After the overturning of Roe v. Wade, certain widely shared articles flooded our social-media feeds. One, called “We’re Not Going Back to the Time Before Roe. We’re Going Somewhere Worse,” was written by Jia Tolentino. A staff writer at The New Yorker, Tolentino was formerly a deputy editor at Jezebel and a contributing editor at the Hairpin. She’s also the author of Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, a best-selling essay collection that’s part cultural criticism and part personal writing. Which is all to say it’s no wonder so many looked for her byline after the Dobbs decision came down. She has made a career of covering stories at the intersection of culture, feminism, and extremism, from the megachurches in her hometown of Houston to Britney Spears’s conservatorship.
This week on the Cut’s In Her Shoes podcast, editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples talks to Tolentino about growing up in Texas, where she said she first got “comfortable being in a place of opposition.” Tolentino spells out what “worse” looks like in a post-Roe world (namely: how state surveillance will be a greater threat than unsafe abortions). She does believe change can come, but it will be slowly and through a lot of hard work by very many people.
To hear more about writing through our unprecedented times, how her interests as a writer have changed because of them, and how her outlook on work has evolved since becoming a parent, listen and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also read the full transcript below.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Lindsay Peoples: Welcome to In Her Shoes. I’m Lindsay Peoples Wagner, editor-in-chief of the Cut. I’ll be talking to people we at the Cut love and admire or just find interesting. We’ll explore how they found their path, what got in their way, and how they think about bringing others along now that they’ve arrived.
Jia is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a best-selling author. She’s also drawn attention for essays on topics like race and publishing, marriage, abortion, and notions of female empowerment as well as her pulling-no-punches kind of music criticism. Before writing for The New Yorker, she was a deputy editor of Jezebel and a contributing editor at the Hairpin. Her first book was an amazing nine part-essay collection called Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, which addresses internet culture, scammer culture, and contemporary feminism. We got to talk with her about her latest writing on the Supreme Court’s abortion decision, her experiences with motherhood, and how her religious past influenced her writing.
The show is called In Her Shoes, so I’m curious, what shoes do you have on right now and what’s the story behind them? Or if you’re not wearing any shoes, because I’m usually just wearing some slippers at home, what’s your favorite pair of shoes and why?
Jia Tolentino: I’m barefoot obviously because I’m at home. My favorite pair of shoes — I was one of those people that was converted to the lack of dignity of Crocs during the pandemic, but I wouldn’t say those are my favorite shoes. I think the ones that I wear most often, all summer I wear the silver Birkenstocks that everyone has, and then all winter I wear the lace up Doc Marten black boots.
Lindsay: Very good choice.
Jia: I’m very basic with my shoe choices.
Lindsay: I’ve gotten on the side of TikTok that keeps recommending me a certain pair of Doc Martens.
Jia: Which kind?
Lindsay: They’re a pair that Emma Chamberlain was wearing and said that she always wears in the summer, and so now all the kids’ TikToks are feeding me the same shoes, and they’re a lace-up.
Jia: Are they a fun color? Are they white?
Lindsay: No, they’re black, but they’re — I mean, they remind me of the shoes that people wear for uniforms in school.
Jia: What are you wearing right now? Slippers?
Lindsay: I always wear a Birkenstock when I’m home. I’m not a comfy-shoe person because I do feel like I will fall asleep if I am too comfortable at home.
So I wanted to start from the beginning. I know that you moved from Toronto at a young age and ended up in Texas. I think a lot of what you’ve talked about in your childhood and growing up in a Southern Baptist community, I’m just curious of what you would describe that to be like and your family life that led you into writing about a lot of that and formulating to who you are now.
Jia: I just filed a draft that — of course, it comes up again, I feel like I’ll be writing about abortion for a while. I’ve been on and off the beat since I first started writing about it at — I mean, maybe not even at Jezebel, at the Hairpin, in 2012. But as probably everyone listening to this knows, I foresee that it will be a far more central part of my writing for a while, and it has reminded me so much of how much of my thinking was formed by and also in opposition to the beliefs that were all around me growing up. I was thinking specifically in this piece it was like these ideas that are frequently espoused by the anti-abortion movement, which are that life is precious and the innocent should not be punished and the world is corrupt.
