A Father’s Love Poem
I touched her thigh
Thought, My oh my
Just then we heard the baby cry.
“Dad, did you used to be a man?”
—my daughter, age 4
The other night I had a heartbreaking dream.
My wife and I, somehow, miraculously, were alone in a private place. The intoxication of this intimacy was too much for us; we began to kiss, long and lingeringly at first, but gradually with more and more excitement. Soon we were down on the bed in each other’s arms, passion sweeping us away, and I began to undress her. But just as certain highly interesting articles of clothing came off …
… a whole busload of tourists arrived. Talking, gawking, and dragging luggage, they trooped right past us on their way to their rooms.
On waking I realized bleakly that you simply couldn’t find a better metaphor for the sexual-romantic life of people with children. The irony, of course, is that the “tourists” are of our own making. My wife and I love to be together, to talk, to share, to do things as a couple, to make love and then talk some more: to act, in short, just like lovers, which, despite our many years together and the mob-like presence of our kids, is exactly what we are.
What we’ve actually become, however, is Lovers Interrupted by Tourists.
You’re new parents? Congratulations! But you can’t eat your cake and then keep on eating it. You got to make the child; that’s about all the uninhibited sex you’re going to have for a while. And romance, which is rich and slow and time-consuming, is even more problematic. My wife and I go out on dates with all the frequency of Catholic clergy.
But don’t despair. In five years or so your kids will be in kindergarten. Of course, even then you’ll both have to take a day off work to get any privacy—either that or sneak around like teenagers. Meanwhile, though you’ll be sorely tempted, this is not the time to order one of those pay-per-view channels that feature mostly naked people involved in a lot of heavy breathing. It would just be too frustrating.
Can it really be that bad? you ask. Is having kids that restrictive?
I’ve heard about those couples whose children fall asleep at seven and sleep all night, leaving plenty of time and privacy for extra-curriculars. But even that kind of time, with the fatigue factor added in, can’t match the romantic freedom of the childless couple. And for many of us, kids-who-crash-at seven—and then stay in bed, without coming back out for a drink of water, a hug, or whatever other pressing request they can muster up—is just a beautiful dream. Besides, if you’ve got older kids too, as we do, that pretty much covers the twenty-four hours.
Remember that amazing night when you … and then she … and right there on the living-room floor? Remember those long walks, those unhurried meals at quiet restaurants, those soul-baring discussions stretching deliciously into the wee hours? Watch as such memories fade into myth, cherished tales from the Golden Age of Childless Concupiscence. These days I find myself pushing my wife behind the kitchen door when the kids aren’t looking, just to steal a serious kiss or two, like a high-school kid might do near his locker.
But is this any harder for the domestically involved husband than for the other kind? In my experience it is. For one thing, a man who spends real time with his kids often faces frustration, boredom and loneliness that men usually don’t encounter out in the “real world.” Since he’s deprived of adult companionship for significant periods of time, he needs someone to talk to, someone to share with—someone who understands.
He may also entertain doubts about his attractiveness (which is the most natural thing in the world, and of course plagues mothers too). His time with his children brings no salary, no tangible rewards, no social status, no agreeable sense of immediate victory or involvement in the exciting and busy life of the world at large—and he worries that he’s becoming some kind of drudge. He dresses down more often (for practical reasons), may shave less often, finds his clothes stained with peanut butter, ketchup or Play-dough—and though this isn’t necessarily the result of laziness or slovenliness on his part, he sometimes feels like an unambitious putz. The sense that his brain is “turning to mush” (as I’ve heard many a housewife say) doesn’t help either.
Being a real part of your family’s home-life can also present certain obstacles to maintaining sexual pizzazz. The long hours can burn you out, make you feel dull. And it’s harder to find time for exercise, with the added problem that the house is full of food, and eating is one pleasure you can always indulge in the presence of children. Ever heard that one about how bending over doing housework will flatten your stomach? What a crock. You’ll realize, in fact, that it works exactly the opposite way. Once you become a parent, the gene pool wants to keep you right there with the kids, so it works to reduce your attractiveness to the opposite sex. Evolution needs you down on the farm, and it only uses gay Paris temporarily—to lure you to the farm in the beginning.
