A Squirrel Stores His Nuts
Once upon a time, long, long ago, when my husband was not my husband but my boyfriend, he would buy me porn for Valentine's Day. Every year, come February 14th, I'd open a four by seven and a half inch package to find nothing fancy, no lingerie or chocolates or jewelry, just the $3.99 special from the video place around the corner from his office. Gypsy Queen. That may have been the first one. A girl is saved from the clutches of her overly affectionate uncles by a gypsy youth who then brings her to his meet his caravan. There were other titles too, like Love Potion #5 (we had not seen 1-4), Bonnie and Clyde: Outlaws of Love (this isn't the same as the one with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway), and The House on Chasey Lane, my favorite, not because it was the best video, but because it starred an "actress"called Chasey Lain and I perceived there to be a pun in the title. I didn't read anything into my husband's choice of videos, it was probably fairly random; he couldn't have spent more than a couple of minutes in the store. But, as they say, it was the thought that counted. We had to turn them off, though, when we actually wanted to have sex because watching them inspired a running critique a la Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Life was good.
So it came to pass that we got married and had children. And, like all the other things in my husband's life that didn't change—his job, his basketball game, his yearly boys' weekend in Vermont, his life—neither did his sex drive. Why should it? In fact, it may have increased, given that during the years I carried and nursed our children I had breasts the size of half cantaloupes. With this in mind, and as we were expecting our second child and having hormone induced sex all the time, I advised him to store up some good sex memories. Like a squirrel stores nuts, I told him, for the long metaphorical winter of the child's first year, during which I would surely have no interest in him whatsoever. The hormones that made me want to have sex almost nightly when I was pregnant were bound, once the baby arrived, to depart. And once they were gone, I would not want to have sex, not even with Eddie Vedder, were that an option.
It is ironic, isn't it, that men witness their wives grow these truly resplendent breasts and at the same time are expressly forbidden to touch them? Well, it cannot be helped. Nature did not intend women to suckle both children and grown men simultaneously. No woman who is nursing full-time feels like having her nipples teased or licked or rubbed or even looked at by anyone who does not measure his age in months. And any man who thinks that a woman wants to stick anything up the same opening that just expelled a seven pound organism, should try it himself, up his opening, such as it is, and see how much he enjoys it.
But I have to say, in the months following the births of our children, the issue wan't just sex. I had a current lack of interest in the broader, more philosophical notion of a husband as well. Father, yes, sure—the kids need a father, and theirs has proved to be an excellent one—but I found myself serenely disengaged from his everyday comings and goings, except with regard to 1) my childcare needs and 2) when we might have dinner because I was usually starving by six.
Then, one day, not long after Emma was born, I happened to come across a short article in a ski magazine about a woman who has three children and a husband with a very demanding, high-powered job. The piece quoted her as saying something like she doesn't bother her husband with any of the details of child-rearing or house-keeping, because after ten years of marriage she wants him to continue to think of her as his girlfriend. It seems that she even tackles home repair jobs on her own. My first thought was, Wow, I'm such a bitch. My next thought was: Is there something to this?
Before anyone gets angry I'm going to answer that question. No. Okay? No. As far as I'm concerned my husband can take what he gets and like it. I am reminded of the various years in my twenties when I went without sex because there seemed to be nobody good to have it with, and, you know, it wasn't so bad. The loneliness was worse. So I didn't feel that sorry for my husband; life's rough all over. At least he had me and the kids.
Sure, I'm tough, but I've got to be. Conventional wisdom and your OB/GYN consider breast-feeding to be a sort of contraceptive. Both because a woman often stops menstruating while breast-feeding and because the super-love hormones released during this time are aimed at the child, not the spouse. However, I have another theory. The defensive wall erected by breast-feeding hormones against the husband/aggressor is an act of self-preservation on the part of the new mother. I think many women, and if by many women I mean just me, that's fine, but I think many women need time to orient themselves to the fact that the world as they have known it has been jettisoned off orbit and into the cosmos, perhaps never to return. While they have happily satisfied their longing for a child—I personally longed good and hard—they have likely sacrificed not only their work but the often thrilling sense of being unencumbered, of freedom and self-determination that existed before. That they have done this knowingly, even willingly, does not change the very fact of it.
