My guest today is Cathi Hanauer, novelist, columnist, and editor of The B*tch is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier [HarperCollins, 2016].
Joan Brunwasser: Welcome to OpEdNews, Cathi. I'm reading this book right now and that's the impetus for our interview. But before we get to it, we must first talk about the book that preceded it: The B*tch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage [HarperCollins, 2002]. This series was your brainchild, I believe. Tell us how it came about, please.
CH: Back in the early aughts, I was a working mother of two young kids with an income our family relied on as much as my husband Dan's. Dan was (and still is) a good guy, a feminist who considered me his equal and supported my work and respected women, but almost from the moment I'd gotten pregnant, I had realized how much of the burden (if you will) of childbearing, and eventually childrearing, falls on the mother; I was the one who was sick for months, who had the doctor's appointments and the blood tests, who was expected to figure it all out. That wasn't anyone's fault, of course, unless you want to blame Mother Nature, but once the baby, and then babies, were born, that increased exponentially. Our husbands were simply not doing half of the domestic and childrearing tasks; we women were the ones expected and required to do more, even when our jobs equaled or surpassed those of our husbands.
It was the women who figured things out and made sure they got done, who held the pieces of the family puzzle in our heads. It was as if feminism had opened the doors for my generation of women to walk through and have careers and incomes and a position in the world on a level with men, yet when we got there, we realized we needed a wife. I'm a novelist and an essayist, and at the time I was living in New York, surrounded by successful working mothers who felt exactly as I did. Conveniently, many of them were also writers, so I asked them if they wanted to contribute to a book about this phenomenon and our collective anger about it. They said yes. I then contacted more writers, women I'd long admired--Vivian Gornick, Daphne Merkin, Kate Christensen, Veronica Chambers, Pam Houston, Karen Karbo, Hope Edelman, Natalie Angier--and many of them said yes, too--especially when they heard the title. And that was the origin of what I now call B*tch 1, or "The B*tch in the House." No one expected the book to do much; I had gotten a small advance, and paid the writers very little. But when the book came out, it climbed the charts. Apparently, my friends and I weren't the only b*tches out there.
JB: B*tch 1 clearly resonated with many women. Why didn't you leave it at that? Why go back to the well? What were you trying to accomplish next go-round?
CH: More than a dozen years had gone by. My kids were older, our finances were more secure...things were just much, much easier than they had been in the B*tch 1 years. I wanted to do another book about this next stage in life for women as strong and enlightened as the women in B*tch 1--which is to say, women who at some point, after the chaos of young children, sat back and asked themselves certain questions: Am I happy? If not, why not? Is something in my life not working, or missing? If so, how will I fix or find that thing? If not, is the problem me? Am I depressed, or do I need to adjust my expectations? In short, I wanted to do a book that reflected the choices a certain kind of woman makes in midlife in order to be happy--or, as the title suggests, happ ier.
So I went back to some of the original b*tches, the ones whose stories seemed to lend themselves to a sequel and who were old enough that I felt they could speak to midlife women. I also hit up a bunch of new b*tches: Jennifer Boylan, a fascinating writer who had transitioned in her early forties from male to female; Sarah Crichton, a longtime colleague of mine whose decades-long marriage had imploded and, at age 60, instead of sitting around mourning--because that's so not who she is--she decided to find love, or at least sex, again. Kate Christensen's marriage, which she wrote about in the first book, had ended, and she was now with a man 20 years her junior. Veronica Chambers, who had been looking for a decent man in B*tch 1, had found her man, married, and become a mother. Hope Edelman (like me) had lost a lot of her anger and realized that, despite the illusion of being trapped in the B*tch 1 years, she had actually made small choices along the way that had led her to where she was now. Pam Houston, who had been toying with having children at the end of B*tch 1, had opted instead for a gorgeous plot of land, many animals, teaching younger people instead of giving birth to them,, and a big dose of solitude. Lizzie Skurnick, wanting a child but realizing, by 40, that she didn't want to marry any of the men on her horizon, decided to have a baby on her own. Cynthia Kling, who'd written in B*tch 1 about keeping secrets from her husband in order to preserve her essential self, had taken up the cause of helping prisoners--and her essay, about what that choice has done for her (and for others), is stunning; it's the last one in the book. Many of the women who'd had small children in B*tch 1 wrote about seeing them off to college, and what that meant for them, their lives, and their marriages.
B*tch 2 was a calmer, gentler, more mature book; it didn't make quite the splash that B*tch 1 did, because enlightenment isn't as juicy a topic as roiling anger, but it got great reviews and was named an NPR Best Book of 2016. I was thrilled to have it out there, bookending the first book and showing the trajectory of different kinds of women over the years from young to middle-aged, from angry to at least content, if not "happy."
Cover Art for 'The B*tch in the House' [HarperCollins, 2003]
(Image by Courtesy of Cathi Hanauer) Details DMCA
JB: I enjoyed your book because I hadn't run into a similar forum that so broadly discussed getting "older, wiser and (getting) happier." Have you ever considered waiting a while and doing B*tch 3 by/for even older, or shall I say, more mature women and what they have made of their lives? It's a pretty invisible population and perhaps an untouchable topic, yet so worthy of attention and care. Your thoughts?
CH: I actually love good books about older women*; I've been reading a bunch of them lately, because I have a 90-year-old character in the novel I'm writing right now. And yes, I would think about doing another B*tch book someday, if the right topic presented itself. I joke that the next phase is The B*tch in Assisted Living. Hopefully, that's a good few decades from now!
JB: I'll wait. In the meantime, I'd love to read your novel when you're done! Besides the two B*tch books, our readers don't have much of a sense of what you've been writing all these years. Can you give us a taste of that, please?