Work-Wife: A Chance to Re-Write HERstory

This piece was originally penned in February 2021. Today, I am privileged to share it with this community. I do this as a reminder. A reminder to stop, look, and listen to what’s going on under all our bloated politics. If we did that, we’d understand what it truly means that throngs of people still experience how inequitably “essential” home-based work continues to be. We’ve ignored these individuals and their stories for far too long. It’s time we started listening.

I should start by saying that I’m one of the lucky ones. The ones whose husbands aren’t afraid of a little — okay, a lot of — work around the house. By this I mean not only fixing things that break, as is the customary reference, but also proactively taking up work that is so often, needlessly, and unceremoniously relegated to women. Or at least, relegated to the more domestically-included human in any housing-based partnership, and then mistakenly gendered along the way.

Phew.

If that sounds like a lot to process, that’s because it is. It’s also why I’ve chosen to frame this essay with a deeply personal story. In my experience, personal stories give much-needed context to broad-sweeping social narratives. And historically speaking, that kind of context helps support long-lasting change.

Change is why I got into this business, so I’ll just lay it all out right here.

I am a woman, and while I enjoy some aspects of keeping a home, I also enjoy having the freedom to pursue tasks that full-time home-making simply does not allow, whether or not one ultimately couples or raises children.

Luckily, I married a man who gets that on all levels.

He understands that each person’s worth is inherent to their personhood, and that this concept is completely separate and distinct from the monetary value of their earnings or the social value of their time — whether inside or outside the home.

Like I said, I’m one of the lucky ones.

Of course, there are still chores to be done and bills to be paid. There is no out-valuing that reality. But it was for precisely this reason that, early on in our marriage, we developed a clear understanding of how our house should run.

It’s this simple.

Never will he assume or suggest that I complete a task on the basis of my sex or gender, and in return, never will I assume the same of him.

Sound like a fairytale?

Let us assure you that it’s not. But it’s also a far cry from more restrictive arrangements of the past — and in some instances, also of the present. As a matter of fact, we’ve found that our marriage functions in a substantively different way than most other couples around us.

For example, the breadwinner? Could be either or both of us. Okay, maybe that part’s not so radical. But dishes-doer? Bed-maker? Laundry-folder? Ironer? Meal-planner? Grocery-shopper? Yard-maintainer? Wall-fixer? I could go further. However, my sense is that you get the point. And besides, the answer to all of these questions is the same: either or both of us.

“How very egalitarian,” some of you are thinking.

“Thanks,” we offer in reply, “but don’t you dare romanticize it.”

See, despite our best efforts, the division of labor in our home is very rarely “equal.” And yes, we knew this would be the case, because no amount of understanding could be expected to undo millennia of antiquated social rules. Especially not during a pandemic and historic social uprising.

By the way, how are we all feeling about the absolutely relentless world-pummeling we’ve survived to-date? You know, the one that began late in 2019, lasted all the way through 2020, and will likely be with us for the foreseeable future?

The disaster that we’ve come to call COVID-19 — and I suspect, many other less dignified names — has been one hell of a wake-up call for American households. I’d like to assume that the vast, ruinous landscape we’re trudging through will continue to reform and refine us, but history will be the arbiter of that decision.

Reformed and refined by what, you ask? By our response (or lack thereof) to the many injustices that ravaged American society long before the pandemic, but which are certainly brought into sharper relief by it. And my lord, do opportunities for reform and refinement abound.

In particular, the United States of America must still face and complete its reckonings with racial injustice and related points of access like a living wage, fair housing, nutritious food, quality medical care, and dignity-affirming education.

In each of these arenas, it’s critical to note that when we speak about injustices, we are actually speaking about individuals who have been wronged, communities who have been transgressed, and not just about broad academic or political buzzwords.

