Monthly Archives: May 2011

Sometimes Things Get Broken.

I can’t explain why I did this, but after hearing from Dr. P, my new gynecologist, that I was going to need surgery, I made an appointment with the nurse practitioner I mentioned earlier. I don’t know if I wanted a second opinion, an explanation of why she told me I was “perfectly fine” when I obviously wasn’t, or the opportunity to blame someone for my body’s refusal to cooperate. Probably all of the above, but I had no real agenda as I sat waiting for her. Breezing into the room smiling, she asked why I was there. “Already pregnant, are you?” she suggested with a wink.

“I can’t have sex,” I said expressionlessly for the umpteenth time that month.

She chuckled. “Oh, honey, I know it’s awkward the first few times, but you just have to—”

“—Make it work,” I finished, nodding knowingly. “And my body just has to relax. But what I’m telling you is not that it’s difficult or awkward. It’s not possible.” I emphasized the last sentence, so she’d catch my exasperated tone. I was getting tired of saying these words.

“I see.” She studied me and breathed a slow “hmmm.” Narrowing her eyes as she pursed her lips, she advised, “Well, then, I would suggest losing some weight. The better you feel about your body, the easier it will be to share it with your hubby.”

I cringed. I hate the word “hubby,” and in this case, it was the final straw when paired with yet another unhelpful recommendation. “Listen. I am telling you that I can’t have sex. I couldn’t even if my body looked like Beyoncé’s. My physician says I need surgery to remove scar tissue.”

She didn’t invite me to hop on the table so she could check things out. She didn’t say, “Well, I wondered if that would cause a problem.” She didn’t let on that I had said anything at all: she just repeated her weight-loss PSA, patted me on the knee, and ushered me out. I stared at the back of her head as she walked away, vowing to never step foot in that office again. Squinting into the sun as I headed back outside, I felt the infernal tears coming on. I slid into my car and rested my head on the steering wheel. All I knew about my body was: 1) It should be smaller, 2) It featured “udders,” and 3) It barred me from creating the physical union that should have been at the center of my marriage. However much I entered married life hating my body, it had doubled.

“God, You have got to be kidding me!” I raged. “We kept our bodies pure! Never did we give into temptation, never did we risk disease or pregnancy, never once did we do anything but try to please You with our bodies! And this is how we’re repaid!” All the anger I felt toward the nurse practitioner, my own body, and the situation itself poured out in a messy display. “Of all people, why us?” I was sobbing and fuming, angrier than I’d ever been before. It was so unfair. I felt inadequate as a wife—completely, painfully inadequate. I in no way measured up, and although my struggles were private, I felt exposed. It seemed to me that everyone could see I wasn’t able to perform my wifely responsibilities. I was broken, damaged. But most of all, I felt unwomanly. If the part of my body that made me a woman wasn’t functioning, then what was I? If I couldn’t provide for my husband the physical intimacy that he craved, how could our relationship ever move beyond committed friendship? “Do something,” I seethed. “You have to do something here, God. I don’t know what to ask for, but You have to do something. Please, please take this away.” I sat in my car crying for a little over an hour, until I was so emotionally exhausted that there was nothing left to do but go home.

I’ll edit out the surgery itself. Suffice it to say, Dr. P pronounced me all healed up six weeks later. And then I began the battle against my religious anxieties regarding sex.

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Expectations Are a Bad Idea.

For many of us who married before having sex, our primary source of information was movies. Naturally, you hear stories now and then from friends, but in general, movie sex is the only kind we virgin brides are familiar with. Of course, there are several kinds of movie sex. There’s the sweet, starts-with-a-kiss scene in Pretty Woman. There’s the smoldering, starts-with-a-dance scene in Dirty Dancing. There are the awkward pornographic scenes in Love Actually. And other movies run the gamut of sexual unions: ripping-clothes-off sex, spontaneous sex, passionate sex, graceful sex. Somewhere within all those images, the truth was surely lurking. When we married, I assumed I had a pretty good idea of sex, even without having ever experienced it for myself. Furthermore, I expected to innately know how to perform the act, as one innately knows how to smile. How difficult could it be? We had complementary anatomies. No charts or graphs necessary. From the very first time, it would be complete erotic bliss.

