Death Of The Lovers In Childbirth
November 15, 2011 § Leave a comment
Can This Marriage Be Saved?
By Jacqueline Austin
Having a baby means becoming the heroes, or the villains, or perhaps just minor interests, in a story about some uses and abuses of personal power. I can’t say what happens to single parents, but couples often polarize themselves into warring politicos nuking each other with everything they’ve got. Pre-pregnancy expectations shatter and the once stable situation becomes, to put it euphemistically, interesting. My husband Richard and I mark December 28, 1982, the day of our home pregnancy test, as the start of a roller-coaster time. Only in retrospect was it fun. We might have divorced, but couldn’t agree on who would have custody–after 36 weeks of sleepless nights we each wanted to give it to the other–so by default, we stayed together.
An exaggeration? This was a total revolution. While it was happening, we mostly saw the underside. Now that three years have passed, and those particular stresses and strains are over, we can blandly say that everything happened for the best. That is, we’ve survived. We read like a Latin declension–I live, you live, she lives. We’ve even had a second child, who, in fact, is sitting on my lap right now, chortling and cooing and flailing at the aasdflkjaxzyz down, boy! keyboard. But there’s a little Candide in each of us. Some of the discoveries we made were hardly pleasant ones.
Our bundle of joy dropped into the delicate contract of marriage like a lawyer’s qualifying clause, recodifying all former transactions, giving them surprising new meanings. The only problem we’d prepared for, that our habitual poverty would become destitution, was the only one that didn’t happen. What a crowd was three. Romance became frustration; dreams, disillusionment; emotional generosity, a luxury; time to think, a joke; and individual expression–we were both artists in our pre-baby days–utter selfishness.
This is not a negative review of our marriage. Nor is it an article about the joys of nurturing, or I’d be gushing right now, just to give credit where credit is due, about little fingers and toes, blindingly sunny gurgles and smiles, the damp unfoldings of nascent personalities, and so forth. It’s as straight a description as I can manage of the struggle between order and decay. Parenthood threatened our sense of power; in many ways it continues to do so even now. We had to refeel, rethink, fight out every corner of our lives together,a nd some of the spots are still moderately tender.
In late 1982 Richard was an independent avant-garde filmmaker, the financial possibilities of which speak for themselves, and I was barely pubescent as a writer. I had doodled around as a graphic artist and story writer for a few years after college, and was now finishing up grad school and working part-time as an editor. My next major work was going to be a piece of writing that paid–an article, screenplay, or blockbuster novel. Never mind that the most I’d ever earned from a writing job was $20. Forget that my period was five days late. A child, right now, was out of the question. We had decided to wait three years, until we were on solid ground as a two-career couple. (I also expected Richard to learn to clean house my way before getting me pregnant, though I’ve since decided that having the toilet seat down is not as crucial to the success of a neo-feminist family as I once thought.) About to start my thesis, having just sent out a number of resumes and “feelers,” I watched the pregnancy test turn blue, and turned blue myself. A few months after it had begun, my professional life was going to end! Look what had happened to my mother. The moment she conceived my older sister, she closed her piano, canceled ideas of concerts, didn’t resume what I thought of as her real life for 20 years.
Richard had been dancing around, trying to sweep me into his arms, when he noticed my sour expression. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh, nothing,” I mumbled. “Everything’s great. Just great, now that I’m never going to make it as a writer.”
“Oh come on now, be real.”
We argued so forcefully we were shaking–but we kept switching sides, asserting mutually exclusive possibilities. We would stay lovers! We would be parents! We would be artists! We would be zillionaires! He swore to do 50 per cent of the child care, plus earn a bundle. “No, I’ll earn 50 per cent of the money,” I said. But then, I thought, what about my novel?
“Can you finish school, write a novel, and take care of a child–and me–and work?” said Richard doubtfully.
“Hell yes,” I thundered, obliterating the echo of that “and me.” How about me? I was the one who would be squeezed.
“You can’t. Even you.”
“My career,” I mourned.