What this means is that when we speak about gender inequality, whether at-home or in the workplace, we are actually speaking about the ways in which women and people who don’t identify as male are denied opportunities, restricted in their movement or growth within the limited opportunities they’re given, or are made to disproportionately suffer the consequences of decisions they did not — or perhaps were not allowed to — make.

Let’s remember, none of those struggles are exactly new. The list of offending behaviors women endure daily — and have for generations — is the topic of another essay. Still, given that we have been handed the uncomfortable microscope that is COVID-19, it would be irresponsible not to evaluate long-standing social struggles in light of our more recent crisis.

Historically speaking, women’s roles in American society have actually expanded around periods of national and international strain. For example, women won the right to vote in 1920 — just two short years after the 1918 flu pandemic. And within two decades, women weren’t only allowed to work outside the home, they were explicitly asked to.

History buffs might recognize “Rosie the Riveter” as the World War II era campaign I’m referencing here — and take similar issue with its hasty copy-pasting on everything from coffee mugs to “Health Care Heroes” campaigns in this century’s pandemic. Rosie’s so ubiquitous that I’m not sure we even appreciate what she stands for anymore. How very symbolic.

Since then, women’s presence in the paid workforce has been anything but short and limited. It took only one additional generation for women in padded-shouldered pantsuits to enter corporate America in droves. And thanks to those trailblazers, women in my generation think nothing of reaching for jobs at the highest levels their education, experience, and social standing can buy.

But wait!

This doesn’t excuse America from making further efforts to achieve greater parity or justice. To be clear, for as much progress as we’ve made, many American households still assume home-based work is “women’s work.” And as long as that’s true, the most immediate threat to equality isn’t the board room — it’s the ironing board (and a bunch of other places).

I’m no social scientist, but I’d be willing to bet that many readers have said, “Yep, old news,” several times in this essay. And I’m with them — I hear them, I stand with them, I am one of them. That’s not the issue. I’d argue that, perhaps with exception to COVID-19’s forced re-domiciling, the bigger problem is America’s quiet acceptance of this reality in the first place.

What happens when we assume that the home is exclusively — or even primarily — the woman’s domain? The exact opposite of what should: women are un- or under-paid, our work is devalued, and we become invisible despite our many efforts to distinguish ourselves. Ear-bleeding double-speak about how “invaluable” we are doesn’t help, either.

So where does that leave us?

Exhausted already, women take to the streets and the polls, as we have for generations, to protest our treatment and demand better. But we have limits. And those limits get reached a lot faster when we realize that maintaining jobs outside the home will not save us; that voting for progressive, feminist candidates will not save us; and that perhaps no one really wants things to change for us at all.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only made this uncomfortable truth more apparent. In a time when we’re collectively called to “stay at home,” women’s lives should be central to nearly, if not all, conversations America has, bending the arc of justice towards appropriately protecting, recognizing, and compensating us for our time, effort, and energies.

That hasn’t happened — at least, not until recently.

What did we experience instead?

Even when women have managed to secure employment outside our homes, our tasks within them haven’t faded, they’ve only grown more demanding. And unlike our male counterparts, we can’t simply demand crisis pay to help us swallow these “new” responsibilities — because we’ve never been paid for work we do in our homes at all.

By now, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that women report feeling exhausted. No one asked to fragment themselves in this way could be expected to feel otherwise. But here’s the deal: for all our exhaustion, women see what’s going on, and just like the generations of women who came before us, we refuse to be held down by it.

We know better than anyone that our plight is a result of society not having a reliable system by which to understand — much less, assess — us. And so, as we’ve always been capable of doing, we wholesale reject its definitions and expectations. What serves us matters, too. So get ready for the reckoning.

But first, we have some questions:

How is it that women are so “invaluable” that our assigned work breaks us apart? How is it that our male partners — both business and domestic — see this and do nothing to change it? How is it that so many people live in peace with the knowledge that women’s “invaluable” nature renders us broken and exhausted to the point of invisibility?

The answer is that there’s gross injustice at work.

