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"Sexually, I was always a caretaker first"
Talking about motherhood, marriage, sex, and writing with Rebecca Woolf, author of All of This
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about social scripts. Even in our most intimate moments, we often follow patterns we have inherited—patterns shaped by forces of power that don’t have our best interests in mind, not in the least. The way we talk, the way write, but also the way we move our bodies and feel in our bodies. The way we mother. The way we fuck. Dating, sex, marriage, parenthood, all so often feel coerced by expectations coded by gender. The idea that our intimate interactions—much less our entire sense of pleasure and desire—has been structured by the performances and hierarchies of gender is a scary thing to admit. It can imply a loss of agency, or, at the very least, a loss of control. But noticing how we fall into these scripts can also be liberating—it’s a move toward refusing them.
Reading Rebecca Woolf’s All of This: A Memoir of Death and Desire is a lesson in both noticing and refusing the social and emotional parts women are expected to play in various roles: as girl, woman, mother, wife. So much of this book is about shrugging off false notions of what we should do: what shape our grief should take, what shape our partnerships should take, what shape our parenting should take. The book deals with grief and widowhood, as Rebecca refuses to play the part women who lose husbands are expected to play, offering instead a much more nuanced picture of mourning, sexuality, motherhood, marriage, and love. All of This is poetic, philosophical, and deeply personal—a complex and thoughtful testimony of how mourning throws us, asking us to take a second look at our lives.
But Rebecca also finds herself, her sexuality, and her body in the aftermath of loss and in the release she feels when no longer contained by the expectations that come with the role wife. The book documents an awakening and a becoming, and becomes itself a sharp and timely study of desire—exploring how desire is stolen from girls and women by boys and men and institutions and how women, even mothers, can find and redefine pleasure on their own terms. I corresponded with Rebecca about the intersection between how we mother and how we fuck, dishonesty in marriage, showing our full humanity in parenthood, and penis-centric literary form.
For readers who don’t know your background as a writer, can you share a bit about your involvement in “mommy blogging” in the late aughts and early 2010s? How did you come to that work and what was it like writing about motherhood online at that time? Does it feel different documenting your life as a mother online now, in the age of momfluencing?
I started blogging in 2002 – when I was also working as freelance writer – traveling quite a bit, pitching “destination” stories to magazines so I could then travel to said places, which is a longer story for another time, perhaps. My original blog was a sort of travel diary. I updated mainly at Internet cafes in the early ‘00s. And then in '04 when I got pregnant, I started blogging about a different kind of journey: my unplanned pregnancy. When I started Girl’s Gone Child in 2005, shortly after my son was born, it was because I felt like I needed to re-identify myself. I was no longer single, no longer wild and free. I was domesticated. Married. Mother. Which was a big change. Especially in Los Angeles at 23 years old. I was showing up at Mommy & Me classes and everyone assumed I was the nanny. Everyone had money and houses and careers. Most of them were 20 years older than I was and I felt like this dumb kid who got pregnant and crashed the responsible parent party. Meanwhile my 20-something friends were snorting lines in bar bathrooms, traveling, fucking off, being wild.
To them I was the responsible parent.
I didn’t belong anywhere.
Which is ultimately why I started GGC – a blog that became a sort of Bat-Signal to potential friends, peers… fellow new moms who were writing about their experiences online. In those days, blogs were just digital zines. They were raw and unfiltered. We all did our own html, hired friends to make our banners, everyone supported each other – it truly was a very short-lived golden age of social media. I was fortunate in that I was able to grow an audience organically and in doing so was able to monetize organically, too. I wrote for multiple publications, sustained two separate web series – and was able to pick and choose which sponsors to work with.
I do remember there was this very pivotal point for those of us who were blogging professionally in the mid 2010s when the only way to continue to make a living doing it was to go full commercial. I don’t know a single early-days-blogger that went on to be an “influencer.” I don’t think any of us were wired for that. We were just writers who happened to have babies and Internet access and were sort of at the right place at the right time. (I guess I shouldn’t speak for anyone else but that was certainly my experience.)