Well…you know what they don’t show in the movies? The fish-out-of-water feeling you get when you’re trying to do it for the first time, for one. No physical activity in pre-sexual life can prepare you for the sort of gyrating you do during sex. Not only do you have to know how to move your own body, you have to do so in rhythm with another person. Nor do movies show the hesitation engendered by embarrassment with one’s own body. They don’t show the funny noises that bodies that close sometimes make. They don’t show the array of frustrations caused by condoms or the hormonal mood swings that accompany the Pill. They don’t show how things go hilariously wrong sometimes, and you end up laughing yourselves right out of the mood. They don’t show the post-deed cleanup. And they for sure don’t show what happens when the whole thing is simply not possible.

Sex for me was heartbreaking from the beginning. Perhaps I should’ve expected it: every gynecological exam during the previous four years had been excruciating. Before my first one at 18 years old, I asked my best friend what to expect. She said, “It’s uncomfortable, but it’s not too bad.” Thirty seconds into that exam, I nearly came off the table from the pain. (And that’s saying something because I usually take pain like a man.) I spent the rest of the time crying, wondering if my best friend had understood my question, and imagining revenge on the sadistic nurse practitioner. Four years later, I was in for my fourth exam, and it was the same as always: torturously, tearfully painful. Concerned, I asked if all systems were on go for the wedding night two weeks in my future. She said, “You’re perfectly fine. Sex is fun; you’ll love it. And congratulations!”

Imagine my dismay, then, when after about a hundred tries, my marriage was still unconsummated after four weeks. Sex was literally impossible, and we had no idea why or who could possibly help. The only people I’d ever really discussed sex with were the husband-and-wife team who did our premarital counseling, so I made a coffee date with the wife and stumbled through our story. “I don’t know how to explain it…It’s like there’s no place for him to go,” I described, shrugging in bewilderment. J was the first in a long line to give me this advice: “I know it certainly hurts the first time, but once you get past that, it really will be okay. Your body will relax into it, and you’ll learn what to do. Marital sex is not an option, so you really must keep trying.” Nothing is wrong with this advice, and had I been in J’s place, I would’ve said the same thing to me. The fact is, it does hurt the first few times for many women, and they (we) do have to allow time to relax into it. I left J’s house with renewed intent to power through and just do it. Unfortunately, after another week of “powering through,” sex still wasn’t working for us. Sheepishly, I turned to my mother and then to my best friend for advice. Both gave me variations on J’s counsel. “It hurts in the beginning, definitely. But it’s a vital part of being married. You’ll get there.” Again, I told myself, “It can’t be this difficult. Make it work.” Crestfallen after what turned into two emotionally painful, sexless months, I resorted to crying myself to sleep. My husband and I, who had saved our bodies for each other, could not enjoy the highly anticipated experience of sexual ecstasy. Truthfully, I would’ve even welcomed pain had sex just been possible.

You have to remember, as I mentioned in the first post of this blog, I could’ve been voted Least Likely to Ever Talk About Sex by my graduating class. (Luckily, though, that superlative didn’t exist.) I have always been a private person, and this was the most private of all issues to have to discuss with others. At this point, I had talked about embarrassing sexual issues with not only my husband, but also two premarital counselors, my mother, and my best friend. Little did I know: this list wasn’t even a third as long as it was going to get. Not knowing what else to do, I added a sixth person to the list: my physician. My husband and I sat in his office and explained our situation, feeling helpless and exasperated. Dr. S referred me to a wonderful gynecologist who diagnosed the problem immediately. For reasons unknown, scar tissue had formed quite a literal chastity belt inside me. Surgery was necessary. To a woman who already hated her body and considered attempts at sex nothing more than an exercise in pain and failure, hearing that corrective surgery was inevitable made me recede into an inner web of fatalism.

More to come…

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7th Grade

Anybody out there make it through junior high unscathed?

