Bitter Bitch by Maria Sveland
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Bitter Bitch is billed as "the international bestseller that has shocked Europe"; however, the only thing particularly shocking was the title, which caused all sorts of commentary from my family (especially when my husband showed it to my visiting mother-in-law and sister-in-law!). Apparently the literal translation from the Swedish is even more schocking: "Bitter Cunt"!
Sarah, mom of a toddler, has just turned 30 and is feeling like a bitter bitch. She flies to Tenerife (in the Canary Islands) for a week's vacation and reads Erica Jong's feminist classic, Fear of Flying, while she's away. However, she finds herself longing for quiet and uninterrupted sleep rather than the classic "zipless f--k."
Sveland examines the state of modern woman- and motherhood and peels back the facade that women can easily have it all. Although Sarah loves her husband Johan, she also has great unresolved hostility towards him. Having experienced horribly sexist men in television journalism and other areas of her life, Sarah reflects that "Refusing to admit your own part in oppression is an incredibly smart power strategy, since oppression is made invisible by diminishing it." Not only does this lack of awareness exist in men, but it also exists in the privileged--both men and women.
After Sarah is unable to nurse her baby Sigge successfully, she develops a life-threatening breast infection. Johan chooses to take Sigge home instead of having them both stay in the hospital with Sarah, an action that Sarah views as betrayal. (Having experienced the extreme bonding connection that exists between mother and newborn, I can completely relate to this feeling.) Their marriage is damaged as a result of this and the fact that Johan is gone for weeks at a time (because of his job) while Sarah is caring for newborn Sigge. She feels exhausted and completely alone, even though she loves her child passionately.
Sarah struggles with the fact that women still bear the burden in marriage: they do most of the housework and the child care. "I really do not think there is much difference between becoming a mother during the 1970s or in the twenty-first century. In the beginning you are just as alone with your child as most mothers have been for centuries...it is sad, but becoming a mother seems to be one of the most difficult undertakings when it comes to equality."
When the couple goes to married marriage counselors, they tell Sarah that achieving equality in a marriage is impossible. Both Sarah and Johan storm out in disgust. But in fact, Johan's paternity leave (more common in Sweden) was what saved their marriage. "That's when he understood what it meant to take full responsibility as a father. Men should take longer parental leave than women, since women have a biological head start because they have carried and given birth to their children. Men need more time to get the innate experience."
She talks in detail about the great guilt work-outside-the-home mothers feel when they leave their children in day care (or take off for a weekend or week away). Fathers tend not to experience that same amount of guilt. Why is that? She concludes that women should be more self-serving: "The one who demands the most gets the most." For example, who is most likely to be doing the cleanup at a party? The women (especially with older generations). Sarah feels guilty when she doesn't jump up to help the other women, but the men don't seem to feel guilty at all. Why is that?
She also laments the fact that women are rarely able to relax or feel completely safe out in public. They can never escape the potential for men to harass them. (I discussed this very topic with friends at Holden Village late one night.) "I strongly doubt that men can comprehend the discomfort or ferar involved in having to deal with it. I wonder how this really affects women, deep down."
Sarah was raised with a doormat mother and a verbally abusive, alcoholic father, so she didn't have a lot of faith in marriage. Lest you conclude that Sarah is anti-men, though, she waxes lyrical about how much she loves men who peel oranges in public, bring packed lunches to work, bike or walk to work, and dance.
Reading this book, it made me realize how lucky I am to be in a marriage of relative equality. I nursed my sons constantly (and through the night) for many years, and then my husband took over the late night wakefulness after they stopped nursing. He is a stay-at-home dad and does the cooking during the week. I call him our "household manager," because of course he does much more than looking after the kids and cooking. We still fall back into gender stereotyped roles when it comes to some responsibilities: he takes out the garbage, mows the lawn, and deals with the car maintenance, while I am responsible for all of the gift and clothing buying and storing the kids clothes over various seasons. We both grocery shop. But he writes the thank you cards. I let him drive much of the time because he likes to, and I'd rather be reading. I'm the breadwinner but he still has a career and associated goals. I hope someday I can work less and he can get paid for the work he does (writing). We make decisions together.
I feel that we have achieved as close to equality as I can imagine in our marriage. So thankfully, even though I feel that Sveland's observations about marriage and parenting are completely sound, I am not a bitter bitch myself. I must say that it's refreshing to read a feminist novel given all of the anti-feminist backlash out there in popular society. Here's Maria Sveland on feminism and marriage.
I'm not sure what I think about the ending...it depends on whether you are cynical or optimistic. As an optimist myself, I'd like to think that Sarah found some comfort and peace with her life. I'm glad that Sveland wrote this important book, and I have no doubt that many women would be able to relate very closely to this story.