That winter, spring, and summer I jittered about career, while Richard, who wanted to get on with business, hardened his line. “You’ll just have to make concessions. Whether you want to make art or earn money, you’ll have to work more from home.” He wasn’t about to give up life in the real world just because–just because. Did that make him a prick? Hmm, I thought, who early that fine day had had visions of solidarity forever. Then again, at least I had a husband who would be there when I needed him, who understood, who would stay my lover, who wouldn’t vanish under a stack of appointments as had my father, a doctor, in an attempt to repay mountains of loans. After thrashing out territories for seven years (my parents had conceived just about on their wedding night), we wouldn’t be ruled by the same old patterns–would we?
We were hit by one gruesome shock after another. Pregnancy made my body larger! (Richard equated rotundity with fat.) My thoughts became scattered! (I’d assumed I’d work unchanged until the birth.) We were always anxious! (We’d counted on our ability to soothe each other.) Our parents called 12 times a day! (We’d supposed we were independent.)
Before the pregnancy, Richard and I had been pretty self-satisfied. We supported each other’s most intimate ambitions, and considered that part of our marriage as solid as Prudential. Poor and strong, like a Soho Robin Hood and Maid Marian, we stole from the rich and gave to each other. We talked out problems as they came; we were spontaneous, anti-routine. During the pregnancy we tried to maintain ourselves unchanged, not realizing that our strongest traits wouldn’t be useful in the parents of a newborn, who have to assert routines–sleep times, mealtimes, bath times, work times–for everyone’s greater welfare.
My thesis was going very slowly. Thousands of unrelated fragments littered my desk, the floor, Richard’s desk, and for that I blamed Richard, who wanted me to rub his back all the time. “I’m under so much stress,” he complained. “Money, money, money. My jaw, my neck–” “My body!” I glared. My body was no longer mine. The little invader had begun to move around, so I couldn’t continue to deny its existence. Already I’d had to stop working out on Nautilus equipment and I hated, as I had not for several years, my upper thighs. My chest had settled the job argument. I intended to breast-feed the baby and couldn’t imagine how to do this at a brand-new job. And so I was going to take time off: Richard would have to work all the time to support three people.
What was he going to do? Free-lance editing? Teaching? Law school? We couldn’t make up his mind. (We’d just blown several hundred dollars on law school applications.) His films were languishing. My stories were caught in an endless shuffle. And another thing. How would we both be able to retain studio space in our minuscule apartment? (Who was going to give it up?) “We’ll find a way,” I said. “Babies don’t take much room. I’ll feel a lot better if I can just finish my thesis. Then again, in seven or eight months I should be earning money from writing.” “Sure you will,” said Richard, with a look that spelled, “You won’t.” A few minutes later, he threatened, “Maybe I’ll go out and rent an office.”
Privacy was already impossible. We’d always had our most heated battles about finding time alone; each of us needed at least four hours of solitude to charge us for one hour of active communication. Convinced romantics, we equated art-making with our psychosexual dynamic. Both had to occur “naturally,” which meant far from the view of beady little eyes. With a third person around watching our every move, we were sunk. We’d probably be too inhibited ever to have sex again–though that might be a good thing, considering the limited success of our birth control methods.
What about childbirth? Would I disgrace myself? Richard would be there the whole time (did I want him there, or had this better be a private experience?); we’d do things naturally. We were going to midwives rather than doctors, doing prenatal classes, the whole works. This was another source of contention. I’d had to arrange the whole thing, from research to getting another couple, good friends, to enlist with us. I’d been equally interested in both my friends, but now the man would huddle with Richard, while I was meeting the woman for occasional milkshakes and commiseration.
In Women and Madness, Phyllis Chesler describes the virgin’s death in marriage, the lover’s in childbirth. Neither experience killed me off: what did, was the last six weeks of being pregnant. Expecting the child to arrive any second, I was, I suppose, the victim of a type of mental illness peculiar to exhausted primigravidas.