That’s right, we have some answers, too.

But if the devil’s in the details, so too does evil hide within the criminally obvious. That means we have to talk about gender inequality in great depth, starting right now. Yes, today. Not tomorrow. Not next election cycle. Right now.

And that brings us back to our current context. We’re living through a global pandemic that, at least for women, has changed very little — except to bring into even sharper relief how maddeningly the same our lives actually are, whether relative to how they were two years ago, or relative to the many “onerous” changes our male counterparts bemoan by comparison.

Don’t you dare make the mistake of believing this injustice is just a past or present concern, either. Unless we do something to change it, women will continue to feel the effects of COVID-19 faster, closer, and longer than our male or male-identifying counterparts. This means that our rapidly evolving situation might also breed an unjust future.

Neither should this be a difficult concept to grasp, though let’s not render it ineffectual. It just means that women need as many people as possible, across as many channels as possible, to make our reality plainer than plain — for as long as we possibly can.

On that note, I’d like to propose a slight “rebrand” of this conversation. The reason is two-fold: (1) we need to be on the same page before we aim to make change in our unique corners of the world, and (2) whether or not we succeed will depend in large part on how well we equip ourselves with language that the vast majority of people can understand.

So bear with me.

Rather than leaning exclusively on the language of injustice, I’m going to start calling gender inequality a problem. In my experience, that word has a higher success rate when it comes to driving action. That is probably because people are hard-wired to fix “problems” — and that is thanks to the perception that problems are quotidian in nature, and thus solvable by anyone, whereas “injustices” often seem so large that no one could possibly help. This is an important distinction.

With me so far?

Now, since we need every willing person to help us, I’m going to call gender inequality a problem — and hope it makes a difference.

Remember the beginning of this essay, where I told you that personal stories also have the capacity to make change? I’m going to attempt to weave the larger social and historical context we’ve been discussing back together with my own — and hope that makes a difference, too.

Even as a woman with a fully-committed husband, the pandemic has brought about one principal change for me — and it’s not one I’m happy about. Over the past year-and-a-half, I’ve gone from being a wife who works, to a stay-at-home “work-wife.” I’ll explain what that means in a minute, though let me assure you that it’s neither sexy nor exciting.

First, you need to understand our family’s previous home context.

Even before the virus, my husband worked in a career that barely afforded him time to eat or sleep. Back then, he labored in days-long shifts at the office, surviving on nothing but adrenaline, cheap take-out, and willpower. Maybe there’s some caffeine in there too, but that’s beside the point. What matters — as he would also tell you — is that my husband was almost never home. And as we were — and still are — two people in this marriage, of course his reality affected me.

The first major impact? A forced, false singlehood. And the second? Learning very quickly to make good use of my free time. In the beginning, this freedom encompassed only a few short hours a week. But eventually, my spirited pursuits outside of work became my work, and at that point, I furnished myself with a home-based office.

This accomplishment will always make my “top five” list of favorite moments. I’d finally liberated myself from toxic notions of success and, in their wake, started the journey I’d been called to take since I was a little girl. Even then, I knew to cherish these moments because I’d never get them back. I just had no idea how right I’d be.

Fast-forward to March 2020.

When it became clear that COVID-19 would be staying stateside, my husband joined me in working from home. And we welcomed this adjustment with open arms. First because it greatly reduced our risk of viral exposure, and second because, for the first time in our marriage, we actually got to live with each other.

This is not an exaggeration.

It’s also a fact I proudly shared with our family, our friends, the neighbors, or really anyone who would listen. I was just that excited.

Another problem, though.

Excitement can be blinding. Blinding to the point where important clues get missed. And let me tell you, from the other side of this transition, I never saw our current reality coming.

Today, instead of my once-neat work schedule:

Wake at 8

Eat breakfast by 9

Workout by 10

Work until 1

Eat lunch and relax until 2

Work until 6

Eat dinner and relax until 8

Work until 10

Go to bed by 11 … okay, maybe midnight but who’s counting?