I’ve been thinking lately it’s like those form the foundation of my belief and the moral necessity of abortion rights, but for many of the people I grew up with, those exact beliefs are the foundation of their beliefs that abortion should be illegal, and it’s just a whole thing. But so, yeah, my parents and I moved from Canada — Toronto — to Houston in ’94, I think. And I was pretty quickly put into this very conservative Evangelical private school that was attached to the second biggest megachurch in the country. I was there on and off scholarship until I graduated high school. And until maybe eighth or ninth grade, I had started to chafe at certain things, but I didn’t have the language for why.
My parents are definitely not ultraconservative. For example, they are pro-choice, but they never talked to me about abortion once as a child. They were not dogmatic, but they had grown up in the Philippines, and they kind of, I think, had this implicit belief in the superiority of private education that I really disagree with and find incredibly unethical. But it’s like, if you can get a scholarship to a good school, that’s what you should do.
And I think I started to pull away really overtly from the beliefs of the community around me, which were hypercapitalist and pretty openly white supremacist and very conservative, very Evangelical, very anti-abortion. But I am really glad it was formative in many ways insofar as it relates to my writing now. I think what it really did for me is it got me very used to being surrounded by people who disagreed with me, and it forced me to get comfortable being in a place of opposition and understanding that opposition is natural and even maybe healthy and necessary.
And I think it’s helped a lot with the trenches of the internet. And I also am grateful for it now at this point because I don’t think that without that background, I would have any interest maybe in understanding the beliefs of the people that, for example, supported the repeal of Roe. But I have this baseline that will exist forever because of that environment where I do have a line into that mind-set, and I try to keep it open because that mind-set is controlling half of the country at the moment.
Lindsay: Right. So do you feel like because you grew up and had these feelings of opposition to a lot of people around you, that’s what led you to want to write? Or where did you really find that compelling energy to want to write? And what was your start in the industry like?
Jia: Well, I should say, all of that having been said, I had a pretty good time growing up. I think it also taught me about the various ways you can be implicated and take pleasure in complex systems that are not necessarily good for you. So I didn’t come out of there immediately being like, “I’m going to do the opposite of — I’m going to move to Brooklyn and become a democratic socialist.” That was not my immediate instinct in 2005, when I went to college. I always liked writing, but the first person who told me I was good at it was my ninth-grade English teacher; I remember that very specifically. But I had done it all throughout childhood — copious journaler, written little stupid stories for myself.
And I really liked to write in college, I think I took mostly English classes. I majored in English and political science, and I would take creative-writing classes every semester just for fun because UVA had this incredible program. University of Virginia, which is where I went for college. But I still never thought that I could write for a living; that ambition was not present within me in college because I didn’t know how you did it. I didn’t write for the newspaper in college; I just spent all of college drinking, and I don’t regret any second of that. In fact, whenever I talk to college students who are like, “How do I make it as a writer?,” I’m like, “No. Go live. Go work in food service. Go actually learn how to talk to people and live in a lot of different environments.” And I think I just never have known anyone growing up who worked in a creative field at all, and so it didn’t occur to me that I could.
And then I graduated in ’09, and the recession had just happened, and media had cratered in New York, and I was like, Writing is a New York thing, and I’ll never be able to afford to live there. It just seemed very out of reach. So after college I did the Peace Corps; I went to Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia and taught English. And then afterward I came back, and I still kept writing while I was in Peace Corps.
There’s this funny thing that happened to me where I had started to try to write a novel. I was like, Okay, I just want to try to write something that I can — I want to finish a long project. Because I’d written short stories for a long time. And the novel was set on one long day in the New York summer, and the main characters were four really good friends from college. And the name of the manuscript was called Girls. But I lost that entire manuscript when my computer got stolen at an internet café while I was Skyping my boyfriend on Halloween. And I was like, I’m never going to write again. I’m not meant to write. And I was crying and totally despondent. I was like, It’s a sign from the universe that this is not for me.
And then I realized when one of my friends was like, “Jia, the only thing that will make you feel better I think is writing.” I think I realized during that period that I was going to do it no matter what. And so I moved back to Houston, and I was just taking random writing jobs off of Craigslist. I was doing a lot of copywriting, and I was like, How can I get paid to write what I want? What are the ways in which a person can do that?
