Shells: Picking Apart Pain and Womanhood

June 7, 2018 | 2 10 min read

The skin on the bottoms of my feet is so hard that I have felt a dull ache somewhere in my heel after running miles barefoot on the beach; not until I pull my foot up on my knee do I realize that a small, sharp shell has dug in and stuck inside the callused outer layer of my skin. My toenails have fused into my toes, and the two have begun to grow together. There is a science to this, I’m sure. I could look it up. The nail grows out, but underneath it is this other, not quite nail and not quite skin, that makes it almost impossible to cut.

I used to get all varieties of blood blisters, on my smallest toe and on the front pads of my feet, dark reds and purples beneath thin, clear layers of skin, and in the arches, too, though I have flat feet and don’t have arches actually. This is another cause for wear and tear. I used to have metal and clay custom-made orthotics and every time I broke in a new pair, before the metal fit into the grooves of the new shoe, it would dig into the sides of my feet and they bled. I will not ever get a pedicure. To do this would involve someone smoothing out my feet, rubbing off my calluses. I can’t imagine the pain I would experience, the next day, running, 10 or 15 miles with my flat feet, my worn out shoes, my socks with holes in the heels.

I was in labor for 40 hours with our first daughter before I agreed to the epidural. I ended up with a C-section, all the drugs pumped into me one after the next.

When my milk came in, I made too much; I gushed milk, almost all the time. I’m waterboarding her, I said to my husband as I watched our tiny baby choke and sputter at my nipple, as the milk gushed over her face and in her eyes. She would get scared or maybe her brain wasn’t capable yet of the word scared, but instinctually, as the milk began to flow, she’d clench down hard on my nipple with her gums. She clenched each time I tried to feed her. She’d latch on, then the milk would start, then she would clench and slowly unclench, then reclench, for the entirety of the time she fed.

My nipples bled and chafed and I stopped wearing a shirt the whole first couple weeks we had her home. Nipple confusion, said my books. She cannot have anything besides the breast for the first month and a half. So every hour to hour and 15 minutes, we’d go back to clenching, her, my nipples, every other part of me. The pain was bad, but not as bad as being certain she was miserable as well. She’d cry and unlatch once the fire hose became more powerful than her clenching; she would sputter off, her whole face sticky with milk, and I’d hold her, both of us wet, up against my chest, and we would cry.

For months, we did this. I finally started pumping but still refused to let anything but breast milk pass her lips. Once, when my husband was traveling for work and she was 3 months old, I held the bottle with one hand, pressing the pump to my breasts with my calf. I had to continually pull the bottle out of our screaming baby’s mouth so I could refill it, and then continue to pump.

“This is about you,” my husband yelled one night when I was crying and the baby was crying, and he was making her a bottle while I pumped. This has nothing to do with her. He meant this was about my ego and my need to prove that I could be a good mother, about my constant, desperate need to prove my worth.

My husband wasn’t wrong in what he said, and I told him as much, but that didn’t mean that I could stop.  It wasn’t about her health in any way that I could properly articulate. I’d read enough at that point to be able to argue for almost any feeding choice a woman might make or have to make. I had to show, to suffer, or maybe I didn’t love her well or rightly and not for any reasons that made sense. I wasn’t sleeping; I had months of blisters on my nipples. In winter, they burned when I was outside, chafed from the pump. Every time I accidentally brushed an arm against myself while picking my bag up or raising a hand to speak in one of my graduate classes, I winced. It felt like I was loving her somehow when she wasn’t there.

I meant to write an essay about a specific type of female strength, but all of this sounds painful. I wanted to write an answer to the notion of the female as a space of wounds and being wounded, but maybe this is just an essay about different types of wounds, how we cover them over and make new ones, how they manifest themselves in new ways as we age.

Leslie Jamison says in her essay “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” that:

The moment we start talking about wounded women, we risk transforming their suffering from an aspect of the female experience into an element of the female constitution—​perhaps its finest, frailest consummation. The ancient Greek Menander once said: “Woman is a pain that never goes away.” He probably just meant women were trouble, but his words hold a more sinister suggestion: the possibility that being a woman requires being in pain, that pain is the unending glue and prerequisite of female consciousness.

I want to push this forward and say the moment we start talking about strong women, powerful women, we risk transforming their strength into a justification for all that we and they have asked them to endure. We valorize selflessness and fortitude, as if we haven’t foisted it upon them, as if we have not somehow created a world in which their value is largely tied to their willingness and their ability to survive the wounds the world inflicts.

When I was 14, a boy stuck his fingers up my shorts without my saying that he could do it. When I was 17, a boy had sex with me while I was drunk and couldn’t move or think. When I was 19, a boy yelled at me for not sleeping with him and then refused to talk to me until he saw me at a party, drunk, and screamed “bitch” in my face. The next year, a man, much older than me, wrote me a letter telling me that the one thing he was looking forward to about his college graduation was, because I had thought that we were friends and had not realized I was not allowed to tell him I didn’t want to sleep with him, never again having to see my disgusting face.

None of this feels new or particularly revelatory. It felt, then, like growing up. It is the sort of stuff you talk about in private, that you share with other women, because you all have your own version, that sort of broiling pent-up female indignation that you talk about when you’re alone together, that you sometimes talk about too loudly after a third glass of wine in public and then suddenly start again to whisper, for fear of who might have heard, who might have found you out. Found out what, I could not tell you—that you are weak enough to have had violence done to you, that you are acting like a victim, as if somehow that is the worst violence of all.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about victimhood. Like most women I know, I despise the idea of victimhood; it is the largest, loudest argument against a lot of what is happening right now. Women should not, some argue, give into the narrative that we are victims. We have power and we must take it. We are only as powerful as we assert ourselves to be. Victimhood has, for years, been one of our few spaces of power. If you declare yourself as wounded, as a victim, people look and listen, people care for you in ways they might not have been willing to up until then. Victimhood has, for years, been one of women’s main avenues to power; it is particularly female, maybe, and therefore somehow embarrassing. We deny we want it; we refuse to lay claim to it, even when it’s ours.

Once, just after our second daughter was born and we were briefly living in a house in Florida, I went to the emergency room. I had just run eight miles in the heat and was not sleeping. I was nursing our 6-month-old 10 or 12 times a day. I got light-headed and my vision blurred and my husband put my symptoms into a computer and a big red box that said “GO TO THE HOSPITAL” popped up on the screen. I spent hours there, on a bed out in the hallway, because the emergency room was busy and there was no space for me. I pumped three times while I waited but spent most of the day reading a book. They did a brain scan and took blood and the doctor came over to me and made me touch my fingers to my nose and answer basic questions before he told me I was fine and let me go.

I was so embarrassed when I got home. I felt so silly. Pathetic. Such a victim. I still thought that I had symptoms: I felt dizzy, unsteady, almost constantly. I had been relieved sitting at the hospital. I was so exhausted. For eight hours, no one needed from me; no one touched me. I read and was quiet, and in some ways, it was one of the best days I’d had in weeks.

A few months after I went to the hospital, I flew alone to New York for a dear friend’s wedding. I’d been alone with our daughters for the past year off and on. My husband was traveling almost every week for work and we were living in Florida, where I had very few friends. Our youngest daughter was still nursing all day and night and our older daughter was not quite 2 and a half. I saw friends in a sort of gluttonous span of a day in Brooklyn before we drove upstate. I slept through the night and no one woke me up to feed them. I pumped at JFK, at MOMA, in a bathroom in the middle of a three-hour lunch with friends. By the time we were in the car and driving up to Woodstock the day before the wedding, I was certain I was dying. I had no reason to think this, but I was sure.

I was in a car with four friends and they all talked and laughed and told stories and asked questions. I held onto the handle of the car door and tried not to shake or break into a sob. By the time we got to the rehearsal dinner, I was shaking. My friend, who is dear and kind and knowing, grabbed hold of me when she saw me and took me behind the restaurant. “Are you OK?” she said. I started sobbing. “You miss the girls?” she said. “Not really,” I said, laughing while I was crying, “I just feel like I might die right now.”

I can’t explain this. More than three years out from this moment, I can’t tell you how I thought that it might happen, or how I thought I might avoid it, but I can tell you I was wholly, fully sure. It was my dear friend’s rehearsal dinner and my friend helped me get myself together. I called my husband and talked to our 2-year-old and listened to the baby babble. I ate artisanal pizza. We went to my friend’s grandparents’ house where we were staying. I pumped and read and eventually fell asleep.

When my first book came out a couple of years ago, I started disappearing. I run a lot, but I was running more than usual. If I didn’t do 10 miles before our girls were up, I felt afraid. I lost more and more weight. None of my clothes fit. I looked wan and tired. I’d finally stopped nursing after four years of either that or being pregnant, and my skin sagged in strange, sometimes horrifying ways. I also, then, felt certain I was dying. I would sit on the subway and think, these are the people I will die with. I’d see a child across from me talking to her mother and I’d start crying, imagining her about to get blown up because of her proximity to me.

