When I walk in to teach my workshop, the students' chairs are arranged in front of dozens of vibrators. Along the wall behind me, like my backup singers, is an assortment of arm-sized strap-on dildos. This is Babeland, the New York City sex toy shop, and I am here to give a workshop about Sexuality and New Motherhood.
Outside the porn world, new moms aren't exactly famous for their horniness, so the set up makes me laugh a little bit. I've done this talk before, but never here or this way. Usually, the setting is a yoga studio, where a bunch of exhausted, unshowered moms sit on the floor, surrounded by slings and Boppy pillows and babies. Usually, sex is but one of many topics we discuss, over weeks and months, as we come together to talk about what it means to become someone's mother. I love those moms and their stories and brave explorations, and I'm often struck, as I get to know them, at how similar their questions are to my own. My kids aren't babies anymore, so for me it's not literally colic, milk supply, or maternity leave. But I am still a mother, and still filled with questions, and the themes are the same: How do I do this? How do I know if I'm doing okay? How much am I supposed to push myself when something is hard? How do I combine "mother" and "woman"?
Tonight, though, we are strangers, and sex is the main event. These mothers look just as tired as my usual students, but they're showered and baby-less, sitting up straight and eager in their chairs, ready to learn about Sexuality and New Motherhood. There is a buzz of awkward excitement in the air, as though Answers Might Soon Be Revealed.
I start with a joke about how sexy it is to wipe someone's butt all day and pick particles of vomit out of your hair.
They are silent. Several women's eyes widen in shock.
"I mean, when you're in Buy Buy Baby," I go on, my voice heating up, "and you're choosing whether to get that squeaky giraffe teether or the mushroom one, with Polly Wolly Doodle playing over the loudspeaker, you can get so hot that you pull your partner into the family bathroom and have a quickie leaning up against the changing table with the smell of diapers all around you!"
I pause, a little breathless, and say, "I mean, how many of us have been there, right?
I grin. They finally get it and start to giggle.
I pretend to reshuffle my notes and find the right ones. "Okay. Baby has an ear infection, or maybe it's teething, or reflux, so you're sleep-deprived. You spent two hours today googling "diaper rash" and now every time you close your eyes, you have an after-image of large red welts all over an inflamed scrotum. Your bra smells like cheese and it's not a turn-on, any of it. More like that, right?"
A roomful of shoulders collectively relax. Once they know that being in a sex toy shop doesn't mean they have to be sex-crazed maniacs, they are ready to talk.
A tall woman in a nursing top starts us off. "I'm lying in bed with my baby nestled against me," she tells us, "and he's perfect, and warm, and his head smells like life itself, and we're this magical cocoon." She leans in as she speaks, and in her soft voice, you can almost feel the warmth of quilt, mother, milk, love, the purity of earnest devotion. What is as beautiful and sacred as a mother's intense focus on the baby she's made, and on herself, the new mother snuggling him close? It sounds so right, so good, so lucky for them both.
"And then," she says, sitting up straight, her voice decidedly cooler, "I feel my Enormous. Hairy. Eager. Husband. Behind me. Hard." Her eyes widen. "And, just ... No." She shakes her head and does a cartoonish shudder. "No. No. No."
Everyone laughs and another mom shrieks, "I have an EHEH in my bed, too!" Others join in. Apparently New York City is teeming with enthusiastic hairy beasts with no sense of timing, nightly panting and pawing at the soulful, earnest women who are facing away from them. I chuckle a little, remembering a time when my own true love had seemed a monstrous EHEH to me. It feels far away.
But, as the laughter dies down, I see tears being wiped away, too, and a third mom says, quietly, "I used to be so into my EHEH. I loved the Enormous and the Hairy and the Eager! But now ... I could not be less into it. It's kind of revolting! But -- is it okay for now? Or does it become a problem, long term? Is this how marriages slowly die?"
It's a weird moment. I do, sometimes, feel like some of my students would be happier if they got laid more often. On the other hand, the last thing I'm going to do is tell a room full of modern New York City women that they ought to Close Their Eyes And Think of England. Yet here they are, looking at me as though I am about to provide the answer.
Sometimes if a student seems really stuck, I'll give her a little kick in the pants to help her move forward, or, sometimes, tell someone I think she's fine where she is and she ought to stop riding herself so hard. But not much. Because in the end, you can only answer those questions for yourself, right?
"Here's the thing about sex," I say. "It's fun, right? It should be fun. It's free and it's good for you and it helps you fall asleep, and it reminds you you're an adult, and it makes you feel good and it ought to be a pleasure. So, sometimes it's right to just do it even if beforehand, you feel like ugh, no, not now.
