. He has only what I choose to give him. And isn’t that more beautiful anyway? Isn’t it nicer to think that I give my arms, my milk, my love to my baby because I have made a conscious choice, rather than because I feel an obligation, or because I have a biological impulse? Contrary to what Chrissie believes, it is possible to love your child while also placing limits on the things you will do for that child. If this were not true, no parent would ever say ‘no’ to a child. No parent would ever work outside the home or see friends without a child in tow or cultivate a hobby. I don’t believe a world in which parents could not do those kinds of things without irreparably damaging their children would be a good world for parents, or children, or anyone. A world in which women give up the right to say no when they have a baby would be a sad, scary world indeed.

Why Majoring in English Is Awesome

I have two younger siblings in college, and many family conversations revolve around what they should choose as their majors. Everyone heaps scorn on the idea of picking English or drama or history or a language as a major. As someone who not only majored in English and Spanish, and earned an MA in fiction writing, but currently teaches both languages at the high school level, I often find some of my relatives’ sentiments insensitive at best and distressing at worst. It’s kind of hurtful for an English teacher to hear people call English class pointless. It makes me feel like an alien in my own family, that we could have such widely disparate values that they feel so little affinity for what I find most important and wonderful in life. It’s a very lonely feeling, to be so far from understood by those you love the most.

Despite my relatives’ opinions, an English major is not a death sentence to a career. Here is a list of rich and famous people who majored in English and other supposedly nonremunerative liberal arts.  Here‘s an impressive list of all the skills English majors learn in school. Skills are more important than choice of major, and liberal arts study gives students exactly the “soft skills” companies want: “A survey of employers released in April by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 93 percent of the respondents reported that a capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems was more important than an undergraduate major.” In addition to these many skills, many hiring managers say they’re looking for people who are “well-rounded” and “multifaceted” in order to create more diversified teams at their companies. The main advantage of studying English or any liberal art is this: it doesn’t just train you for a job that will be obsolete soon anyway, it develops you into a person who will be able to adapt to changes in the workforce, so that you’re prepared not only for your first job, but for every job you’ll have over a long lifetime of work that will inevitably involve several career changes.

Yes, an English major needs a plan, but everyone needs a plan. An internship, a graduate degree (it seems everyone needs a grad program nowadays anyway), a work portfolio, even just some focused networking (which, again, everyone has to do), can fill the gap between a bachelors that isn’t very career-specific and a good job. “But then you aren’t using your education,” people might protest. Actually, as a teacher, I am, in fact, “using” my degrees in the narrow way this person means. My double major qualified me for certification in Tennessee and allowed me to ace the Praxis tests, while my MA bumped me up a step on the salary schedule. This is probably not surprising, since everyone who heard I was majoring in English assumed that teaching was the only thing I could possibly do. What might surprise this person is the fact that I am a better teacher for having majored in English and Spanish than I would be if I had known I would be a teacher at age 18 and majored in education instead. The time I spent learning my disciplines was more valuable for me and my students than the time I spent learning how to write a lesson plan.

But, much more importantly, every time I read or write a sentence, I am using my education. Every time I make or take down an argument, every time I interpret someone else’s words or actions–in my classroom, on my blog, with my friends, in my marriage, with my child–I am using my education. My English major taught me to handle ambiguity and gray areas in real life as well as in poetry, fiction, and drama. As Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” For these reasons, I remain convinced that “a useless education” is a contradiction in terms. There is no such thing.

Besides, a career isn’t necessarily the most important thing in life. Maybe this is a privileged position for me to hold. My students would probably see it as ridiculous, when they’re more worried about keeping the electricity turned on at home than about carpe diem poems, or, indeed, writing coherent paragraphs. Mine is probably a position that is easier to hold in times of economic prosperity. It might have been easier to be an English major in 2004, when I declared, than it would be now. A good amount of my relatives’ feelings surely come from anxiety about staying in the middle class. A major that is more directly connected with a specific job, rather than one that serves as a foundation for lifelong learning, seems like a safer bet. I certainly understand and sympathize with these concerns. When student loans are a factor, these concerns are unfortunately multiplied. But just because a major doesn’t come with a ready-made job attached to it, doesn’t mean its students are doomed to starve. And just because a major has a clear career path doesn’t guarantee employment upon graduation, much less ten years down the road.

