We are simply too hard on each other. That’s the principal take-away I got from reading Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women and Molly Millwood, PhD’s To Have and to Hold. But before we get deeper into what I hope will be a true discussion – not just me opining into the abyss – I’d like to pause on that idea for a minute.
As humans, we are much, much too critical, bitter, defensive, aggressive, closed off, oppositional, and generally hard on each other. I’d like us to spend some time thinking about this idea – not tacitly agreeing with it, not writing it off and walking away, but really, truly, thinking about it. What examples come to mind? What memories? What opportunities for growth? Think of yourself, sure, but don’t be afraid to think bigger, either. I’ll leave you to it. When you’re ready, I’ll be here, and we can continue.
Welcome back. Thank you for permitting that brief exercise. It makes the upcoming discussion a lot easier to have. Looking back, these were heavy reads, huh? And the world around us sure wasn’t any lighter. I don’t know about you, but in aggregate, I found this all very overwhelming. Multiple times, I had to put the books down, turn off the news, and just breathe, or cry, or breathe while crying. You get the point.
Eventually, I realized that I’d been burying my feelings in order to get by — a dangerous practice that could not be allowed to continue. Thank God for Millwood and Taddeo, who delivered what is perhaps the timeliest help I’ve received in a while. This of all months, when I might’ve otherwise been inclined to look away (tender-hearted folks, raise your hands!), instead, they called me to confront all sorts of painful, uncomfortable, and scary realities head-on. As brutal as the stories contained within their masterful works were, so too is this world, and in this time of global duress, their words were exactly what I needed.
Can we actually take another minute here? We need to honor what we’ve weathered together in the month of March alone. It’s a lot, in case you’ve not been keeping track. So far (with still a week and change left!), we’ve had contentious U.S. presidential primaries, a global health crisis, the cancelation or dramatic reduction in several faiths’ practices, the cancelation of all sports (giving an entirely new meaning to March Madness), the cancelation of in-person schooling at all levels of the educational system, the cancelation of social gatherings (all sizes!), shortages in key medical supplies and groceries, an economy on tilt, and the least festive St. Patrick’s Day I ever hope to see again (important, as celebrations provide key moments of relief). This is before we take into account the long-term effects of all this mess — which may take years if not longer to undo. That we are all stressed and depressed is no surprise.
Husband and I have been “joking” (if that’s a thing) that I sure picked some month to start this reading group. If I knew then what I know now, I’m not certain I would have begun until much later. But then again, maybe that’s exactly why this was a good idea. In times like these, people need opportunities to vent, to share, to discuss, to gain some semblance of a schedule and a purpose all to themselves — and to do so without having to leave their homes. That every celebrity and #bookstagram account has started one of these babies after the fact does not surprise me — and in fact, I welcome them in this space. When one day our children’s children are learning about The Great COVID Crisis, I hope they focus on all the ways in which we came together, rather than the ways in which we’re inclined to be torn apart.
I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve heard lots of positive stories from these ruins. Folks paying the salaries of those out of work. Folks delivering free meals to kids who are out of school. Folks helping elderly and immunocompromised neighbors safely get what they need. Folks in the medical, emergency response, national defense, food, waste management, mail, veterinary, and utilities industries going to work, putting themselves at risk, so that YOU could stay safe. ENDLESS folks sharing ENDLESS social media posts with the intent to inform, uplift, and protect those they hold dear. These are all beautiful things.
But it’s not all beautiful. If I’m being very honest, for every helpful thing I’ve seen, there’s at least one questionable or downright damaging counter-reaction out there. These include but are not limited to: finger pointing, name calling, scapegoating, hoarding, continuing to gather in large social groups (please stop!!), and the list goes on. I’m sure you’ve seen some of these things, too. Then there’s the other, less identifiable losses, like library and small business closures, and the general rush to judgment I’ve seen even the most seasoned, reasonable folks fall victim to. The point here is that, even when we mean our best (and not everyone does, which is a shame), sometimes our actions have unintended consequences, and very often those consequences result in us being entirely too hard on one another (and yes, also on ourselves).
While Millwood and Taddeo were unequivocally not writing about COVID-19 in their respective works on women and their relationships to others (all kinds), I imagine they’d join me in the belief that their work is applicable to this situation as well. In a world of so much suffering, some of which is silent, why do anything except be better to each other? What do we lose by taking a moment to withhold our judgment, if only for a minute, when we’re here for such a short time anyway? And why does it always seem to take massively disruptive events for more people to think about this??
I won’t lie. Before this mess, I’d planned a long response about the unique challenges that women face — married or not, mothers or not — but that just didn’t feel right for these books, for these times. What we faced in the month of March 2020 goes so far beyond that discussion that I have little choice but to “table it” for another day, at least as concerns Women’s History Month.
For those saying “No, Ryan! I wanted to talk about these things,” we still have two great options. First, you’re welcome to respond to this post with whatever reactions you crafted to the books we read. That was my original hope for this reading group, after all! Second, if you’re so inclined, I’ve got some resources at the end of this post that might help guide your rumination or discussion along the way, whether you’ve joined us in real-time or plan to catch up later.
In this precise moment, however, I’ll leave us with a quick reminder by way of Millwood and Taddeo: we are entirely too hard on each other, and we can all choose to do something about that, even and especially when it’s difficult. Women’s History Month, COVID-19, or any other calendrically-significant time shouldn’t be the excuse you need to get started. As a woman, I’m telling you, the time is always right now.
March 2020 Reading Group Discussion Guide:
- Millwood-specific Question: “Silence — our own and others’ — keeps us in shame. False, distorted, and censored accounts of motherhood — our own and others’ — keep us stuck in shame. Only when silence is broken and secrets are revealed can we begin to revise the shame story” (27). If you have experienced parenthood, coupled or not, have you noticed the silence/shame paradox influence your feelings or decisions? If you have not experienced parenthood, have you seen this paradox play out in other ways? If your answers were no, think about why that might be the case.
- Taddeo-specific Question: “Because it’s women, in many of the stories I’ve heard, who have the greater hold over other women than men have. We can make each other feel dowdy, whorish, unclean, unloved, not beautiful. In the end, it all comes down to fear” (7). Consider the women in Taddeo’s book. In what ways did Taddeo’s assertion ring true? In what ways were their realities perhaps more complicated? Now imagine your own life. If you have witnessed, experienced, or exerted this type of control, what were the circumstances? Does reading Taddeo’s book affect the way you feel about these moments? How might your feelings change if you were in someone else’s shoes?
- COVID-19 Question: How many households have suddenly realized that one partner does most, if not all, of the “women’s work?” Laundry, cooking, cleaning, chauffeuring kids around, the list goes on. How has this affected your family? What might you do to change your situation, if indeed that is something you’ve identified as a want or need?
- Women’s History Month Question: Prior to the announcement of March 2020’s LibraRYAN Reading Group books, had you ever heard of Lisa Taddeo or Molly Millwood? If yes, where and how? If no, why do you think that might be? In both cases, see how many other people have heard of either writer, or if they can identify additional female writers whose work might interest you.
- Assignment: Write a letter to yourself. Be kinder than you think you deserve. Then read that letter aloud. That is all.
North by North Carolinian
Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle