I was 18 years old when I made an appointment to lose my virginity. The drummer and I had been meeting in his dorm room to fool around for a few weeks when I announced that at the next rendezvous I would like to have sex. It was a rite of passage that needed to be completed before summer vacation, something on my freshman to-do list: Pass finals, pick a roommate for next year, screw.
In the hours before my status changed, I barhopped with my friends, my chest full and my step light. It was a warm night in May and we were finally unshackled from the heavy coats and boots that upstate New York requires for most of the year. The moon turned the air frothy and blue, like a tropical drink. I met the boy after last call, and the deed was completed with tenderness and speed. After a few hours in his bed, I scurried down two flights of stairs to the girls bathroom on my floor. I stood in front of the mirror and beamed. I imagined my parents and thought this: Hah! Wouldn't you disapprove! And this: Now I am mine.
Forget menstruation. Forget making bat mitzvah or gaining voting rights. The day that I became a woman was the day I had sex.
The day that I stopped feeling like a woman was the day I gave birth.
I felt close to my womanhood while in labor. I growled and screamed and gave forth life with the same equipment women have used for millions of years, give or take a few hot showers and a mauve and teal birthing suite. I felt for those hours that I was a member of a pack, a person doing what she was born to do, a real woman. Strong and powerful. Potent. And then my daughter emerged and I was nowhere to be found.
Sheila Kitzinger, a premier anthropologist on the subjects of birth and mothering, writes about the prestige a woman gains in traditional societies after she gives birth. Her marriage is cemented in the eyes of the villagers. She is often seen as more powerful and deserving of respect, mainly because she has delivered a productive member of society. She might change her outfits or hairstyle to reflect her new position.
In industrialized cultures such as ours, where kids aren't produced to keep the economy going or to live long enough to wipe their elderly parents' chins, the opposite occurs. We become as valuable as the proverbial bath water.
"When a woman turns into a mother she is treated suddenly as less, not more," Kitzinger writes. "She must now pay the price of motherhood: virtual annihilation of the self."
Motherhood is degrading, in the true sense of the word. A lovely young lass becomes a utilitarian mothering device. A fully functioning intelligent human being becomes a thing.
A thing that nurses. A thing that wakes and sleeps by someone else's schedule. A thing that can't read without interruption for seven years. A thing that wears magenta exercise suits in public.
Not all of us fall that far. But we each lose ground in the beauty arena. It's a part of nature. The red breasts of female robins aren't really red at all. They're faded, to the pink-gray shade of medium-rare roast beef, so it is easier for the mother bird to seek camouflage and protect her babies. Human mothers fade, too. Exhaustion dulls our skin. Gray strips shine from our hair. Curves get too soft or too angular.
We lose power, too. My sister-in-law works 10 hours a day, three days a week, in the human resources department of a multinational corporation. In the 10 years she's worked there, she has continually missed out on promotions she would have easily gotten had she worked full time. All of her job changes have been lateral.
Those of us who stay home with our children are infantilized.
My friend Kelly and I were sitting on the floor of her family room when we realized how much we'd regressed. We'd both worked before we had our babies, but decided, since we could afford it, to stay home with our kids. (And I was basically unemployed anyway.) We felt lucky. We could take care of our kids ourselves. We wouldn't miss their first steps and they wouldn't know the day-care lady better than they knew us. She'd still see some clients in her private psychotherapy practice and I'd still write an article once in a while, but essentially we were stay-at-home moms.
We sat on the floor instead of on the furniture, like children. We wore play clothes -- jeans and sneakers and T-shirts -- every day, like children. We ate cold, bland lunches, earned no money of consequence and waited impatiently for our grown-up to come home every night. Sometimes one of us would jump into his arms in gratitude.
Kelly's kitchen held the only evidence that an adult spent the day at the house. Five empty beer bottles sat lined up on the counter at the end of the week, one drunk each afternoon as her son howled with colic.
We lose passion, too, of the physical and mental varieties. Sex becomes a burden. Guilt about not wanting sex becomes a burden. But so little remains of us at the end of a day with kids that we cling to what's left as if it's our last frozen pouch of breast milk. It's senseless. Giving ourselves to affection and losing ourselves in lust would be a tonic. It would make us feel like women again. But a cataract of fear blurs sense. Instead of welcoming sex, we duck behind our books and change for bed in the bathroom.
