U is for Unlikely Uterus [book reviews]

It’s hard to think of titles for book-review posts.  I only read two books this month, and U-words in the titles is one thing they have in common.

In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

Between December 1951 and February 1952, three commercial airliners crashed in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  Judy Blume was a teenager in Elizabeth at the time.  Sixty years later, she wrote this novel about fictional characters experiencing life in Elizabeth during and after the crashes.

Like Ruth Rendell’s The Girl Next Door (reviewed here), this is a story of many characters and their interwoven lives.  Unlike that book, In the Unlikely Event is set entirely in the past, and I think it could do without the opening and closing scenes set in 1987 (with a bad poem included in both)–the story from the 1950s would work fine on its own.

If you have trouble keeping track of a large cast of characters, you may find this book confusing, but it has a helpful list at the front of the 26 most important people and their relationships to one another.  Yes, I said 26, and there are at least 3 more people and a dog who probably should have been included in the list!  For me, the one point of persistent confusion was the characters named Rusty and Ruby–especially since Rusty is just a nickname and she also has a real first name that isn’t included in the character list!

Anyway, this is an absorbing story of very real-seeming people and their reactions to tragedy and fear.  Like any Judy Blume book, it includes some sex and some other social issues (most notably mental illness).  Unlike many of her earlier books, this one gives you several perspectives on virtually every interpersonal conflict, which is interesting–you get a mature sort of understanding of the situations without doing it through the mind of a mature person looking back.

A Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug: The Working Woman’s Guide to Overthrowing the Patriarchy by Sarah Lacy

This book tells a very interesting story and makes some important points, but it isn’t really the self-help book that the subtitle implies.  There’s not much “guide” to how a woman in more typical circumstances can seek non-sexist career success and work-life balance.  Also, it’s not about “the working woman” but about “the mother who works on both a career and motherhood.”  Women who have careers but are not mothers will find that their uteri have no function in the author’s thesis, except that their right to make their own reproductive decisions is important to overthrowing the patriarchy.

Let me tell you what’s good about the book before I tell you what’s missing.  The story of Sarah Lacy’s career and family is an inspiring example of what a mother can achieve in 21st-century America, interwoven with explanation of what patriarchy is, how it’s expressed in our culture today, the lies about motherhood many of us have internalized, and why mothers are in fact awesome and should be welcomed into all workplaces.  Sarah Lacy is a journalist specializing in reporting on the technology industry, and she founded Pando, a site “speaking truth to the new power” by calling out tech companies doing unethical things.  Her reporting on Uber led to threats against her and her family.  She gave birth to two children, less than two years apart, in her late thirties at the peak (so far?) of her career.  She then divorced the father of her children and developed an amicable co-parenting relationship with him and with her longtime best friend who is now her life-partner.  Her personal story is well worth reading, despite the ways in which it’s atypical, because it’s interesting and is one of the possible paths in life; she doesn’t make it sound too easy!  She includes a chapter on how working herself into pneumonia was a wake-up call, which is crucial responsible follow-up to a story of success built on crazy hours and super-hard work.  She also visited Iceland and China to study two alternate realities of women’s lives on this historically patriarchal planet, bringing back a lot of interesting things to think about.  I liked the book and will read it again, but…

From my perspective, also being a woman who started a career before having children and returned to work soon after each birth, it’s strange that this book totally disregards some aspects of life with a uterus and never mentions life with ovaries and a vagina.  (Breastfeeding and pumping milk are discussed, and side effects of “being curvy” are noted.)  It’s as if the function of a uterus is to make pregnancy visible, put the baby out into the world, and then make the mother a multitasking badass who is much more effective as a worker because of her nuanced understanding of what’s important.  She emphasizes the need for maternity leave and briefly hints that you might be a little off your game while your child is a tiny baby–but the rest of the time, living in a female body apparently makes no difference unless you’re getting sexually harassed.

I agree that mothers can be effective workers, and this is well supported by research cited in the book.  But in my own experience, working as an expectant mother was very difficult: It was not just a matter of how my visible pregnancy affected people’s perceptions of me; every day was a struggle with nausea, exhaustion, and weird aches and pains.  Sarah Lacy may be a woman for whom pregnancy is a breeze, which is great for her and not all that uncommon, but her total brush-off of the idea that pregnancy might affect one’s job performance and her constant bragging about what she did while pregnant is painful to those of us who didn’t have it so easy.  (I am beyond grateful for the childless-by-choice male boss who was so kind and complimentary during my miscarriage and then my pregnancy with Lydia.  My favorite moment: “You’re off coffee?!  You did this work without coffee?!  You rock!”)

Also, when you talk about workplace sexism, a lot of people have the idea that women can’t be trusted with important responsibilities because of our hormonal fluctuations, not just during pregnancy but during menstrual cycles.  “We can’t have a woman president because PERIODS,” is the basic argument I’ve been hearing all my life.  It’s stupid and deserves to be debunked with research and practical advice–but this book doesn’t mention it at all and doesn’t address either the realities of coping with menstruation on the job (multitasking!) or the effects of female hormones on anything at any stage of life.

Most troubling to me is that, although the book frequently points out the unfairness of expecting women to power through the patriarchy without any cooperation from men, in the concluding chapters it seems like that’s exactly what the author expects us to do.  We are supposed to demand change from societal systems (paid parental leave, quotas for hiring women, etc.) and support these changes by choosing to work for companies that do the right thing…but how about demanding/supporting change from individual men or using our power as mothers to create better men in the next generation?  Lacy praises her son’s emotional intelligence, but she took only her daughter to the Women’s March and says not a word about why her son didn’t also express support for women’s rights.  She says, “We have to stop assuming men–even super feminist men–will do the right thing.”  But why?!  Why can we not live every day in the belief that men should do the right thing and some of them will and we need to notice and cooperate when they do?!  There’s a lot about how “the 50/50 marriage” is a “myth” because the majority of couples slide into the mother doing more childcare and housework than the father does, yet there’s also a lot about how much Lacy’s husband supported her career and how she couldn’t have done without paid help and now her kids have this awesome team of mommy and two daddies–and I suspect it’s the fear of being accused of “privilege” that makes her downplay the viability of this arrangement and the likelihood of finding good men, but she totally comes across as privileged anyway when she describes herself as a “single mother” without acknowledging her two male co-parents!  The book could really use more advice on making 50/50 work and less blindness to the fact that, in a country where many women find men a hindrance to good parenting and work-life balance, we need to work on improving men as well as being supportive to single mothers!

These reviews aren’t quick at all, but I’m still linking up to Quick Lit, where you’ll find other writers’ book reviews!  Also, check out the index of all my book reviews.

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3 thoughts on “U is for Unlikely Uterus [book reviews]

  1. I started In The Unlikely Event but put it down because the cast of characters were confusing. I had only gotten to one plane crash. That there are three makes me want to pick the book up again.

  2. I always appreciate it when authors put character lists or family trees at the front of a book–I find myself referring to them a lot when they’re there. The visual reminder helps me keep things straight. I wish I would have had that while listening to Lincoln in the Bardo!
    Thanks for the honest thoughts on Uterus too, it does sound like an interesting, if incomplete, book.

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