I have another work-worn human to take care of all the time, in addition to the home-based responsibilities he no longer has time for, given that his field understands “work from home” to mean “Great! you are now working 24/7/365 — and you better be immediately reachable, too.”

Enter my new role: “work-wife,” which includes a collection of duties just numerous enough to completely decimate my pre-pandemic career. And I’m exhausted. Completely and utterly exhausted.

I say all this from a position of clear privilege. That our biggest complaint involves unequal division of labor is absolutely a first-world problem. One that is softened even further by my husband’s commitment to being an equal partner who does his level best to correct the imbalance daily.

And to be clear, I know that our struggles could be so much worse. Either or both of us could be dead, either or both of us could be sick, either or both of us could be losing our home, out of work, lacking enough nutritious food, or have want of reliable access to medical care.

Thankfully, neither of us are these things. And in that context, it’s obtuse to assume that America should care about my new home-based duties, or even how they restrict the work I need to do in support of my chosen career.

But what if this problem wasn’t just about me?

What if my privileged complaint actually underscored the story of countless other people, partners, and parents who — whether through good will, coercion, or some terrible combination of them both — necessarily sloughed off or de-prioritized their own endeavors, citing medical, economic, or other family demands they’ve been asked shoulder simply because they are women?

What if these first-world problems were actually global problems of gargantuan weight and endless, tessellated variety, morphing and evolving as quickly as the virus itself? What if we were entirely unprepared for the decades- and possibly centuries-long ramifications of these changes? And I shudder, what if we didn’t want to admit that precisely because it was happening in the home, which is also the office — instead of the office, which was never meant to be at home?

“OH, CRAP,” some of you are thinking.

“She’s right,” others of you are saying.

“Can you stay a little longer, work-wife, and let me pick your brain?”

“Can you help us connect the dots, stop this collision course, and set the world right once again?”

It pains me, but no.

Unfortunately I can’t.

Why?

Because — as should be self-evident by now — I must get back to my other, non-paid (thankfully not thankless) job: making sure my family is fed, clean, and healthy in a time when we are literally just trying to survive.

Let’s be serious: someone has to do it. And at least for now, society values my husband’s profession much more than mine. Hence, my newly assigned role as “work-wife,” the advent of many supportive conversations, and eventually, this essay.

I’m a writer, by the way. When I’m not playing the role of “work-wife” to the best damn husband in the world, I can be found putting pen to paper, fingers to keys, and voice to air.

“Wow,” some of you are saying, “What have you written?” — as if my finished manuscript should somehow lessen the blows I’ve been dealt.

And others of you are joining them, pleading with me, “Why didn’t you say so?!” — as if somehow, you knowing this information any sooner might have changed things in any material way.

I roll my eyes, because my answers to these questions feel increasingly silly.

“Still,” my husband assures me, “someone has to answer them. And if not work-wife-previously-known-as-writer, then who?”

He’s got a point.

So, where is my work? At home. Both jobs.

What have I written? I’ve got a novel and a few blogs under my belt.

And why didn’t I say so earlier? Because I work on these things in stolen moments, which means I have even less time to explain the struggle to you. Because “work-wife” duties now come first. And because I worry that unless something seriously changes, this short-term arrangement might become much, much more permanent.

But again, this isn’t only about me.

This essay and my story are a warning, a call-to-FIGURATIVE-arms, a rally cry for every soul who gives a damn about women in America. If we’re smart, we’ll start re-writing HERstory today, right now, in this critical moment in time (read: they’re all critical moments).

The alternative?

If we’re not careful, society won’t remember the work that women lost or had to give up in this challenging season of life. And I don’t just mean their job titles upon furlough, firing, or resignation. I’m also speaking about their lost forward trajectories.

