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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Motherhood After Tenure: Wild
August 9, 2012 - 3:58am

We recently discovered some old photos of our daughter's first Halloween. At 18 months, covered by a red hooded cape, she walked from house to house in the pitch black night, collecting candy in a wicker basket. She marched away from us as we stood on the sidewalk, confident on stout, stockinged legs. We later learned that on that same day a 25-year old graduate of our university, Teresa Halbach, drove alone to an Auto Salvage yard to photograph cars, where she was taken captive, horribly raped and murdered.

Therein lies the troubling paradox we face as parents of daughters: while we want our children to (eventually) walk away from us, to engage in the world, we are confronted with stories of the most horrible abuse and violence toward women. 

Perhaps this is why we are so enthralled with narratives of women’s bravery and  adventurous risk, such as Cheryl Strayed’s new memoir, Wild, an account of the author hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone. Strayed's account combines natural description with flashbacks of her mother's death when Strayed was just 22, the dissolution of her own marriage, and episodes of drug use. In many ways her journey is a process of reconciling with being motherless, with the absence of family.

In line with most "adventure travel" narratives, Strayed does not minimize the danger she faces and, in fact, she does experience some near misses: rattlesnakes, bears, and even (most frightening to me) a pair of menacing men. However, she makes a conscious choice to ignore her fears: “It was a deal I made with myself months before and the only thing that allowed me to hike alone. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave.” As Strayed's book asserts, the risks and dangers and challenges and even physical pain were necessary in order for the author to achieve transcendence.

Walking also becomes a metaphor for the labor and grit involved in writing. In an interview on finishing her manuscript, Strayed describes the intense focused labor of finishing the book: “For three weeks, I holed up by myself in this cabin in a remote corner of Oregon. It's actually the farthest away you can be from a freeway on-ramp in the United States. During that time alone, I sat in a chair and read the entire book out loud to myself. If someone had filmed those three weeks, it would have been a documentary of a madwoman. I was so obsessed that I would work around the clock and barely sleep.”

Commercial adventure travel for women is a highly popular and profitable business -- as are earlier narratives of women's adventures such as Mary Morris's Nothing to Declare and Robyn Davidson’s Tracks. There is something compelling about the story of a woman who travels alone, who risks danger, who experiences what has traditionally been a male form of adventure. But we don't want our daughters venturing down the street alone, or out into the woods, or doing a job that takes them into unknown territory.

What stories will our daughters choose?


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