"But the other side is true, too -- your comfort zone is a totally appropriate place to hang out for a while. If you're going to be together for the next half a century, an unsexy early childhood period is hopefully a blip."
I say it, and it sounds right, but incomplete. I haven't said exactly when to say yes and when to say no. Yes, "Do it, sometimes, even if you don't want to at first" can turn into a Sexist Nightmare Marriage, where the woman "submits" out of some misogynist sense of duty, deadening her soul in a totally wrong-headed effort to keep the marriage alive. But then there's the other side: the Sex Can Get Fucked Up By Parenthood side. We all know couples who just stop doing it. Or those who do it minimally, or for whom a kind of quietly resentful Unsexy Joint Venture mentality sets in, long term. And when that happens, affection decays and they can just seem so ... well, dead.
The question hangs around us -- where is the line?
It's an ironic moment for me. I'd arrived at Babeland right after a weekend with my husband at a romantic lakeside cabin, which had been made significantly less romantic by the existence of my kids. They weren't colicky newborns anymore and my husband no longer seemed EHEH to me. Still, once upon a time, we'd had romantic weekends in lakeside cabins where we woke at dawn to have all kinds of grown-up fun. Post-kids, the dawn wakeup call was from a pair of small people who wanted to play Run Around The Cabin And Bang On Things. It's not so sexy.
I found myself gazing out at the lake at six a.m., nursing the little one while Greg placated the big one with Cheerios. In my half-awake state, I realized, I was fantasizing about a weekend alone with him. We would come to this same quiet cabin without the kids; some magical helper would be with them far away. We would sleep and sleep and sleep. Maybe we would stay in bed all weekend. We would eat when we felt like it. There would be no Yo-Baby, cheddar bunnies or Cheerios. We would talk, uninterrupted, about politics and books and music. He would make the kind of funny remarks that made me fall in love with him so long ago, and we would giggle and laugh and laugh and laugh.
Thinking back, if you'd asked me, right then, I'd have said, sure we can have some cozy quiet sex during this grown-up fantasy weekend, too.
Sure, yeah, great.
But that wasn't what I'd been fantasizing about.
Back in Babeland, I give my students an exercise to try at home: You meet your partner at a bar and pretend you're on a first date. (We get derailed, temporarily, in logistics: "How do you deal with paying the babysitter at the end of the night?" "Do I pretend I'm me-now? Or me-when-we-met?" "Do I ask him to wear a condom since we've just met?" "Will he respect me in the morning?")
"It's worth making the effort to play a little," I say. And I laugh a little at myself; isn't being "grown-up playful" something I ought to focus on more? If I was lying in bed fantasizing about reading magazines, did that put me, possibly, sort of, in the toddler-and-big-kid equivalent of How Sex Gets Fucked Up By Parenthood?
Or is my comfort zone a good place to hang out for now?
Is it enough that a fabulous fantasy weekend with my husband would happily include familiar, comfy sex after the reading and talking? Or, ten years into our marriage, am I still supposed to crave that above all else? Is it okay for now? Or will it become a problem, long term?
We wrap up, after a couple hours, with the students brainstorming the small things they do to maintain the idea of themselves as sexy even while their love lives are tepid. Some wear sexy bras; some nurse mild flirtations with their local coffee-shop barista; some read erotica online while their babies nap. The room feels very warm now. A lot of sentences begin, "Maybe this is TMI, but . . ." and end with giggling. The giggling is my favorite part. Because we could stay all night discussing what's at stake, but every woman in the room is smart enough to know what her choices are already. It's the unexpected intimacy of giggling together that magically gets us out of our heads and into that candid, silly, light place where we can feel what to do next.
I have the feeling a number of people will get laid that night, after all.
After the session is over, as I'm packing up my notes, the store's owner approaches me. Since my talk was part of a fundraiser, I won't be paid, but she wants to offer me a little gift. She says airily, "Help yourself to something."
I glance around and am instantly overwhelmed by my options. I blushingly demur, saying, "Why don't you choose something for me?"
Her immediate response: "I think you'll just love this vibrating cock ring!" She says it brightly, the way I'd suggest a baby sling to a new mother.
The picture that springs to mind is one of those candy rings, the kind with the enormous hard candy jewel on a plastic base, that look exactly like a pacifier. And it sort of is a pacifier, because you put it right into your mouth and leave it there, and suck on it till it's gone; no one actually walks around wearing it like a ring on their finger, or it would get sticky and attract dust and stuff.
Unbidden comes the cartoonish image of my husband, plastic ring around his schlong, bejeweled with a dusty Watermelon Jolly Rancher. Vibrating.