Just ask any woman who’s spent time away from the paid workforce and she’ll tell you what you need to know. For everyone else, it doesn’t take much to envision how COVID-19 makes life both inside and outside the home even harder for women.

For example, who is expected to revise their work schedules when childcare centers close down? Who is expected to complete home-based tasks between Zoom calls, spreadsheets, or class periods? Who gets to use “better” workspaces to begin with? The answers to these questions tell an interesting story. And that’s assuming that women have managed to keep their outside jobs in the first place.

Of course, for many women, this has not been the case. In addition to being forced back into their homes, they’ve also lost jobs — and with them, not only their physical paychecks, but also the freedom that comes with being compensated for their work, however well or badly. Absent this escape route, their only choice is to continue working at home and for free. And where that is true, we’re not talking about a “reduction in responsibilities” — we’re talking about a railroading.

This brings us to our second, scary alternative.

If we’re not careful, an entire generation of women will also be forgotten for the work they did when they “weren’t working,” for all the essential jobs they performed without pay, without breaks, without promise of promotion or recognition or anything else of male-assessed value. (That is, unless we count seeing big names with big platforms get paid to publicly lament “how terrible it was to watch this happen” — and then do nothing to change it).

So, where is change possible in this dire set of circumstances? Everywhere. And as a matter of fact, what happens next is entirely up to us. That said, I’d like to propose an alternate ending to the HERstory of COVID-19. This story can still end the way that women and other home-based workers truly deserve.

If you’re wondering what that looks like, then for starters we could:

(1) Stop silencing women’s voices;

(2) Start respecting women for the tireless work we’ve completed since the beginning of time and;

(3) Start compensating women as the essential workers we’ve always been, AND/OR accept our delegation of the duties we no longer have time for, starting right now.

In short, I’m proposing that we choose to abate the inequitable strain placed on women at every moment of our lives — and make the world a better, stronger, more livable place for everyone as a result.

Why?

Because women hold society together. We help you process, keep you warm, keep you fed, keep you clothed, keep you schooled, keep you living and breathing and safe from harm — and when that is not possible (God help us), we keep you morally awake.

What’s more, we do this with grace and pride and minimal but thoroughly justified complaints. Because that’s just what women do: we make sure you live. No one better ask us what we do for a living ever again.

“Because that’s just what women do: we make sure you live. No one better ask us what we do for a living ever again.” — Ryan Vale McGonigle | “Work Wife” on North by North Carolinian

Instead, if you claim to value women, you can learn to actually value us. And no, despite your many protestations, you don’t. At least not yet.

How do I know that?

Because if America truly valued women — inherently and otherwise — we wouldn’t still be here.

If America truly valued women, I wouldn’t be writing this essay, we wouldn’t need to challenge gender norms on everything from the kitchen table to the White House and back, and we wouldn’t need to print Rosie the Riveter on everything imaginable, mindlessly proliferating World War II era propaganda that — remember — celebrated women for their sacrificial work in another period of national crisis.

In fact, women’s work would cease to be sacrificial at all.

We aren’t there yet. There’s still a lot of work to d–

Oh, I’m sorry, what’s that you’re saying? You know? Then good, we’re on the same page. Women won’t be working from home for free anymore. And as a matter of fact, we aren’t sure home-based work should be ours alone to begin with.

So go ahead.

Tell the others.

We’re waiting.

"Gone With The Wind?" Not So Fast.

First, we digress:

I have a confession to make. I, proud and also sometimes horrified daughter of the American South, read Gone with the Wind (GWTW) for the first time last year. My rite of passage — some might even say birthright — was finally complete. What followed next were grandiose plans to draft a Reading Words post about my multi-faceted experience, borne largely of increasing frustration with how the American South gets disproportionately crucified for the atrocities people everywhere still commit, centuries after Union white folk declared victory over Southern sin. If you’re trying to imagine what that post might’ve looked like, think less “Southern apologist” and more “look in the mirror, America” (see here also).