And the only way that occurred to me was to apply to MFA programs that were fully funded, and the only ones that existed like that were in fiction. So I applied to a bunch of fully funded MFAs where I wouldn’t have to go into debt. I got into one at Michigan and then entered this fiction program there; I was writing fiction. And while I was there, this was 2012 when I got there, this was an era of the internet. It was like the xoJane —
Lindsay: Good era.
Jia: It was the xoJane era of the internet; I think that says it all for the two of us. And I mean it was also the era of the Hairpin and the Awl and Grantland and places like — even the Rumpus was publishing a ton; places that a lot of the sort of flourishing of the internet as a place where people were still really excited to express very personal things about themselves, and Twitter and Facebook were not necessarily the primary.
It was like people read stuff off of their Google Reader. And at this point, it was actually a completely different ecosystem, and there were a lot of places where people or first-time writers could get published, and you would get paid nothing or you’d get paid $50, but you would get edited sometimes well, and sometimes people would read it. And so I started writing for the Hairpin and didn’t get paid. But I loved the Hairpin; I read it every day, it was my favorite website. And I started interviewing adult virgins for the Hairpin — I don’t know exactly why. I mean, it probably goes back to my Christian childhood. But then I started doing that, and then in the middle, I started writing more and more for the Hairpin, always unpaid. But then halfway through grad school, the Hairpin’s editorship turned over to Emma Carmichael, who I didn’t know at all at the time, had never spoken to, but is now one of my best friends in the world.
And she cold emailed me, and she was like, “Would you like to be my co-editor?” And I was like, “What? Of course.” And so I started doing that, and it was halfway through grad school, and it was like a huge door opened. I mean, it was exactly like a huge door opened; I just never thought — I didn’t live in New York, I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know what was going on, I didn’t understand the world of the New York media, whatever. But I edited the Hairpin with her for a while, and then she hired me when she got hired to take over Jezebel. And then in 2016, the day that Gawker went bankrupt, I accepted a job at The New Yorker, where I’ve been ever since. I sort of was like, This is a sign.
Lindsay: It’s time to go.
Jia: Time to go.
Lindsay: Well, speaking of The New Yorker, I do want to talk about your piece, “We’re Not Going Back to the Time Before Roe. We’re Going Somewhere Worse.” Rebecca Traister and I have talked about this a ton, and I’m assuming, in your friend circles, this has just been such a frustrating, filled-with-anger kind of conversation that you’re having with your friends and loved ones and community because it does feel like we’re just going back, and it feels like things are constantly getting worse. And I think, especially for those of us who have to write or work in media magazines, it can feel really hard because it’s not even the kind of situation where you can get away from. And you’re constantly seeing all the updates, all the things happening that are usually bad at once. So how are you processing, and what do you feel like people are misunderstanding about what’s actually happening right now?
Jia: That’s a great question. How am I processing? I think often very badly — just openly very badly. I was profoundly depressed working on that piece and the other things that haven’t come out yet about abortion. I had this wild psychosomatic reaction after the SCOTUS leak where I actually felt exactly the way I did in early pregnancy in 2020. I threw up randomly, and I was so tired that I wanted to lie face down on the floor all day. And I felt fuzzy, and I really think it was psychosomatic, but it felt so uncannily like early pregnancy that I ended up taking a pregnancy test in the Target bathroom above the DeKalb Q stop, just thinking of all the women who have come before me fearfully taking a pregnancy test in that exact public bathroom.
And so how am I managing it? It’s partly badly. The other part, though, and this is something that I’ve also tried to impart to my friends or people that I talk to — not to say it’s exclusively white women, but people who have had more of a mind-set that the world would work in their favor and that they would not be required to do any work, really, to uphold the privileges and freedoms that they deserve but that we in our generation have grown up thinking, I think, would last forever, thinking that we would have abortion rights.
