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Tour of Duty

Is there something the matter with me? As a wife? Because here’s the thing: I don’t always like to do my “wifely duty.”
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By Muffy Mead-Ferro

Excerpted from Blindsided by a Diaper

Is there something the matter with me? As a wife? Because here’s the thing: I don’t always like to do my “wifely duty.”

I should elaborate on that statement, though, because I think my lack of enthusiasm truly runs more broadly than that. What I really find distasteful is the whole idea of sex that comes with any feeling of indebtedness or obligation. I mean honestly, when sex is one’s job, I believe there’s a name for that.

We married women will probably never be referred to in such unsavory terms just for having sex with our own husbands, but still. I can’t get excited about the idea of giving my body to somebody else, even if it is my husband, for their own personal gratification and use while I lie there doing ... what? Going over my grocery list? Mentally returning phone calls? Planning a renovation of the breakfast room?

Our breakfast room could really use an overhaul, too, ever since that upstairs shower started leaking six years ago, but I still have to wonder if picking paint and cabinets during sex would result in the kind of sex even my husband could be happy with. I was on a talk show one time with a woman who admitted to actually watching television while her husband did “his business.” Although I tried not to snort or cackle or make any other strident noises in response to that unfortunate statement, I was on the side of the studio audience members who did groan audibly, and I was even more embarrassed for that woman’s husband than I was for her.

I can’t criticize her though, because for all I know she dislikes obligatory sex as much as I do but just doesn’t know how to get out of it. I ought to email her about my trick of diligently searching eBay for cowboy-boot-salt-and-pepper shakers into the wee hours, or at least until I hear snoring.

I hope my husband knows that I’m totally and completely kidding right now. Cowboy-boot-salt-and-pepper shakers!

All kidding aside, I do have a genuinely sexual side of my being, and I think my husband would be as sorry as I would be if it were diminished to the point where I was just “getting it over with” so I could feel like I was off the hook for a while before it was time to service him again.

And yet I do have some idea of how easily sex can go by the wayside, how sex can start to feel strictly obligatory, in a marriage. I believe I know whose fault it usually is, too, when this happens.

Often, it’s the children who are to be blamed, the little buggers.

When my own children were born, I never imagined they’d be romance wreckers. On the contrary, they were romance re-defined! Quick as a wink I fell madly, helplessly in love with them. I knew this would happen, of course, because so many of my friends told me it would, but no amount of forewarning could have prepared me for the overwhelming feelings of devotion that the mere existence of my own little babies evoked. The moment I saw their faces I was like toast dipped into tea, soaked through and soggy with ardor. I was infatuated and enthralled with their every feature. My little girl, Belle, my first-born, felled me with her perfect, rose-bud beauty. And when my dark, round-faced little boy, Joe, came along . . . well, I just wanted to put butter and salt on him and eat him up.

The angelic nature of these darling human beings provided quite the unmitigated contrast with the person who had been up until then the sole object of my affections and physical desire: my husband. He actually became less attractive than I remembered him being before. First of all, the lummox was not nearly the help he should have been with the babies. And let’s just say he did not think the fact that I had become a mother to his two small children, only 20 months apart, was a good enough reason to start doing laundry, grocery shopping, or the diligent picking up of stray coffee cups.

Oh, he tried. He thought he was being a good husband and father, I’m certain of it, when he said, “Here honey, let me change Belle’s diaper for you.” And I’m sure he was surprised when I reacted to that suggestion with appalled indignation rather than cheery gratitude, because I’m sure he didn’t think there was anything wrong with his use of the phrase “for you.” Naturally, my new view of my husband and the corresponding slow-burn of irritation I felt didn’t do anything in particular to enhance our sex life.

And then there was the fact that for a long time after my little stint in the delivery room, intercourse really didn’t feel very good. I would just as soon have stuck a dinner fork up my nose again and again, to tell you the truth. Up-down, up-down, up-down. Oh, this is fun, let’s do this again tomorrow night.