The issue is that I never quite got there. My anger at non-Southern elites was so strong that it blinded me. If we were such a backwards people, worthy of denigration after denigration after denigration, then why did folks who spun these tales also continue to buy our land and appropriate our culture, among other perplexing behaviors? The answer is that the behaviors aren’t really perplexing at all — they’re predatory, and the people who perpetrate them are monsters hiding in plain sight.

See how quickly this type of response digresses? Needless to say, I never published my impassioned early attempts. Why? Because I’d hit a critical impasse: myself. Like it or not, I wasn’t ready to produce the response I needed to share. Owning that was my first step towards maybe one day sharing it. That was easy. The hard part was not knowing when — if ever — I’d be strong enough or clear enough to take this work back on.

What a healer time can be! Today, a year (and really thirty-some) later, I’m finally ready. Though I’m still quieting my shaky knees (this is vulnerable work, y’all!), today I’m properly ready to commence the work I intended to begin last year. Starting today, I’m stepping fully into my calling, fully into my heritage, and beginning with a reckoning by way of Margaret Mitchell and her polarizing oeuvre, Gone with the Wind. Come with?

In the presence of greatness:

It’s always a little uncomfortable to read something where the author is held up as “a great.” You’re, by the magic of reading, connected to someone else, from another place or time, and that person just happens to be whoever they are, and you’re … well, you’re you. Does anyone else ever feel this way? No? That’s okay. The good and the bad of this particular situation is that, in ways that might surprise you, Mitchell’s greatness is qualified by another uncomfortable truth. That qualification makes her more relatable for some, sure, but we’ve got to stop and consider what else we’re doing when we put conditions on greatness in the first place.

Work with me here…

Not only is Margaret Mitchell the author of one of America’s defining pieces of literature, but she’s also a woman, and a woman who won the Pulitzer in the 1930s. As momentous as this might initially seem, paradoxically, by percent, more of these awards were given to women in that era than in today’s (at least for Novels/Fiction). Don’t believe me? Go ahead, look it up. In fact, by the time you read this, it will have been more than half a decade since a woman held that distinction. And that’s not okay. We cannot run from this fact.

Here’s where the nasty qualification comes in to play. When in the course of celebrating Mitchell’s achievements, we start to sound like this —

Yes, isn’t it wonderful? A woman wrote something worth the Pulitzer in the THIRTIES! That must make her EXCEPTIONALLY good!!”

— we end up creating more problems than we do good. And it doesn’t just begin and end with giving Mitchell her dues. The trouble with this line of thinking, taken to its furthest end, is that it presupposes either that (1) women have become less capable of writing things worthy of such high praise, or (2) the publishing industry has become less capable of finding women with award-winning voices. Neither alternative is palatable, or frankly, true.

That said, not unlike popular but misinformed opinions about the South, these ideas carry weight, and that weight makes it harder for women to break through, at least in the ways our sisters did before us. That this month we read a Pulitzer Prize winner is indeed something notable. That we don’t read more of them is also. This is precisely why being in the presence of greatness — and all the qualifications that come with it — is uncomfortable. Somewhere deep down, we know there’s got to be more to the story.

Things get complicated:

Then we get to the real controversy. We need to acknowledge immediately that Mitchell’s perspective is controversial. By modern standards, eulogizing a way of life that we now find repugnant feels … off-putting at best. But that’s also why, all these years later, she remains an essential read.

For some people, that discomfort means we should #cancel Margaret Mitchell, move on, and replace her voice with others who “get it right.” Listen up, folks. I need you to hear me when I say that that line of thinking is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. Make no mistake, we need to make room for more voices at the table, but removal of voices like Mitchell’s from the national discourse means we create opportunities to forget what it is we find unacceptable, and why it is we find it so in the first place. That task is hard enough in the modern world. We don’t need to make it harder by removing data from our set.