In fact, if every college student in the country followed my relatives’ advice and chose a “practical” major, or worse, the exact same practical major, they’d all be screwed because none of them would get jobs. So following career trends like the current vogue for STEM is pointless. That’s because:

There is no such thing as practical knowledge, and so there is no such thing as a practical major. This country graduates 350,000 business majors a year. The metrics for those degrees are generally awful. But nobody ever includes them in their arguments about impractical majors, despite those bad numbers. And if you’re some 19 year old, out to choose a career path, business sure sounds practical. So they graduate with those degrees and flood the market with identical resumes and nobody will hire them. Meanwhile, they lost the opportunity to explore fields that they might have enjoyed, that might have deepened the information acquisition and evaluation skills that would allow them to adapt to a whole host of jobs, and that might have provided a civic and moral education. All to satisfy a vision of practicality that has no connection to replicable, reliable economic advantage.

Of course, all of this talk about jobs and careers is irrelevant when most of us have deeper reasons for choosing to study English than mere careerism anyway. As my advisor at Centre College, Professor Rasmussen, who taught me about King Arthur and gave me a crash course in literary theory that allowed me to survive the most intense graduate class I’ve ever taken, told me once, English is a love major. Students choose it because they love it. End of story.

I was inspired to write this post not by some fresh instance of disrespect, or a lingering grudge, but because I have finally found not one, but two people articulating the many wonderful reasons for choosing an English major much more thoroughly and beautifully  than I ever could, and I wanted to share their writing with those who care about me, in the hopes that they just might understand me better. (And I then “bribed” these loved ones to read it by providing blatant click-bait in the form of a photo of my baby, in the process of being indoctrinated in the love of literature, and waiting until the second half of the essay to display it. Here you go.)

Cogan September 2013 003

These articles outline some of the deeper, more philosophical justifications for studying English. This first one is mostly rather cynical, but the conclusion redeems it. It’s one of the best descriptions I’ve read of why the usefulness of studying the liberal arts is so far beside the point that well-meaning questions like “What are you going to do with that?” are inane and ignorant. The liberal arts absolutely are useful, but their usefulness is irrelevant and incidental, a mere side effect. They are not meant to be useful. They’re meant to be meaningful. That’s more important than utility, not only for the English student herself, but for the world she lives in and enriches with her talent and energy. (This certainly does not mean that the humanities are the only courses of study and fields of work that are meaningful. It simply means that the purpose of the liberal arts and sciences is to find and make meaning, and that makes them unique and worthy of respect.)

Why Teach English?” by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker

So: Why should English majors exist? Well, there really are no whys to such things, anymore than there are to why we wear clothes or paint good pictures or live in more than hovels and huts or send flowers to our beloved on their birthday. No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence. That’s why we pass out tax breaks to churches, zoning remissions to parks, subsidize new ballparks and point to the density of theatres and galleries as signs of urban life, to be encouraged if at all possible. When a man makes a few billion dollars, he still starts looking around for a museum to build a gallery for or a newspaper to buy. No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.

Even if we read books and talk about them for four years, and then do something else more obviously remunerative, it won’t be time wasted. We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because, as that first professor said, they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.

That’s a powerful argument, and one I greatly appreciate, but I think I prefer the high-falutin’ idealism of this essay. The English major, like love, like life, is more about who you are than about what you do:

“The Ideal English Major” by Mark Edmunson in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Love for language, hunger for life, openness and a quest for truth: Those are the qualities of my English major in the ideal form. But of course now we’re talking about more than a mere academic major. We’re talking about a way of life. We’re talking about a way of living that places inquiry into how to live in the world—what to be, how to act, how to move through time—at its center.

What we’re talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you’ve passed that particular course of study—or at least made some significant progress on your way—then maybe you’re ready to take up something else.

Rebirth Is Awesome, But Having to Die In the First Place is Messed Up

I originally wrote this post back in February 2013 when I was still pregnant.

This blog post went viral this week, and I wanted to respond to it publicly, at length, and I felt a simple comment on the blog wouldn’t do. Reading this story felt like a glimpse into a potential future for me. The idea of losing my identity as I become a mother has been haunting me for the past few months.