Anyone? Bueller?

<Crickets.>

Yeah, me either. For starters, a girl named, if I remember correctly, Presumptuous Trollop—but I’ll call her “Jasmine” in this post to protect her identity*—demolished my self-concept in about sixty seconds one morning.

Once upon a time I was an adorable baby. Everyone cooed and fawned over me and called me “lovely.” The paparazzi, meaning my mom and aunts, flashed cameras so often that my world appeared veiled by strobe lighting. My first steps were applauded, my first laugh brought delight, and my inability to pronounce Ls was exploited for its astronomical cuteness. (I’m good with Ls now, by the way.) My whole childhood was painstakingly documented by loving parents. Endless pictures of me fill albums; it seems I was always goofing off with my dad, playing school, dancing, or dressing up. Dressing up was my unquestionable favorite. It’s all my best friend K and I ever did. Whether at her house or mine, our parents would rave, “You girls are so beautiful!” Our radiant grins would bask in their words, later repeating them in front of a mirror as we practiced full-lipped model pouts. “You girls are so beautiful, so beautiful!” Since K’s family and mine were always assuring us of our beauty, it never occurred to me to be self-conscious about my appearance. I knew I was beautiful just like I knew how to spell my name.

And then came Jasmine.

Jasmine and I both had third-period choir, and since we were altos with similar last names, we had to sit near each other. But proximity should not be mistaken for friendship: we rarely spoke because I was painfully shy, and she was a loud, rude cretin. Besides, my friend A was an alto too, so I usually just ignored Jasmine in favor of A. One morning A and I were gushing over a boy I liked when Jasmine butted into the conversation. “He will never like you, Amie. God, you are so fat. I mean, you have udders.” She spat the word as she gestured toward my chest, her cronies already laughing at the joke. She, too, dissolved into giggles. To this day, I can hear her words exactly the way she uttered them (pun fully intended). I remember what she was wearing, how her hair was fixed, the expression on her face. In that moment, at 12 years old, I began to loathe my body. It’s sad that in seconds someone could destroy the confidence my family had been building in me for years, but that’s exactly what happened. I took Jasmine’s word—someone I didn’t trust or even like—over the word of every friend and family member who loved me so dearly.

As soon as I was 13 and allowed to wear makeup, I applied it with wild abandon. After all, the problem Jasmine identified was fatness, not ugliness. Desperate to attract attention to my face—the salvageable part of me—I covered my skin with an inch of foundation and blush. I hoped that if my face were pretty enough, no one would ever look below my neck again. Preferably, I would never have to look below my neck again. Many mornings before heading to school, Jasmine’s words echoed in my ears. Eventually, though, they weren’t just her words anymore: I took over the job of berating myself. “Ugh, your legs are atrocious,” I would say to myself as I put on my jeans. When a guy showed me extra attention, I’d think, “It’s just pity; he feels sorry for you because you’re fat.” Mirrors and glass storefronts became my nemeses. Even on the hottest, most humid summer days, I selected pants or ankle-length skirts to cover my embarrassing body. Anytime it was possible, I hid behind others in pictures so that only my face peeked through. Couldn’t risk capturing those udders on film: the camera adds ten pounds, you know. My body shamed me.

And that didn’t change over the years. In fact, ten years after Jasmine’s announcement, I was counting down the days to my wedding, thinking, “I will hate all my wedding pictures because of my fat body.” And, even more appalling than the thought of the wedding album was the sex in my future. Sex, I knew, required complete nakedness with another human. To say this was “terrifying” is a gross understatement. I honestly considered the possibility that upon seeing my unclothed self, my new husband might say, “Wow, I wasn’t prepared for this. I’m not attracted to you at all,” and consequently annul the marriage. That is not an exaggeration; the message of Jasmine’s words so imbued me that I thought everyone must share her opinion. Allowing my husband to see me the night of our wedding was one of the single most difficult things I have ever done.