And I’ve just been trying to learn. In my work at The New Yorker, it’s changed a lot since the pandemic. I used to write about all sorts of dumb shit all the time and write about books and write about movies. And then during the pandemic, once I was stuck, once I was living in one room and my interests, I’m not interested in memes anymore; I’m not interested in reviewing an album. All I’m interested in are the protests and mutual aid and climate change. And it really changed what I was writing about. I feel like I’ve tried to remember that, while it is a grind to have your nose in it all day long and to have to form any sort of coherence out of it publicly, all the people that our work puts us in touch with often — the repro activists and volunteers and clinic staffers that I’ve been talking to in Texas since 2011, when the state-level rollback started happening — I keep trying to remember that they find ways to keep going, to continue their commitments, to find rest for themselves, to recommit, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot about how to stay in it from them. And lately — these things are running through my head — I’ve been thinking a lot about that Antonio Gramsci quote, “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.” And that’s really what I’ve been trying to keep in my head since early 2020, every day, really. And try to think that my emotions, my feelings of hopelessness can be one thing, but I can have hopelessness as a feeling but never as a standpoint.
I feel so stupid for having to manage my emotions like this, but I do, and I think there’s also a feeling at this moment, I think, of, We literally have no choice but to be in it.
Jia: We have no choice: We cannot retreat from this. It’s not possible; there’s no option to do that. Paralysis is not even really a viable option in my head anymore. And there have been so many times in my life where it has felt like one and now it’s like, Well, nope, it’s not optional.
Jia: Not even worth enter entertaining as a conversation of like, “Oh, everything’s fucked right now.” It’s like, “Yeah, it’s fucked, but now what?
Lindsay: Yeah. What are you going to do about it?
Jia: What are we going to fucking do about it?
Lindsay: Yeah. And I don’t think that’s stupid at all because I often have the conversation with myself about even the choice to, I think, work in media and specifically do these kinds of jobs and cover the things that we have to cover. I often tell myself, I haven’t really earned the right to give up yet. It can be really hard, and it can be a grind — especially the really terrible days, like the day Uvalde happened; you just want to sit there and cry, and it’s upsetting. And I mean, there’s been so many mass shootings even since then, and it feels like nothing is changing, but we still have to continue on and press on and move forward and try to make things better, even if that feeling is hopelessness because it’s not fair to this current generation or the next one after us.
Jia: Yeah. And we’re lucky too. Yeah, Uvalde, I mean, of course, that one, I could start crying right now just thinking it.
Lindsay: Oh, yeah. Me, too.
Jia: Even with that, you think about the medical examiners that had to take in the bodies of those children and then the bodies of all those migrants that were found in that truck. And those people don’t have an option to stop working, but we get to sit behind our laptops, at least — we are, in so many ways, so much more protected. And yeah, with the repro stuff, I just always am just thinking about, at this moment, there are hundreds of volunteers on the phone with people saying, “Here is your plane ticket. Here is how I got you a direct flight so there are no checkpoints.” All of these things. And I feel actually really braced by that. I think it’s been good for me to remember in various ways, We’re in this together, and we need everyone’s little movement, wherever it is.
Lindsay: Right. In your article, you described the future as being worse than any past that we could return to. What do you feel like that actually looks like?
Jia: Oh, yeah. You asked earlier, I think, what are people not understanding right now?
Jia: Well, one of the big things is that I think this might be a real thing for people around our age, which is we’re, in a lot of ways, a generation that has not had to engage, that has believed the “end of history” thing, that we were on this teleological path toward increasingly perfected liberal democracy, and once a freedom existed, it would exist forever. And I mean, I really instinctively felt that in my bones for a really long time. It wasn’t until we were in our teenage years, at least, I think that many of us started to understand that was actually not happening.
And I think that one of the things that is being misunderstood is Roe took so much effort and organizing and radical work to get that protection. Took decades and decades and decades of work, and we’re going to have to engage in prolonged radical collective action to get anything done that we want. And that’s something that some people, and myself included probably at an instinctive level, have a hard time accepting. It’s like that realization doesn’t compute with the speed at which information and other kinds of change happen in our brains.
Jia: The actual change of winning rights and making actual real changes, it is several thousand times slower than anything else our brains are used to. And I think everyone’s always hoping for a hand-of-God situation that will just reverse it. And it’s like, No, this is going to be a ground game for fucking decades. And it’s going to require people to attend meetings and make phone calls, things that people, I think, really have thought we shouldn’t have to do that. It’s like, No, we’re going to have to go to a fucking meeting.
But when I was saying that we’re not going back, we’re going somewhere worse: I don’t know to what extent this is a persistent misconception, but you go to protests — all the repro protests I’ve been to over the last several years — there’s always the coat-hanger imagery. And I think perhaps people don’t understand that this is not going to be a situation where people are bleeding out because they tried to induce an abortion with a coat hanger in their bedroom.
