This is a really cool time to be a mom and an avid reader. Millennials, my generation, born between 1980-1995, are starting to have kids of their own. And we are not accepting the tired tropes of Mommy Culture. Instead, we’re pulling apart those archetypes with candor and humor. Jessi Klein’s new book, I’ll Show Myself Out: Essays on Midlife and Motherhood, is a great example of that.
I first heard about this book in a playgroup. Another mom mentioned an essay titled “The Hero’s Journey” excerpted in The Cut. Jessi Klein, author and mom, (!!) talks about motherhood as the hero’s journey, a calling usually set aside for men. She writes,
For most of us it’s not a journey outward, but inward, downward, to the deepest parts of your strength, to the innermost buried core of everything you are made of but didn’t know was there.
The first time I read that, on my iPad, sprawled on my bed while my kid napped, I cried. It’s so spectacularly true. It means a lot to see what you have felt articulated by someone else.
The essays in Jessi Klein’s new book make me feel like we know each other, like my life is mirroring hers, like we’re secretly best friends. Klein’s reflections on motherhood, especially this tender, rageful, soporific stage I’m in right now as the mother of a toddler, rang true for me. It was affirming and soothing to read a book about motherhood as a mother and see my experience reflected back to me.
I, too, have days that “look and taste a lot like nothing, and yet they are there. They mostly feel the same, but around the edges, of course, they are different.” I, too, can’t “shake the idea that I was a bad mother if I wasn’t up to the job of taking care of my baby entirely by myself.” My son also likes to play “parking,” which for him is less about driving around looking for a parking spot and more about lining up his cars and trucks along the baseboard of any given room.
Motherhood as the hero’s journey is a theme woven throughout the book. It pops up in “Change of Hands,” about Klein’s decision to pay for in-home child care and the experience of having a night nurse/postpartum doula (she acknowledges her privilege here, which I thought was refreshing). There’s another where she ignores the call to action the typical male hero’s journey protagonist receives, “On The Starbucks Bathroom Floor,” about potty training.
Of course, some essays diverge from that theme. “Underwear Sandwich” is the essay I’m sure we all could have written about how unbelievable and scary it is to find out how unprepared we are for what goes on with our bodies after vaginal delivery. The titular sandwich is the delicacy we prepare in our mesh underwear – the maxi pad, the ice pad, the witch hazel, the upside-down squirt bottle, etc etc etc.
This essay is a great example of something I think Klein does well. She presents her experience. In this case, the shock and horror of finding out about the postpartum care she must do for herself as she is learning how to do it. Then she wonders, how come no one ever mentioned this to her? Then she takes it one step further. Why didn’t she learn about this in a high school health class?
Why did I, a teenage girl, need to be instructed REPEATEDLY that teenage boys have [nocturnal emissions] and yet none of us needed to learn about the details of birth that bring us into this world? Why is so much of this knowledge made to feel like a dirty secret that can only be unearthed at the exact moment it’s needed?
This is where the essay in Jessi Klein’s new book falls short for me. She’s terrific at asking those interrogative questions, questions that seek like missiles to uncover why motherhood is as hard as it is and why society never tries to lighten the load. But in “Underwear Sandwich,” she doesn’t. She does the opposite. She says, “I don’t have the answer,” which feels kind of like a cop-out.
I think there is an answer to why motherhood is hard, why society never tries to lighten the load, and why we simply do not teach about motherhood. The post-vaginal delivery experience is a secret because, in our society, being a woman who bleeds is shameful.
It’s an unwelcome reminder that women’s bodies are not pristine and immaculate but bleed and excrete like any other. I don’t understand why Klein wouldn’t say that when it seems like her new book is all about saying things we’re not supposed to say. She says what she thinks, even if it’s unpopular, because it’s also usually true. That’s something I admire about her.
Here are some other things I admire about her. She isn’t afraid to paint herself in a bad light. In fact, she does so pretty often, in essays like “In Defense of Drinking” and “Eulogy for My Feet.” She’s nearly forty (hence why some of these essays are about approaching midlife). Her hair is falling out. She has bad feet. She’ll probably never lose the baby weight.
And that’s all a-okay. She’s accepting these truths about herself. Maybe not truths, but defining characteristics. She’s been there, done that, and lived to tell the tale. And you know what she says? I don’t care.
What a great role model. What an excellent example of a person who is comfortable in her own skin.
Just now, as I was putting my son down for his nap, reading the same board book I read to him not an hour ago, I realized I was thinking about Jessi Klein’s essay, “Teddy Rixpin,” in which she experiences this same thing. And I realized something else. I’m not alone.
Motherhood can be so lonely. It’s pretty powerful to realize there is at least one other person in the whole wide world going through what I’m going through. Jessi Klein’s new book, I’ll Show Myself Out feels like a guide and a companion.
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