My body had already let me way, way down (not that I wasn’t healthy, I was just enormous), and when my old body image left me, so did my old ideals. From puberty until now I’d harbored the secret hope of being perfect. Having the ultimate body and creating the most brilliant work were connected with being the best artist and the most independent lover, and okay, so what if everyone said you couldn’t have it all? I can never feel as invincible as a person, feminist, lover or artist as I did before pregnancy; the new power I’ve found in motherhood, equal partnership, and career, might be less naive, but it’s also less supreme.
The last six weeks of pregnancy hammered in the lesson. I couldn’t dress, work, make a meal, even bathe without assistance. Walking downstairs was an afternoon’s project. My writing reached new lows of dreamy vagueness and I couldn’t substantiate a point to save my life. With every uterine twinge I rushed to the telephone. “Relax,” said Richard. Fine for him to act idealist.
Waiting, waiting. For the first eight months I’d been able to turn some of my anger on Richard, who’d expressed anxieties I’d felt but wouldn’t admit, like was my body going to be mush forever. But now my anger turned inward. If thy body offends thee, cut it off. The last part of pregnancy is enough to turn even the most ardent feminist into a raving male chauvinist pig, and the effect on her male friends is even worse. Richard became increasingly annoyed as I spurned sex, ordered him about, blamed him for my condition, demanded that he come up with air-conditioned amusements (it was the height of the greasiest New York summer in 50 years). I saw what I was doing–but why did he have to complain so much about impending fatherhood? Why did he have to go out and play baseball?
During those last six weeks I consoled myself with the thought that in just one month, everything would be repaired. However difficult childbirth might be, it couldn’t match this, and afterwards, no matter how much work there was, we could cope together. At least Richard and I would go through a primary experience. We hoped it would be all the prenatal classes advertised, and that we’d come out not only with a child but with a better, closer relationship, and they lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, our daughter’s birth met none of our expectations, and we couldn’t make the most of what did happen: we could barely manage to keep going.
Two weeks after the expected birthday we were informed that something was wrong with his or her heartbeat and that labor would have to be induced. Immediately. In the hospital, intravenous drips pumped my body full of hormones. Though I yearned to move about, the wires to the fetal monitor were delicate. I was commanded to lie on my left side to help the baby’s circulation.
Violent contractions began immediately. They came every two or three minutes and were stronger than anything I’d been prepared for. None of the massage, breathing or concentration techniques we’d practiced seemed to help. Instead of easing into a state of psychological and physical readiness, I was forced open, with the midwives, doctors and my husband all overloading me with demands to pull myself together and relax. “Or else,” threatened the doctor, “I’ll have to do a Cesarean. Your tension exacerbates the baby’s problem. Even if you do dilate quickly, there’s the chance that I’ll have to cut you anyway. This baby needs to be born now.” As soon as my cervix widened a couple of centimeters, an electrode was pushed through me into the baby’s scalp. An inept resident came to do an oxygenation test, sticking the baby with needles 10 or 12 times in an attempt to draw blood. The baby jumped, contractions ground me down, Richard hovered, the midwife yelled, “Breathe!” To be fair, there was no other way to reach me. Between contractions, I slept. I couldn’t bear to be touched. The last thing I wanted to do was to remember I was somebody’s wife, to defuse his rage and de-emphasize his impotence in this situation. I just wanted to go home and be alone forever.
After 11 hours we had a baby, all right. We also had, in military terms, a “situation.” We felt outrageously disappointed with each other. Why couldn’t he have soothed me, really, truly, helped? After seven years together, shouldn’t he have known how? And why couldn’t I have included him more in the birth experience? Did I feel he was that far outside?
I was flabbergasted at the depth of Richard’s hurt and my disgrace. I didn’t know what to do with the baby, either. Tamar. She was so beautiful, but wow, did she ever cry. I didn’t know how to hold her or comfort her, and neither did he. Even the pictures came out lousy. (The ones of me–the baby and Richard looked just fine. Was he trying to make me look even worse than I did already? Did he really have to focus on my thighs?)