I mean, there will be unsafe, self-induced abortions for sure, but we have the abortion pill now. Over half of American abortions are already through the pill; they’re extremely safe, although medication abortions still require access to follow-up care, which is in many ways off the table for people in prohibition states. But illegal abortions no longer have to mean unsafe abortions; that’s a huge change. But the worst part is that we’re in a completely different landscape of corporate and state surveillance than we were in the time before Roe. You could in the past go somewhere and get a procedure and come back home, and the only record would be your plane ticket. Now, as soon as you even think about it, and you check —
Lindsay: Put it in your phone.
Jia: — “flights to Colorado,” “abortion clinic, Colorado,” let’s say, that is registered. Let alone your travel, let alone your call to a help line, let alone anything. There’s a dragnet of surveillance in place that will make every abortion extremely trackable by the state or by individuals, by prosecutors, by individuals in states with bounty laws like Texas. That’s an enormous change. And there’s also, I think, one thing about this iteration of the anti-abortion movement: It has become as radicalized as the GOP itself has. It’s like it’s followed this parallel path post-Trump where it’s suddenly anything goes; any open cruelty is so much more acceptable now on the right. For example, there are 11 states that passed abortion bans with no exceptions for rape and incest — that’s a level of unthinkable, unbelievable cruelty that even the radicalized protestor fringe in the ’80s and ’90s would never have gone to.
Jia: Now you openly have people calling for mandatory psychiatric custody of women who get abortions. And then the last two things I’ll say about this is that I think that what is coming is inevitably — the movement is not saying this right now — there are ways that states can shield their own doctors from being prosecuted by conservative states for providing abortions to residents of those conservative states. If those attempts are successful, the goal is eradicating abortion, and the only way to achieve that goal is to punish the people that get abortions themselves. So I think that is coming very swiftly down the pipeline.
And then the other enormous aspect is — and the internet’s been talking about this nonstop — the effects abortion bans will have on ordinary pregnancy, where every miscarriage in a prohibition state could, if the pregnant person is otherwise deemed suspicious by reasons of poverty or race or anything else, that miscarriage can be investigated as a possible abortion, as a possible crime, opening their entire life up to surveillance. There’s so many ordinary pregnancy conditions, like an ectopic pregnancy and just ordinary miscarriage, that will not be able to be safely managed in these states. And even things like IVF. I have no instincts about how all of this will play out in those states as a year of this rolls on and women who consider themselves anti-abortion realize that they will not be able to get care for an ectopic pregnancy or a miscarriage for a deeply wanted child. But I wonder how long it will take for people that consider themselves anti-abortion to realize that this is what we’re talking about: It goes far beyond abortion; it can affect any pregnancy.
Lindsay: Yeah. Is there a specific worst-case scenario that keeps you up at night as far as the surveillance or just lack of bodily autonomy or general access to medical assistance that you’ve been just ruminating on?
Jia: Oh, man. I’m sorry, I’m going to hit you with several.
Lindsay: That’s fine.
Jia: I’ve been thinking a lot about child pregnancy — people have been up in my shit about saying pregnant people, and it’s not just being trans-inclusive, it’s cause a lot of people who get pregnant are not women because they’re 10 or 11. And I think about that and the fact that the American Pediatric Association had to issue a statement saying it’s not medically safe for a 10-year-old to give birth. But the National Advocates for Pregnant Women have done a lot of work on the criminalization of pregnancy. And there’s a case that I mentioned in my piece of this woman named Latice Fisher, who made $11 an hour, had three kids, had a stillbirth at 36 weeks, and was held on a $100,000 bond, was kept away from her children, was charged I think with — I forget whether it was murder or manslaughter right now. Was charged and spent three years tied up in this ordeal, was punished to this extreme extent over stillbirth.
There’s Brittany Poola in Oklahoma, and all these other cases, convicted of manslaughter for miscarrying before the point of viability, which is such an extreme jurisprudential case. And so far, a lot of the prosecutions of pregnant women — almost all the prosecutions of pregnant women — have been for drug use. But as we know, there are so many things people are told they’re not supposed to do for fear of “harming the baby.” And I think a scenario that is not unreasonable at all — especially if they’re private citizens that are able to sue on behalf of a fetus, which the legal structure is already building to do that — is where a woman could be charged, taken into custody, sued, otherwise restricted from doing anything that could be perceived as potentially harmful to a fetus, which is an extremely wide range of activities.
