Yours was one of the few names your Dad and I agreed on. I preferred traditional names like Andrew, Daniel or John, but your father said those were too common, that he knew all too well what it was like to be one of so many boys named John. He came up with your oldest brother’s name, Jackson, because he had always been a fan of Jackson Browne and I agreed because my grandfather’s name had been Jack and because Jackson is also a form of John, which seemed to be as close as I was going to get.
Everyone thought Jackson was going to be a girl, our Madeleine, including the obstetrician, who predicted this every time the baby’s heartbeat clocked in at 80 beats per minute. But Jackson fooled us all, although once he grew outside my body the fact that he had a high heartbeat in utero should have surprised no one: now a fairly laid back young man, he was a wildly energetic child. “Full of beans,” your grandmother used to say.
Four years later when we conceived your younger brother I was less sure about the name Madeleine. It had gained in popularity (so had Jackson) and I’m not always fond of trends. But your father was unyielding and he is not unyielding about much. Madeleine you would be.
Except that you weren’t. Instead, Wilson Asher, named for a graduate school mentor and the title character from Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev, came screaming into the world.
I had already begun to suspect I might be carrying another boy. I don’t know why; perhaps it was just a longing for familiarity. But your father had been certain Wilson was a girl. In fact, he was convinced I was carrying a girl both times, often referring to you as “she.” This is one of the many charming things about your dad, that in a world where many men openly wish for sons, he pined for a daughter. He pined for you, Madeleine. Even though I know he loves your brothers with every atom and molecule of his being, it is my one regret that he didn’t get his wish. Like I said, he doesn’t ask for much. He didn’t even really ask for you. He would have adored you, though.
I would have adored you too, of course, had you been born into our family instead of Wilson, but it would not have been without heartbreak. Of course, parenthood is always accompanied by some heartbreak, I knew yours would be a certain depth of heartbreak that would not accompany my sons, a depth of heartbreak I am relieved to have been spared.
I can tell you this now. Both times I was pregnant, I worried. I doubted my ability to raise a girl. Honestly, I doubted anyone’s ability to raise a girl. I had been a girl. I knew what it was like. I knew what you would be up against. I was not sure how best to prepare you for it. And if I failed to prepare you for it, I would always feel as if I had let you down.
Also, by the time I was pregnant with Wilson, we had lived in the south for seven years and I was increasingly mystified by southern womanhood. Eighteen years later, I am no less mystified. In our town in the year 2000 the high school beauty pageant was looped on the local access channel. Yes, the high school sponsors a beauty pageant. Parents enroll girls in gymnastics and dance classes as toddlers to increase their chances of achieving every southern girl’s dream: a spot on the high school cheerleading squad.
The university where your father and I teach also sponsors a beauty pageant. In the year 2018, it was big news that they finally did away with the swimsuit competition.
Where I grew up, academic rivalries could be intense. Here it mattered which cheer academy you went to and where you bought your pageant gowns.
Of course, the option was always to reject these rituals; I am a feminist, after all. Besides, if you took after me in the least, chances are physical grace would not be one of your shining qualities. But there would still be guilt. If I clung to my principles and refused to enroll you in cheer academy or explained that competitions glorifying a woman’s physical appearance went against every conviction I held dear, I would have to accept the fact that I was knowingly setting you up for rejection and bullying somewhere along the line. It seemed like a lose-lose situation. And so I told your father, unequivocally, that if we had a girl we would have to move out of the south.
It was hard enough to grow up a feminist, raised by a feminist, in the northeast. I did not know how I would pull this off in a place where your brother’s female preschool classmates wore hair bows the size of muffins, perfectly color-coordinated to their outfits.
Drawn to lace and lipstick, I am not unfeminine, but I have hated dresses since I was a child. Obviously, I am conflicted. What kind of example would I be?
Fortunately, we never had to find out. Wilson’s arrival in August of 2000 assured we could stay in this sleepy little college town where we held coveted teaching jobs. While we would have welcomed a third child, what with our own marginal fertility, creeping age and the prohibitive cost of adopting, that door slowly began to close.