Mental frigidity sets in, too. During my senior year in college, I found politics. Remember the suicide pill referendum? Two students from Brown University introduced it: Vote yes if you want cyanide tablets available for immediate consumption in case of a nuclear war. I wrote a story on these radicals of the '80s, slept with one of them, then brought the referendum to Syracuse University. When I wasn't campaigning against nukes, I was chanting "Divest now!" and listening to friends make anti-apartheid speeches in front of the administration building.
My mother was barely 30 during the hottest political years of the '60s. Why, I asked her when I was home for spring break, hadn't she been involved in the protests? How could she have shunned participation when the very ideals of the free world were at stake?
"I was busy raising babies," she said. "I had no time for that."
Disgusting, I thought, all those years ago. Now I forget to vote in local elections.
Let me stop here to tell you how much I love my kids. I love when my daughter leans against my arm while I read her "Little Women." I love when my son kisses me 15 times on each cheek before I leave him at preschool. I love when she makes a joke and he giggles. I love that she read for 260 minutes the other day and that he spent close to an hour playing with his pet ladybug. I love making meatballs with him. I love that she keeps a notebook for all of her inventions.
I love being their mother.
I hate being their mother.
I hate going to the playground. I hate breaking up fights. I hate herding them out of the house and into the car. I hate when they drum on my head as I tie their shoes.
Enjoy these days, older mothers say. They'll be gone before you know it. And I know they're partly right. I'm sure there will come a time, when my boy has hair on his chest, that I will miss when he begged me to carry him from room to room. I'll walk into a neat room that was once my daughter's and pine for the days when the floor was covered with doll clothes and magic markers. Sometimes, even now, I wish I could freeze them where they are, self-sufficient but still innocent. But mostly I feel relief as they get older.
It's a tunnel, these childbearing years, and there is an end. Diapers go, then strollers. They learn to pour their own juice and put on their own socks. They spend hours at friends' houses and eat grapes whole.
Time expands. You can take a shower. You can wear clothes that won't be spit up upon. You can be vain.
I started my vain campaign the year my son turned 4. Before the campaign, I wore a little makeup that I never put on thick enough for anyone to notice, and I occasionally got a massage. During the campaign, I did this: put mousse in my hair and blew it dry every day, paid someone to cover the gray with chemicals the color of cinnamon, paid someone else to pour hot wax on my inner thighs and use it to yank off the hairs, bought three different shades of lipstick, started carrying a compact of pressed powder in my pocketbook, covered my skin with foundation in the winter and self-tanner in the summer and subscribed to Vogue.
I would laugh at myself for taking all these measures, because they were so foreign. Who was this person powdering her shiny nose? But sometimes the costume makes the character and the person I needed to be appeared in the mirror one morning. She was fixing her hair with care, like a woman. She was tending to her morning routine in private, like an adult.
Kitzinger writes that a common fantasy regarding the danger of pregnancy "is that the baby can go up into the mother's chest and choke her."
That woman in the mirror could breathe.
My husband, like most men, refused to get a vasectomy at first. "No way," he said. "I'm not letting someone cut my balls."
It's a macho thing, you see. Family jewels and all that. But then he realized that all forms of birth control, including the major surgery required for tubal ligation, were detrimental to my health. And he realized that he didn't want more children with the same intensity that he did want to have intercourse without a condom someday. So, like most men with relatively secure senses of their masculinity, he consented.
He also procrastinated. We began to hear from other guys who had tampered with the jewels, with mixed opinions on the sacrifice. At the end of a dinner party one night, an elated couple arrived for dessert. The man had just had a vasectomy the day before and he felt great! He passed around his urologist's name. He explained how he kept his kids from jumping on his crotch. "You tell them Daddy had a mole removed from his upper leg!" I was surprised he didn't set down his plate of chocolate cake and scoop out his sack to show us the incision.
Another friend reported less jubilant news. He said the pain of the vasectomy was worse than childbirth. A third told my husband about the hematoma that migrated to his leg after the procedure. He could have died!
Procrastination turned to terror. I needed to beef up my offense. But it was really quite easy, sex being a more potent drive in men than fear. One afternoon, we stood in the kitchen while the kids played outside. "You know," I said, "if you had a vasectomy, we could have sex right here, right now." One night, he unwrapped a condom. "You know," I said, "if you had a vasectomy, you could just ..." One afternoon, we drove to a movie. "You know, if you had a vasectomy we could hop into the back seat and do it."
He made the appointment.
