Audiobooks, Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

More midlife crisis reading

This time it’s Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun.

This is another one that made me burst into tears from time to time. (The first was Burnout.)

I was born in 1980, often considered either the last year of Gen Z or the first of Millennials, depending on who you ask. This means that my childhood was a mix of 80s and 90s pop culture experiences, a little bit Workout Barbie, a little bit Reality Bites.

I’ve experienced the landmark events that helped shape the worldview of both generations:

-Child of baby boomers
-Lived through dotcom bust
-I wanted my MTV
-Crippling student debt (paid off now THANK GAWD)
-911
-2008 financial crisis
-The rise of social media
-Many others I’m not naming

One of Calhoun’s major points is that women’s midlife crises are essentially different from men’s. First, we have them. That’s something not many people know.

And second, they look “different” because gender inequality means that women are often still meeting gender role expectations while having their crises.

Basically, privilege tends to offer men more leeway for expressing their own personal crises. They’re not necessarily also meeting the caregiving expectations that women are. (That was a simple point with a lot of couching language, but it’s hard to generalize and be accurate here.)

I loved Calhoun’s framing of the generations and empathized with many of the feelings ascribed to women of my age, including:

-Constant money anxiety (whether it’s warranted for me personally or not)

-The pressure to succeed in my career while balancing family life; Boomer women paved the way for us here–both creating greater ability for women to have careers and supporting the “you can have it all” message–and the overwhelming expectations that come with it.

I used to feel this more acutely when my kiddo was smaller, knowing I didn’t even really want a career in the first place and constantly feeling “not good enough” as a mother because he spent waaaay more time in day care than I (or he) wanted.

As all moms know, somehow you make it work because there is no other option. I should note here that I am not the norm when it comes to Gen X/Millennial moms. I had a baby in college. I’m 40 and he’s in college now, while many women my age have younger children. So they’re still living through this pressure.

-Decision fatigue–blessedly, there’s a whole chapter on this and I felt it so deeply. On my last birthday, Ben, so solicitous and eager to celebrate me, asked what I wanted for my birthday dinner. All I could think was, “I don’t want to have to think about that.” So, that’s what I said. He chose something he knew I’d like and I didn’t have to make a decision.

But that says something about how tired one’s brain is. I didn’t want to have to choose the food for my own birthday dinner, for heaven’s sake.

I think this book, like Burnout, helped me most by naming feelings I didn’t have names for. And by telling the stories of other women my age, which made me feel infinitely less alone.

Also, there’s a chapter on peri-menopause and menopause with a wealth of information I didn’t know. Did you know that peri-menopause can last 13 YEARS???

Healthcare community, we need way more education than we’re getting on this topic. My thanks to Calhoun for this chapter. I now know what to expect.

One of my gripes with books like this is the usual lack of “how to.” You’ll often get a lot of social commentary, a lot of “why,” but not much “what to do now that you know.”

Calhoun does pepper some “how-to” throughout the book and there is a final chapter called “New Narratives,” which offers some solutions she personally came up with to deal with this time of life–and the aforementioned feelings. But the book has more why than how.

I found it useful just the same and ended up buying a copy to reread in future.

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

Memoirs of a Woman Doctor: A Novel

817660Is this fiction or nonfiction? Honestly. I have never had such a difficult time figuring it out. I’m pretty sure it’s a memoir though, right? Even though the subtitle is “a novel.” ???

Ok, I just reread the intro. It’s a novel. Sheesh.

At any rate, these reflections, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor: A Novel by Egyptian author Nawal El-Saadawi (Catherine Cobham, translation), make up a collection published beginning in 1958 as chapters in a serial as far as I understand. The intro. was a little confusing. I was going to count this as a selection for my classics challenge but if, as I understood from the intro., this collection wasn’t published together until the 80s, well, that blows that idea.

All that is beside the point, however, as I enjoyed this peek into the brain of a truly brave feminist. The narrator tells of her upbringing in a traditional Arab (I know, broad, but that’s how she refers to it) household in Egypt where her father rules the roost, her mother aims to please, and her brother is afforded privileges the narrator can only dream about. Her mother is raising her to be a  proper wife, which ultimately results in rebellion.

As a child the narartor sees that unlike her, her brother is allowed the freedom to play all day, the best cuts of meat at the table, and the fun of turning somersaults or running when he wants. Meanwhile, the narrator is taught to cook and keep house. She’s outright told that she exists to serve the men in her life and is often paraded before potential husbands. Instead of assuming traditional expectations, however, El-Saadawi rebels. She devotes her adolescence and early adulthood to learning and  eventually becomes a medical doctor.

There are some icky descriptions of bodily functions, so watch out for those if they’ll bother you. But mostly the narrator takes us along as she uncovers the mysteries of the human body, fascinated by their function.

Her studies prove what she suspected all along: underneath their clothes, e.g., as cadavers lying on tables in a classroom about to be dissected, men’s and women’s bodies are mostly the same. She feels affirmed, despite the blatant sexism directed at her throughout a program filled with men, and concludes that men and women are, in fact, the same. Equals.

She goes on to practice medicine but there’s an odd section where she leaves her job and retreats to the hinterlands to “find herself.” And, weird though it was, I really liked that section. She leaves society in search of her true wants and needs and comes away with a sense of who she is on the inside, without the pressure of medical science or societal expectations of womanhood.

The thing I liked most about El-Saadawi’s writing was the way that she put things kind of bluntly. She explores complex topics but her writing is straightforward and self-assured.

“Why had God created me a girl and not a bird flying like that pigeon? It seemed to me that God must prefer birds to girls. But my brother couldn’t fly and this consoled me a little. I realized that despite his great freedom he was as incapable as I was of fling. I began to search constantly for weak spots in males to console me for the powerlessness imposed on me by the fact of being female.”

You feel the longing and the disappointment and the hope all at once in that simple passage.

The writing itself and the ideas therein are the star of the show here. The plot is secondary, in my opinion. The romantic ending – I wasn’t too sure about that. After all this strife, the narrator ends up happily married and that seems the end of her story. While it’s heartwarming and gratifying that she found love after a divorce, I can’t help but sigh at the story ending with a typical happily ever after. I console myself that the bulk of the novel was about self-discovery really, and for this character, that culminated in her ability to demand more of her relationships.

Also, there’s one scene where she and her boyfriend are sitting on a bottom stone of one of the pyramids, just hanging out, chatting. How cool would that be?

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