Even so, you have never been far from my thoughts. When I was trying to interest one of your brothers in Little House on the Prairie or scrubbing the area around their toilet, urine stained beyond all reason, I thought of you. When they turned down my offer of a miniature Christmas tree for their bedroom, I thought of you, and when I passed some pleasant hours coloring with my niece, I thought of you.
I thought of you when flyers announcing the new Miss Wampus Cat contest, yet another beauty pageant for the high school, came home in Wil’s backpack and I thought of you when someone pointed out that a friend’s beautiful eight month old daughter was “a little on the chunky side,” mentally noting that both your brothers were on the chunky side when they were eight months old and no one ever said anything about them.
I thought of you when I stared, open-mouthed, at the stoic, angry face of a former friend and colleague on the news after his arrest for following women around a store taking upskirt videos, and again when I read his complaint of feeling “vulnerable” during his sentencing when the judge told him to avoid contact with his victims, because he “did not know what they looked like.”
I thought of you whenever I heard the words Maryville or Stuebenville, or “grab her by the pussy,” and when I watched an entitled, guilty man rage on national television and still triumph and then when one man became many.
I thought of you all the times when it did not seem my heart could not sink any further and I thought of you when I finally realized my heart can always sink further.
And so it seems I am destined to always think of you with sadness and relief, wondering what the world would have been like for all of us if you had been born, glad that you have been spared the many things that living girls are not. Madeleine, everything I did as a young woman, the marches and the women’s rights groups and the op eds, I did because I wanted to make the world better for my daughters. For myself.
A quarter century on, it doesn’t feel like much has changed from those days when the idea of having a daughter was a hazy daydream of the future. I still march, I still write, I still advocate, but I am weary. I am battered. I thought the world would be a better place for you by now.
When I was young, we lived next door to a boisterous family of seven siblings where, as an only child myself, I spent most of my time. This may explain one, but by no means all, of the attractions of your Dad, who is also one of eight. Anyway, living next door to such a large family usually meant that as long as it was daylight, some kind of sport was going on in the front yard: kickball, or kick-the-can, touch football or baseball. Baseball was my favorite, probably because your great grandfather, who once played for the Yankees farm team and knew Phil Rizzuto personally, encouraged it, buying me my own glove, showing me how to oil it and break it in and playing catch with me on his visits.
The next step, when I was in first grade, would have been Little League, but girls were not allowed to join. It wasn’t until second grade that we were handed a flyer in Mrs. Duffy’s class announcing that girls could now sign up. “Do you know what this means?” I shouted to A.C. White and Billy Morrison as we stood at the chalkboard in our snorkel coats, waiting for dismissal. I remember jumping up and down, waving the mimeographed sheet in the air.
My parents tried to prepare me. They actually sat my seven year-old-self down on our brown and gold plaid sofa and explained that while they supported me, I needed to understand that some people did not and they might not be so nice about it. I needed to think about these facts before I made my decision.
But it was hard for to me imagine that people might not be so nice; it has been hard for me to imagine people might not be nice my whole life, causing me no end of grief. I forged ahead and joined the East Greenbush Little League. We were the Royals. Vans Cleaners sponsored our black and white shirts. I wore mine every chance I got.
I did not imagine I would be the only girl who would sign up that year.
I did not imagine I would be featured on the front page of the sports section at the beginning of the season, my dirty-blonde ponytail sticking out through the back of my cap.
I did not imagine other kids’ parents would come to games just to scream at me to go home and play with my dolls.
I also did not imagine how hard it would be to get individual practice time with the coaches, in part because they were the kind of beer-bellied coaches who, in the “Bad News Bears” tradition, coached from their lawn chairs and in part because their strategy for dealing with having a girl on the team seemed to center on pretending she wasn’t there. I was a pretty good hitter but my throwing and catching needed a lot of work.
Then we moved at the end of the summer and I no longer had the kids next door to practice with. Your grandfather wasn’t that interested in tossing the ball around and your great-grandfather lived three hours away. Your great-grandfather felt bad enough that he bought me an aluminum-framed web-like device that was supposed to catch and return my throws, but it wasn’t the same. My skills continued to decline. I quit at the end of the second year.