My only job was to drive him home. I hadn't been to the hospital in four years, since we had walked out with our fresh-off-the-cord son. I hadn't navigated the maze of elevators and corridors that lead to the various clinics in five years, since we had visited the miscarriage doctor on the third floor. This was like graduation day. First they get you pregnant here. Second, they give you the baby. Third, they take the resources away. Grab your diploma on the way out.
I read a book on puppies while someone cauterized my husband's vas deferens. A few worries ran through my mind. What if a blood clot shot to his brain and killed him? What if -- oh, it's such a clichi -- the surgeon's hand slipped?
I imagined the doctor as I imagine all of them: either too short or too tall, with glasses and a bald spot and a paunch in the middle. When he emerged from the surgical suite and the nurse introduced us, I saw a man who had been clearly cast against type. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with thick gray hair and strong hands. He was dashing and debonair in his white coat. He was Heathcliff, and Cary Grant and Richard Gere. Dare I say that the man who took away men's virility was doggone the most virile man I'd seen in ages?
He shook my hand and told me the procedure had gone well. My husband was resting until his blood pressure rose to normal, but he'd be fine.
"Thank you," I said, and he understood what I meant: Thank you for keeping my husband safe. And he didn't understand what I meant: Thank you for taking away the chance that I will ever have to be pregnant again. Thank you for freeing me. Thank you. I wanted to wrap my arms around his handsome neck.
I picture the uterus as having a door -- a wooden door with a rounded top, made of slats of rough cedar, like the one Peter Rabbit squirmed under to get to Mr. McGregor's garden. Except no one has to slither under this one. It's either opened or closed.
The doorway is round and the texture of the interior varies according to experience. In a childless woman, the walls are smooth and firm. The space has never been inhabited, so it is mint, like the shrink-wrapped, first-edition Stephen King novels one of my friends collects. Never been leafed through, never smeared with moo shu drippings.
In a woman who has had many children, the walls are puckered, their elasticity stretched to flaccid, like a deflated balloon. The uterus is worn thin in parts and the shapelessness of it sags onto other parts of the body.
Then there's mine. Gently used. It's had four inhabitants, two of whom stayed for the full program. It is worn in like comfortable jeans and probably strong enough for a few more inhabitants. But I will leave it as it is. As my husband's doctor walked away, I imagined my door swinging shut. I leaned against it to make sure the latch had caught, thanked it for providing safe incubation for my children, then tacked up a sign: out of service.
I sat in my reading chair next to the fireplace while my husband read to our daughter. Occasionally, he comes into this room and sits across from me on the couch. Usually, though, he settles into his own territory -- at the kitchen table with a file in front of him, or in bed eating cereal and flicking from channel to channel to channel on the television. It wasn't always like this, of course. Before children -- before marriage, even -- we spent every evening magnetized together on a couch. If it was cold, we took off our clothes and put on our bathrobes. Robe Night, we called it. Then we became parents and had to take turns being human.
When he came down the stairs, I called out to him.
"Hey," I said. "What are you doing?"
He walked in with a file in one hand and a bowl of cereal in the other.
"I'm coming in here," he said.
I moved to the couch and asked how he was feeling. The results of the procedure were not immediate. A certain amount of residual sperm must be released before it's safe to have unprotected sex. There's a plastic cup to be filled before he's deemed clinically sterile.
"I think I'll survive," he said.
We kissed. My husband, who had a crush on me for years before I appreciated him, has always told me he adores me, that he still can't believe he's married to me. I love to hear it, but sometimes it scares more than reassures me. Maybe I'm just a victory to him, I think. Any day now he'll realize I'm indeed not a prize. But this reassures me. This operation feels like more of a commitment than the diamond ring or the vows or the kids ever were. It means he's done. He's not saving it up for his second wife. He's not hedging his bets in case a better life comes along. This is the life he's chosen and I am at the center of it.
"It feels weird that I'm done having my kids," he said. "My evolutionary usefulness is over."
But I knew he also felt the same relief that I did. Making a family is like building a house. First you construct. Then you decorate. Finally, you can settle into the comfortable chairs and enjoy it.
There was grief, of course, but it only smarted for a second. The love I feel for my children is the strongest I've ever felt in my life. I won't, I realized, ever fall in love like that again. I won't ever give a person a name. Or know who that third child would have been.
But mostly there was triumph. I didn't need to look in a mirror to see it this time. I felt it in my arms. I wanted to pump them in the air and declare victory. As I read and wrote and put on my lipstick, this is what I thought: Now I am mine. Again.