And then the last one is just pregnancy is really dangerous. Pregnancy kills 800 women worldwide every single day. And I’ve just been thinking a lot about just the ordinary suffering that will be caused by this, the cases that will never make the news because they’re not “extreme” enough. Just someone that will get an infection during delivery and die during the delivery of a child that they didn’t think they were equipped to carry in the first place. Just the people whose lives will silently slip further into poverty, their child’s lives slip further into poverty. The stories that will never make the news. The feeling of that ocean of silent tragedy and silent loss of agency, that kind of oceanic despair is the thing that turns my stomach late at night.
Lindsay: Yeah. I mean, the weight of that is quite impossible for one person to bear. And I think that’s why this feels so hopeless because we’re all just sitting and thinking, It’s really bad, but it’s getting worse. And what can we do to make it better for a lot of other people? Because I think that there’s so much privilege in being a person who, right now, doesn’t care and doesn’t act and isn’t writing about this or talking about this or pushing these conversations with their community.
Jia: I’ve been trying to bully men on my Instagram.
Lindsay: Oh, please do.
Jia: Well, I keep posting links to clinics that are opening or relocating. Right now, just a little plug for Whole Woman’s Health that’s trying to relocate from Texas to New Mexico, and they have a GoFundMe right now. I mean, it’s so sad, it’s so awful, it’s so horrible that they have a GoFundMe, but they do, and it’s important. So if anyone wants to throw a donation that way. But I’ve been like, Men. I’m talking to you, men. Hello, men? One way I’ve also been trying to think about this: Every unwanted pregnancy, every pregnancy that a person is not equipped to carry, every child that a person is not equipped to take care of — I mean, not to say that it is universally tragic and universally life destroying — but I was reminded when I was taking my pregnancy test in the bathroom of the DeKalb Target. I was like, The fact that there is a little world, each of these stories is its own world of just profound suffering and disempowerment. The flip side of that is that every person that is able to get the abortion care that they want, that is autonomy returned to them; that is a world of autonomy and freedom returned to them. And I try to turn it around on myself and be like, Okay, if you can do something that will help one person get it, it’s not nothing at all. It’s an entire world to that person.
Lindsay: Exactly. I mean, you’ve also talked about motherhood as a form of rebellion, and you’ve become a parent. Has that changed your worldview about this issue? What has that meant for your own personal life?
Jia: Well, I mean, it’s been quite a change. But yeah, I had a kid August 2020, pre-vaccine, lovely time to have a baby. But actually I was pretty grateful to be pregnant and to have a baby when I did because, in as much as it was isolating and “scary,” whatever, I also felt really lucky. It was a time where everything felt very static, that the early pandemic feeling where time felt so elastic and so strange. And I was finding it really hard to access any sort of surprise or spontaneous joy in my life. And I think a lot of us were feeling that. And a baby, in as much as it is relentless caregiving from 6 a.m. till 7 p.m. every day, it is a baby, and my daughter, Paloma, was and is a great baby, which is also a huge reason it’s been so good. There’s so much joy, there’s so much surprise, there’s so much change. It’s like my pregnant body was a little ticking clock for me, and when you don’t want a pregnancy, that ticking clock is a fucking nightmare. But for me, it was so welcome. And I actually was writing about it a little bit in the piece I just filed; it was the good things about motherhood more than the difficult things that made me feel, if it was possible, more militant about abortion rights.
It was like, People deserve the chance to do this on their own terms and with some modicum of material stability. A third of American parents struggle to pay for diapers; 17 percent, 20 percent of children don’t have enough to eat. How dare we ask people to stretch their love around this sort of material terror that so many American parents have to all the time? I was so conscious of this little strung-together oasis of security that we were able to make for ourselves and for the baby that it felt very often like a little heaven, and to do it without that strong together security would feel like absolute hell. And yeah, so the baby has changed a lot of things, changed my writing life. I actually have been screenwriting for half the time since I had her because that’s the kind of work that’s much more conducive to life with intermittent — we only had full time child care when she was 1 and a half or something like that. I used to sit down at my computer and focus for eight hours at a time, and that was not possible with a child.