In this essay, which is raw and honest and fun to read, Janelle Hanchett of Renegade Mothering discusses how women who become mothers must mourn the loss of their previous life, their freedom and youth. She explores the emotional and physical costs of having a child, the isolation, the responsibility, the primacy of the bond between a mother and child. She says that a mother’s previous self is “just dead,” but somehow, she’s still there, and her new job is to discover who she is as a mother, because she has been reborn. Since reading this post, I’ve read more of Hanchett’s work and liked most of it. But this one struck a chord with me and rubbed me a tiny bit wrong.

I think the most valuable contribution of a blog like this is in starting a conversation and breaking a taboo. It’s important to say that these are normal reactions to giving birth and dealing with a newborn, and if we label every woman who has these feelings as PPD, then we’re watering down the meaning of that diagnosis and medicalizing perfectly typical emotions. We should be able to talk about the dark side of this harrowing transition, even if it seems shocking to think that all new mothers are not bursting with joy every second. In this way, Hanchett’s post did a great public service.

The vast majority of responses to the post were overwhelmingly positive. Many, many women felt that Hanchett had articulated their own experience perfectly. However, there were some critical comments on the blog from fathers, adoptive mothers, and others who felt that Hanchett had implicitly belittled their experience of parenthood. She says explicitly, “I’m not trying to speak for everybody.” She set out to tell her own story, and she should be allowed to do that without the expectation that her story will be universal. However, I think the reactions of these readers are understandable given the rhetorical choices Hanchett made. When she decided to use the second person for most of her post, she put herself in a position of telling her readers what they’re feeling. For the majority of her readers, this made the piece even more effective, because it hit so close to home. But readers whose experiences were quite different understandably felt alienated by this rhetoric, which often comes off as presumptuous. I don’t think they should have responded by saying that the post was bad or wrong because it didn’t address their particular stories. They should have reflected and realized that wasn’t the intention. But the fact is that Hanchett opened herself up to criticism with her bold word choice. She took a risk, and since it endeared her to more readers than it pissed off, I’d say the risk paid off.

Beyond the effects of the choice to use second person, though, I do think that those critics have a point when they say that Hanchett diminished, dismissed, or disregarded their experiences. She used all caps to talk about how no one, “NOT EVEN THE DAD” has the same relationship with a baby as his mother. In the comments, she defended this passage by saying that she was just trying to point out differences and speak from the mother’s viewpoint. However, different is inherently unequal. To me, when Hanchett emphasizes the primacy of her own experience, she implies that other experiences are less than. She would disagree with that idea, though, and said as much in the comments. I feel sure that if Hanchett and I were to debate this issue, we’d just end up yelling, “No, it doesn’t!” “Yes, it does!” Super productive.

This is why we have mommy wars. It’s so hard to communicate about these issues without judging each other. It’s hard to discuss why a choice was right for us individually without denigrating the things we didn’t choose. Hard to listen to another’s experience with an open heart instead of a defensive one. We need to acknowlege that. I’m not perfect either and I hope I learn from my mistakes here too.

The essay ends with a hopeful note, the idea that while Hanchett’s previous self is dead and gone beyond hope of return, she has been reborn as a new mother-self, better, kinder, gentler, and wiser. However, the idea of rebirth, of the sacrifice being worth it, could be seen to diminish the present pain. Pointing out the benefits of such a tremendous loss seems insensitive, like saying to a young widow at a funeral, “It’s all part of God’s plan.” To someone in the midst of that grief and transition, it’s inadequate and even insulting. A much more trivial example: when I was shopping for acne products recently, bemoaning the fact that pregnancy and my consequent inability to take an antibiotic has caused my skin to break out worse than it has in years, the saleslady said, “It’ll all be worth it!” brightly, and I felt totally invalidated, like the fact that I can barely stand to look in a mirror doesn’t even matter since I must be so overcome with excitement about my impending motherhood. “It’ll be worth it in a few months,” I replied diplomatically. “In the meantime I need to be able to show my face in public without dying of shame.” The idea of something painful–pregnancy, relationship difficulties, hard work in school or career–being “worth it” reduces that pain to the payment half of a transaction. And since you wouldn’t take it back, since the “return” on those “investments” is priceless, you have to acknowledge that you got a good deal, even while you’re in the midst of that pain. Meg Keene of A Practical Wedding says of her difficult pregnancy, “People told me that having a baby would “make it all worth it,” like somehow the slate could be wiped clean, and that wasn’t true. If your journey is particularly painful, the joy does not erase the pain. Joy and pain are different things, and they can each exist without diminishing the other.”

