Married parents have been under attack lately, from all angles. This month, we've heard that longtime married couples in the kind of egalitarian and committed partnerships that the women of my generation -- raised under the '80s roof of divorce and disappointment -- strived for don't have sex as often as, well, anyone else. If we're married with kids, we might as well just forget romance: Maybe we brush each other's dishpan hands as we complaisantly pass the peas from freezer to microwave or fold endless, laundered sock pairs into balls, or once in a blue moon slam together to breed. But that's it.
We're miserable parents, too, it seems, all joy and no fun (though we wouldn't change it for a million childless, 20-something, tipsy, heart-racing, very-definition-of-freedom nights).
It's weird to read about one's supposed demographic truths this way. On the day The New York Times Magazine conceptually pictures your alleged marriage on its hot pink cover, it can make you feel, as you roll your stroller conspicuously through the Sunday farmers' market among the hung-over hipsters -- offspring dangling from your arm, bags drooping off your eyes -- like a failure. A tired, sexless, washed-up, ambling irony.
The truth, though, is that it isn't like that for many of us.
I'll be married 12 years this June. We met in our naïve 20s. My husband, all goofy granola charm, hung over my cubicle my first day at my first job. I remember he was wearing Birkenstocks with socks; he swears he never wore sandals to the office. He invited me over to watch a basketball game and get to know our co-workers. When I arrived, my East Coast sensibilities primed for an evening salon of conversation and schmoozing, I discovered I was the only one there.
Those first months were hot, and not just because we were living in the unforgiving heat of California's desert. Every night and weekend was free, for dinners out, dancing, roaming the sidewalks aimlessly, sipping cheap margaritas, making out on public benches, falling into bed, slick with sweat.
Even as we sailed forth, like moths drawn inexplicably toward an ancient, hypnotic flame -- wedding, mortgage, procreation -- we never grew bored with each other. Sure, we bickered over why he absolutely wouldn't be allowed to keep that ugly bachelor armchair with the fraying fabric, and we power-struggled over the usual flashpoints -- money, outside family commitments, careers. But we always returned to the comfort of each other's embrace, and the pleasure that sex delivered.
And then came our first baby. She rocked us, and not in the I-scored-tickets-to-that-freaking-killer-band-on-Friday-night way. Pregnancy was a shock to my system -- the ballooning of my body from size 8 to size whale; the constant paranoia that something, probably something I would stupidly do, would mess it all up and harm our innocent child.
Here's the confession the social scientists, shrinks and unburdened, childless observers of the zeitgeist are waiting for: We didn't have sex for a year.
You read that right. A year. That is not an easy thing to admit, when our culture so tightly links sexual vibrancy and exploits with youth, happiness and worth. There is no room, especially for women, to talk honestly about the ebb and flow of sex; no room for seasons of frantic lust separated by windows of quiet and pause. If you don't have sex for a year -- a year! -- your marriage must be failing. Both wife and husband must be deeply unhappy, the union not long for this world. Might as well dial up the divorce lawyers or sex therapists right now. If you don't have sex for a year, the woman must be a certain kind of evil, frigid monster and the guy must be one foot out the door.
Except we were not unhappy. My pregnancy was rough. Post-pregnancy was rougher... trouble healing physically (because, um, not all of us are Michelle Duggar) and a demise of the state formerly known as sleep. To say nothing of the mental and emotional bruising, inflicted not only by a new, baby-dictated schedule but from the very morphing of our former identities and relationship into something new and nearly unrecognizable.
Yet we still had the things that had started it all: Our yin-yang connection, our shared values, our memories of freedom-fueled fun and years of physical intimacy. And our new level of trust: We had done something that lashed us together more tightly than any expression or experience of sexual desire ever would. We had created life out of our love for each other.
Nothing is like that trust that grows when you watch the person you love blossom with new life. When you see the man you picked out when he was a free-wheeling 28-year-old with one pair of shoes and a recipe repertoire that consisted of a single dish (pineapple-broccoli burritos) mature into a steely-strong partner you can, and will, lean on.
It's one thing to trust a guy enough to let him buy you a cheap margarita. It's another thing to trust a person so deeply that when you are finally having great, relieving sex again with the rare condom (in a half-assed and ultimately failed attempt to stave off the next child) and the condom slips off and gets terrifyingly lost up there, you let him own the situation. And he rescues you, extracting that errant latex with the calm reassurance of a cattle farmer extracting his 200th calf.
That's the bad-assedness of married sex, folks.
Once you have children and a mortgage and a puppy that just had to come home with you for Christmas and jobs and a bottomless fridge that is never well-enough stocked no matter how many times you go to the grocery store, marriage changes. It's true: You look at your partner across the minivan console, and you're just as likely to think, Did you get the trash bins to the curb? as you are to fantasize, I'm going to drive that machine later.
But on a stormy Friday night you also gaze at his slightly wrinkled face and same warm eyes across a pile of freshly laundered ruffled skirts and tiny soccer shirts, and you realize this: I want him more now than ever. I love him more deeply today than any other day I have known him. He was a skinny, eager, sexy boy then; now he's my hero.