Published on October 17th, 2022 | by Minna Dubin1
Motherhood as Antidote to Patriarchy? Minna Dubin and Jody Keisner explore UNDER MY BED￼
“I hate men. I fucking hate them,” I say to everyone lately. My friends. My therapist. My husband. If we’re going to parse words, what I really hate is patriarchy, and what it does to all of us. But especially what it does to men. Men don’t escape the womb thinking that women’s voices have less right to take up space, that women’s bodies are here to withstand the tornado of men’s rage and the darkest recesses of their desire. No. The poison of patriarchy seeps in quietly. We suck it up like a sponge. Like language acquisition. A little more each day.
It doesn’t take long for girls and women to learn that men will harm them. And that no heads will roll for the wrongs done, not even if there are droves of women pointing fingers in the same direction. Perpetrators will continue to run companies, get big-name actors to star in their movies, become Supreme Court Justices, and United States Presidents, unscathed but for the internal rot of misogyny. Fear of men is not just valid, it’s essential for survival.
My heart beat with recognition when I read the opening, titular essay of Jody Keisner’s Under My Bed And Other Essays. In it, Keisner describes living on her own as a young woman, and doing her nightly “checks”—looking under the bed, in the closet, yanking open the shower curtain—to make sure a stranger (a man) wasn’t waiting to pounce. I devoured every word because I too pulled back shower curtains, threw open closet doors, and made sure all window shades were drawn at night so some creepy man (or the villain from Scream) couldn’t “get” me.
Though my shower curtain flinging days are (mostly) over, the fear of men wanting to hurt me shows up in other ways. My husband leaves our front door wide open when it’s warm. “For air,” he says, as if windows have lost their ventilating touch. Living life as a woman has taught me that an open front door is viewed as an invitation: Come and get me. I close the front door and lock it. My husband shakes his head, like, You’re so ridiculous. But am I? Or is patriarchy designed to make me feel like prey, grasping at straws to stay safe?
Feeling unsafe, and the experience of living with fear, is the crux of Under My Bed. Through 14 gorgeous memoir essays, Keisner examines how fear shapes her life, as a mother, as a daughter to a rageful father, as an adoptee and an adoptive mother herself, as a person with a progressive chronic illness, as a wife struggling with the common banality of longterm love, and as a female body daring to take up space in the world. I was excited to get to sit and talk with Jody about her fears, women’s “neuroses,” and being a mom writer.
MINNA DUBIN: In the first essay, “Under My Bed,” you chide yourself for your nightly checks. You write, “At best my thinking is the result of mild general anxiety disorder; at worst, it is delusional.” But I suspect you are being hard on yourself, and you’ve actually given voice to an unspoken, female phenomenon. What’s your sense about how common this is?
JODY KEISNER: Not too long ago, a woman on Twitter asked other women how they went to sleep at night when they were alone. Answers ranged from sleeping with a knife or baseball bat nearby, to barring doors with pieces of furniture, to owning a large dog, to taking a sleeping pill, to doing the same sort of “checking” I describe in my book. Women grow up inundated with media images of violence against the female body. We hear the news stories. We watch shows and movies that portray women as victims of violence. We learn the statistics about domestic violence and rape. We’re taught to use the Buddy System when walking across a college campus at night or drinking at a frat party. We’re told to jog with mace. And so on. More than half of us will endure sexual harassment from men at some point. I recently read Girlhood by Melissa Febos. I was surprised to read that she had experienced a peeping tom and was subsequently afraid to be alone in her apartment at night. It shouldn’t have surprised me, but I used to be ashamed of my fear of being alone at night and believed I was an oddball. I’ve learned that is far from the truth.
MINNA DUBIN: Did you have a message you wanted to get across or something you hoped your readers would take away?
JODY KEISNER: I didn’t have an agenda when I started writing other than a desire to understand where my seemingly irrational fears of intruders came from. That led to a broader exploration of my greatest fears and the fears of other women. I didn’t consciously think of it as a social critique at first, but I did want to understand the societal and cultural factors at work, which led to me researching things like maternal brain changes during pregnancy and effects of childhood trauma on the brain. I found it interesting that maternal brain changes and childhood trauma are both linked to chronic illness, the latter of which women are more likely than men to suffer from. I wish we devoted more time and resources to understanding the female body and female experience. I wish our society as a whole cared more about the health and safety of women.
MINNA DUBIN: In the chapter, “Maternal Lizard Brain,” you take us into your (universal, parent) fear of your child dying. You write: “In a flash of metal, everything I care about most in this world could fall into a black hole. Does this thought make me vigilant—a better mother?—or does it make me neurotic?” I was really struck by this because it felt like the foundational question of the book. If we substitute “a better mother” with “a safer woman,” or in the chapter on chronic illness, “a healthier person,” you’re essentially grappling with Is my fear warranted (and even helpful) or am I defective? This feels like a distinctly female struggle—Am I crazy or is my intuition correct? Am I overreacting or is something not okay here? What’s the importance of this line of questioning for you?
JODY KEISNER: So many of us women and mothers are the worriers in our families—or communities. Research bears this out: women in man-woman partnerships do the “worry work” and caretaking for our children, partners, and sometimes our parents. Not only do we plan the playdates and schedule the doctor appointments, but we also keep track of whether our children are getting enough calcium or need braces or are being bullied at school, etc. It is, at times, an incredible burden and brings with it a big dose of stress. And yes, my “worry work” has had me questioning my grasp on the reality of a situation. It has definitely exhausted me. I try not to worry so much but then I ask myself: “If I don’t worry and think about these things, who is going to?” Some amount of worrying is beneficial because it calls us to act. On the other hand, it is also another part of “the female struggle” you refer to.
Personally, I’ve struggled with finding a balance between healthy worry and excessive worry. I’ve learned my excessive worrying originates in part from the losses I experienced in my childhood. I understand that nothing is guaranteed in life and so I try and anticipate the threat and head it off at the pass. This isn’t healthy; it’s about trying to control things so that no one I love ever gets hurt. It’s impossible to control every outcome, of course, and we all get hurt. Writing through these fears helped me to understand them, which had a calming effect, similar to how writing a fear on a slip of paper and putting it away in a “worry box” helps calm your brain so you can focus on something else.
MINNA DUBIN: In “Side Effects,” an essay about taking Methotrexate, a medicine for rheumatoid arthritis that has debilitating side effects, you write about choosing which day of the week to take the medicine and as a result feel sick—the days you have to teach, the weekends when you have to mother, or your writing/research day, which you describe as, “the only day I’m beholden to no one but myself. To be accurate: it’s affecting my writing. (Side effect: resentment, digging like a worm in my brain.)” I wonder who or what your resentment is really aimed at—your chronic illness, or the fact that as a woman in patriarchy, and particularly as a mother, you are forced/expected/taught to put your needs last. Can you talk about this?
JODY KEISNER: I think it’s both things. Mostly, I resent my own body, which continues to betray me (itself) by attacking my tissue and joints! But yes, I often choose to put my writing last in this equation because that’s what is expected of me—of all mothers. Many fathers partnered with women put their work first, and they can because they have a wife or partner who does the caretaking responsibilities. Mothers who put work first are judged, criticized, shamed. We hold onto this notion that women are natural caretakers and that putting the woman’s own needs last is “motherly” and instinctual. Maybe a small part of it is instinctual, but we’ve also been socialized to put the role of capital-M Motherhood above all else, lest we be thought unfit. As you write about in your essay, “The Rage Mothers Don’t Talk About,” “Mothers are supposed to be martyr-like in our patience.” We are [BE2] supposed to be martyr-like. Our society is very unforgiving of the mothers who defy this expectation in big and public ways. The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan explores this phenomenon so wonderfully!