Sure, it’s great to celebrate the way these sacrifices and trials make us better people, the “beautiful catastrophe” of a woman’s death and rebirth, but this attitude could lead to accepting a status quo that is abusively harmful to women’s psyches. Hanchett points out differences between the way men and women experience parenting, without saying that these differences are unfair and sexist. Personally, I think the fact that women have to endure this little death, this loss of self, this phoenix rebirth, is bullshit. It’s one of many things that’s not fair about parenting and sex differences in our society, and it’s something we could change if we tried. If we raised children in communities (it takes a village) instead of in isolated pairs or totally alone, if we provided more supports for young parents as a society, if we had more equal notions of what it means for men and women to be parents, then maybe women wouldn’t have to grieve their previous lives because those lives wouldn’t have to change so much. We can’t give a man breasts or a uterus, but once a child is born a father is equally capable of nurturing, and should be given the chance to sacrifice and grow the way his female partner does.

Hanchett didn’t take that next step of questioning why things have to be this way, and maybe her post wasn’t the place to do that. I know she didn’t set out in this blog to make policy recommendations or to call for change. Maybe that’s a discussion she wants to have in the future. Or maybe not. Maybe she just wants to share her experiences with others who can relate. It’s not her job to change the world. But for me, asking those questions is a necessary next step, because without it, the picture of motherhood that’s presented is pretty bleak.

The Courage to Teach

I wrote this essay about back in 2012, fresh from two tough years in traditional high schools. However, things have only gotten worse for teachers since then, with Race to the Top, Common Core, and an acceleration of the moral panic blaming teachers for everything that’s not perfect about American schools. For a longer version of this essay, which includes support from research, click here. If you’re interested in what reforms I’d suggest to change the situation I’m complaining about here, see my review of Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error.

The Courage to Teach: A Lesson from Atticus Finch

People will say anything to get a job. But in a good interview, they won’t feel pressured to say anything false.

Recently, I have become involved in selecting and interviewing new teachers for the alternative certification program that helped me enter the teaching profession. The program focuses on placing recent graduates and career-changers in high-need urban public schools, and aims at closing the achievement gap. We want candidates to express complete confidence that their students are able to learn and they are able to teach them, as well as a realistic assessment of what conditions are like at high-need schools. We expect candidates to parrot an ideology of high achievement for all. Basically, we are asking them to say, “Yes, my students will learn everything they need to know, even though I know the conditions in which they live make learning impossible. I understand that my students will have appalling skill deficits, bad attitudes, no work ethic, and absentee parents, but by the end of their time with me they will be up to current grade level standards.”

It sounds crazy, right? According to this achievement ideology, all students are capable of graduating on time and college-ready, regardless of current skill deficits, time constraints, scarce resources, and lack of support, and teachers are solely responsible for making that happen. This ideology denies reality, and voicing honest concerns about how achievable certain state-mandated goals are results in accusations of defeatism. As the director of the program explained to us interview facilitators, “We can give new teachers skills for classroom management and content delivery. But we can’t teach them to believe in their kids. Either they do or they don’t.”

I think things are rarely that black and white. To reconcile this supposed conflict between realism and optimism, I turned to literature. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” To paraphrase, courage is doing something hard and thankless even though you know you will not succeed. If you think you’ll win and get all kinds of glory, it doesn’t take as much courage to do it. It is when there are no rewards in sight that actual bravery is necessary.

This is the type of courage that teachers need. In order to be sane people living in the real world, they need to be able to take honest stock of the challenges they and their students face. They need to know that the reasons for their challenges have nothing to do with their students’ innate ability, but with the social, emotional and material resources that their families lack. What the ideology fails to take into account is the contradiction in Atticus’s courageous outlook: knowing how bad things are, even knowing that you are destined to fail, is not the same as making excuses or giving up. What counts is what you do after you have a good look around at reality.

Atticus knew exactly how slim the chances of a jury of 12 white men acquitting a black man of rape in 1930s Alabama were. Did that make him just give up on his defense of Tom Robinson? Did he spend less time preparing his arguments, since he was going to lose anyway? Was his concluding speech any less passionate because he knew it would fall on deaf ears? Of course not. Atticus had integrity and courage, so he did his best, regardless of the outcome he expected.