Our first weeks as new parents were scarred by endless reruns, as well as the suspicion that things would not return to normal. I’d sit down, feel the ache, and rehear the episiotomy cut, the plop the placenta made when I finally pushed it out. Such memories did nothing to endear me to myself. I felt inflamed, embarrassed, fragmented after the explosive labor, and, though I wouldn’t credit him with this, so did Richard.
“Remember me? I’m the father!” he yelled one day, while I cried in a corner. “I’m a person! Your lover! Why can’t you, for one minute, give up?” I’ve given up everything, I thought, as I went downstairs, with the baby, to sleep on the couch. All I had was silent responsibility. He was the one with the body and the job.
All the same, we were ecstatic parents. My soggy creampuff of a belly was, to my daughter, the most comfortable resting place there ever was. Richard’s constant anxious motions were perfect for rocking and soothing. We adored our daughter and yearned to find favor. Often that made us compete. What Richard lacked in breasts, he supplied in energy–diapering, strokeing, walking miles back and forth across our splintery floor, endlessly, tunelessly chanting “100 Bottles of Milk on the Wall.” Sometimes I sang too, but more often than not would tell him, “Shhh.” Lack of sleep had done something to my sense of humor, my tolerance and especially, my hearing.
Anyway, I assumed I was doing all the important work. Tamar seemed to love Richard’s jiggling and jouncing, but I had what counted. And since Richard had work, Tamar had colic, and I was playing Mom with a vengeance, our 50-50 deal was a thing of the past. From that very first day, Friday, the birth, we lost infinite ground. Saturday, the first day of breastfeeding: I discovered that Richard was–though I’d never previously suspected it–just another male thug. Was he trying to snap her little neck with that grip? That was the day he discovered I was just another bossy mom. Sunday, the return home: all our parents and friends were right there with lots and lots of helpful advice. During such visits, each of us would immediately, publicly, recall how the other’s mistaken upbringing had to led to his or her most irritating, ineradicably bad, worst faults. Did we want a daughter who was as snotty as I, as sloppy as Richard…? Monday, up to our elbows in mustard-colored diapers: Richard’s first day of escape. Teaching gorgeous, brilliant young Sarah Lawrence girls to make politically sensitive documentary films about meaningful subjects was hardly as difficult, I felt, as suffocating in the sensory deprivation chamber of home, where the day’s diversion consisted of unwrapping frilly little gifts addressed in pink to “Mrs. and Cute New Daughter Levine.” Three days old or 30 years old, I snarled, what difference did it make: both Tamar and I were genetically losers.
Even the equipment seemed to conspire against us. The Snugli, with its contours reminiscent of a soft pregnant woman; the perfumed baby wipes; the adorable clothes; all seemed to lack the old machismo. I found myself carrying the infant everywhere and keeping her clean, and what a perfumed, gender-specific job that was!
And the housework! I’d just been through the equivalent of a major operation. Why couldn’t my husband keep us in clean clothes and dishes for a week? Every time I got up from the couch, I felt I’d left half my insides on the pillows. I’d never dreamed a seven pound infant could be so heavy. Richard did his best, to be sure, but still, he wasn’t around that week. I’d delivered my thesis just under the wire, but it wasn’t very good, and the week had me brooding about that; and all the loose ends, the correspondence, the unreconciled fragments, my new mediocrity, depressed me even more. Never would there be time to finish my unfinished business.
I was totally unprepared for the surge of adoration, rage, pride, and bitterness that swelled in me, more and more each time, whenever I breast-fed my daughter. The only time I felt in control was when she was off the latch. Was I ever the expert! I directed the director: “Diaper her lower! Can’t you see you’re chafing her? Stop with all the powder–it’s carcinogenic!” So what if he got upset. Every time he worked, I did double duty. And how could he be so inept? After a night of colic, how could he give her that bottle? Did he want to poison her? The brute–how could he let her cry in her crib? “Don’t you see what you’re teaching her?” I would say. “Daddies are insensitive. Mommies are what you need.”