MINNA DUBIN: That book is on my to-read list. Now that we’re talking about martyrdom in motherhood, can you share about your writing process and how, with a full-time university job, a sometimes debilitating chronic illness, and two young kids, you managed to prioritize your writing?
JODY KEISNER: I wrote this book over five long years. I’m in the auspicious position of having a research assignment at my university, and that has been enormously helpful. I have paid hours each week during which I get to research and write.
I do what a lot of mothers do, though, and write in the stolen moments: on the toilet seat or in the waiting room. I’ll send the kids outside to play so I can squeeze in some writing time. I do prioritize writing over motherhood at times, and I still feel ashamed to admit it—that’s how ingrained it is that motherhood must always come before all else. I’m always a happier, calmer, more patient person when I get to write, which is beneficial to my children. When I’m in the middle of an essay, I will prioritize my writing over socializing. So instead of seeing a movie or having dinner with friends, I’ll stay in to write. Non-writer friends sometimes don’t understand this and view my writing as a hobby as opposed to my work.
MINNA DUBIN: When I’m feeling low, I’ve also feared my writing is only a hobby. I think those doubts are sewn into us by patriarchal capitalism, which tells us if we’re not earning money and producing all the time, we don’t have worth. And it particularly affects artist moms, who are expected to swap our creative time (our work!) for the more tangible work of the home.
I really appreciate how clearly you map out in the book that your father, a 3rd-generation railroad worker, is also a victim of patriarchy. The pressure on him, as a man, to provide for his family terrifies and emasculates him during the years he’s laid off. How did seeing his rage through the lens of the damage patriarchy inflicts on men affect how you understand his rage now, and how you chose to write about it?
JODY KEISNER: A great writing mentor of mine once talked about the need for every writer to check their motivation for writing a character a certain way. I didn’t want to hurt my father by writing so honestly about my difficult childhood and the ways he suffered from losing his job, so I worked hard to understand him and portray him as a complicated, round character (as opposed to a one-dimensional villain). I came to know him better by writing about him, and in some ways, I came to forgive him. As a teenager, I felt so much anger and hurt, and I didn’t have the emotional maturity to see that he was scared, too. He labored under the notion that he wasn’t a “real man” if he couldn’t provide for his family. Even now, he defines himself this way and by what he can do for my sister and me. He’s read “The Runaway Daughter,” which is a chapter from the book that explores the evolving nature of our father-daughter relationship. We are a lot closer now than we were when I wrote Under My Bed, though he has no interest in reading the entire book.
MINNA DUBIN: I try to look at the way mom rage, and motherhood in general, forces/helps me face my demons. We are split open by these babies—if not our bodies, then our hearts. Motherhood seems to have healed/empowered you in so many ways, like standing up to your father, and adopting your own child and facing adoption from the mother side of things. When I finished your book, I thought, “Is motherhood a potential antidote to patriarchy?” What do you think?
JODY KEISNER: When I became a mother, I wanted a better world for my child and got involved in things I might not otherwise have, like school board meetings, haha! Motherhood is transformative for sure. Though I don’t believe you need the experience of motherhood to become less self-interested and more concerned about the world’s children, so to speak. If we can define motherhood on our own terms, then yes, it is empowering.
I agree with Keisner—we can do anything, regardless of parenting status. Still, I’m inspired by the idea of motherhood being a springboard for challenging oppressive power structures. Mothers will always be interested in keeping the world’s children safe, so my concern is less about the children, and more about the mothers. Despite the beauty of children, and the deep love we feel for them, modern motherhood is ceaseless, visible and invisible, unpaid labor that makes the pursuit of anything else, like writing a book, an act of (s)heroic determination. I love that Keisner doesn’t focus the book on her children. It’s really about her, and how her relationships affect her. With this book Keisner insists on taking up space, over and above her fears, shower curtains and closet doors be damned.