It’s that way for teachers too. Every day, we’re called to do our best, even though we know we will probably fail because of forces beyond our control. Just because we know how bad things are does not mean we are allowed to give up. At no point is it ever okay for a teacher to just give up. As long as there are days left in the school year and students in the desks, it’s a teacher’s job to keep trying to help them learn. Atticus didn’t give up, and we must fight as bravely as he did. Recognizing that you face challenges and bad odds is not defeatist; it is courageous because it is realistic. My acknowledgment of factors outside of my classroom that have greater influence on my students’ educational outcomes than I do does not absolve me from the responsibility for trying my hardest to help them succeed. Not one bit.

However, it does absolve me from the need to flagellate myself over my failures. This larger understanding of the many factors that influence student outcomes, of which I am only one, keeps me from becoming overly discouraged when my best is not enough. The myth of total teacher responsibility overwhelms teachers, undermines their confidence, and makes them feel like failures when students do not learn because of factors outside the teacher’s (and often the student’s) control. An overwhelmed, demoralized teacher is not able to do her best for her students, so this ideology is actually harmful to students and teachers alike. Letting go of that myth would take a lot of stress off people whose professional lives have become a pressure cooker.

Since I began teaching in public schools, nothing has soothed my soul as deeply as the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The current ideology is not wise because it doesn’t distinguish between things that are within the control of teachers and schools and the things that are not. Instead, it insists that the teacher is responsible for everything, destroying teachers’ serenity when they try to change things that they can’t. When we focus on what we can control, acknowledging that we are probably “licked before we begin,” but courageously “see it through no matter what,” then we actually do have a chance at success. A much bigger chance than we would if we willfully ignored the difference between controllable and uncontrollable factors, set unrealistic expectations, and assigned all blame for failure to teachers.

Excavating the Draft Folder

I realized I finally have something in common with one of my favorite bloggers, Meg Keene of A Practical Wedding! She recently wrote:

Even once I’m done with something—by which I mean, I’m too bored to make any further changes—I have a hard time pulling the trigger. Because what are people going to think? What are they going to say? Is the work even worth putting out in the world? So when I don’t have deadlines, what I do is finish work, and then sit on it. I’m not actually DOING anything anymore, other than pretending that maybe later I’ll fix its flaws.

And I realized I’ve been doing the same thing for a long time. I write a post, decide I’m nervous about it for whatever reason, and bury it in my draft folder. It’s stupid. It’s a waste of my time. I need to deal with my insecurities and fear of controversy and go ahead and post these damn things. So I’ve decided to go ahead and run a few posts this week.

This draft excavation is also related to my recent discussions of confidence. If writing is thought, and confidence is making thought into action, then maybe sharing my writing is an exercise in practicing confidence. And to really make it count, it’s necessary to take some risks. For whatever reason, I felt that these pieces were too risky to publish when I first wrote them, so they seem like great test subjects.

These essays might not be the most timely, but I’ve decided that it’s better to come late to the conversation than to not say anything at all. I’m posting them in roughly the order in which I wrote them. In revising them, I didn’t change details about the time when they were originally written. I just wanted to record a note here about when they were written since they’re so dated.

So here’s what you can look forward to this week:

Thursday: “The Courage to Teach” began as an idea germ during my time in traditional high schools, at least as early as the 2010-11 school year. I think I first put fingers to keyboard to write it in 2012 sometime.

Friday: a response to this post on Renegade Mama’s blog. I wrote this while I was pregnant, almost two years ago.

Monday: “Why Majoring in English is Awesome” dates back to August 2013.

Tuesday: a response to this crazypants post on Matt Walsh’s blog, dates back to November 2013.

The Inverse of Mansplaining

When I’m with almost anyone except my husband or my mom, I talk less than the other person. The less I know the person, or larger the group, the less I talk. It takes an effort for me to open up. Sometimes others have to ask multiple questions to draw me out of my shell. At the school where I teach, some staff members gave each teacher a certificate with a nickname, and mine was “The Quiet One.” This habit has become increasingly pronounced as I get older, and I’ve become increasingly self-conscious about it, which of course just makes it worse. There are several reasons for it, some good and some bad.

