Landing a featured role on Saturday Night Live is apparently WAY simpler than finding a suitable mate in NYC. To which I say, indeed. Rachel Dratch is mostly known for her Debbie Downer character and her infamous exit from the original cast of 30 Rock, so you might buy this book thinking it’s another Bossypants or Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?. But no. It’s a pregnancy memoir wrapped in a dating memoir surrounded by snark—so much delightful snark. When she enters the house of horrors world of over-thirties dating in NYC, she notes that friends are always telling her to watch out for red flags, which in normal cities usually refer to the simple no-nos of dating—like a man who wears a wedding ring, has a bed temper, or under tips. But in our fair city, she dates a man who may totally be a cannibal. And cannibalism is, admittedly, kind of a nonnegotiable. And then, in the ultimate dating urban legend, she meets a normal human male at a bar—only to discover that he, of course, lives in northern California. After disregarding the first rule of dating (i.e., that long-distance relationships will destroy your soul and make you THAT girl who is always crying on the B train at 8 AM), Dratch coughs up the airfare … and ends up pregnant. After a few months of dating someone who doesn’t live in the same time zone, she’s knocked up in her mid-forties. There are like four female urban legends in there. During the course of her pregnancy, she laments the fact that baby books are all written for women in “normal” cohabitating relationships. One book suggests that husbands should take their pregnant wives to see “the new Anne Hathaway flick.” There are so many problems with that sentence—the least of which being the fact that the latest Anne Hathaway flick was Les Miserables. Once Dratch gives birth to her son, she becomes the least annoying attachment parent ever, by which I mean the only attachment parent I have ever heard of who didn’t make me rethink sexual reproduction altogether. While this story may sound like an Anne Hathaway flick circa 2005, the book doesn’t have a tidy ending. But it does have a hopeful ending. And it offers women throughout the five boroughs an excellent piece of dating advice: if you want a committed relationship in NYC, find someone who doesn’t live here.
Oh, French feminist theory! I loved you so throughout grad school. While Cixous, Wittig, and Kristeva may have spent the 70s and 80s celebrating revolutionary semiotics—which totally isn’t a real thing despite what my Master’s thesis would have you believe—Elizabeth Badinter always functioned as the voice of controversial French feminism outside of the academy. In her new polemic, Badinter suggests that, in our age of hyper-parenting, babies now occupy the domineering position once held by men. In her quest to dethrone the cult of the natural (and piss off as many women as possible), she attacks the mother of all sacred cows: breastfeeding. While everyone knows that the La Leche League is kind of like the PETA of parenting, Badinter documents this supposedly pioneering group’s history, noting that they were originally a conservative movement that considered working women to be dangerous to a baby’s health. The group has obviously toned down its rhetoric in the intervening fifty years, but Badinter still detects a hint of conservative politics in contemporary discussions of breastfeeding. Although breastfeeding is obviously a low-cost, healthy option that can boost immunity and help with mother/child bonding (a point Badinter doesn’t stress highly enough), Badinter notes that many of the health claims made about breastfeeding (e.g., that it increases IQ or reduces the risk of obesity) are not based in science. And she points out that debates around breastfeeding rarely take into account the pain involved or the difficulties of working while lactating. She points out that maternal pain is often viewed as either meaningless or simply part of the self-sacrifice involved in being a mother—as though raw, cracked nipples are simply the price women have to pay for getting knocked up. Having frequented women’s blogs for years, I would definitely agree that women have no problem shaming mothers who don’t breastfeed, often calling them selfish or inferring that they may as well be feeding their infants cigarettes and rubbing alcohol. So Badinter certainly has a point. But be warned that the final section of Badinter’s book is French with a capital FRENCH. Badinter argues, without irony, that wealthy French women in the 17th century had the best parenting system—which went a little something like this: give birth, hand your offspring to the nearest available wet nurse, and take it back only after you’ve finished sipping wine and cheating on your husband. I’m exaggerating but only a little. If you can get past these more insufferable passages, then you’re left to ponder her intriguing conclusion that French women have higher birth rates because the French state and French culture make it easier for women to have children and yet still have time to work and hang out at those summer homes no one ever seems to be paying for. Now, the U.S. is obviously not going to become France anytime soon, but perhaps America should consider promoting a parenting culture that considers a mother to be more than a sleep-deprived mass of self-sacrifice. It would at least be a start.
Millions of parenting books are published each year offering tips on every conceivable aspect of poo and spit. I’d imagine there’s probably at least one parenting book published for every child born. But Anne Enright’s memoir is unique in that (a) it doesn’t promote any parenting trend or style and (b) it’s written for adults with more than a fourth-grade reading level. Enright’s descriptions of her child and her pregnant body are both a little freaky and brilliant: her milk-satiated infant is described as “my white Dracula,” and her body is likened to “a plant on the window-sill, taking its time, starting to bud.” Focusing particular attention on the nuances of the maternal body, she remarks in wonder at having her body commandeered by a foreign invader who both is and isn’t part of her flesh. She notes that if Kafka were female, he would never have used an insect. Gregor Samsa would simply have woken up pregnant. Although Enright in no way downplays the difficulties of pregnancy, birth, or parenting—indeed, she compares women who’ve gone through the first few years of motherhood to “artic explorers”—she also expresses delight at motherhood, describing how amazing it is to create a being who will one day vote and pay taxes out of an act as “simple” as sex. Now, people who use the term “miracle of birth” are usually as insightful as people who post quotes about friendship and rainbows on their Facebook walls, but Enright manages to make each stage in the process sound both disgusting (so much poop) and kind of awe inspiring. Sadly, she falls into a bit of gender essentialism and barely mentions the father of her child, acting as though the woman must always be the primary caregiver, but I’m willing to forgive her if only because good prose goes a long way with me. One might imagine that her focus on milk, feces, and out-of-control flesh would make 99% of young women have their tubes tied, but Enright manages to make pregnancy seem less like a burden and more like a science experiment crossed with a philosophy class. Kafka totally missed out.