Which gets me to wondering just who the ski magazine woman was before she was a wife/mother/handyman/sex toy. (Whenever I picture her now in my mind, and I do, it is in a tank top, shorty short cut-offs, and a tool belt.) Did she have a profession or a dream of one? Or perhaps this is who she always was, a high school sweetheart who got laid in the back of a Chevy Impala parked at the town beach, was handy around the house, and helped raise her siblings. And if she is content with her choices now, more power to her. I didn't really need to read about it, but still, more power to her.
Here's who I was, though. I was this actress/free spirit-ish (emphasis on the ish) person. By the time I met my husband I had agents and worked all the time for very little money and was friends with many other equally busy if still obscure actors. I already had a life. A life I had studied for and trained for. A life I unequivocally felt I belonged in. But it wouldn't have mattered what I did. I could have been anything, really, a doctor or a lawyer or a French to English translator at the U.N. The point is that it was my life.
This is not to say that I didn't want a family. I did. I wanted it, too.
No one ever said I couldn't have both. My husband certainly didn't. But somehow, when push came to shove—that is, when our son was born—something changed in me. My desire to act wasn't diminished but rather I seemed to lose the ability to organize the day in my head, a result, perhaps, of some fatal amalgam of fervent mother-love, breast-feeding, exhaustion, and guilt. I still squeezed in a little work here and there, which made me simultaneously ecstatic and despairing, because the life that went with the work, its daily rhythms, its open endedness, was gone. I love my children ferociously, but there are moments when I feel crushed by the loss and furious at my husband, who for all intents and purposes appears to have gotten off scott free.
Some people say sex becomes more intense for them after they have children. They cry when they orgasm and are almost afraid to look one another in the eye, it's all so much. Sex changed for me, too, not because of what I gained, but because of what I lost. Being an actress was a key part of my identity. It was who I'd wanted to be my entire life, before I ever wanted to be a wife or a mother. It was who i said i was, not only to others but to myself. Sex occurs because of an understanding between two people about who they are—man/wife, jock/cheerleader, Lord of the Manor/upstairs maid. The person I was used to being, the person I liked being when I had sex, seemed to have disappeared. I felt simultaneously bereft and also strangely embarrassed, as though my credibility had been materially damaged. This may sound like an ancillary emotion but it rocked my ego almost completely off it's mooring, and as a disincentive to sex, it trumped many times over the argument about being too pooped from a day with the kids.
I will admit that after the birth of our daughter I tried holding off sexual relations for a while with the occasional hand job. At one point, after about four months, I had to ask my husband if we'd had sex yet. I actually couldn't remember. (My ob/gyn says that an Alzheimer's-like loss of memory occurs during the period when a woman is breast-feeding her child. It's just one more thing. Whatever.) If, in some twisted, near-psychotic way, between feeding my child and struggling for my very survival, I wanted my husband to pay for the fact that having children was, for the most part, a simple addition equation for him, not the complex calculus that it was for me, then so be it. So he suffered for a while. I did not feel then that I could add live-in slut to his bounty.
But he's no dummy. That year he returned from his boys' weekend in Vermont with two gifts. The first was a skimpy halter top. I wore it at dinner with friends and right before desert he whispered to me "You look twenty-five." The second gift was a video with a priceless title: Dirty Fucking Skanks. When I saw that I laughed out loud. It didn't mean that I'd made my peace with him (and when I say him, I mean me) or that I would ever be the mother/maid/girlfriend I read about in the ski magazine, but that night he got laid.I can't tell you what other people feel or do, how they reconcile themselves to the losses they incur when they stop working or the ones they worry they have imposed upon their children for continuing to do so. And I'm sure some people want to have sex all the time no matter what's on their minds. I only know what I've felt and done, mostly because I couldn't help myself, because it was both human nature and my nature, and because my husband showed no inclination to be a house-husband. But I am scrappy—that is also my nature—and when my children get a little older, when I feel they need me just a little bit less, I will pick up the (sad violin music here) broken shards of my former identity. Or I'll sweep them away.
Or better yet, it is my hope, no, my expectation, that in the near to middling future my old self and my new one will agree to some sort of time-share arrangement, where they take turns inhabiting the space of my life, such as is it now, and take turns, as well, having sex with my husband.