In today’s world, we cannot simply remove things we deem morally base, pretending like they never existed, in service of so-called cultural purity. Or at least, we cannot do this without also creating a dangerously muddy situation for present and future generations. Here’s why: it calls our own motives into question. Who owns the “cultural eraser” matters just as much as who owns the original “pencil,” my friends. And rarely if ever do people in power have the purity of intentions that we’d hope.

Just so we’re all clear, it is very possible to have “pure” motives and also do things that aren’t quite so clearly good. Anyone who tries to assuage you, saying things like, “questionable motives don’t apply to me or my party or my country (etc.),” is quite simply unaware, or aware and untrustworthy. Period. Both situations can be rectified by you becoming and remaining a strong critical thinker. I urge you, please do this now if you haven’t already. Let’s chat if you’re not sure where to start.

I say all this with love. Love and accountability are not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we’ve prized finger-pointing more than selfless and brave ownership of fault, and I’m afraid that’s because we’ve lost sight of what matters in the first place. (Hint: it’s not power.) If this country is to move forward in any constructive, united way, we must un-learn the bad habits we’ve picked up over the last… oh, forever… or else risk becoming a lot closer to the world Margaret Mitchell wrote about and a lot further from the one we’re supposedly building towards. Everyone, do yourselves a favor and spend a minute thinking about that idea. Things just got a lot more complicated, didn’t they?

Suddenly, it’s hard to know how to respond:

As a Southern woman, it’s easy to get caught in the crossfire of potential, competing responses to this text. In one version, I lift Mitchell up as the literary great she is and always will be, despite her greatest detractors’ efforts, and get labeled an apologist. In another, I take her to task, get accused of forgetting that the mores that governed her words and actions, and the words and actions of the characters she created (further back in history, still) were necessarily different from our own, and learn that I’ve been equally problematic.

In either scenario, or any middle-ground offshoot I try to strike, something critical gets lost. We must, must, must understand, Dear Readers, that understanding an issue fully means trying to understand it from multiple perspectives. This does not mean we must agree with these perspectives, but our disagreement does not magically excuse us from trying to understand — far from it, actually.

Allowing ourselves to have a singular read on something, whether by our own choice or by letting someone else prescribe that singular read for us, is dangerous. The minute we allow that is the minute we compromise our freedom. It’s possible to give that freedom away all at once, but it’s also possible to give it away incrementally, like sand particles getting swept away from the beachfront, so slowly that hardly anyone notices, until it’s too late. No matter the rate we give this freedom away, we are in grave danger. Protect that freedom, folks. Allow for multiple reads — of books and of life.

I don’t know about you, but with that critical awareness, I’ve started to question everything about my initial reaction to GWTW, and nearly as much about my life alongside it. Did anyone else have this reaction — maybe not right away, but after enough time had passed in these overlapping ruins, those we’ve read about and those we’ve lived through? I hope so, I really do. I hope we had the strength to allow for some level of uncertainty, to sit in the unique discomfort that comes from realizing we all live in glass houses, that none of us are sinless, and that every single one of us can still do something to make this vast, ruinous world just a little bit stronger for tomorrow, today.

Love, Scarlett in Ruins:

Somewhere in the middle of reading GWTW for the second time, this time with you, it hit me: that internal struggle I thought was the reason I couldn’t respond? It might in fact be the response — or maybe the first attempt at one. All I had to do was recognize that the fear I faced was a speed bump, not a stop sign.

Perhaps I knew this already. Perhaps I’m not giving myself enough credit. You see, in one of the earliest drafts of last year’s intended response, I included a notable piece of marginalia. It read: “OK, Scarlett, it’s time.” While I wish I’d listened a little earlier, I also know that it’s what we do with the messages we receive that ultimately defines our lives, not how long it takes for us to receive them. That’s the bridge between last year and today, the book and this life, what mattered to me and what really matters.