The overlap here is that I was getting what I wanted. The result, in both instances, was a daily, constant, paralyzing fear. If I get what I want, I told my husband, I can’t see to the other side of that. If I’m not struggling, if I’m not fighting—I can’t see through to what I’d be if I’m not that.

The whole time I was in New York and then upstate at my friend’s wedding, it felt, physically, like I was in free fall. My head spun and I felt unsteady when I stood. I did not have our children’s wants and needs to bolster and define me. When I was told my book was coming out, I did not have that desperate want, and I began to disappear myself.

When the Harvey Weinstein story broke and the deluge followed, I had a similar kind of fear, but for these women. “Aren’t you scared,” I would whisper to my friends, “that they’re about to be slapped back?” They were being strong, but not in the way I’d been taught to be strong as a woman: not quietly, apologetically, not while staying in their place. They were being strong against the systems instead of within them. They were saying, doing, wanting out loud—asserting, not apologizing or disappearing afterward. I walked around clenched up like I had been with my book, except I was looking for the stories to break that would destroy these women. I was waiting for the system to reassert itself.

I felt similarly watching Emma Gonzalez standing and screaming to a crowd of people about the BS that she saw in Washington. Of course, I thought. We all know this. I was madly, wildly in her thrall. But I was so scared for her, for what the world might do to her for saying out loud what I and everyone I know have felt and thought for so long, for performing it so forcefully and brilliantly, for forcing the outside world to look.

These are embarrassing things to admit as a woman who thinks of herself as strong and assertive. The other day, I said to a student at the university where I adjunct that I found the offices intimidating because I am one of the few nonfamous writers on the faculty. “You don’t seem like a person who would cower quickly,” she said. Oh honey, I thought. But I just nodded and said thanks.

At this same university, a few weeks ago, I sat in the office of the head of the program close to crying, moving things around on his desk so I didn’t have to look at him. I was very quiet, very sorry for taking up his time; I was asking him to let me keep my job. I didn’t walk into that office and show him my very good student evaluations; I didn’t ask students of mine to speak up for me. I didn’t send him my recent credits or try to have a substantive conversation with him about what I think I add to the faculty. Instead, I sat, head down, quiet and apologetic. I said, at one point, voice quavering, “I just…I have a family,” as if being weak enough, both a caretaker and in sufficient need of taking care of, might convince him to just let me stay.

I could give you all sorts of reasons I did this, but what feels important here is copping to it. What feels important is unpacking or describing how that impulse both defines and hinders my strength and my success; how I imagine it does this to many other women much like me.

When I talk to my students about writing I talk a lot about an economy of readership: The reader gives you time, investment, energy; you give back bits of entertainment, character, plot points, question answering, along the way. The economy, as I’ve been taught to understand it as a woman, is prescribed and specific. It feels, always, very zero-sum. One must calculate each move carefully. One must calibrate. One must be strong, but not too strong. One must perform both pain and strength, but not too much. If one siphons off bits of one’s self, one might get bits of what she wants back. If one works and works and hurts, one might feel joy. Maybe part of this is what it is to be a person. Maybe it’s work ethic. Maybe it’s just being old enough to know the systems tend to win. But I’m finally too desperate and too tired to keep trying so hard on terms and performances that take too much from me: too much time, too much energy, too much emotional investment or compromise or pretending. I’m interested and excited by the fact that many other women, right now, seem to feel the same.

Image: Flickr/Finizio

is the author, most recently, of the novel Want. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Time, New York Magazine, The Guardian, The Paris Review, Harper’s Bazaar, and elsewhere. She teaches writing at Columbia University and Catapult.


  1. This is so spot on.
    As women, we’re supposed to be strong, but I often come off as apologetic about wanting to be strong and independent. I feel bad that I’m making people feel bad, and then I get mad at myself.

    Also, I get mad at my husband for not doing more for our daughters, but I get mad when he does do it, or I fix what he’s done. He gets really frustrated, and I know it’s about my mother-ego.

  2. Only one comment so far? Unbelievable! I thought this piece was amazing. Ms. Strong has a lot of talent. She’s brave, that’s how you can tell. The brave writers always become superstars. I think we’ve probably just read the next Anne Tyler. Way to go “Millions”, for giving us a peek at an icon of the future!

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