A few years ago, in a personal exorcism I suppose, I wrote a personal narrative that relates to the topic of Ken’s post. All of us, but I think women more, are torn between our will or ego or simple desire to be alone and our need to connect with others in family and community, to lose ourselves (that ego) in something bigger – our loves, our families, our jobs, our religions, even our countries. When we talk about giving life meaning we usually are not talking about pure expressions of will. But, when we talk about being ourselves, becoming ourselves, we aren’t talking about being a part of a whole but being that single, willed self. We know the fear that is central to The Awakening, that the newly self-conscious but generally clueless Edna feels that her children will pull her back into unconsciousness, will compromise her willed self. We may think she is silly, but her experience, told in 1899, really foretells the century rather nicely. On the other hand, we suspect that her isolation from her sisters, her husband, her friends signals that, maybe, her choice arises from something that she has lost, something rather precious. Anyway, so I wrote this ridiculously long and personal narrative because I (and I suspect others) do feel a pull between the individual and the communal, the scholarly and the familial, the ego and submersion in something larger than us. It is a girl thing – I know – discursive, personal. But, still, the article Ken discusses is a girl thing, too. It is just that it is also a guy thing, in the end.
I entertained a college boyfriend with my fantasy: six ancient wailing women in flowing black would accompany me to the altar. Not surprisingly, he, too, became ambivalent about the wedding we discussed endlessly (and, as it turned out, pointlessly). Years later, at twenty-nine, I did marry, having found a good father for the children I intended to bear. Old fashioned, conventional: that was me. Although wary of storybook weddings, I saw transcendence in that ancient institution. Of course, those wailing women meant something; much of my life has passed and I am only beginning to understand what they mourned.
Impetuously, simply, I wanted to get married in my parents’ living room. So, I phoned after Thanksgiving, announcing we would drive eight hundred miles from Austin to Nebraska at Christmas. I’ve never had style, always screwed up protocol; such a fait accompli simplified. My father had never liked my male friends. Some were pretty sorry; with even the best I would not have stayed happy (nor they with me) for a lifetime. Although he hadn’t been wrong, it was less wisdom than crankiness he cultivated. But I think another pull, as strong as that of family, was for place. One of my few unconditional loves is for Nebraska–taking a new name, a new life, I acknowledged my vestigial Nebraskaness.
Whatever my parents’ reservations, relief dominated. They treated my unmarried aunt with contempt. Unhappy couples often see single women as odd numbers at some cosmic dinner party–an obscene, or at least unnatural, disruption of the harmony they idealize. They suffer from a view not unlike the homophobia of the closet homosexual. Or guilt: my aunt’s life had been stunted to accommodate my demanding and humorless grandmother. My family’s casual, nasty tone toward my quiet, supportive aunt still makes me shiver. My marriage seemed a betrayal of her, an acceptance of my parents’ measure of a woman.
So, my feelings were complex. At a tea, a woman my mother hated and I didn’t like much, introduced me as “Ginny Sue, who is finally getting married”; a wisecrack caught in my throat. Whatever I felt was too raw, too undigested for humor. I did not look at my mother whose fear–so powerful it was a threat as I grew up–was that I’d never marry. The woman presiding over the tea had always known how to push my mother’s buttons.
Marriages may be substance, but weddings are style. We aimed at the plain style’s strength but achieved neither its assurance nor elegance. My ambivalence baffled my husband. A good-sized farm boy, my father took to him; they retreated, sharing that prerequisite for male bonding–both held liquor well. My father was unimpressed by my husband’s scholarship (which has supported our family), but the fact his daughter’s betrothed had written a novel (which eventually bought us lunch at McDonald’s) pleased him immensely.
Friends dropped by. One was Toc, arriving with his wife’s sister, Susie. I’d known the sisters for a decade, been a bridesmaid at Toc and Sandy’s wedding, gorgeous with flowers from Toc’s florist shop. A few years later, she flew east, hoping to “break into the Metropolitan.” (She never did, sang in nightclubs, returned with anecdotes although a few years of that Lincoln to New York commute led to a broken marriage.) My friends were restless. My husband’s friends, corporate lawyers and high school counselors, were steady, but their lives were circumscribed, ours were not. For instance, Susie told us she was setting off to teach in the Outback. Australia, with its vast, unpeopled spaces, had always beckoned. But my husband, ever the attentive son, turned to his mother, asked if she would like such a move. This gesture was meant to reassure. He might as well have suggested Mars: she went into the kitchen to cry. He didn’t reassure me.
So, we come to the dress. I’ve never understood (nor wanted to) my mother-in-law’s motives, but she presented me with a Wedgewood blue floor-length dress from Wards. I thought I’d buy another. But, in the end, I wore it. Only a year or two before my dresses came from mod English boutiques. I’d gained weight, the swinging minis now a year or two old were not quite so sexy on my enlarging thighs; still, my clothes were more often Mary Quant than Wards, in the right clothes my figure was still ripe rather than dowdy.
