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The Library

How Do We Know We're Doing It Right?

Writer Tahmina Begum reviews Pandora Sykes’ debut essay collection


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How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right? From Pandora Sykes, journalist and co-host of the highly successful podcast The High Low, dissects something millennial women are not just grossly familiar with but weighed down by. The myriad of choices.

Choices are not just simply decisions. They are the countless paths our lives could take. They are a mirror to who we are, the kind of company we keep. The yin and yang of overthinking and underfeeling can allow the ‘wrong’ coffee order to shape how we see ourselves that day. Punishing ourselves until we get better. All while ignoring the systemic patriarchal, racist, homophobic and financial inequalities built against us.


Across Sykes’ essays on wellness, motherhood, work/life imbalances, fast fashion and our online versus ‘real’ selves, she explains what it means to be constantly “flattened”. To be the either the “Angst Twenty-Something Millennial”, the “Career Bitch”, the “Badass Black Girl” and so on. (“Women who have been flattened are so much easier to sell to.”)

“Women are taught to see their body in slices,” Sykes writes. This also happens when it comes to women’s minds; our interests are neatly packaged and bottled up as a signal of belonging.

She wrote the book while heavily pregnant (and her last essay while nursing a newborn) — all before lockdown, and so in many ways it offers a microcosmic snapshot of the lives we lived pre-quarantine and the life far too many of us are rushing back to, under the guise of finding our ‘real selves’. Though, what is that exactly?

Using her own experience becoming a mother as an example, she says: “The sense of being both deeply within myself and hovering outside of myself, waiting for the real me to return, is further cut loose by birth and most permanently, by motherhood itself”.

Isn’t this how most of us feel when we discuss post-lockdown? When we can go back to the lives we lived before, because it’s who we’re used to being, even if during this period, we’ve admitted we don’t enjoy much of it? That there’s a perpetual feeling of keeping up with the Joneses? Whether that’s in a WhatsApp group, a sports day at your child’s school, the digital admin of our phones or cocktail hour with friends?

But, as How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right? highlights, the self is not a fixed state. It is constantly moulded, broken down, and built up again. It can be made stronger, by relinquishing control (“In refusing to let go of a stagnant concept of who I was, I almost lost myself entirely,” Sykes writes).

These 242 pages are an (exhaustive, though not depressing) middle-finger to the word ‘should’. A word which justifies women feeling the need to constantly scrutinise every decision; in the name of self-improvement, in order to have the Best Life Possible, at a hundred miles an hour. A word that suggest there’s only one right way to live; ignoring the reality that we’re all made up of a roster of identities.

“This is a reminder to resist complacency and impotency by keeping clear-eyed about the choices that we want to make, and those that do not matter”.

'How Do We Know We're Doing It Right: Essays On Modern Life', by Pandora Sykes, is out now, buy it here.

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