Jia: And so I was seeking out a kind of work that I could do in short bursts of concentration. Screenwriting has served that, and it’s been pretty fun writing-wise. But I think the biggest way, and I was talking to a friend about it last night at dinner, one of the ways that it really changed me is I was always very ambivalent about children. I still am hugely. I think it’s an overtly unethical choice to have a child at this moment, but I also think a lot of my choices are unethical, and I made my peace with that.
After she was born and I felt this large expansion and capacity, I realized that I could make hours more of time in my life that were devoted to caregiving and that were devoted to just being present with someone and being devoted to not producing monetizable information in any way. That there was much more room in my life to live minute by minute in a way that upheld rather than contradicted my values. And I became really determined to not only direct all of that change at her. I think in many ways the heterosexual nuclear domestic ideal is extremely civically destructive — this idea that, I think, we’re taught to locate all of our love and our security and our ambition in the happiness and stability of this little family unit. And I find that so horrible and so exactly counter to the way I want to live.
And so since her, I’ve been trying to be like, Okay, you have these new capacities, and you can’t just direct them at your daughter. You have to learn how you can regularly place your caregiving in the realm of your friends, in the realm of your community, in the realm of other things. And that’s a little bit what I was writing about in that review of Angela Garbes’s great book, which had that headline about motherhood as rebellion, is that the understanding of the foundational value of care in every aspect of our life, and the radical potential of turning that outside the family, has been something that I’ve been thinking about a lot and trying to live by in a lot of ways.
Lindsay: Yeah. I mean, I’m not a mother myself, but I know that being a parent is such an intimate change. It’s something that obviously people can know publicly but very intimate change in who you are and fundamentally how your character develops and changes over time. And I was just curious, as someone who’s also writing so much about Roe v. Wade and that being such a public experience right now, how has legislative moves like the overturning of Roe v. Wade forced your own experience in motherhood and to being such a public experience and having to talk about it more and having to reconcile with that more publicly?
Jia: I’ve always, for better and for worse, both enormously in my own life — temperamentally, I’m an extremely open book; I believe very firmly that people write as the people they are and the person that I am who will say anything to anyone, or did at least before my book came out; I would’ve assumed that I would’ve written about motherhood a lot more before now, actually. Because I have written about so many other aspects of my life at length. So it has actually been one of the more private — it comes up in writing about abortion, and it comes up when anti-abortion people find my Instagram and whatever, but it actually has been an experience that I have yet to really write about the center of how I’ve experienced it, in part, because maybe, as you said, it is so intimate. It’s so particular also.
I mean, one of the reasons that I didn’t — I inevitably thought I would end up writing some pandemic pregnancy personal essay. I was like, My body will produce this whether I like it or not. But one of the reasons that I didn’t was I couldn’t find the right way to write about it. I couldn’t find the right way to write about it without tripping all over myself, trying to apologize for my own considerable privilege. There was this aspect to the pandemic where our lives were so determined by our individual domestic situations —
Lindsay: Yeah, 100 percent.
Jia: — that there was no way to write about motherhood in general because there was no motherhood in general. It was all determined exactly by the partners that we had and the jobs we had and the help we had. There was no way to write about that. And then I found it so unimportant to write about my experience in particular. But I am a journal keeper, and I have written down a lot of things because one thing that parenthood does, it just completely blacks out your memory because you’re so sleep deprived for a really long time. And I read back these days that I’ve forgotten entirely, that I’ve trapped on paper just for a little bit, and maybe eventually it’ll go somewhere; maybe it won’t.
But I definitely don’t feel guarded about talking about motherhood at all. Because I think there’s still, despite the omnipresence of mother shit on the internet, there’s so little of it that represents motherhood as I’ve actually experienced it, which doesn’t fit into the language of the way it’s — for as much as the motherhood internet is so omnipresent, I think people are still fumbling toward a way to actually speak about it in a way that is meaningful and not predetermined.
Lindsay: No, I 100 percent agree. I talk to my sister about this a lot because she has two kids, who are my favorites. And she always felt like the way that people described being a mother or talked about being a mother or even just Googling something, the experience in real life was very different, or that nobody warned her or told her how, in actuality, the experience would really change her life and for a really great purpose and love her kids. But, really, a life-altering thing to obviously bring kids into your world.