My preference for dinner forks lasted for a period of about six months, post-delivery. Just about the time I started to regain my libido and felt I might possibly enjoy a little hanky-panky without a topical pain reliever and a Valium, I was pregnant again and, after the usual nine months, had another baby. Didn’t want sex after that either. Sex painful . . . body exhausted . . . husband inept . . . the same litany of reasons as the first go-around .

What’s more, I didn’t feel at all guilty because I knew I wasn’t the only mom who felt that way and for those exact same reasons, too. In fact, for the first time in my life, I could read articles in women’s magazines and feel that they were talking in very specific detail and with intimate personal knowledge about me. I was not only just like all the other moms I knew, I was even like all the other moms on television and in magazines! Like each of them, all I wanted at the end of the day from my marriage bed was mindless rest. If every woman in America appears to feel the same way, how can it be wrong?

The demise of married sex, especially once children have entered the picture, has been women’s magazine fodder almost since the beginning of women’s magazines. I’ve certainly engaged in conversations on this topic in my own book club plenty of times and my girlfriends all had similar stories to tell, lest you think we actually talk about the book we were supposed to have read.

But I started to hear my girlfriends (and myself) say things in book club that I realized I didn’t really feel good about. Things such as “I’ve been pawed and sucked and groped by two little kids all day long and the last thing I need is to have my husband all over me when I get into bed.”

When I first heard that all I wanted to say was “Amen sister!” but just before I got to the “sister” part I felt the words sort of dry up and evaporate in my throat. I had to actually turn on my brain for a moment there, and do some independent thinking. Are pawing from a husband and a child at all the same thing? Are they coming from the same place or going in the same direction?! Could the one, in any way, shape or form, ever be any kind of a substitute for the other? Cripes, that whole idea just gives me the willies. It’s true that they can each sap your energy, but so what? You still need both in your life. Vacations sap your energy, too, but it doesn’t mean you give them up to do nothing but work.

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That’s what I started to think about, once I stopped wallowing in the support I was getting from the swell sisterhood of my sex-avoiding, non-reading book club. It started to occur to me that I was letting intimacy with my children replace intimacy with my husband, and in spite of the fact that so many other women seemed to be doing it too, I realized it was just plain dumb. No wonder sex had begun to feel like a chore and an afterthought!

It occurred to me that perhaps Belle and Joe weren’t the romance wreckers I’d thought they were, either. In fact, I take back what I stated earlier about the little buggers being to blame for the demise of romance in a marriage. Because I realized that my own kids weren’t actually coming between me and my husband. I myself may have been putting them there.

Who could blame me? I felt like I’d actually been encouraged to put my children before my husband in our child-centric, parenting-obsessed, and socially-competitive culture. Everyone is racing to raise the best kids, but having a great marriage seems to get lost in the shuffle. And I knew just from looking around my own neighborhood that if I didn’t change my thinking I wouldn’t be the first mom who had (although perhaps not deliberately) sacrificed her relationship with her husband in favor of her relationship with her kids. I realize there are many reasons why marriages head south, but I’d venture that one of them is when a woman sets out to be supposedly the most fan-damn-tastic mom in the world.

In fact, if I got it in my head to do that, I’m sure I’d have to let a lot of things besides my marriage head south. I’d have to sacrifice not only quality time with my husband but quality time with my wonderful friends, too. I would certainly have to sacrifice the writing career which has been so very rewarding to me. And I suppose I wouldn’t be able to have much in the way of hobbies or personal pursuits if I were utterly determined to be, above all else, the most devoted parent imaginable.

I guess I could always try to make myself feel better by saying, “Look how much I’ve given up in my life — I must be a fabulous mom!” But I don’t think I’d feel better. I know myself, and I know I’d have a hard time biting off on that kind of a motherhood-as-martyrdom scheme, and an even harder time choking it down. Because deep down I really don’t buy the idea that sacrificing all the other things one cares about really goes hand-in-hand with being a great mom. I’ve also asked myself what I want my own kids to know about the world around them and about their own family, and one thing I want them to know is that there are four people who matter in our family, not just two. I don’t want to raise them with the idea that the world revolves around them because that will certainly set them up for failure and disappointment, not to mention that it wouldn’t do my marriage any favors. I also want them to know that indeed I have a life beyond them, and I want them to see me living it.

