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Bodies

Bodies

AFTER COLLEGE, I applied halfheartedly for a job in publishing, asserting in my interview that I wanted Friday afternoons off so that I could shop and cook for the weekend. I didn’t get the job. Despite having won high honors in English, I didn’t frame my degree (Radcliffe, ’67) and didn’t imagine an office wall on which to hang it. Jeff, my husband, had a trove of inherited money that swelled our monthly bank account. My mother didn’t work; neither did his. Other young wives in my social set volunteered, gardened, played tennis and golf, decorated their homes—and got pregnant. Fridays, they stocked up for the weekend.

Jeff and I spread into a whole house in Cambridge, just the two of us, vacationed in his family’s waterfront home on the Cape, drank quantities of wine at dinner parties I cooked for all day. We built a twenty-foot sailboat in our backyard, aggravating our neighbors with the chemicals but feeling diligent and content in our project. I remember agreeing with a friend over tea that we were the two happiest wives we knew. Beyond the affluent bubble of Jeff’s and my life, sometimes just blocks away, activists tackled civil rights, poverty, and the Vietnam War, but outside news found its way into our home mainly via the Beatles. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band arrived at the Harvard Co-op the day I turned twenty-three. That night, friends dressed me in a bright orange jumpsuit they’d lettered across the back: “Housewife 23-plus.”

After the publishing house turned me down, I reasoned that we’d want a family sooner or later, so why not get started now? I say reasoned. Reason was probably the least active ingredient in the pot I stirred in my new kitchen day after day, trying to cook up a future for myself. Jeff’s mother had announced in her straightforward, practical way that it was time for me to start a family. My mother, I knew, longed for a grandchild. Ambition was a spice I’d never tasted. No surprise, then, that the soup I served up was motherhood. Jeff, finishing up his training as an architect, tasted hesitantly, wasn’t sure he liked it, but finally said that we could have a baby if I wanted to—since, he said, I’d do most of the work.

Maybe because Jeff really wanted to say “not yet,” maybe because he resented the contortions that conceiving required of our sex life (“It’s time!” I’d say, holding the basal thermometer aloft), when I finally did get pregnant he treated the news as more mine than ours. When I ventured out to natural childbirth classes, he stayed home. In the middle-of-the-night labor room, while I breathed and panted through the pains as I’d been taught, he fell asleep. After orderlies wheeled me away for spinal anesthesia, after the doctor pulled our nine-pound son out with forceps, after a nurse laid a bundled infant in my trembling arms, the doctor studied my face. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Aren’t you happy?” I hadn’t expected to feel so alone.

Streetlights shadowed ghostly new leaves on the walls of the baby’s room. In the rocking chair, in the dark, I felt my son’s small mouth tug at my nipple. Would the milk come down? Would it be enough? I rocked alone in unmothering darkness, waiting for milk’s sting.

My swollen left breast flamed and throbbed one afternoon as Jeff and I sat in weak spring sunshine with friends. I asked for water, and he shot me a look of henpecked resentment. He was dry too. The baby was getting every ounce we had. He strolled, unhurried, into the house and brought water in a glass so tiny that I had to ask for another.

One morning soon after, I pressed into the mattress of our bed, cringing at each about-to-wake-up sound coming from Peter’s cradle. At the start, when the profound sleep of infancy made me lower my cheek to check for his tiny breath, his sighs and gurgles reassured me. Now all morning I had dragged myself toward a nap. Was that a whimper already?

“Our social life has evaporated,” Jeff said two months after Peter’s birth, as though he’d found the source of an itch and aimed to scratch it. “Let’s have a party.” His lips thinned down the way they did when he was angry. I curled up further under the covers. “You wanted a baby,” he said. “Now you’re not happy.” He said happy like a slap.

I tried speaking to my doctor. Across the expanse of his desk, I told him how I cried while Peter napped, my cheek against the mattress or the living room rug, how I imagined being taken to a mental hospital. The doctor laid a hand on mine. “Don’t want too much,” he said, patting. “This is what I like to tell my new mothers: Get out to a library once in a while to keep your mind going and your spirits up, but be satisfied. You are raising a new generation. You are taking care of your husband when he comes home from a busy day.” I wondered if I had the willpower to do as he said.

Six months into our new lives, Jeff came home from work with a pamphlet he’d picked up in Harvard Square: “No More Fun and Games: A Journal of Female Liberation.” He slid the bright red booklet with its glaring black title across the kitchen table and took Peter from my arms so I could finish cooking dinner.

The gift harked back to our life before Peter, when we consumed Sir Winston Churchill’s multivolume autobiography together, when Jeff fancied that I’d one day host a literary salon in our living room. Back when we dreamed of sailing around the world, porpoises playing tag around us, with special rope nets set up all around the narrow decks for our children’s safety. Jeff carried the journal home to me that evening—the first book, perhaps, for my salon. Given his later reactions to feminism, I imagine he hadn’t read it. He set it down on the kitchen table across the widening gap between the couple we’d thought we were and the one that parenthood was exposing.