Thumbing my nose at my home town, at Kenesaw? No, I don’t remember that. Before the priest, in my parent’s living room, my mini-skirted, sexy self would be sacrificed–transfigured into the dutiful housewife in house dress. Not that this illusion was derived from my mother’s life nor lived out in my own: my floors are not mopped nor my tables polished, I bake no angel food cakes. If our house is cleaned, a domestic service has been in; if dinner is on the table, my husband prepared it; we go decades without setting up an ironing board.
That dress did not make me enthusiastic about wedding pictures. But Mulligan offered. We had worked at the mental hospital a decade earlier. The first time I met her, she was sitting in a circle with the adolescents we were tending; she joined in when they started throwing lighted cigarettes at one another. I never learned how to deal with our charges, but this didn’t seem the best approach. That fall she returned to a Catholic girls’ college in Sioux City. However, she was expelled after a suicide attempt; our friendship was renewed when she came home to do battle with her mother. Eventually, we did the European tour in late sixties style – hitchhiking through southern Italy, valuing anecdotes more than safety, experience more than culture.
Well, I thought, this is excellent. Her arty photos of disintegrating farm houses were lovely, blurred, absorbing. In my manifestation as middle-aged housewife, I sometimes forget that her life was both less tawdry and less melodramatic than mine. Those memories–that self– were already beginning to slip away. My husband, who believes, I suspect, that I exaggerate more than I do about my life then, thinks I should have seen danger signals. Well, maybe. She seemed everywhere that day, loading roll after roll of film. In Texas, no pictures arrived. Finally, we heard: all those rolls had disappeared. (Why, you might ask, would anyone want pictures of an unusually frumpy wedding? They were in an expensive camera case.)
Years later, an old friend told me he’d heard that Mulligan’s brother, looking through the property room at the police station, was surprised by pictures of nudes, their mother (by then dead), a frumpy wedding. But I have not heard from her and still have only two or three snapshots from the entire wedding–taken by other relatives for other reasons. Usually, the focal point is someone in the middle (my brother wanting to catch a picture of his beautiful daughter) while my husband and I (perhaps appropriately) float around the edges.
My husband felt irrelevant: my second cousin brought her organ to play the wedding music; my uncle, a county judge, arranged for our license; my only niece lighted the candles in the living room; my brother stood up for him, my sister for me. We ignored his heritage–one he felt strongly, immersed in a large and tight extended family back in Texas. No Czech blessings, no Czech wedding marches, no Czech pastries, no Czech barbecue.
He certainly wouldn’t have chosen my cousin, the Episcopal priest. He wasn’t representative of anything we believed in–secular or spiritual. Of course, he did have style, if a bit pompous; he gave the ceremony its minimal dignity. He had, I assumed, converted because he liked to dress in robes. We had shared the same study hall, gone to the same (Presbyterian) church, played the trombone in high school. My cousin had been a cruel and deeply disturbed person. Perhaps this was past tense. We were to call him by his new name; he’d dropped his first and moved on to a more elegant second.
He was family, Kenesaw: his mother and mine had grown up together, our grandmothers cousins, bound by little affection and much history. Perhaps the ties were deeper because we shared certain interests. A campus minister, he was working on his English doctorate.
With only a week to go that bleak December, we sat down for the minister’s stiff formal questioning. He pointed out that we really didn’t need to marry; we could live together. Did we feel marriage was necessary? He seemed to think this option would not have occurred to us. I explained we both loved the Victorian vision, rippling in soft cadences at the conclusion of Middlemarch. We valued the communal; we saw duty and love intertwined; we wanted to express our love through our family, through vows. We probably weren’t lucid–that week is a blur. Certainly he didn’t seem impressed with our allusions and moved on to small talk.
As chaplain at the women’s prison, he had gotten to know the woman who accompanied the most famous mass murderer in our state’s history. Their rampage inspired our youthful nightmares. The two slew her family, after torturing her toddler sister. Their violence shocked in a way I’m not sure it would now, but the women at the mental hospital, where the fugitive girl/woman had first been taken after the couple (covered with sex and gore) were arrested, remembered her in midnight talks. They told stories of the jurors who needed counseling after seeing the evidence. Her boyfriend was executed. Only fourteen then, she was now up for parole, having been, as they say, a model prisoner. My cousin believed she should be released. I didn’t argue, not sure how I felt.
As he continued, however, I became more uneasy. He believed, he said, she was now a different person. He was not who he had been, he said; he would not like to be held accountable for the things he’d done when he was thirteen or fourteen. Perhaps this was thrown out casually–with a smile, acknowledging pranks. Or was it a weak apology? Or his coded defense? Because I remembered and suspect he knew I remembered. The predatory sexuality of his adolescence (perhaps not rape, but five years is a large difference) had damaged his sister’s life; indeed, the shadow of his words more than his deeds had darkened mine. And it affected the next generation in his family. Left without roots, without calm confidence in their considerable talents, his sister’s children were denied much by their mother’s fecklessness. She had married out of high school, married the kind of man that let himself be found in bed with the babysitter; the certainty that protects us from the wrong men, the extra drink, that gives us confidence despite our inexperience at our first job, that sets us out to explore the world–all that had been denied her. His sister’s eyes remain shadowed, her life driven. But that sister and that brother had had a mother whose tongue was sharp–I remembered that, too. It is the aggressive and destructive weapon our now loosely connected family shares.