Domestically involved men may even begin to question their own masculinity, feeling less manly because so many people view their lifestyle as irrelevant, even unmasculine. Needless to say, if a guy lets all this get to him, it can certainly complicate his sexual performance.
When you’re home with kids a lot you’ll probably notice signs of this change in your sex-life. Emptying the wash machine one day, you’ll find some of the clothes knotted together, loose threads and sweatshirt drawstrings tangled tightly around the hooks of one of your wife’s bras–and you may think back fondly to a time when, maybe in a backseat somewhere, unhooking her bra offered you a completely different kind of challenge. Struggling to unknot the sodden clothes, you’ll sigh forlornly to realize that, under present conditions, this is about as close as you’re going to get to her lingerie.
In fact, there’s a whole new set of conditions now governing your sexual-romantic life.
First, there are three basic ways your children disrupt it:
1. By waking up
2. By being awake
3. By having been awake so long that when they finally aren’t, you don’t want to be either
Second, finding time to make love will be much more difficult now because it hinges on so many factors. All your kids, for example, must be either out of commission or gone from the house, without the possibility of suddenly reappearing (no one will enjoy an unintentional “ambush”)—and then you and your wife must be relatively free of work, worry, pain and fatigue—and of course it helps if you’re on speaking terms at the moment—and then you both have to be in the mood—and willing to work rather quickly—etc. (I’ve heard there are couples who simply shut the bedroom door even when the kids are around—but I believe this only happens with serious old-time hippies and a handful of very progressive Unitarians).
This is fate at its most complex. When all the factors actually do line up right, you have a Window of Opportunity—unless of course the pressure itself gets to you and slams the window shut. And that can happen.
Third, of course, is the whole science of male-female differences. When it comes to love-making and the behavior that leads up to it—a behavior greatly complicated by the presence of children and all the chaos they bring to your life—re-thinking some of the basics can be helpful. At this point in your life, you either get efficient or go without.
For one thing, you as a male should realize that, biologically speaking, you’re not as different from your wife as you might think. The old idea that only women have complicated plumbing and hormone-induced behavior just isn’t true.
Yes, hormones do affect female behavior; go ahead—call Ripley’s. One morning as I was driving my wife to work, she asked me rather forcefully to buy her some wine for that evening. She’d been unusually tight-lipped for a day or so; I couldn’t understand it. Suddenly there were tears in her eyes, right there in the front seat in the bright morning light. She began to explain that she was entering “that time of the month,” but then her voice trailed off. Out of frustration and the pain of heavy cramping—and a loving if somewhat snarled concern for my physical safety—she ended with a simple warning: “Be careful!”
The poor thing! Biology had attacked her, besieged her, captured, pillaged, and possessed her—she was in the throes of suffering—but her deepest concern was that she might actually murder me! We both laughed till our sides hurt—especially when a truck from the Plattsburgh Motor Service pulled in front of us, with only the company’s initials painted on its tailgate in blue letters a foot high: PMS.
But men have their own version of hormone-induced wackiness, and it plagues them—and they plague women with it—constantly. Male PMS is just as strong as any female’s; to make matters worse, it isn’t restricted to a particular time. Coincidentally, the term is the same as for women—that is, the acronym is the same, though the actual words aren’t. Clinical experts refer to it as “Pestering Madam for Sex”—and men get just as wild-eyed and lunatic under its influence as women do under their own.
Considering how biology can bedevil both sexes, it’s easy to see why a fourth condition so often affects the domestically involved male: With all these frustrations and complexities, he’s likely to exaggerate his sexual behavior. It’s a desperate-guy thing. Such a reaction is natural, I think. The feeling that his masculinity has somehow been compromised, in combination with the frustration of long “droughts,” can make a guy a little loopy. It’s sure as hell happened to me. Pathetic conversations like the following may ensue:
(Husband and wife together are changing their bed sheets on house-cleaning day)
WIFE: This mattress is about shot. Look—there’s a big ridge running down the middle, right between us.