But do you know what happened? He didn’t annul the marriage. He was very gracious and respectful, assuring me over and over that he liked what he saw. However, this didn’t immediately solve the problem. In addition to these emotional issues with my body, very real physical complications with sex arose within days. (I’ll go there next.)

*Her name isn’t Jasmine, either. I really will protect her identity.

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Mothers’ Day

Chances are you think your mother is the greatest of her kind. Me too: mine is beautiful, wise, compassionate, and seriously smart. My mom has spent hours and hours of the last two years on the phone with me while I cried or complained or unloaded fear and hurt. She never turns down a hug or says she’s too busy to listen. She works to make sure everyone in the family has what he or she needs. As I write this, tears of gratitude spring to my eyes, for I am blessed with such an amazing mother. I love that a twenty-four-hour period is set aside for my family to give her an extra dose of special treatment. Mothers Day is a sweet time.

Mothers Day church services are a different story. To those of us who aren’t mothers, it can feel a little like not being tapped into a sorority. The beginning of the church service I was in last Sunday was like this. One of the pastors asked the mothers to stand as he thanked them on behalf of all of us. “Ladies, you make significant sacrifices through the years, and we rarely recognize it. You have answered the highest calling a woman can have: raising children. We want to bless you and thank you for your service to us.” He said other things—he spoke for five or ten minutes—but that’s the gist. My issue with this is not that it’s necessarily untrue: my own mother does some serious sacrificing, and she deserves appreciation for that and so much more. So do all mothers. Across the world, women spend their days cleaning up spills that no one else sees, mending tears in clothes, administering medicine, crying as they rock their children to sleep for hours on end when the little one just won’t cooperate. Mothers are strong, so strong.

But I do not believe that raising children is a woman’s “highest calling.” If that’s true, a sizeable demographic will never reach its female potential. In this subset, some have chosen not to have children for very valid reasons, and some have chosen against wifehood, as well. Some want desperately to have children, but for a reason that mystifies the doctors, it isn’t happening. Some have had surgeries rendering them infertile. Some have hormonal abnormalities, chronic illnesses, or other medical factors that bar them from motherhood. Some have watched in horror as their dreams of motherhood ended abruptly in the bathroom. For some, this holiday is a reminder of the loss of life or the inability to give it, not its celebration.

However, there is much more to the concept of “mothering” than giving birth. Some women who have not and will never bear children have left an indelible mother’s mark on the little ones in their lives. Aunts, stepmothers, grandmothers, nurses, teachers, big sisters, babysitters, family friends—these women and others like them have the same capacity for “significant sacrifice” and “service” to children* as the women whose biological offspring are involved. Mothering, I would argue, is the art of cherishing and guiding children, an art that does not require a functional reproductive system. Mothers encourage. They spend time with children. They cause smiles and laughter. They provide for children’s needs and wants. They teach. They love. Women with unused wombs are just as capable of these functions and eager to fill them as their childbearing counterparts. Many of these mothering-women have played important roles in my life, as I hope to in the lives of others.

So maybe the entrance qualifications for the Mothers-Day sorority can be modified. Rather than honoring only biological or legally adoptive mothers, perhaps we can include all mothering-women who nurture and care for the world’s younger people. While only one woman births us, many, many women along the way help us become who we are. One such woman in my life was A.M., a family friend who spent a lot of time with me during my childhood. She took me out to dinner (and as a good Southern girl, I almost always picked Cracker Barrel), she took me mini-golfing, she invited me to spend weekends with her in her apartment. Many evenings she made us hot dogs and we talked and laughed while eating in her kitchen. A.M. reached out to me: she loved me, cared for me, and looked me in the eye when we talked. I knew I was important to her. And there is no greater gift a mothering-woman can bestow than the message “You’re significant. You’re special. There’s something wonderful inside you that I love to watch and be a part of.”

For A.M. and all the other members of the mothering corps out there, whether you are biological moms or moms of the heart: thank you most sincerely for the love and guidance you so freely give, and a very happy Mothers Day to you.

*Although I use the word “children” throughout, certainly some women mother us when we are already old enough to have children and perhaps grandchildren of our own.

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