Listening to others is good. Asking questions and being curious is good. Being open to learning about another person is good. Getting outside my own head and focusing attention on others is good. These advantages of my habit certainly motivate me to keep my mouth shut during conversations. And like I said, it’s sometimes been a very good thing for me.

But shyness is bad. Inhibition is bad. Reticence for its own sake is bad. Fear of judgment is bad. Fear of the intimacy that accompanies candid disclosure is bad. If I stay quiet because I’m convinced that nothing I might say could possibly be worth wasting the other person’s time with, that’s not just bad, it’s poisonous.

I’ve been thinking about this habit of mine for a few months now. I first began to put it in a larger context after reading an excerpt from The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose (which has joined my ever-growing list of books to read). The excerpt includes a smart update of Virginia Woolf’s idea about Shakespeare’s sister, which Rose calls “Prospero’s Daughter.” Rose recaps Woolf’s essay, discussing how women of a hundred years ago could easily see

“what relative value their society put on their minds and the minds of their brothers. This, in turn, would affect their self-confidence, and more than anything else except talent, self-confidence is what an artist requires, a belief that what you have to say, or the vision of the world that you feel it in yourself to convey, is important.”

And that idea is what made me see myself in the essay, and made me see internalized sexism in my worst habit. My diffidence is the inverse of mansplaining: self-repression rather than interruption or verbal dismissal. I don’t just keep quiet because others are busy talking, although that happens. I keep quiet because I don’t have the confidence to speak.

What I’ve experienced is something others have described and documented at length. This article on apology culture does a great job summarizing social expectations for women’s speech:

‘the talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence. Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women.’ The expectation, then, is that women are (or should be) silent and when they are not, they are taught to apologise.’

Lena Dunham connects these gendered expectations regarding speech to the concepts of oversharing and ‘TMI’:

The term “oversharing” is so complicated because I do think that it’s really gendered. I think when men share their experiences, it’s bravery and when women share their experiences, it’s some sort of — people are like, “TMI.” Too much information has always been my least favorite phrase because what exactly constitutes too much information? It seems like it has a lot to do with who is giving you the information, and I feel as though there’s some sense that society trivializes female experiences. And so when you share them, they aren’t considered as vital as their male counterparts’ [experiences] and that’s something that I’ve always roundly rejected.

Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle, “an autobiographical novel” that goes into minute detail about its male author’s family life, Katie Roiphe (who isn’t always as astute as she is here) questions whether the novel would have been as well-received if it were written by a woman instead. She concludes that it’s old news when women write domestic stories, but the same work feels fresh and new coming from a man, simply because at this point in history, relatively few men have made the home the focus of their life’s work and written about it. The annual VIDA count is another demonstration of how women don’t get the attention they deserve.

See, it’s not just my perception: people just aren’t as interested in what women have to say. At some level I’ve noticed that and internalized it. Staying quiet is a logical reaction to constantly being told that you’re boring. If I’m afraid that expressing an opinion will make me seem presumptuous or arrogant, that’s because I’ve been taught to feel that way by a culture that doesn’t value women’s opinions. It’s because you can’t be feminine and ladylike while also being brash and bold, and given the choice between the two, I picked the one that would cause fewer conflicts and make me more friends.

And the worst thing to me is that it’s not just about conversations and spoken words. To be completely honest with myself, I have to admit that THIS, not time, is the single biggest factor that keeps me from writing. When I manage to write anyway, my lack of confidence directs my pen away from the things that matter most and the things that scare me the most, away from original writing and toward critiques of others, or toward my journal, a private outlet that no one will ever see. It’s because at some level, I’m sure that no one cares to hear what I’ve got to say. And if I keep telling myself that message, eventually I’ll keep myself from ever having anything to say.

My reading of The Confidence Code: The Art and Science of Self-Assurance–What Women Should Know really helped me to put these ideas together and gave me the courage to write about them and make this writing public. In this awesome book, Kay and Shipman define confidence as the quality that turns thoughts into action. Clearly, that’s what I’m lacking in the writing department. The authors discuss both the causes of women’s lower levels of confidence, and what to do about it. There are many causes, from the biological to the social, and many suggested remedies, from the simple and concrete to the challenging and life-altering. I learned that I’m probably prone to low confidence because of my genes and the role of neurotransmitters in confidence, including dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. It stands to reason that anyone who’s ever been prescribed an SSRI is likely to have lower-than-average serotonin, and thus lower-than-average confidence.