What’s more, I don’t think Belle and Joe really want to take me away from the father they also adore. Yes, the little imps scrunch up their faces and say “gross” when they catch us hugging and kissing, but it’s easy enough to see through that. And I can understand why they are not-so-secretly pleased, too, because the bond that I share with their father, which pre-dates and is quite distinct from the bond we share with them, tells them our family has a strong foundation.

The bottom line is that I realized I’d fallen into a pattern which, while it seemed to be the expected norm for the average American mom, I didn’t believe in. It took me a while to get my mind around that because I was getting so much encouragement from society to make my kids the center of my world, the primary object of my affections, even as my marriage started to drift into routine disconnectedness.

When my little brain finally processed all of this I realized that despite the fact I loved my children beyond measure, it was unnecessary and illogical to let my feelings for them supersede my feelings for my husband. What’s more, I noticed my husband hadn’t ever let that happen. He loves our children immeasurably so, but he didn’t fall head over heels. He wasn’t soaked-through-soggy-toast infatuated the same way I’d been. His intimate feelings were still, and always had been, reserved for me.

Don’t get me wrong. I still don’t like the idea of sex-as-duty one bit, and I don’t think anyone should feel they have to have sex if it rates on par with a fork up the nostril on the pleasure scale, but fortunately that hasn’t been a problem for quite a while. My body has healed. It wasn’t sex that I didn’t like any more, it was the idea of obligatory sex, the idea of wifely duty. Although I knew I was probably the one who could take most of the blame for it, I hated the way sex seemed to gradually have been positioned in our marriage during the four or five years since we’d had kids. I hated that I’d started saying to myself, “Well, it’s been two weeks now . . . so . . . you’d better put out tonight.”

So I sat down and told my husband in pretty frank terms that although I don’t blame him, I do not like the feeling that I owe him, especially concerning something that is supposed to bring us mutual satisfaction. The feeling of obligation was turning me off. Not on.

Now before I describe his reaction I have to tell you that my husband is quite clever, and also that he knows me very well.

First of all, he wasn’t defensive, which threw me because men are always defensive. (To the men reading this: Women are not defensive. We just have comebacks for everything, which are typically prepared in advance. But back to my husband.)

“Fine,” he said, placidly. “I hear what you’re saying. We don’t ever have to have sex again, then, if you don’t want to. Let’s just forget about it. I’m fine with that.”

Can you imagine? He didn’t even add, “But it can’t stay this way for long.” Or even, “But I’m here if you want me.” He just dropped it . . . he left it at that. Never again! I was floored.

I was also extremely grateful. Glory hallelujah, I’d been set free from bondage! I’d had the great weight of sexual indebtedness lifted from my weary wifely shoulders! I could sleep! Oh my goodness, I was in a state of near-bliss.

Well, I should clarify. I was in a state of near-bliss for about two or three weeks. After that I started to feel kind of lonely, to tell you the truth. And — this was even more odd — I started to feel a little frisky. Getting ready for bed at night I’d be thinking such alien thoughts as, “I wonder if my husband would be up for a little roll in the hay? I wonder how I could get him in the mood?” I started looking at him walking around in our bedroom in his boxer shorts and thinking, “Yum.” Suddenly, somehow, he was different. He’d gone from being my oppressor to being the forbidden fruit, just beyond my reach.

You can see where this is going. Yes, my husband had played a little psychological trick on me, and it had worked precisely the way he’d planned. It worked even though I knew he was tricking me. Because I wanted to be tricked. I wanted to stop thinking of sex the way I’d been thinking of it. I wanted to get it sorted out in my mind, and separated from the issues of child-rearing and chores. It seems that all I really needed was to yank my perspective around.

And of course, I needed the breathing room in which to do it. I’m grateful for my husband for giving me that.

I just wish I could get in touch with the woman who was on the talk show. The one who watched TV while her husband did his business. I wish I could tell her she doesn’t owe her husband sex. That it’s not his business, it’s hers. And that if she really wants some cute cowboy-boot-salt-and-pepper shakers, not to look on eBay because I have some I can give her a super good deal on.



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