The world is considerably harsher today than it was during my first read of GWTW. In this time of immense uncertainty, I’d like to encourage us to remember the lesson of the speed bump — slow down, pay attention, and safely crest into what’s next. We have a unique opportunity before us, Dear Readers, and that is to lean in to the bump, to ask ourselves some gravely important questions in whatever slower moments we can find. There are a million ways to ask, but here’s one humble starter among them: As the world rages around us, what are we willing to stand for? And, if we do not stand, what do we forfeit by extension? (Yes, forfeit — we only lose things when we’ve stood and then fallen. We forfeit when fear of falling causes us to never even try.)

When I wrote to myself one year ago, I never would’ve dreamed that in my first moment of bravery, scribbling marginalia alongside a really crappy draft, that today we’d be here, in this absurd and historic space. Never would I have dreamed we’d be talking about anything more than regionalist b.s. Never would I have dreamed that we might instead be talking about the fate of our country — or indeed, the world. Yet here we are, for the foreseeable future, on the precipice of ruin or rebirth.

The good news is that none of us live through this alone. We have each other, which is to say that we have love. In this we are made wiser, heartier, capable of facing odds the likes of which we have never seen. The world could rage around us, but through love we are made worthy warriors — warriors who take nothing for granted, warriors who wait on no tomorrows, warriors who fight for others’ Taras as much as their own, warriors who know that no matter what else gets lost, the things that matter are never truly gone. Let the winds rage.

Dearest Loves

Stop your pointing fingers, loves,

Stop assigning blame.

Stop pretending you know better,

For we live by one shared, distant flame.

But how, you will ask, do I keep from falling,

Without first extending my hand?

How do I survive this Hell,

When nothing gets properly planned?

I feel so much better when I claw and I grab,

You will continue to plead.

And I feel so much better when it’s my hand that lashes,

When some other body breaks and bleeds.

I start to feel better when I pull someone down,

Into this dark, angry land of the damned.

So tell me why, self-righteous one, you’ll ocean away my sand.

No, Dearest Loves,

That’s not why I’ve come,

You’ve simply misunderstood.

I’d never dream of doing so, even if I could.

Let’s take a moment to understand, hard though it may seem,

That where we see sin,

There is neither you nor I,

Instead there is only we.

Sinners, broken, flailing about,

We’re inclined to stumble and fall.

But look for the light and soon you will find,

It’s each other we’ve had through it all.

When this we remember, it’s harder to feel

That one sinner bears all the weight.

We’re all fully culpable, yes indeed,

But we can also all be redeemed.

And when this maddening struggle is over,

We’ll stand once more side-by-side.

And then, Dearest Loves,

We’ll be truly United,

Still in name,

New in heart,

New in mind.

April 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends,

Times like those we are currently living through make us stop and consider what really matters. I’d like to think it’s the idea of love. We need love now more than ever.

For many, this is a time of terrible loss. Loved ones, livelihoods, social groups, entire ways of life just … gone. At least gone for now, at least gone from the way they were.

It is important to acknowledge and reflect upon these realities and the feelings they inspire. Doing so helps them have less power over us, in that we are able to use them as fuel to power us forward, rather than holding us back or turning us ever-dangerously inward.

I’d like to do my small part to pull us back from the brink. Let’s spend this month reading about a woman — and a nation — on the precipice of some other incredible changes. That way, when we emerge once more into the sun, together we can find the strength and the grace to fight for what we hold dear.

NB: My copy was re-released by Scribner, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. in May 2011. Find whatever version you can access — especially this month — and we can make it work.

And, as will always be the case, if you have ideas for companion reads, share them! I mean it when I say this should be a collaborative project. It will work better if you are reflected at all stages.

Until the last week of April.

The Time is Always Now: Reflections on Reading Women-centered Works in an Unseasonably Different Women’s History Month

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. Assignment: Write a letter to yourself. Be kinder than you think you deserve. Then read that letter aloud. That is all.