“We were just writers who happened to have babies and Internet access and were sort of at the right place at the right time.”
What’s interesting is that I started Girl’s Gone Child in 2005 for the same reason I wrote ALL OF THIS in 2020, because once again, I didn’t belong anywhere. I didn’t identify with the widow archetype and I wasn’t divorced. I didn’t have a community or a literary reference for what I was experiencing, so I wrote my own.
I loved your recent piece for Romper—part of your Sex and the Single Mom column—on how women can rediscover their sexuality when they feel touched out. This subject hits on a lot of what I’ve been thinking and writing about for the past few years—this entanglement between sexuality and parenting—and something you write about so beautifully and intelligently in All of This.
Staying with the question of rediscovering sexuality when your body feels lost to parenthood: Most of the advice I see online for parents who are craving space and autonomy doesn’t acknowledge the power dynamics at play—i.e. women often feel touched out because of the looming sexual demands of their male partners, on top of the expectations we place on women to surrender their physical and psychic autonomy to motherhood. You acknowledge, on the other hand, that for many women, “sex is something we have historically done for or with somebody else.” This may mean we “confuse feeling sexual with feeling sexualized” and that we experience our sexuality through the eyes of the male gaze. Fucking thank you for saying this. And your advice is so good: “build a new paradigm” and start exploring what you want.
Was writing All of This part of your own paradigm building and sexual exploration? The book feels hot to the touch, like it’s kindling a transformation not only in the reader, but in the writer as well.
First of all, THANK YOU for this question and for touching on this subject pun always intended because YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. Feeling sexual vs. feeling sexualized is something I have only recently started to unpack.
There is an intersection to the way we mother and the way we fuck and because it feels squeamish, almost grotesque to pair them together, no one wants to have that conversation, but the truth is, in the wake of my marriage, I realized I had only ever fucked like a mom.
And what I mean by that is that sexually, I was always a caretaker first. And I think a lot of us are conditioned to be this way but I also think many girls realize very young that caretaking can be its own form of power move (until it isn’t).
“…the truth is, in the wake of my marriage, I realized I had only ever fucked like a mom.”
For me, this started in my pre-teens when I felt like it was my job to receive sexual advances from boys. That it was my job to take care of them and that meant doing their homework, lending my lunch money, and allowing them to feel me up when they wanted to. The way I absorbed boys’ needs and felt like it was my job to make sure they were satiated at all times, even in sacrifice of my own wants, time, money reached a fever pitch when I became a mother and had to cut almost all of my male friendships out of my life because every single one of them was co-dependent.
I had friends calling me at 3am for advice, showing up at my house. I was Wendy in a world of lost boys and I had spent years amassing and enabling this behavior because I loved them but also because feeling needed felt powerful.
As a caretaker but also sexually.
That I got off not on my own pleasure but on everyone else’s says more about me than my partners. I was actively pursuing partners that needed me. I think a lot of women do that because FEELING NEEDED has been our social currency – whether that need is sexual, or maternal, etc.
And I think, a lot of women treat motherhood similar to their sexuality – as subservient. Passive. As harbors as opposed to ships. Not because we don’t want to be ships. But because our partners and our children look to us for stability – for safety – for a place to rest their heads and hearts (and dicks) at the end of the day.
Sexually, so many women I talk to don’t even know what gets them off because they’ve never prioritized their pleasure. Like this is a conversation I have had over and over and it’s eye-opening. How many women are like, I’m 50 and I’ve been faking orgasms my whole life because it’s easier that way.
Because, like you said, surrendering is easier. Because we don’t have to confront all the way gender constructs have fucked with us.
And then one day you wake up and realize you’re dead in your own body. That for all of the years you’ve taken care of everyone – prioritizing their pleasure, needs, wants -- that you have not been taken care of back.