Jia: Well, yeah. And I was talking to someone about this last night, too, which was, I think there’s a lot of essentialization motherhood that I find really objectionable. It’s like a lot of things in the conventional socialization of women’s lives, where it’s like you’re given something as an inevitable requirement and then it’s made really — let’s take beauty or anything like that. You’re given this ideal that you’re supposed to adopt as a universal requirement, and you’re made to pay a lot for it, and it’s materially constructed to be this insane obligation. And then that’s just what it becomes. I think there’s a lot of hallowing and sanctification of the superpowers of mothers and the work we have to do and the whatever.
And I’m like, Why don’t we make men do all of this? Why don’t you make your partners do all of this? There are plenty of things that are inherent — there are a few things that are biologically inherent or whatever, maybe. But I think what’s interesting to me about motherhood is all of the things that can be changed about it. What is fixed and what is not? And I’ve found in my experience that a lot is not fixed at all. Yeah, these thoughts are very unformed in my head, but I think that I’m interested in that aspect of it where there’s an entire buried language that people have not learned how to speak.
Lindsay: Yeah, I would definitely agree. What would you say is next? I mean, obviously a ton of Roe v. Wade things I’m sure on your plate to write. But what is next for you? Whether it be work or motherhood and parenting, or what are you thinking about right now?
Jia: One thing that motherhood — slash the pandemic or slash the hangover after my book came out — has done is that it was like I’d been trying to fix my fucked-up relationship to work for a while. I had turned in my book and flown to Miami and read Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing in 24 hours, and I was like, Oh my God, I have to change my whole life. And I was trying to, but nothing really forced that quite like a baby. I was suddenly like, I simply can’t work all the time.
Jia: Well, okay, so here’s a thing about how my brain works: I am almost mentally incapable of thinking ahead more than three months at a time, which mostly serves me really well.
Lindsay: I mean, I don’t really know what I’m doing past tomorrow, so I think that’s great.
Jia: Yeah. But if I even try to close my eyes and think about what’s next, I’m like, I don’t know. Because how could we ever know?
Jia: How could we ever know? And so with work, I’m like, I don’t know what’s coming. I’m working on some long things for The New Yorker, a lot of which will probably involve abortion. I want to do something on one of these criminalization stories. I also have been really wanting to do 9,000 words on one person’s late-abortion story. I think that late abortions are still radically misunderstood.
Jia: And I have these people on my Instagram being like, “Would you support an abortion at nine months?” I’m like, “Shut the fuck up. Read a book.” And writing a lot about that. And then, yeah, I’ve been working on screenplays, and I think for the time being I’m splitting my work life, and I think it helps devoting half of my brain to things that are not depressing and are usually pretty fun. And the creative process, how can I make this more fun for other people?
Lindsay: Right. Yeah.
Jia: That actually has been really helpful in giving me the ability to just sit in the horrible shit and put my horrible TextEdit folder together of horrible statistics and really sit in it. And then when I can’t take it, I can go back to trying to make another joke or something. It’s helped like that.
And another thing that I’m really excited about: My grandmother is turning 100 on October 1. She’s my maternal grandmother; I’ve been really close to her for a really long time. And she used to live in Los Angeles, so I would see her all the time. Every time I would go out there for work, I would go see my Lola. And then she moved back to the Philippines a few years ago, and I had gone to visit her once, but she’s getting really old and the Philippines had closed to noncitizens for travel, and I was like, Oh my God, I’m never going to get to see her again. And she’s never going to get to meet my daughter, and all these things. But I’m taking Paloma to go visit her in October.
Lindsay: That’s amazing.
Jia: And I’m just hoping that by then some sort of technology is invented where my daughter can go safely unconscious for about 17 hours on the flight.
Jia: I was like, Ideally, I would like a big spider to come wrap her in silk, and then I’ll just put her in the carry-on.
Lindsay: That sounds very elegant.
Jia: I know. I was like, Surely this can be invented. Surely there could be some sort of harmless anesthetic that I can give her to be on a 22-hour flight. But we’re going, and that I think is the thing I’m most excited about for the rest of the year.
Lindsay: That’s amazing. My grandmothers were my best friends, so I’m really excited for you; that’s superspecial. Thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate it.
Jia: I’m so glad we got to talk. I’m really glad to meet you.