And my cousin had changed, not just by taking on the robes. He’d grown older, a decade had passed since those high school years. We aren’t unconnected moments in time as he seemed to argue; still, when new points are added the old ones rearrange themselves into new patterns. In his few remaining years (he died young), he studied genealogy, finished a second book on that Nebraskan Willa Cather. Perhaps this was his way of coming to terms, connecting the past with the present.
Our marriage has held. I like to think our Austin friends recognized something. I suspect, however, they had illusions about our wedding, eight hundred miles away. When we returned, they announced they wanted a wedding like ours. They, too, were living together, most of the way through graduate school; like my husband, the groom was a Victorian.
The bride-to-be’s mother took command, with an attention to detail that would have served Eisenhower on D Day. First, she set the wedding date off approximately six months–so the appropriate hill country wildflowers would bloom along the walks. By Easter vacation, she had decided that not only were no wedding dresses in Austin adequate, the dresses of San Antonio, Houston and Dallas did not measure up. She sent her daughter (almost thirty) to New York to shop for the appropriate dress, veil, and other more obscure perfections.
She took care of the rest. Ceremonial white tents shaded their backyard; guests were protected from the gaping eyes of the townspeople by a newly erected fence outlining their property. Huge flower pots bursting with hot pink flowers hung from the center of the tents and lined the front porch. She had hired a mover to cart all the furniture away in the morning, so the crowd of wedding guests could stand in an elegantly minimalist and polished living room. The movers refilled the house as the last guests leaned back under a cool white tent. We were satiated–we’d drunk scotch and bourbon; our champagne was attentively replenished by waiters whose crisp white jackets hadn’t wilted in the Texas heat; we filled and refilled our plates with strawberries and heavy cream, avocados and caviar, and mounds of shrimp. We laughed at the stories the father of the bride told and enjoyed the strolling Tejano band. After we left, the newlyweds would slip off to an historic San Antonio hotel, carrying a ribboned picnic basket of champagne and pate and brie and baguettes. As we sat, chatting about Matthew Arnold, the newly married couple held hands, beamed at us; they had, they said, wanted a wedding like ours–a wedding at home. Of course, in that lush Texas summer backyard rather than the Kenesaw Legion Hall, their guests couldn’t be entertained by a televised Big Red championship. But, I consoled them, you can’t have everything.
Time pressed on me in my teens, harder in my twenties–its breath hot on my neck, ever closer. We joked about our biological clocks but sometimes the jokes fell flat. And I fled through dark nights–out of Kenesaw, circling the capitol in Lincoln for five years, then deep into the dark, urban nights. South Chicago in the late sixties was not always safe, but it wasn’t as dangerous as we liked to pretend. I mastered the urban walk–fast, hard, don’t look anyone in the face. Look busy, look secure, but most of all, look purposeful. But it was lack of direction that made the walk fast and even frantic. I’d come home tired, breathless–then, fall asleep.
Years before, at a high school slumber party, we described our images of future selves: I saw myself at a hearth, circle skirt (this was early sixties) spread wide. A good-sized man, his arm around my shoulder, sits beside me. There are books and children and perhaps a big dog. Another girl saw herself alone, driving a shiny convertible very fast, through mountain scenery. She has never married, knowing even then her intense and frequent high school flirtations were an imitation, a well-done performance, expressing social not biological pressures. I suspect we know who we are, although becoming that person is not always easy.
A few years before that slumber party, I stepped from the shower, stood, brushing my wet hair. But that sunny day, when a drop of blood fell on the floor, an electric shock ran through me: I reached out my hand to steady myself or I would have fallen. Shaking, I understood; it took my breath away and made my knees weak. The womanly power revered in primitive societies was within me, as I teased my hair and pulled up the starched petticoats of the late fifties. Our Protestant church offered no Bat Mitzvah, our Anglo tradition no quinceaneras, our plains life no debutante balls–without initiations, this passage came upon us unaware. Becoming what I was–what I am–required hanging my hammock beside the man I’d chosen as father of my children, an act at once abdication and assertion of self.
In the sixties we blew tradition away; we believed the pill’s dissociation of self, sex, and procreation liberated us. But I felt a hot breath on my back. In Chicago, in Italy, in Greece, as I walked, I remembered the wicker baby carriage, tucked in a closet back in Nebraska. An old boyfriend (he of the wailing women fantasy) had found it at Goodwill, bought it, loving it and loving his image of me pushing it. I awoke singing the morning after our final fight (a parting I’d fought hysterically). I’d been trapped and only then knew it. Still, I kept that baby carriage.
