I’ve always had the quiet sense, deep down, that there are very few feelings that aren’t enhanced by the act of writing about them. It’s one of the reasons that I have found writing to be so cathartic and healing in my own life. By setting out my truth as I see it, I am better able to understand its roots and its journey, and where it might go next.
I’m better able to understand myself, is what I mean.
It has always been this way for me. When I was pregnant I gobbled every book I could find about pregnancy, birth, and parenthood. Knowing the science and the mechanics behind the process of giving birth took my panic away in the painful moment of it happening and helped me to cope.
When I learned to run, I did that from a book. (Well, from a website, but a book as well). And naturally, I could read cookbooks all day. All in all, words are how the world makes sense for me.
I read a lot, but sometimes as I inhale books I will chance upon something that makes me stop and really think about my place in the world, or how my journey through life as a woman intersects with or complements the lives of the women around me. Or it might remind me of the daughters I am raising, of the women who raised me, and of the feminist forebears whose brave lives enabled my own.
I might read a memoir or an essay that chimes so accurately with my own experiences — she felt how I currently feel! — that I am almost breathless with the sensation of being seen, of a problem somehow shared. This is another reason why words matter so much.
Every time I finish one of these books I send excited messages to every woman within my WhatsApp radius, gleefully sharing a link to whatever particular tome has inspired me most recently.
This piece, basically, is a longer form of one of those jubilant text messages. It’s a love letter to three books that in this, the strangest of years — the year I turned forty during a pandemic — helped me in myriad ways. The books are these:
- Why We Can’t Sleep by Ada Calhoun
Calhoun is a woman of my generation, and this book about the female midlife crisis was written when she was about my age and feeling the beginning of that slow burn of desperate, time-is-running-out angst that grips so many women as they realise they are entering midlife. For women in Generation X, it’s often felt particularly traumatic finally to accept that we are no longer young, and Calhoun’s book takes a deep-dive into the statistics behind why this should be, ending on a note of plaintive, but believable hope (and with some genuine actionable takeaways to help life feel better). I loved it. Rarely have I felt so seen and recognised, and rarely have I ever sent so many screenshots of pages to so many friends.
- My Wild and Sleepless Nights by Clover Stroud
When my life was crumbling around me several years ago, I read Stroud’s prequel to this, The Wild Other. I sobbed for hours, seeing the smallest glimmer of hope at the end of a very dark tunnel when I read about the depths of despair to which she had sunk when her babies were small, and from which she had managed to climb out. This book, a more recent memoir, is an honest and raw account of Stroud’s life as a mother of five children with big age gaps and very different needs. She sets this journey against bigger issues (such as maintaining a marriage over many years and the complexity of sexual desire in the visceral throes of new motherhood) and she does it with a delicate humanity that, again, gave me so much perspective and hope.
- Olive by Emma Gannon
This is a fictional (but, I already knew from podcasts, based partly on the author’s lived experience) account of a woman who knows from an early age that she does not want to be a mother, and how this decision — taken early and firmly — affects the relationships she has with her friends as they grow up together and enter the adult world of parenthood, fertility treatment, and career choices. I became a mother at a very young age, and I didn’t really get a chance to consider my choice before I made it. This book really made me interrogate my prejudices and my deeply held beliefs about motherhood, as well as the value society places on the role. It’s written lightly, but that doesn’t take away the power of what I think is an important message.
The books above stood out in a strange, distracted year as the ones that really helped me, specifically as a woman, in the world that I live in. They helped me to forgive myself for deeply-buried shame; to take stock of my life so far, and remember how much good had come from it, even through its bleaker periods; and really to place myself in the shoes of women whose lives are radically different to my own, the better to understand their perspectives and adjust my thinking.
I genuinely believe that there are very few women who wouldn’t enjoy the experience of including at least one of the above books in their 2021 reading list. Or, if you’ve read them already — let me know! Can we discuss them ad infinitum, please, and compare notes? (I’m also wide-open to more recommendations, always).