Another way you have built your own paradigm is by embracing short-term relationships or, as you say in the book, by connecting with experiences that are “momentary and short lived.” This was something I had never considered—how much we “validate relationships based on commitment—of time and money and dinner reservations,” above and beyond any other metric. The best relationships are those that endure, the common wisdom goes, not those that are fleeting and ephemeral. Obviously, this upholds the ideology of the marital contract and its historic control of women. But as you show in the book, it also really structures how we understand pleasure and desire and how we moralize long-term relationships, right?
Totally. Longevity (in relationships) has always been the gold societal standard and I honestly think it comes back to our fear of death. (ED: I think everything comes back to our fear of death!) There is an art to letting go. It’s okay to break a contract. Or rather, to refuse to sign one. To change one's mind. Hell, it’s even okay to die! We are so hell-bent on keeping everything alive – physically but also emotionally, etc. Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person and it’s certainly not the worst thing that can happen to a relationship.
Divorce is perceived as a failure. Infidelity as a sin. (Not because of the lie, but because of the sex. Lies are perfectly fine so long as you’re maintaining the lie in a way that is flattering to your family.) For many women, “taking the moral high ground,” means compromising our happiness or worse.
I also think we can love deeply in a way that doesn’t insinuate long-term commitment. I think humans have the capacity to connect with strangers just as intensely as we connect with people we’ve known our whole lives. There are people in 40-year marriages that lack the emotional-intimacy of a one-night stand. There are relationships that die as beautifully as they were born. (I recently had this kind of relationship. Our break-up was like a funeral. We held hands and thanked each other for all of the ways we challenged each other and made each other better in the year we spent together. And then, recognizing that our relationship had run its course, let each other go.)
“I think humans have the capacity to connect with strangers just as intensely as we connect with people we’ve known our whole lives.”
The truth is, most connections are temporary and all love stories will end. Can you imagine building a relationship where both parties prioritize letting go? That’s what I want.
I don’t want to live in fear of loss. I know it’s coming. There is always an ending. I want to look it in the eyes from now on. Welcome it when it comes. I don’t want to ever put pressure on anyone – least of all myself – to stick anything out that doesn’t feel good or right or safe. I stayed in a marriage that I knew was wrong and unsafe for both me and my partner and I will never do that again. Our emotional attachments should not be bound, least of all legally.
The kind of love I’m looking for now is that kind of love that exists freely and without expectation – if it endures, cool. If it doesn’t, I’m down to clown with that, too.
Speaking of long-term relationships and the marriage contract, the catalyst for this book is the death of your husband, and the unconventional or unexpected ways that moving through grief—after living in a toxic marriage for so long—transformed you. This book made me question a lot of my assumptions about marriage, even as someone who feels rather disillusioned by the institution and confused about my own fidelity to it (I am married). There is so much in the book about relationships that I will be thinking about for a long time. When you talk about who you became in your marriage, you mention how girlhood carries over, and how marriage begs women’s self-abnegation: “Because agreeable girls become lovable women.” Is there something about marriage that begs dishonesty from women?
For me personally, I don’t know how it’s possible to separate marriage from its architect. And while I certainly believe we can and should separate the art from the artist and marriage looks different for every person, it is no different from any institution that was constructed with men at the helm. I am one of many women who married even though I knew it wasn’t right for me. The fact that I married when I didn’t want to was exactly the kind of dishonesty (with myself and my husband) that became foundational in that relationship. I stayed in a marriage – as a wife – for thirteen years even though it never felt right to me. But the alternative was to admit that I was lying. That I had lied all along. That I didn’t want any of the things I tried very hard to need – even when it was against my will. I spent many years trying so hard to tell the right story. Shining light on the areas of my life that gave me joy and suppressing everything else under the guise of acceptance.
I never felt like I could be honest in my marriage and a lot of that had to do with the person I was married to – who was impossible to confront – but most of that came from me. I was so used to giving boys and men what I knew they wanted, betraying myself in the process and because I got pregnant months into dating Hal, I was still very much in that stage with him. I was the agreeable “cool” girlfriend that woke up one day a wife and mother – who sort of trapped herself within a lie that was completely unsustainable long-term. So my entire marriage was me feeling trapped inside my own lovable woman ideal. Which is why I left – almost immediately after we got married – in different ways.