Those years I treasured the blank nights spread before me, waiting to be filled with books and movies, but the stream of eccentrics who moved through my life, my anecdotes, my bed weren’t satisfying. I knew I was putting in time. Sometimes I thought of my first passion, a man met that breathless freshman year in Lincoln: I awoke after our first date buoyant, singing then, too. We shared little. I think it was his reticence I liked; he was tall and incredibly thin; even then, I worried about my weight; he was blonde, I was dark. Of course I dated plenty of eccentrics–the Iranian and Cuban immigrants and divorced sailor living with his disreputable mother, anarchists and Birchites, SDS types and the guy who thought he was Bob Dylan–all were certainly “other.” But the tall blond offered me a blank canvas: I loved his engineer’s inarticulate, opaque, coldness–the pure liberal arts in me could create him as complement. My friends were gay and laughed at my heterosexuality–that archetypal craving for completion in opposition. I laughed, but emptiness terrified me; I was always more afraid of what wouldn’t happen to me than of anything that would. I’ve never lost that fear.
Little boys often pad themselves, telling us they are going to have a baby. Minutes later, they aggressively tease–with loud voices and play guns–little girls, who enjoy screaming (having kept a calmer and more judgmental eye on the boys). We step in, sort things out, instruct the boys in chivalry and the girls in independence. We want rivers to flow in appropriate channels; we know how destructive, but also how generative that natural force is. I watch my daughters circled by assertive, nervous, and vulnerable boys. The girls generally have an assurance of their sexuality but that is not always helpful in a society that values the self roaming free and untethered. We often value bravado more than confidence.
In front of a painting in Florence, I made some fatuous remark to an American with backpack. (Actually I wasn’t so stupid I didn’t love Italian art; however, my trip to Europe had been driven by two awful relationships which bred cynicism toward the cult of the Madonna.) I don’t remember what I said but I do remember he turned on me, his anger intense: “You can have babies. Can’t you be satisfied with that?” I’d hit a trip wire, shrapnel flying. I don’t know if he remained angry or was just embarrassed. Uncomfortable, we kept clear of one another.
I was startled because those words forced me to recognize that ghost at my back–the one I was trying so hard to ignore. I wanted to be angry at him, to categorize him as “male chauvinist”. But I couldn’t. I felt guilty; knowing my ambivalence betrayed the liberation that had freed me so completely for that year’s journey. But his words stung me into acknowledging what I knew – that my time was awasting. Today, haunted by other ghosts, I have finally made peace with that one (reinforced by biology). But I hear his voice in the vulnerable and defensive anger of men at what feminists call “uppity women”, in the gentle chivalry of references that spoke of my marriage as much as my dissertation. Later, starting a business, it was with that voice salesmen and bankers patronized me. But I feel sympathy as well as irritation. I remember those little boys padding themselves and that young man’s anger. Life for my daughters will not be easy. But those circling little boys are not to be envied, either. As my oldest daughters begin on the path of scholarship, I sense they, too, feel that hot breath at their backs.
Years before, at the end of the summer I left for college, I wandered through our school. The superintendent called me into his office, perching intimately on the arm of my chair. His motives were mixed, but he was serious when he spoke of duty, that Kenesaw, communal value. But it wasn’t duty to family or even community he described. It was a more public duty (and a more ego-driven one). In the plains sun, walking home that afternoon, I felt dizzy, had to steady myself. My memory of that afternoon is surreal, but now I’ve come to understand: my mind, too, offered a potential that left me breathless. This was another way to become what I was. I longed for classes to sit through, books to read and puzzle out. This was the richness of life I’d find in those dark wood classrooms in Lincoln and then Texas; that would blossom in long talks over coffee and words on paper. But, I kept asking in the next years, who am I? Or, more importantly, who should I become? Always, there are the two ghosts and two sets of regrets.
So I married; the voice within became the voice at my back. And my life began as wife. The fulfillment I’d taken for granted (laughter in classes and long talks over cokes, searches for the right word to explain and right quotation to prove) became memory. But so did emptiness. When I have regrets, a voice calls up the stairs. My daughters stride through life: the oldest on toe, arguing politics; the middle at the cello, curled up reading Brother Cadfael; the youngest kneeling at Montessori, splashing water in our backyard. A center, strong and rooted, has grown where the emptiness was; I’ve found what I sought in those long walks and fleeting relationships.
My husband was put on the tenure track; we had a daughter; a year later I was teaching freshman composition. The bible of those years (one passed around among us hopeful spouses, mostly female) was Dressing for Success. Malone advised the neutered look–we were supposed to remind the men in power (and men were still pretty much all who were in power) as little as possible that we were women. The style he said polled best tended toward navy, pin-striped, small ties. Standing at the blackboard, describing the importance of thesis sentences, I felt the front of my turquoise blouse slowly dampen, its silky texture sticky. As the stain spread, I knew I’d blown the dress for success look. I had breasts and a womb–presences occasionally inconvenient. Perhaps they were inconvenient as lottery winnings might be, but this abundance was not so easily left with a good stockbroker.
