booknotes: otherhood

It's been awhile, what with one thing and another, since I actually did a book review post. I'm hoping to get at least one per week posted during the summer, so to kick us off here's this week's title: Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness by Melanie Notkin (Seal Press, 2014).

I ordered Otherhood through inter-library loan after seeing it mentioned in positive terms in a piece on how the media fuels women's panic and self-judgement around pregnancy and fertility. From the gloss in the essay, I expected a study of women who found themselves single and/or childless as they reached the end of their fertility, and how they made peace with that circumstance. Perhaps it was poor or wishful reading on my part, because this book is not that book. Instead, this book is a hybrid personal memoir longform journalism piece in which Notkin seeks to connect her personal experience, and the experiences of her single, childless (but child-wanting) friends, to broader social and cultural narratives and trends about this demographic.

Apart from it not being the book I expected (which is hardly grounds for critique of the book it actually is), I had three major problems with Otherhood: its solipsism, its heterocentrism, and the way it embraced notions of gender complementarity and retrograde gender roles. All of these problems interconnect, because when one is writing about personal experience as universal experience, then obviously one's own wants and needs eclipse the diversity of human desire. There's nothing particularly wrong with Notkin yearning for a man willing to treat her to lavish dates, for example, but there is something very wrong about her making the argument that "we women" want a man who knows what kind of high-priced alcohol to order for every occasion. In Notkin's world of high-powered New York businesswomen in their late thirties and early forties, all women are straight, looking for male booty, looking for a man interested in a long-term relationship and kids, expecting that man to fit a very specific type of masculinity, and unwilling to revisit those expectations when the world doesn't deliver.

It's not that I think Notkin and company are "too picky" or "desperate" and that's what makes them unappealing. As someone who didn't date at all for the first twenty-seven years of my life, because no one I met piqued my interest enough, I hardly have a leg to stand on. It's just that I find Notkin's list of priorities for a partner kind of obnoxious, and I find it even more obnoxious that she assumes we all (as "women") share them.

Otherhood is also at war with its own thesis, which is that older single women (like Notkin) aren't waiting around for Mr. Right but are instead focused on living otherwise fulfilling lives, even in the absence of the partner and/or children they have always desired. Most of the narrative is, in fact, taken up with stories about she and her friends working their asses off dating one guy after another -- each of whom proves a disappointment -- and obsessing about their decreasing fertility. I finished the book feeling more than a little whip-lashed.

At its best Otherhood argues that, in the fullness of any single life situation, sometimes the price just isn't worth it. Even if you always imagined, and continue to desire, having children of your own. Notkin is trying to push back against the cultural narrative (of her elite circle) that single women nearing the end of their fertile years should just go it alone and get pregnant solo -- or else they're somehow less dedicated to their vocation as women than the ladies who freeze their eggs at twenty-five and start IVF at thirty-five whether they have a partner or not. There's some really interesting stuff to unpack there, in the cultural pressure of women to become mothers at any cost because somehow it is our ladylike destiny. But Notkin doesn't push her inquiry to the level where I would find it most interesting or pertinent -- the level where the gendered framework of dating and parenthood is, itself, called into critical question.

In the end, I felt sorry for Notkin and her circle of friends for the way in which their narrow view of "male" and "female" gender performance seemed to be limiting their ability to build authentic relationships that went beyond judging themselves and their partners in relation to socialized gender expectations. The dating dance they describe is one I never participated in with men -- or women for that matter -- and it doesn't sound like a very fun way to get to know someone. Notkin and her friends deride some of their potential dates for wanting casual hang-out time, or an evening in enjoying sex and a pizza -- the sort of get-togethers that sound pretty awesome to me. I finished the book wishing I could just get all the people therein (women and men alike) to just relax around one another a little more.

Reading Otherhood I felt a flood of gratitude for queer visibility. For all the talk of a "gayby boom," and the increasing normality of same-sex parenting, queer couples have a long and storied history of not parenting. Perhaps because our sexual intimacy doesn't bring with it the expectation of pregnancy -- because parenting must be deliberately pursued, often at a high price, and with legal and social roadblocks in our way -- queer culture doesn't demand that we make the pursuit of children a primary objective in life. Even before I felt able to identify as queer, I drifted toward lesbian and queer spaces for the alternate visions of family they offer up for consideration. These are visions I found world-expanding and life-affirming when I was "straight," and I wish that more women like Notkin (and perhaps the men she is struggling to connect with) would turn to these examples for a renewed sense of possibility.

In short? If you're interested in thinking about a life unpartnered and/or not parenting, ditch Notkin's side-swipes at "spinsters" and women who don't "keep up appearances" and go read some queer history instead. There's lots of inspiration out there, if you know where to look.

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