Do you ever see a book and immediately realize it’s written just for you? Seeing the title and cover on this one was an instant hit of recognition for me; Send Me Into the Woods Alone, Essays on Motherhood by Erin Pepler made me feel like I was its ideal audience. It’s a very short collection of essays written by a white woman my age who lives in Ontario with her husband and two kids. It sounds like they live very close to where I grew up too. Although we lead different lives, many of our joys and challenges are similar, so I could relate to about 95% of the writing in this book.
In 26 essays and 179 pages, this collection swivels between the funny and the dead serious in an attempt to paint a fulsome picture of early motherhood (Pepler’s kids aren’t yet teenagers, so in the grand scheme of things, she’s only made it through the first sprint). Most essays are only a few pages long, and many touch upon the same things; the challenges of being a mother, the unfair standards women are faced with when it comes to motherhood, the bittersweet realization your kids are growing up, and finding balance between doing what’s right for you and what’s right for your family. The book ends with a letter from Pepler to her kids titled “Please Don’t Grow Up to be Assholes”, which quite honestly, has crossed the mind of every decent parent as they navigate this phase of life. “The Suburban Dream” speaks to the sad realization that living in a downtown urban centre is no longer feasible for many families due to real estate prices and the subsequent depression Pepler experienced having to move to the suburbs, suddenly reliant on driving a car and shopping big box stores. One of my favourites is “I Want to be a Park Dad” which hilariously compares the different standards that motherhood and fatherhood come with. Striking a nice balance between the entertaining and the introspective, this collection offers a balanced view of one of the hardest jobs in the world.
Even though this is a short book, many topics are covered, including the fleeting joys that one can only experience or relate to if they have kids of their own. For instance, Pepler speaks to the surprisingly flattering way that (young) kids view their parents; if you sing to them, they think you’re an amazing singer, children want to emulate their Mom or Dad by following the same career path, only a certain soothing word or back rub can eliminate the scariest of nightmares. Being constantly relied upon is a scary new step for parents; it’s a phase I really struggled with, but when that phase is over, there’s a sadness too; I dread the day my kids stop wanting to hold my hand, but I know it’s coming (and I’m grateful my almost 8-year-old still holds my hand when I walk her across the road). Each essays speaks to the dichotomies of this role; we love our kids to bits, but being a parent is really hard too.
The title alone hints at the fact that this book is going to talk about the hard parts; what mother hasn’t fantasized about being literally sent into the woods alone? I don’t have to be into the woods to be happy, but I have often asked my kids to just shut me in a room so I could read quietly without interruption, and I can relate to the author’s fantasy of being left alone in a cabin to read and sleep in silence. Narratives such as this, admitting to how difficult one finds parenthood, are becoming increasingly common, but it still feels lot of women (myself included) really struggle with motherhood, and this book speaks to the challenge of balancing a career and being an involved parent (especially one who is not the breadwinner of the family, which comes with its own challenges). Complaining about being a mother is full of contradictions; on one hand, it seems like people do it alot, and she has a whole essay on dissecting the problematic joke that women just drink a lot of wine to survive the day with their kids, but on the other hand, we’re aware of the fertility challenges that many couples face, so it feels selfish to complain about something that many people are wishing for, but cannot achieve. Pepler doesn’t offer any solutions , but seeing this stuff in print was really good for my mental health, it simply made me feel better. She also uses humour in a constructive way, helping to get her points across but doing it in a sensitive and tasteful way.
My only criticism is that Pepler herself seems a bit weary of offending certain groups of people, so at times, her opinions felt watered down, or that she was trying unnecessarily hard to ensure everyone’s viewpoint was acknowledged. In a book as short as this, trying to address every situation and excuse is impossible, but as a people-pleaser myself, I also understand where this pressure comes from. I really enjoyed the voice of this writer, and I hope she considers writing another book in the future, one where she feels comfortable to really put her opinions first, regardless of any potential backlash.