American culture loves the loner. British fiction resolves much with marriages. Those are seldom our narratives. Shane and Rick of Casablanca, Ishmael and Huck Finn and Joe Christmas–but it isn’t just the men; Isabel Archer and Hester Prynne and Lily Bart and Edna Pontieller stand at the edge of and in opposition. We acknowledge connection to place and community and generations but see it as tenuous. The mythic us looks back to such characters as Natty Bumppo, casting a tall shadow alone on the horizon or the modern detective speeding down the freeway. We love movement, assertion of self, striding unencumbered across our vast landscape–a stride hard to maintain with a baby at the breast. American feminists rage against books and tales that end with marriage, their anger implying these are social constructs imposed upon the individual. They share this perspective with the libertarians, the militia. And with one of the selves that is me.
From 1963 to 1979, I was an erratic, often irritating, student, concentrating, finally, on those lonely American heroines. By the time I was pregnant, I’d taken courses in literature and language–from Latin drama to modern poetry, from restoration drama to homophile studies. I could remember them all–and reading seventeenth century sermons while working at the mental hospital, fighting about Hawthorne’s characters and discussing point of view in James until dawn broke; hitchhiking alone, I read Euripides by the side of the road in Greece and Hemingway in France. It was drafts and drafts and final papers; sixteen years getting to know Jane Austen and John Donne and William Burroughs; staggering out of the library, nearly blind from hours bent over microfiche of Puritan autobiographies; going through security to puzzle out D.H. Lawrence and Hammett manuscripts. And finally, I pulled together tarot cards and Ingmar Bergman and Henry James. My committee treated my dissertation with polite wariness; it wasn’t brilliant, it was huge and discursive, it was immensely personal, because I wanted it–me–down, on paper, knowing it would stand on a library shelf, unopened, until it fell of its own weight and dust.
I left that world. I’m not sure why – perhaps for the same reasons I pulled on that blue dress. Perhaps because. . . well, because I didn’t want to be patronized. I didn’t want a job–those instructorships and “visiting adjuncts”– because of my husband’s work and not my own, I didn’t want a non-tenure track job when the men I’d bested in graduate school were given a straight shot. Perhaps. . . perhaps I also wanted to flex my muscles, to show that I could make a place in the “real world.” If I’m honest, I must admit that the truth beneath all the anecdotes and chaotic busyness was that I’ve always been afraid of sitting out life. So, now, I filled myself with business–it was mine and it shoved out regrets.
I nurtured that business–On the Double, “The Professional’s Copy Shop” — for thirteen years for seven days a week, morning until midnight. Xerox machines hummed in the background; other sounds crowd my memory–the door opening and customers at the counter, talk and tension and laughter. My memory is thick with faces–of customers chatting and confiding, of customers complaining and customers paying; other memories, other faces–employees laughing and signing on and signing off and crying and getting pregnant and getting married and getting graduated. The clock dominated the room. And everywhere pieces of paper–paper from the copier and paper from the printer, bills and deposits, notes and letters. Always, the phone ringing. By the time I sold the business, I was saturated with others’ problems and others’ lives, with noise and faces and paper. The early jokes and energy succumbed to weariness. I’d come to feel isolated, knowing the fear, the icy ball in the pit of my stomach, that came when a machine broke, a job went wrong, a bill came due, an employee stole. These were my problems, no one else’s. But my solutions had weight: whether that staff (grad students, kids beginning college, middle-aged women) who worked so hard for me would get a check in two weeks depended upon my work, my solutions. I learned. I grew up.
And I became conventional. Before, I had walked on the wild side; my flirtation with the forbidden was often (but not, in the end, all) talk. Many of us walked that walk for the anecdotes that came our way. Now life had little popular plot, little drama. I remembered a course from Lincoln, what seemed a lifetime before. The teacher breezed in, syllabus in hand, announcing four weeks on Dreiser and one on Wharton. One, he explained, is about murder and sex and economic systems; it is about power. The other, he said with disdain, is about whether a man will leave his wife. I remembered him as I watched thirtysomething, exhausted, with a child curled up beside me and payroll to get out. Well-written, the series attempted the rounded characterizations of psychological realism; it was not (or not always) ideological. Like Wharton, these writers (predominantly women) were interested in the personal: again, whether a man would leave his wife, but also the proportions that balanced career and child, determined whether a son is circumcised or how a parent is eulogized. The resolutions are compromises; the values asserted are those of the traditional novel–loyalty, duty, love, faith. The series was concerned with identity, religious and familial commitment. Certainly, it merited attacks–occasionally pretentious with plot turns showing writers looking over their shoulders, trying to please. The characters (as often in Wharton and James) seemed inbred, their problems precious. However, much criticism was less about its art than its proportions–heavy on the domestic. And I remembered my teacher, who, even twenty years before, I thought was wrong.