“I was so used to giving boys and men what I knew they wanted, betraying myself in the process”
I am no longer an agreeable girl but it has taken WORK to get here and to be honest, so much of the work I’ve done over the years has been informed by my daughters, none of whom are agreeable girls which has inspired me to be a more unlovable woman – which is ultimately the goal: be loved for who you are as opposed to a person you’re pretending to be.
Another favorite thread of mine in your book is the string of scenes we get between you and your children. In one, your anger during the pandemic leads to you standing in the kitchen, breaking plates one by one, as your children look on. As you say to your children later, “I am not unbreakable.”
I loved this scene so much. Reading it, I couldn’t help but think of the very calm, measured parenting advice that so often feels like it’s asking mothers (the primary audience) to evacuate all individuality and emotion. To be unbreakable and surrender to motherhood. There’s a common belief that breaking down in front of our children is a flaw rather than a gift, but also that breaking down can never be tender. In your book though, this scene is not traumatic—it marks a movement for you, a point of growth for you as a person and for your family. It’s a crucial arc in the story. Has showing up as yourself as a parent—allowing yourself to feel everything, as you say in the book—changed your relationship with your children?
I recently touched on this but I have never loved my mother more than I have when she was willing to show me her full humanity. If it's my job to set an example for my kids – and I believe it is – then part of that example is modeling humanity without shame. This idea that children shouldn’t see their parents as vulnerable/human/constantly growing is bullshit. There is a difference between venting to one’s children and sharing with them, unloading on them and allowing them to witness you as a person who is having a very human experience just like they are. People have a hard time differentiating the two and subscribe to this very antiquated notion that it is our job as parents to be robotic and inhuman as not to traumatize – or worse – try to relate—to our children.
Back in January my now 14-year-old daughter and I went through break-ups 48 hours apart. I was devastated but kept my breakup to myself because I didn’t want to overshadow hers. Of course I could only hide it from her for so long so when she caught me breaking down in the kitchen and was like… “Mom? What happened” I told her. An hour later, she invited me to a concert in her room. She had taught herself all these break-up anthems on ukulele and told me, upon entering to sit down, this one’s for you. We spent that entire week making each other break-up mixes and watching shitty rom coms together in my bed. It was a defining moment in our relationship. A real ‘I got your back, thank you for having mine’ moment which I think a lot of people would frown upon because I AM HER MOTHER. HOW DARE I RELATE TO MY CHILD.
“This idea that children shouldn’t see their parents as vulnerable/human/constantly growing is bullshit.”
But I did. And sometimes I do relate to my kids. And/or they relate to me. Because we’re all humans. And I love that for us.
A human experience is a human experience regardless of age. And I believe that I have the kind of relationship I do with my kids because I have always treated them like people who just happen to be my children and not the other way around.
You write about how you learned that the three-act story structure mimics the male orgasm. Your book, on the other hand, “is more interested in the story behind the sex, the setting and characters.” There are multiple climaxes, as you say. How did you discover this oceanic form? You note toward the beginning that the book went through a few versions of itself.
I was told from a male editor when my agent was first pitching my proposal that this was two books – that he was interested in bidding on my manuscript – if the DEATH half was separated from the DESIRE half. He was the only male editor we went out to and the only editor that responded with this note, which definitely informed my insistence on writing ONE BOOK, hence the title and the structure of the thing. I didn’t want to separate the death of my husband with the life I led before he died and then after. I am many women and have been many women and will continue to be many more. They do not fit neatly into each other, but they nonetheless co-exist and the fact that the wires are messy and unstructured is the whole point.
I spent many years separating my experiences to make a more palatable story. I’m not going to do that anymore.
And yes, the insinuation that all climaxes lead to conclusions is very penis-centric. A woman doesn’t go soft after she climaxes and our stories shouldn’t either. Not unless we want them to.
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