As an adolescent, breaking away from my parents, I’d felt the same kind of despair I now felt with my husband: each step up the spiral of care and freedom, dependence and individuation, can herald itself with this despair, but I blamed him. Guilty about being away so much, angry but unable to admit it, he knotted himself into this blame. As Tamar and I became physically and emotionally dependent on each other, using all of each other’s social energy, Richard began to make bad jokes. “Moo,” he’s say at 4:40 AM, from the comfort of his, formerly our, bed, while on the cold couch I watched Mary Tyler Moore flirt chastely with her boss for the millionth time. Boyfriends, why did these TV broads all want boyfriends? Didn’t they realize that boyfriends meant sex?
Richard’s comments might have been funnier if he’d expected a laugh. But his women jokes and my men comments were meant to separate, not entertain. We widened the difference in our genders to assert territorial rights over a pre-conceived frontier; neither of us saw that there was new turf to explore.
The participants in our little melodrama acted from a limited sense of what they–we–were doing. People (including babies) want what’s healthy, we asserted in the early months, not realizing that healthy desires come from, well, health, and that as new parents with gender grudges, we weren’t just unhealthy, we were certifiably mad. The baby, as is a baby’s wont, needed parents. And I craved solitude, while Richard, who had conceded that privacy was a golden dream of the past, craved sex. Artists, we were artists, a part of us kept saying.
We each tried, and failed spectacularly, to fill al these pairs of shoes. And then, in an attempt to justify new resentments, we reran old demands, not realizing that the third, truly needy person, the child, made such demands outmoded. By the middle of our daughter’s first year, we’d studied up: I found myself reading aloud femmie articles on the politics of child care; Richard began to laugh with, not at, the perplexed hubbies on the evening sitcoms. We became morbidly conscious of our elapsed arguing time–our E.A.T.–30 seconds, from start to finish, was all our lives usually allowed. To the accompaniment of squalls, yells and assorted crashes we groped disoriented, like plants with tropist mechanisms gone awry, for the most basic nutriments of light and time.
Hindsight has shown us that as new parents we were just about as blank as our daughter, and had just as much control. At least the baby had an instinct for getting us to fill her needs without protest, which couldn’t be said for the two halves of our me-generation couple. Love itself, for example–who wants to admit how conditional his or her love really is, how dependent on mundane matters like housecleaning and jealousy? Those idiots who assert that love can stretch indefinitely, that commitment depends not on how much time one has for the other, but on pure feeling, must live in an infant-free, reality-sanitized, world. From my first day of motherhood, when Tamar and I became that closest of couples, a nurser and a nursee, to the day seven months later when I noticed him again, Richard, my ex, had every right to sulk in a corner. Our fear of another birth control failure also made us terrified of sex. Richard was so desperate he could bypass this fear, but I couldn’t, and I was too tired, anyway. We couldn’t express our feelings of loss to each other.
Neither of us blamed ourselves. It was the baby’s fault, time’s, our parents’, each other’s. If only our parents hadn’t raised us via Spock. If only our erstwhile lover would follow our own completely sensible instructions. If only the baby weren’t so dependent on Mommy. If only Mommy weren’t so dependent on Daddy. We circled our one-room apartment like bargaining shoppers, glancing suspiciously around to see who was getting the better deal.
On a typical hellnight at the Austin-Levines, we would just settle down into exhausted sleep after a barely nutritious, certainly unappealing dinner, seasoned by bickering. A nightmare in which one of us disappeared would be interrupted by a desolate little whimper which built and built in intensity until I could no longer stand it–but Richard slept on. I’d grope my way down the loft-bed ladder, cursing silently, and sit down to breast-feed. Just at the end, when I’d rocked my daughter to sleep and was looking forward to bed myself, Richard would shout, “Do you need help?”–waking the child.
Had he been trying to help, or was he trying to “help,” e.g., alleviate his bad conscience with the least possible E.A.T.? A particularly noble woman might hand over the baby and go make a cup of hot milk for all, but I’d yell, “You woke her, deal with it!” and storm up to bed. Tam would choose that moment to soil her fresh diaper and her dad, and cry for more to eat. There would be no bottle ready (I didn’t use them, so why fill them–it was his responsiblity). “And I have to leave for work in three hours!” Richard would grumble. “If you don’t like the situation,” I’d answer primly from beneath the blankets, “why don’t I go teach, and you feed the baby?”
That might indeed have been a solution, if I’d been willing to relinquish my time with our baby. Was I going to ruin my strongest experience to date, nourishing my daughter, for some conditional, abstract, mitigated, probably phony desire of my husband’s? Even it meant that I could sleep? Listening to his and the baby’s soft breathing, I would occasionally remain awake another hour, trying to express milk into a bottle. After considerable work, I’d give Richard a couple of drops of thin fluid sloshing at the bottom, and he would sneer, “It ain’t quite Similac.” Okay, I’d only given him enough for one good swallow, but I’d tried. Our baby was going to get nothing but the best–from me at least.
Not that Richard wasn’t wise to this move. He would be particularly solicitous when, after feeding the baby, I hoisted myself back up to bed; he would massage my shoulders in a way both kind and self-righteous, hinting at the depths of how I’d failed as a woman. But he was the one who had wanted children. So why was he giving me sweetness with an edge?
In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the heroine, Esther Greenwood, didn’t want to have kids for the following reason. To her, the experience “was like being brainwashed and afterwards you went about as numb as a slave in some private totalitarian state.” It’s the lack of sleep–first the little twerps exhaust you, then they reprogram you so there’s no room for anyone else. The suspicion that this tiredness will never end, creates an even more totalitarian emotional climate. Richard and I both believed that we were raising our child in a nonsexist, positive manner, forgetting that to do this as parents, we must do this as a couple. Seven months later we started to realize what was going on; by then, we had a lot of catching up to do.
Tamar was sleeping a bit more, and we found that this, paradoxically, highlighted our resentments. She was the reason why we were going about with blinders against anything but the most practical, basic matters; why we were so stressed; why we had to fend off strange advice at these vulnerable moments. Each day brought a crisis. “I want to go to the gym,” Richard wailed. “I want to play.” Well, I wanted to play too, or would, if I wasn’t too exhausted to feel playful. What a man, worrying about play, when the woman didn’t even have that luxury. This challenge was not as interesting as earlier mutual challenges; we were still operating without our forebrains. We reflexively fought about side issues: play time, play groups, even playpens. I said there was something sinister in caging an infant behind net, in the name of fun. Weren’t we there to encourage the baby’s curiosity? Richard agreed in principle, but felt that some relief (I deemed it selfishness) was necessary. So like many other liberated moms, the irony of which expression escaped me, I ended up either doing more work or blackmailing Richard into working from my principles.
This rift stretched from one pole of our marriage to the other. “You don’t want to have fun,” accused Richard. “You don’t know what fun is.” For my part, I saw him as unrealistic. Baby, work, play: we were going through something that should make its own rules. Why couldn’t Richard accept Tamar as a person with her own rights, someone for whom we should give and give, even at the expense of our own desires? Wasn’t this giving temporary? Was I the only one who cared? Because I felt myself to be the baby’s only passionate advocate, on her own terms–not his terms or mine–I found myself losing even more ground as an individual. How could I put play ahead of my career, which already came behind being a mom? Every moment of thought snatched from “necessary” matters would have to be repaid later, at the expense of sleep. I had begun to look for work. But there was no time to write, and no place to do it. My “office” under the loftbed now doubly deserved its quotation marks, once for its own limitations, and once for the fact that even had it been office heaven, I couldn’t make the hours, or energy, or find the momentary resolve to be less of a mom for a moment, and more of a person, to officially use the “office,” to get a job done.
Fridays were taken up with the baby’s play group. I had joined with the notion that other parents, dads as well as moms, would wish to co-op child care: one parent could watch two babies, releasing the other parents for work or play. Richard accepted the idea in the abstract but couldn’t cope (nor did I blame him much) with the reality, a group of young moms babbling amid piercing screams, flying toys, and piles of poo, about how to get little Timmy to accept his oatmeal like a man. I think one dad did come to the play group, once. I kept pushing Richard. “If all the dads accepted responsiblity…” I’d begin. But honestly, the other moms didn’t want a change. The group comforted them, fulfilled their need for sisterhood.
Still, part of it was Richard’s fault, and I kept up the righteous nag. But now I was uncertain about my own intellect, which hadn’t seemed at all sharp since pregnancy. Were sexists practical, after all? Could we moms have it all, and if so, could we have it all at once? And if so, how? Virtually all the women in the play group had six months before, been feminists. They were emotionally strong, they’d had businesses or careers in the arts, sciences, technology. Each seemed to be a good mom and claimed to be just about to start working again, but collectively we sounded like a bunch of fat hens clucking over the day’s eggs. This had something to do with the fact that each one of us agreed, that if the baby was sick, they should be the one to go home for the day. We hadn’t yet had the right conversation with the men. So how could I blame the men for this? All my own instincts were screaming, “Run!”
Two more months went by, with battles over day care. Richard felt we should start with five or six hours a day, plus an occasional evening (that we should have started five months ago). I was dying for time together, but Tamar was clingy, and I felt, not now. And, still breast-feeding, I was too tired (and clammy) to date. Though we hired a bunch of sitters at Richard’s prodding, this gave me less happiness, not more. Someone had to monitor them to see if they’d work out, and again, that someone was me. As I demonstrated for the hundredth time where to find the towels, and how to call for help in an emergency, to a stranger with whom I did not wish to leave my child, I decided that none of this was worth the effort. It was easier to work while Tamar was asleep. From the time she was seven months old to about a year, I would sneak out of the loft at 5 AM to write at an all-night coffee shop. The longer I did it, the easier it became to concentrate, and I stopped blaming Richard for my vagueness.
As I learned how to work in these new circumstances, I made a pact with my fears: I would try to take total responsibility for my condition, whatever I really believed about my personal, cultural and marital handicaps. In return I would allow myself to be ambitious as a person, and as a woman (were the ambitions the same?), and I would ask Richard directly for help. He was glad to try. But my exhaustion, my hyper-responsibility and my fears were dreadful handicaps. I presented a new, unwelcome image to the outside world, and was obliged to keep apologizing for delays that were not my fault, because in a larger sense, they were. Who was driving me to the brink, if not myself? Everyone believed so, and, deeply infected with the cultural disease, I agreed. The woman was usually seen as responsible for her entire family’s well-being. If the he-man was dissatisfied or the child had asthma, the woman took the blame. “You’re trying too much too soon,” came the blended voices of our parents, siblings, friends, who, before Tam, I’d never experienced as didactic.
In front of them, Richard seemed like the perfect husband. We acted very nostalgic and very physical, holding hands with open eyed wonder that we were still within each other’s reach. But at home, as was his habit, Richard rushed around, virtually ignoring me in his hurry to get his own things done; and I did the same, with the secret worry that I had no things to get done which were my own. Still, perhaps these moments of public union provided the opening for an approaching wedge of contentment.
When Tamar was 12 months old, three shocks forced me to reconsider the child-rearing principles I’d been pushing. First, somebody actually hired me to write. Second, I got back into shape. Third and most critical, I saw how my principles were being built into Tamar’s behavior, and how they functioned in fundamental action.
Richard was still out of a permanent job. The film production courses were fine as far as they went, which was that June; now it was time to take more radical action. He decided, with a friend, to start a film and video production business; they opened an office which at first lost scads of money.
It felt so good to be the breadwinner! My mood lightened to a shade of singing yellow. Let Richard sweep up baby crumbs for a while. He did, resenting both the necessity of the task and the fact that he was now the one with the time to do it. I loved doing less; compared to baby care and housework, work was a breeze.
Having all this spare time, just working, gave me space to consider my other worries. Richard had claimed for a year that he was willing to do anything, if I’d just wait until he was ready. My stock response up to now had been, “That will be when Tam’s in college.” Now I busied myself with writing, and let his readiness find its own basement level.
Chaos ensued, but what did I care? My child slept just as well at night. Richard didn’t, but it was his turn–wasn’t it?–to work that out. The only dark spot was Tamar’s demeanor. Spoiled and demanding, she refused her father’s attentions, hitting out at him and screaming for me. Even as I cuddled and soothed her, after a few nights of playing the hero, I began to feel that Richard might not have been such a villain after all. What if my daughter’s actions had something to do with mine? I’d wanted her to develop a sense of security with me and with him, and now she had one. But if she was already bossing us around at age one, might she not grow up to expect to have more control, than one could in this life?
We found a good babysitter and hired her to come in four hours a day. I was still breast-feeding, but the sitter and I persuaded Tamar to accept an occasional bottle. Richard and I pared our E.A.T. to 15 seconds and agreed to fight only in the middle of the night, when we so badly craved sleep that we dispatched disagreements with, “Who cares.” When we really hated each other, we hit pillows, took hot baths, or sent the hater to a playground with the child, leaving the hated one with privacy, which immediately put him or her in a better mood.
During our time together we would read to Tamar, take walks, or mess with toys. We stopped cleaning house except for a bit of tidying several times a day, and ignored everything above eye level. We took turns with the laundry. We developed wrinkle chic. We stopped using sheets. We lived on noodles and salad. Every day one of us would come back with clean diapers, and snacks for the child. Twice a month we did a giant shopping expedition en famille. While Tamar played in the dust, I worked out at the gym, then went to the nearest university library to write my articles. When I got back, Richard went to his friend’s apartment, where they’d set up a desk and a file cabinet. By July they’d made a sample reel; by the beginning of the following year, they’d opened an office of their own. I gave away half of our possessions and put away the other half. When the floor stuck to our feet, we washed it. In the mornings, I continued going to the library; afternoons I traded play dates with other working moms, or we worked at each other’s houses. And in the evenings, when Tamar slept and Richard went ot the gym, I wrote at home. In that way, both of us could work full time.
Backed by Richard, who obviously felt my breasts should revert to him, the grandparents were urging me to quit breast-feeding. It’s halfway permissible–even fashionable–to feed an infant naturally, but disgustingly sexual, apparently, once the child begins to walk and talk. I both criticized and capitalized shamelessly on these family feelings. I asked our parents to take care of Tamar during some weekends so ahem, she could be weaned. Richard and I began to date again, and we found–surprise!–that we liked each other. Tamar still clung to me, but she became passionate about bottles; the chains began to unlock one by one.
Richard and his friend got their first job in October. This thrilled all of us: with his pay and the amount I earned, we could suddenly smell survival. Six months went by and Richard was actually successful. We began to think about making art again. Then one week I noticed I was queasy and my breasts hurt. I went out and bought another home pregnancy test.
A second child is a whole other story. But it’s not as shocking, internally, as the first. Each extra person brings some problems, and solves others–making them almost quaint. For example, the question of dates became ridiculous. Our E.A.T. is now by necessity so brief that if one of us blinked, our argument would be over. A fight consists of squawks and negotiations, sometimes in code. I nod at the humidifier and he shrugs. He pantomimes filling it and I stick out my tongue, pointing at the mold within. “Bossy,” he mutters. I throw the humidifier in the trash.
Then Jeremy cries for milk, or Tamar climbs the bookshelves, and we run to take care of the little ones. Richard’s and my marriage, like the rest of Soho, has become in these years an Interim Multiple Dwelling Unit. Nothing is quite safe. Everything has new life. Everything has been put to a use its owners never intended. Everything. Especially us.
Copyright 2011 by Jacqueline Austin. All rights reserved.
Originally published in The Village Voice, July 15, 1986, as the cover story for a special issue on women.
Pulitzer Semi-Finalist, Feature Article Writing, 1987