Of course, I’ve paid my dues–sixteen years in college, thirteen in business. But life–real life–was between the walls of our house. My mother-in-law, nannies, an au pair, Montessori–I didn’t do it all, as much, perhaps, as most; still, my primary mission had been to give my children their birthright: to shelter them so they could become what they were. My middle daughter comforts her friend who wants reassurance she is attractive, intelligent. My heart goes out to her. These charming, anxious children–my children’s friends, boyfriends, rivals– make my heart ache, but they are not my nightmare. They will get by. On the wards of a mental hospital in the deep night and in the scars seen in a lifetime of other people’s stories, I’ve seen people that aren’t, really, getting by. These lives are not just elongated stems, stretched toward the sun, but broken and ragged, roots so shallow a breeze sweeps them away. Whatever I did during the day–liberated woman as scholar, as businesswoman, as breadwinner–the nights were filled with the fear that, somehow, I might be responsible for such tumbleweeds. And every day, I saw the cost of ignoring what a child needs to become itself.
When a friend of my mother confides of her feelings toward her own daughter, one of my playmates, “Do you think it is possible to hate your own child? I can’t help it, but I do.” And when that daughter grows into a sad adult, caught in a series of abusive relationships, and that child’s children become unwed mothers in their teens, drifting from drugs to boys to drugs, we know it is not only that it is possible, but that feeling has consequences.
I know solutions aren’t simple. Perhaps we can’t make ourselves love. Our child raising responsibilities are at once basic in ends and complex in applications: children need us, but that need is pervasive. Fulfilling that need requires planning, loving, sheltering–sometimes more than presence. And patience. My husband nurtures offhandedly, continually–he accepts, laughs, keeps his own counsel. I found a father for my children–recognizing my limitations. My sharp-tongued family moves to irony a bit too quickly for young children.
Still, I feel a breath upon my neck. I resist: much of my life isn’t mine. It has been my daughters’, my husband’s. Often it has been my customers’, my employees’, now, my students’. The ego–walking so fast when I was young, wanting so much–now tugs; it wants to be free. It beckons and sometimes I check into a cheap motel, go to a movie, hang around bookstores, wander through little shops. I don’t seek what I sought in cheap hotels in my youth. What I like now are the little round table and straight-backed chairs in those rooms, the dim light overhead. I am back in all those apartments, bent over work, sorting out ideas. At first, I’d take the business’s statements, do the monthly totals. Back where I belong, teaching American literature and freshman comp, I now grade papers. The work, much like the work done in those apartments, is mundane. But it satisfies. And the quiet wraps me, like a comforting old quilt. Then I return, because I am connected to my children, my husband, my house.
Connections: Broken and Made
The twentieth century has connected us: our businesses are multi-national and our news from CNN; we share the familiarity of chat rooms. But we’ve also become more conscious of fragmentation; this century began with the cubists painting their fractured angles, novelists splitting narratives into limited points of view. Now, our donor cards imply that our bodies are a temporary grouping of organs that may well be spun off into others’ bodies–as ours may house another’s heart or eyes or liver. We think we’ve solved our problems, forgetting we are wholes, the parts connect. We invent aspartame and fat-free mayonnaise, but obesity becomes common. We improve family planning and the rate of illegitimacy and number of abortions increase; women habitually describe their children as accidents. Life has always been tragic; it always will be. We are born, we die; in between, we have sex and babies. But the twentieth century asked us to assimilate a lot fast. The most common (and surest) forms of birth control–the pill and sterility–are separated from the act. Ova transplants and donor sperm enable procreation without sex. Connections are no longer simple, intense, biological.
The sexual act is prompted by an earthy and joyous desire for fulfillment but is also an expression of intimacy; it is derived from a powerful desire to procreate; it can be an expression of self–both the ghosts at my back knew its power, loved its power. In it, the self asserts and surrenders. Poets (and ministers and seducers) use sexuality to describe the spiritual and the spiritual to describe the sexual–the two interwoven in our minds as they are in our myths. They know it can be predatory and it can be nurturing, end with intimacy or alienation. It can be the expression of domination, of conflict, but it can also be its resolution.
In my youth, we were shown an animated uterus and fallopian tubes complete with dancing eggs. We passed around Harold Robbins and Peyton Place. We bumbled; we were naive. But I’m not sure our simplicity was that wrong: the relation between sex and procreation was taken for granted; if split asunder we assumed that eventually this essential unity would reassert itself.