In 2014, thirteen-year old Mo’ne Davis was the star pitcher in the Little League World Series. She made the cover of Sports Illustrated, winding up on the mound.
You would have been about her age.
In my early years as a writer, I wrote stories about families, about parents and children. In true Lorrie Moore-fashion, I had been a child psych major in college—people, especially developing people, have always been of keen interest to me. I also usually wrote in third person from the male point of view. This was, I suppose, one way to make those subjects palatable during a time when women’s lives didn’t gain much purchase in workshop, where they were sometimes actively derided.
I’ve always been suggestible. If someone yawns, I yawn. If someone else gets up to go to the bathroom, I suddenly have to go. “You should go to a hypnotist,” your dad says with a kind of awe at what he calls one of my “special talents.” “Under the right circumstances, I bet they could get you to fly.”
Also during these early years, I wrote a series of stories about a widower raising a toddler and tasked with somehow teaching him about the mother he would never have.
“We don’t tend to publish stories about mothers,” the editor of a famous magazine wrote in his rejection. Even though the work would go on to find a place elsewhere, his words haunted me.
“We don’t tend to publish stories about mothers.”
When I first started writing memoir, I did it on the sly, for myself. No one wrote memoir back then, or if they did, they thinly disguised it as fiction. Memoir was considered too confessional.
“You can’t get a memoir published unless you’re famous,” a former colleague proclaimed once. A British man who spent some years teaching in the United Arab Emirates, he is best known for a collection of stories about women in the middle east, some of which prominently feature a British male writing teacher.
I stayed up late last night reading Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, a hybrid nonfiction book that has been roundly praised for resisting memoir. Jamison struggles on the page with the idea of memoir itself, with writing about the suffering woman, because, she says, it is just so common.
She ends recognizing the wounded woman as a stereotype but concedes that as a stereotype it is no less “true.” “Keep bleeding,” she says. “Just write toward something beyond blood.”
But aren’t we all, Madeleine? Aren’t we all writing beyond blood?
Years ago, when I was an undergraduate in a course called, “The Psychology of Men and Women,” I suggested some of the women in the class could share their experiences with doctors, with the medical establishment. I was only 20 but I’d already had a few, including one with a male gynecologist who accused me of sleeping around when I went to him with a runaway urinary tract infection.
“Please,” the professor said. Her face was dour. “We’d be here all day.”
Truth be told, when I first discovered Beth Ann Fennelly’s book, Great With Child: Letters to a Young Mother, I was envious.
“We don’t publish much about mothers.”
By the time I finished the first few chapters of The Argonauts, I was fairly seething.
To be clear, Madeleine, I was mostly angry with myself. Because Beth Ann Fennelly and Maggie Nelson did not need anyone’s permission and I quit Little League after my second year.
One of my students is writing a series of essays about her father, a veteran of the first Gulf war who died in his forties from Parkinson’s disease, the result of chemical exposure the U.S. military is only beginning to admit.
“It’s really just for me,” she explains as she introduces her work to the class. “I know it’ll never be published. I’m not famous or anything.”
Her name could be Jessica or Hannah or Brittney. It could even be Madeleine. It is not her name that matters.
So, late in my fifty-first year but early enough in this century, I no longer write memoir on the sly, for myself. I write it for my students and I write it for you. I write it, even, for your brothers, because in the end and in these times, Madeleine, that is what I know how to do. Memoir, women’s writing, mother’s writing, writing about mothering—I write it and I cast it out now over and over, like so many messages in so many bottles. I don’t care where it will land, if it will even land anywhere at all. Too many years wasted, caring about that. Listening to the loud voices, the angry voices, all the voices, except my own.
I write it. I write it.
Stephanie Vanderslice is Professor of Creative Writing and Director of the Arkansas Writer’s MFA Workshop at the University of Central Arkansas. Her most recent books are Can Creative Writing Really Be Taught? 10th Anniversary Edition with Rebecca Manery and The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life, which was named a “best writing book” by both Poets & Writers and The Writer.