A few years ago, when in the span of about four years I got a Ph.D., got a real job as an assistant professor, moved across the country to a part of the world I’d never inhabited with a man I’d known and loved for about a year, then married that man and shortly after that had a tiny perfect daughter who was more beautiful than anything I could ever have imagined, and then left my wonderful and fulfilling job to move our young family closer to our other family and subsequently add to that family by the addition of a perfect young son (WHEW!), I was as a stay-at-home/work-from-home mother more lost, lonely, unmoored, and unmentored than I ever had been in my life. My inner circle was seven hours away by car; my social life consisted of my MOPS group, which met once a month. I had no one to talk to, complain to, or just sigh with exasperation and weariness and outrage to, and when I did try to edge toward Real Feelings with my inner circle, I just upset them, resulting in the insistence that I had to put the kids in the car and drive straight north that minute so they could rescue me.
So one of those lost summers, when I picked up The Bitch in the House from the public library, and read it as swiftly and greedily as I could, I laughed and cried and shouted with tears of joy, “YES! FINALLY someone has said what I have been thinking! I’m not so terribly, awfully, desperately alone!” Well, physically I was, but I wasn’t alone, or awful, and no longer quite so desperate in what I was feeling. Every thread of that book—all the rage, hope, humor, love, effort, passion, and bewilderment—hit me right where I felt it. (And also made me think, what can’t I/didn’t I write something like that? I started to fall in love with the personal essay.)
When I saw The Bitch is Back at my new public library, I fell upon it with the delight of welcoming a wise old friend and mentor to my coffee table. And was not disappointed. The critics are right: there’s not quite so much rage in this one. Have we all mellowed because we’re older and wiser and have more coping skills? I don’t think that’s the case. Some of the contributors are from the original volume, but some are new, and add to the varied perspectives. Very few (in fact, I can think of only one) verge on the self-congratulatory look-at-me-and-my-great-life sweep aside of the curtain; most of them are frank, honest, funny, poignant verging on heart-breaking, and just simply, beautifully, wise.
Because anger and helplessness and aloneness and abandonment are not the focus anymore; the focus of these women is by and large on themselves, what they’ve learned about themselves in and out of relationship, and how they’ve come to their own philosophies about feminism, love, sex, art, work, life, and domesticity. They are the voices of women who have looked at themselves and examined their choices, learned to laugh at themselves and remedy their mistakes. They are the voices of women who have struggled through difficult times and learned to find balance. They are the voices (again, I can think of only that one exception) who are reaching out a hand across the coffee table to say, sister, I’ve been there, I feel you; here’s my take on that.
I want to sit down in this room full of women and listen to them talk for hours. But more than that, their honesty and clarity and forthrightness and sheer grit has encouraged me to look at myself a little more sternly and figure out where my pressure points are. And rather than falling into the rage/bewilderment/hopeless loneliness/self-pity cycle, I ask myself: what can I do?
Besides which, it’s summer, and therefore my writing time. Yes, I am sending my kids to daycare in the summer (summer!) so that I have a few hours a day to write. As my supervisor at the Writing Center said (she’s a published author, too), writing is your job. You need to set aside time to do it. And I am, with full friendly-bitch-face, protecting that time to the utmost. Yes, I still struggle to find the balance—to give my spiritual growth, paying work, fulfilling relationships, community service, children and husband and housework and family all the proper time and attention those segments of my life need to thrive. But I learned a valuable lesson from those days of blasted loneliness: if I let the creative part of me wither, every single other slice of the pie gets poisoned by the blight. So, in this house also, the bitch is back, and doggone am I happy to see her.