The results of that approach were not uniformly positive. Sex without commitment was certainly common, the condom was available–although its lack of efficacy was the given of many a joke and the dispensers were discreet. Marriages of duty followed relationships of passion. sometimes blossoming into love and sometimes bitterness. Sex inspired laughter–sometimes nervous, sometimes coarse. Jokes were designed to deflect the great irony (and fear) since consequences loomed seemingly out of proportion. Sex tempted fate. As I began college, we heard rumors of the pill. By the time I was a junior, we were taking it. Quick marriages, early heavy responsibilities seemed past. We felt as we took the pill that we had mastered fate. We were adventurers, exploring foreign ports and pushing our way across frontiers. We women were as men had been–moving through space uncommitted.
Almost forty years later I find myself possessed by anger. I try to understand feelings that surprise me in their power. Other women speak of the same passion that comes with holding a child, seeing the baby become the child and the child become – well, become who they are. At first, stories of child abuse and mysteries with the death of a child were unbearable. Then others’ lives caught me blind-sided.
The pill works but it hasn’t changed human nature. My acquaintances conceived haphazardly. My staff went through three unmarried pregnancies, a few unplanned ones. One of my husband’s colleagues, well published and older than I (by now pretty old) complained that her son was an accident despite his parents’ age and common sense and levels of “protection.” He stood, watching us, with a look I couldn’t read. But at least she had no doubt who the father was and had brought this son into a marriage of long standing. He’ll do well. Others were not so fortunate.
If procreation was simply evidence of sex, I was hypocritical. Taking my cue from the sixties, I had never felt guilty about casual sex nor been critical of it. But, I found myself angry. I thought, not logically, that sex might be casual, but procreation shouldn’t be. Denying a child a sense of identity seemed abuse. The pill, which we’d thought liberating, did not change our complex natures. But who could demonize or be embarrassed by or ignorant of the source of half the genes that coursed through the child that grew in her womb, played in the next room?
Children were seen vaguely, sentimentally. Perhaps it was from alienation or merely a failure of imagination, but mothers seemed unaware of another perspective –that of the child. The stories piled up. A girl would say she liked her boyfriend, so she wanted to give him a child. She didn’t, however, love him enough to marry him. Another explained she had chosen an abortion because she would love a child too much to give it up for adoption. One wouldn’t let the father, home on leave and who had wanted to marry her, see the baby–even though she intended to leave the infant with her own mother that weekend while she explored the opportunities of the bars near the army base.
Beneath some arguments was a belief that liberated women were stand-alone figures and motherhood less a biological fact than a “gendered” and “social” construct; soon, the inability to distinguish between gender and sex (the cultural and the biological) became more than an academic problem. A teenager intended to survive puberty by pretending she didn’t have periods and didn’t have breasts; this was described as liberation by an acquaintance, her ideal a neutered body, pure will and self-definition.
My feelings were not only uncharitable, but terribly dishonest. I had no rights to self-righteousness. But I didn’t feel self-righteous. I felt sad and angry and. . . my intense ambivalence, indeed, my anger, was at myself as well as the people around me. Empowered, we had also simplified (as power always tempts us to do). That next generation took for granted the enlarged envelope. The sexual freedom asserted in the sixties became the given of the eighties. Those who followed us, five or ten or twenty years later, saw commitments defined as temporary; we valued freedom more than duty (or, often, loyalty). But severing those ties made sex banal; superficiality replaced intensity. Our relationships were isolated moments; soon, the consequences also seemed unconnected, free floating. We began to see character (and life) as moments in time; all (including torture murders) was forgiven and we moved on. But, we filled our lives, we stayed busy. What I now fear is that my children will not learn soon enough what I learned so late: keeping busy, immersing the self in work, in strings of relationship, trawling for anecdotes is, paradoxically, sitting out life. I want, for them, connection.
Thinking back, I remember groping toward an understanding of the communal nature of sex. In 1966, I dated a medievalist. I soon had doubts about life with a man who spent much of our time trying to get me in bed but believed that birth control was a sin. Nor did I find his suggestion that I solve our problem without telling him particularly attractive. I argued with him: sex was mutual, wouldn’t the pill endanger both our souls? I saw this manipulation as a lack of love – I still do. But that was an argument he brushed aside: he thought it was a sin, I didn’t. Therefore, his soul wasn’t compromised if I didn’t tell him.
Of course, he was exploitative. But he was much older than I; now, he teaches philosophy at a midwestern university. He may have been a jerk but he wasn’t an idiot. He was reactionary (the Reformation was not, as he contended, the greatest tragedy in Western history). But he had quickly adapted to the world of mid-sixties contraception. Betty Friedan was right–the fifties household could stunt women’s growth. But while the freedom of the sixties may have enabled women to “grow up”, men now chose to be Peter Pans to our Wendys. I saw us as partners but he saw us as engaged in two separate acts–his and mine. I took his interpretation for the next few years, but now I respect my gut reaction.
