by Aya de León
In December, Kensington Books published my fifth novel, A SPY IN THE STRUGGLE. Prior to that, Kensington had published four Justice Hustlers feminist heist novels. When authors publish new books, it’s an exciting time of looking forward, but also a time for reflection. With each new book, I have a bigger scope for my body of work. What are the issues that I’m exploring? And what am I avoiding? When I look at all five books I realized that nearly all but the debut have protagonists in their 20s. As do the two half-written books I have in progress. I just got a new deal for a YA series, so the next books I work on will have characters in their early to mid teens. I realized this recently, and I began to wonder what I would say about a woman who was closer to my age. I realized that I have no idea.
Part of it is likely the cultural fascination with youth, particularly for women. I have read far more books about women in their teens and twenties than thirties and beyond. Our culture loves coming of age novels, but not aging novels. A novel with an older protagonist would also be harder to sell. With poor and working-class women in the center of my fiction, God knows I’ve had enough trouble selling the novels I’ve written.
And while it would be easy to simply point my finger at the industry, there’s something else operating here, an absence of vision on my end. Perhaps it’s about lacking hindsight. I am far enough out of my teens and 20s that I have what feels like a clear review mirror. I can envision characters grappling with issues from those eras in a woman’s life. But for women in their 40s and 50s and beyond, I either haven’t had the experience yet, or I don’t have a clear perspective about what it all means.
Stories about women their 20s are often about figuring out love and career. My novels are no exceptions. Finding a partner and satisfying work is a major challenge in our society, especially for women. It is quite an accomplishment for a woman to figure this out in her 20s. Some women don’t solve these questions ’til later, if ever. But questions of partnership and career get even thornier after a woman confronts questions about starting a family.
Women in their 20s still have “plenty of time to figure all that out.” As an author, I can write happily ever after endings for these characters that don’t even need to include their position about wanting to become mothers. Even though I do extensive back stories, I really have no idea whether many of my protagonists in their 20s even want kids. The only exception is one character from my series, because I intend for her to have an unplanned pregnancy in a future book. As for the rest of them? I have no clue. This is because the position of “wanting kids someday” is a comfortable and vague desire for a woman in her 20s. But once we hit our 30s, we are under a different kind of pressure in this culture. By the mid-30s, we separate into three groups, each targeted differently.
Group 1 is women who want a partner and kids. Things could be going great if a woman is on a societally acceptable track to make it happen. These women are married or monogamously partnered, most likely with a man, but could be a woman. They are making all the right career moves to be able to support a family in this difficult economic landscape. For women who want kids but don’t have a partner, a stable partnership or an economically stable partner, this can be incredibly stressful.
Group 2 is women who don’t want kids or don’t organize their lives around the desire to build a traditional family. Single women, non-monogamous women, career-focused women, or women in partnerships who want to stay childless are sort of pariahs in our culture. If a woman is partnered and both partners want to stay childless, the woman faces stigma outside the relationship. If the male partner wants kids, she may face pressure inside the relationship.
Group 3 is women who aren’t sure if they want kids. Or aren’t sure that they want to make the sacrifices necessary to fulfill that dream. This is an incredibly stressful situation, because the society will keep reminding us: the clock is ticking.
A few years ago, I was at a personal growth workshop for women in their 40s. I noticed that we broke down easily into four major quadrants: women with and without kids and women with and without big careers. The women without kids and/or careers felt like they were missing something. The moms were overwhelmed, and the moms with kids and big careers were drowning.
Certainly there are women with the kind of financial resources that allow them to keep from being overwhelmed or drowning even with kids and careers. This is because motherhood and big careers require tons of labor—more than any one person can comfortably do by herself. Wealthy women can outsource huge portions of their career and domestic work. Assistants, nannies, housecleaners, and other workers–often less privileged women–can ease the load. But most of us face economic challenges in parenting, and we are likely to be the main ones doing all the parenting and domestic work.
This includes those happy women in their 30s from group 1, who were on track to have a family. It’s a comfortable position to have everything in place to have kids, but it’s a far more challenging position to actually be doing the labor of raising them.
As for me, I am a woman who has a kid and a big career and is drowning. I am proud of myself for figuring out how to write and move my career forward during these challenging years, but I am far from figuring out how to do it elegantly. I can’t imagine what I would want to write about for a character in my position, because so much of my life is about doing things that are boring or repetitive or annoying or just not what I want to be doing. It’s easier to write about childless women having adventures than overwhelmed moms. Having lived childless through my twenties, I can write about that. I don’t really want to write about women in my circumstances. And I lack insight into the lives of older characters in different circumstances. What is dating like beyond woman’s mid 30s? What it would be like to be childless in my 40s? No idea.
I have a novel in progress about a woman in her 20s who has an unplanned pregnancy. This is my first attempt at tackling this question. But just writing about it here has encouraged me to age the protagonist of another work-in-progress, my corporate espionage series, from 20s to 30s. Perhaps she will have some family or cultural pressure to marry and start a family. Which will be interesting to balance as a spy.
Meanwhile, I seem to be going backwards. I have another work-in-progress where the protagonist is twelve. In this way, my perspective is showing up because I’m becoming the same age as the moms in the YA and middle grade books.
Perhaps I’ll need to be in my 60s or 70s before I have enough perspective to write fiction about women in their 40s and 50s. But I can also tell my own story. I’m working on a memoir that definitely chronicles multiple decades of adult womanhood and moves through motherhood. I haven’t been able to make a lot of progress, because memoir requires a deep type of reflection that—unsurprisingly—I can’t seem to get in my working artist mom pandemic life. But maybe when I do write it, it will unlock all sorts of fiction that I want to write about women in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond. And that’s what we can all do, tell the stories of our lives, not just from our teens and twenties, but through all the stages of our lives. Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing fiction about women and girls of different generations who band together and support each other. In my stories, as in my reality, women fight together with the goal that all of them—and beyond that all women—get to have good lives.
Aya de León teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley. In spring 2021, she will be a visiting professor in the graduate creative writing program at the University of San Francisco. Kensington Books publishes her award-winning feminist heist series, Justice Hustlers, and in December 2020 Kensington published her first standalone novel, A SPY IN THE STRUGGLE, about FBI infiltration of an African American eco-racial justice organization. Her work has also appeared in Ebony, Essence, Guernica, Writers Digest, Bitch Magazine, Mutha Magazine, VICE, The Root, Ploughshares, and on Def Poetry. Aya just sold her first YA Black/Latina spy girl series to Candlewick Press.