She wraps it up, and I manage a poker face. I walk out into the chilly night towards the subway. Outside the store I let my face melt into an embarrassed smirk.
Vibrating. Cock. Ring.
If she had given me a plain old vibrator, or some lube, or even a dildo, I think I'd have been okay. I know what those things are; I've said those words many times. (Well, I don't walk around saying "dildo dildo dildo" all day, but I must mention lube to pregnant women and new mothers at least once a week. And if you're a liberal college-educated modern woman, I think it's illegal to be vibrator-ignorant. And, granted, "dildo" is a hilarious word but at least everyone knows what one is and how it can be used.) But: Vibrating cock ring.
I talk to a lot of people about a lot of intimate things, but you never really know what people do, do you? Perhaps everyone else already has vibrating cock rings. Half a dozen friends' Facebook profile pictures flash before my mind's eye. Am I last to the party on this?
The words make me snicker. I've heard of cock rings before, but they are unfamiliar enough that the words don't slide effortlessly around in my mind; they sort of thud. I think it in a few different inflections--
I think it to the beat of my own footsteps on the sidewalk. I say it aloud -- a great thing about New York City is that you can randomly say, "VIBRATING COCK RING!" on the sidewalk, and no one even notices you -- and I watch the words form a cloud of winter vapor in front of my mouth.
On the subway, I think about how that night might go, and that seeps into thinking about how the rest of my life might go. You're rolling along in life with the kids and the job and the marriage and the laundry. It's easy to stop checking in regularly to see whether the balance you've struck, which was working okay, is still right for you now, whether all the parts of your life are still dynamic, alive, ringing. My reading-in-bed weekend fantasy had seemed so good and so right, and so comforting. The sex I hadn't particularly imagined would have happened and it would have been cozy and loving and comforting and good, but -- cock-ring-less.
Before Greg and I had kids we did all kinds of messy, ridiculous, spontaneous new things. But: cock ring? It's a lot easier to talk about doing new things than to actually do them.
As the train rumbles under the East River, it occurs to me that the Jolly-Rancher image in my head might be inaccurate. I open the pamphlet. It reads, in very large letters, "How To Use Your Vibrating Cock Ring For Vaginal Sex." Well, okay. I tip the pamphlet as I read so no one can see.
It sounds rather clinical.
I don't know if it would be fun.
You can't put it in the dishwasher, apparently.
Maybe I am too old or not cool enough to carry it off.
Maybe I won't use it right away, but take some time to get comfortable with the idea.
Maybe it will be enough to just bring it into the house. Maybe its mere presence in my home will have some giant cascade effect, rippling through my universe, enlivening my entire life, bringing me out of Comfortable and into Fabulous Adventure, but without me having to actually do anything chancy.
Maybe that's a cop out and it is essential that I use it right away.
How weird can it be?
It might be weird.
Why haven't they included a message in the box, saying, "Honey, this is going to be okay. Not just the cock ring -- your whole life"?
In the midst of this reverie I feel the eyes of several passengers on me. Which is when I notice that the back of the pamphlet, currently visible to the entire 2 train, reads, in letters plain and large, "How To Use Your Vibrating Cock Ring For Anal Sex."
My cheeks burn red as candy and I cram the pamphlet into the bag, which now seems aglow with the Babeland logo. Several passengers are smirking, and others are conspicuously looking away. The sixty-something woman across from me is openly chuckling.
I look up, above everyone's head, and breathe.
But, as I think about the dozen people now also contemplating my Vibrating Cock Ring, my attempt at Zen-like calm gives way to a kind of snuffling giggle. All these passengers are strangers, but they're people, too, and now we're all weirdly together in the silly place. New York is full of unexpected intimacies.
I think of that famous Dylan Thomas poem:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
I think about my students who sometimes need a kick in the rear to get out of a stuck moment. I think about the funny, flirtatious husband I plan to spend at least fifty more years with. He will, I know, be grinning in the doorway when I get home, eyebrows bouncing up and down. There will be three dirty jokes about my "Sex Class" before I even have my coat off. He will guess I have brought something, will want to see it right away.
It will be okay with him if I just give him a chaste kiss, for now, as long as I laugh at his jokes. Maybe that would be okay with me, too. Or, I could go for it.
We have been through births and breastfeeding, potty training, pre-school interviews, and mortgage approval. The bloom is off the rose, for sure. But, as I walk up the stairs with the blazing Babeland bag, I think: It is, after all, still a rose -- a beautiful, glorious living thing -- and it is time to water that fucker and give it some light.
This essay was originally published in Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers