Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Written on the body

I had the misfortune of learning about puberty when I was in Catholic school. The boys and girls were separated, and all I remember is that we passed a tampon around to inspect it. We were in fifth grade, I think, so we had to act blase and world-weary, as if we knew exactly what a tampon was for. I sort of understood; I remembered going to the bathroom with my mom as a little kid and knew it had something to do with bleeding.

Sex, though? That was another question entirely. Whoever taught the class was vague at best about how it worked; the emphasis was on the changes we'd be experiencing in puberty, not on the finer points of the birds and the bees. And my mom wasn't much help; rather than talk much about puberty, she got me a book (perhaps this one?) -- whatever it was, it was religious in nature and thus full of abstinence talk and light on details. While I vividly remember the lecture I got shortly after I began seeing my first boyfriend -- "We don't want our 16-year-old daughter pregnant" was the highlight, never mind that s*x was not even remotely on the table -- I don't ever recall my mother using the correct words for the female anatomy. I'm not sure she felt comfortable using them, and so neither was I.

Embarrassingly, the exact logistics of intercourse were lost on me until my junior year of high school. A friend had a party at which someone picked up a book that belonged to her little brother and read it out loud. My friends were laughing hysterically while I was trying not to let on that I was picking up some crucial details from Where Did I Come From, a book that Amazon reviewers uniformly recommend for five-year-olds.

All of which is to say that I did not grow up with a tremendous amount of information about, or confidence in, the intimate functions of my body. In college, I did everything I could to make up for that, trying as hard as I could to claim what I thought should be a feminist's pride in her body. What that meant in practice was a certain amount of promiscuity and even more fearlessness (perhaps brazenness is a better word) when discussing this whole topic.* If fewer friends and family read this blog, I might even tell you what I apparently said to D shortly after meeting him... I don't recall the exact words coming out of my mouth, but he has a better memory for detail than I do, and I did employ a devil-may-care approach when meeting guys. Suffice it to say that it was earthy and blunt and that it did not necessarily reflect well on my character. But he eventually married me anyway.

And somehow now it is seven years later (as of yesterday, in fact) and the intimacy is gone. Actually, that's not quite right. The s*x is gone; nearly five months after Ess' birth, the intimacy remains, except that now it consists of whispered conversations about how wonderful Ess is and how amazed we are that we made her (apparently the information in Where Did I Come From stuck, so to speak).

D is willing. But I am back in junior high, befuddled by my body and unsure of its function. Is it for feeding and consoling the baby? Or for enticing my husband? Or for giving me pleasure? These functions seem completely irreconcilable -- not philosophically, but physically. When we manage to find the time, and I can summon an iota of enthusiasm, well, let's just say that it doesn't get me very far.**

At the moment, I'd be content to let it go, to say goodbye to the brazen 22-year-old for a while. But, oddly, I'm not sure that would be what's best for Ess. I want to be the kind of mother who can talk to her about the fact that she grew in my uterus and would have come out of my v@gina eventually. I want to be able to tell her how s*x works calmly and confidently. And, damn it, I want to show her that motherhood and s*x are not incompatible, even though that is how it feels in these early months, with the tender scar on my abdomen and my over-used chest and my weary back.

It is so odd to me that my first route back to s*x seems to run through what is best for my daughter, rather than what is best for me, and for my relationship with her father. I don't know whether to blame the residue of Catholicism or the all-too-common tendency to put myself at the bottom of the priority list or something more insidious. Either way, I am hoping to reclaim my body, slowly and surely. It seems a long, long way off. But I hope that some day we will get to a place where a gleam in his eye will evoke something more positive than thoughts of the sleep I am giving up.


*It's hard to write an honest post about the language of the body and of intimacy without using the words that I fear might bring unsavory types to my humble bloggy abode. So forgive the evasiveness, which I know seems totally hypocritical.

**For a less angsty -- and considerably shorter -- take on this whole thing, check out this Catherine Newman column that says it all perfectly.