It is communal; sex is the most consequential of acts–the individual becomes part of a couple, physically and profoundly. We want our children to have a sense of sex’s proportionality arising in part from the rituals and value systems of our cultures. Its biological universals are interwoven throughout the complicated cultural patterns of the particular. In my daughters’ grade school, students speak the languages of 36 countries; they are Orthodox Jews and Mormons and born-again fundamentalists; they are Unitarians and Free Thinkers; they are Catholics and Presbyterians and Muslims. They come from six continents. An approach that doesn’t touch on differences can only deal with the plumbing, the biological. The teacher needs to reassure students, who are riven by insecurities and uncertainties as well as passions. But without the tools of those cultures, reassurance is only partial. There are universals but they are expressed in different ways, with different vocabularies.
Whether the cultural is viewed without the biological or the biological without the cultural, we are deconstructing (and perhaps destroying) reality. My daughter described her class. She learned that condoms and human nature have changed, that teenagers in moments of passion are cooler than in my day. Perhaps. I’d just as soon teachers didn’t promise too much–condoms are useful (and AIDS wasn’t a problem then), but I warned against a security we knew was false thirty years ago. What bothered me, however, was the tension. Denying the powerful social and the complex biological was denying what these students felt, was expecting them to be dishonest with themselves. While I am proud she was willing to defend homosexuality as an expression of intimacy, her defense was made in a class openly hostile, indeed, virulent. If sex is taught as pure technique, tolerance is less substantive, less respectful. I do not want my children to associate sex with hell nor sickness; it is biology and not ritual. Still, sacred doesn’t seem an inappropriate word for the act that represents our deepest commitment. And respecting love leads to tolerance. The context for her defense of gay passion, much like that of abstinence, was missing. These students’ reactions (not surprisingly) showed they were uncertain about their sexual identities. I would not have liked my son to be in such a class, whether he were full of heterosexual bravado or homosexual angst. If, through some miracle of the teacher’s authority, this is turned into heterosexual defensiveness and homosexual bravado, little has been gained. I suspect that bewilderment remains the principle response.
Ask school counselors why students say they didn’t use birth control. Some were ignorant (although I suspect “willfully ignorant”–as perhaps I would be, often am, about much I’d rather not face). More grasp at comfortable rumors and old wives’ tales. Denial comes easily. Faced with the greatest force in our nature, the mind serves the body. At gut level, a girl armed with a pill may be seen–see herself–as a fully responsible adult (a scary proposition). And teenagers tell their counselors: unprotected sex is a way of saying, I give myself to you without reservation, I trust you, I love you. Adults see love as respect; teenagers see it as unmediated intimacy. We may see them as ruled by their bodies; they see themselves as ruled by their passions. No wonder teenagers avoid birth control; it mechanizes the transcendent. But children, sex, life need perspective.
So, I asked my daughter, do the teachers talk of love–for mate and child–in terms of respect? Of the importance of nursing and bonding? Do they discuss the pleasures and costs in time and patience and money of lessons and coaching and car pooling, of supervising homework and encouraging manners, of nurturing virtue? Did they talk about how much time a child deserves, for how long? Did they say love is an empty word–love for boyfriend, girlfriend, baby–if it is not proven by daily, small and large, acts; love for a child doesn’t deserve that name if it doesn’t offer security and commitment and respect as well as passion and sentimentality. Of course, she was irritated. Mother, she said, that has nothing to do with it. Those things are taught in other classes, the ones for pregnant girls. Besides, the class is mixed. We couldn’t talk about all that–about nursing. I countered, but you are not too embarrassed to talk about condoms, describe heterosexual and homosexual sex. That is different, my daughter replied. Yes, exactly, I said dryly. The baby has nothing to do with condoms?
We are ruled by our bodies, but at least we can give the mind a fighting chance. We want them to connect. And, I suspect that a school that educates will succeed at sex education even if sex is never mentioned. Traditional education gives depth to the life of the mind and perspective to the life of the heart; it offers the challenge of responsibility rather than the seductive pull of fatalism. I want my daughters to accept both their bodies and their minds as responsibilities rather than fates, to love both. I want them to understand those ghosts, not banish them.
I never viewed sex as sacred. The men I knew in the sixties and seventies didn’t. We didn’t always seek romance, seldom thought of the spiritual–we wanted pleasure, adventure, brinkmanship that sometimes empowered (and, we should be honest, sometimes debased). But we were not some new species; we also longed, I think, for the feel of life growing within us. The poets describe how our separate selves die and are reborn in this most purposeful, most consequential of acts. It connects us with another, with the future, with the past; it also connects us with ourselves. I knew that importance at thirteen and at twenty-nine; but I learn it at fifty: my husband, at the stove, stirs his stew and I set the table, pour the wine; then our daughters stride in–thrusting school papers at us, holding a boyfriend’s hand, practicing the piano in the next room. I see in them my father’s wit and the kindness of my husband’s father, my mother-in-law’s caution and the courage of my mother. Our marriage takes solid form in music and words and laughter. But I haven’t confronted that other old ghost so successfully. That dark assertive ego, one I now suspect was the object of those wailing women’s keening so long ago, sits at the window seat; she drums her fingers, looks at her watch. Life–her life–is awasting.