In going on about how no one cares about women’s voices and stories, I’m not trying to make myself a victim. I’m just being reflective, looking at myself, noticing something I don’t like, and wondering why I do that dumb thing. I can’t change a bad habit without understanding how I fell into it. Answering that question involves recognizing false beliefs I hold, and tracing the origin of those false beliefs leads me to look outside myself at the world around me. I’m not absolving myself of responsibility. This is an explanation, not an excuse, and one that is meant to fuel greater efforts to overcome this bad habit. I hope to motivate myself to do the hard work necessary to build my confidence by reminding myself that in doing so, I’m proving how valuable women’s voices and stories are. To succeed, I’m going to need self-compassion, an important practice for overcoming the perfectionism that creates many women’s confidence deficits. For me, self-compassion means forgiving myself for letting myself down, and in order to do that, I needed to understand my lack of confidence in a larger context. I guess this is just me doing cognitive behavioral therapy on myself.

So now that I’ve recognized and understood and owned my problem, I have to either do something about it or let it beat me. I guess this is my public commitment to work on speaking up more often, to write more and take more chances with the things I write about. But it’s hard. No one should have to be a culture warrior 24/7. It shouldn’t be required for someone to go to heroic lengths to get to where someone else started out. They say that as women get older they get more confident. I’m 30 now, so I’m due for a bit of that confidence any day now. I hope I can channel that self-assurance into speaking and writing and making my voice heard.

Maybe reading can help me. I especially like the conclusion of the excerpt from Phyllis Rose’s book:

Reading is almost always subversive. From the time you read the next night’s fairy tale under the covers by flashlight when you have already had your bedtime story from Daddy and are supposed to be asleep to the time you are an adult reading junk, hoping no one catches you at it, reading is private; that’s the most seductive thing about it. It’s you and the book. Women’s reading will respond to women’s needs. Men’s will respond to men’s. And if men never begin to read fiction by women, well, as my mother always said to comfort me when I didn’t get something I wanted (and it never failed to work), “It’s their loss.” We’re all better off for enmeshing ourselves with what we are not, and that may best be done in love, but fiction works, too.

So, as I always have, I can use reading to empower and educate myself. However, I’ve never found “It’s their loss” to be quite as comforting as Rose does. In this case, men’s refusal to listen to women’s stories represents a loss to men, first and foremost. Their worlds stay that much smaller, that much more homogenous. But it also means that nothing changes: the system that devalues women’s voices is perpetuated, and women continue to be silenced.

I guess it’s a chicken-or-egg question: does change come first from inside or outside? The answer, of course, is both, but I only have control over one of those. So I need to just summon the courage to keep talking and keep writing, regardless of whether anyone cares what I have to say, because then at least I’m not selling myself short. That way I won’t have the regrets that would come with giving up. Then, when people are ready to pay attention, I’ll be ready too.

The Confidence Code

The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance–What Women Should Know by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman


This is one of my favorite books of the year. Kay and Shipman research the biological and psychological origins of confidence, as well as the social reasons for the confidence gap between men and women. Importantly, they don’t stop there, but give advice and hope for women to build confidence. I learned a lot from this book that’s immediately applicable to my life and that explains many of my own hesitations and failures of nerve.

Kay and Shipman have a great chapter on the backlash that women often receive when they do behave with confidence. Since many of the behaviors we associate with confidence when a man does them are seen as bitchy or abrasive when a woman does them, it seems like women have to navigate a minefield to be successful. They talk about how confidence often looks different for women, and how our culture’s definition of confidence should be de-gendered and enlarged to incorporate more feminine expressions.

I found their discussion of the subtle differences between confidence and its sister components, self-esteem, self-efficacy, optimism, and self-compassion, very useful. They talked a lot about women’s tendency to ruminate, and how that undercuts confidence and leads to inaction; this is definitely something I need to work on myself. The authors included a section on how to raise confident daughters, which I also appreciated.

My reading of this book has truly made me look inside myself and I’m thinking about making some concrete changes. Watch the blog this week for updates.