HUSBAND: You know what caused that, don’t you?
HUSBAND: (matter-of-factly) Well, when we make love, we usually lie crossways. So there it is.
WIFE: There what is?
HUSBAND: It’s the force. You know. I’ve got such force that I’ve driven the mattress up in the middle.
WIFE: (curiosity giving way to disgust) You’ve got to be kidding.
HUSBAND: (with scientific enthusiasm) No, really! You know how in plate tectonics India moved north millions of years ago and collided with the Asian mainland? It caused massive buckling—a whole new mountain range—the tallest on Earth … .
WIFE: You’re gross. Shut up.
HUSBAND: (running his hand along mattress ridge) What you’re looking at, baby, are the Himalayas of Love.
WIFE: Disgusting! And don’t try that old “him-a’-layin’” joke on me either–you’re already sleeping on the couch … .
I don’t want to suggest there’s anything inherently wrong with male sexuality—just the opposite. “The lust of the goat,” as William Blake says, “is the glory of God.” Being passionate sexual creatures is good for us, and it’s reality. But a male, without even knowing it, can suddenly turn into a great Triceratopsian horn-doggie. When you start going stir-crazy and bullyragging your wife as in the dialogue above, it’s probably time to drop back and think things over.
In fact, there are some telltale signs that you’ve crossed into the Zone of Exaggerated Sexual Behavior. And if you have, you need to know it. If any of the following apply to you, consider yourself a current citizen of that frantic and foolish country.
TEN SIGNS THAT YOU’VE ENTERED THE ZONE OF
EXAGGERATED SEXUAL BEHAVIOR
1. Your average rate of mouthwash consumption increases dramatically.
2. You feel inexplicably aroused when your wife squeezes grocery-store tomatoes for ripeness.
3. Every thirty minutes or so you offer to give her a backrub.
4. You pour her a big glass of wine and say “I know how this relaxes you, darling.”
5. Hoping for an early bedtime, you try to exhaust your kids by taking them to the beach, the park, the playground, and to that deafening pizza place with all the giant robotic singing animals.
6. You find yourself cutting through the lingerie section instead of around it—even at K-mart.
7. The average duration of your good-night kiss increases by 150%.
8. When the new “Victoria’s Secret” catalogue arrives, you take it straight to her and say “Gosh, you’d look great in one of these … .”
9. You keep flexing your muscles and saying “Just feel this!”
10. When your wife steps out of the shower, you suddenly recall the naval battle in Ben Hur and begin to mutter “Ramming speed!”
So, if these are the trying conditions of your current sexual-romantic life, what can you do about them? Unfortunately, this is a disease for which there is no complete cure. The main treatment is to grin and bear it, no matter how tight your grin may get. But there are things you can do to make the affliction manageable.
The first is the simplest: Husband and wife must be patient with each other. Amid such frustrations, the only serious danger is that lovers, instead of sharing their trials and joys, will turn on each other. That can be a true disaster, and its effects may be permanent.
Another important step, at least for me, was learning simply to be aware of when I was entering the Zone of Exaggerated Sexual Behavior. That usually gives me enough control to soften its effects somewhat. “Zone behavior” tends to be counter-productive; you drive your wife crazy, and yourself, and by overdoing it you can even endanger your opportunities by destroying the mood. It’s not that I blame myself; my lust for my wife is as beautiful and natural as sunlight. Still, there is such a thing as an obnoxious male on the make—and she deserves better.
It will also help to remind yourself that “making love” is much more than physical intercourse. You and your wife are not just two bacteria mingling fluids; you have a relationship. ”Making love” should be defined, I think, as everything that passes between two lovers; the way they talk to each other about the PTA is just as important as how they touch each other in bed. Life with children calls for compromises, but it can’t keep you from “making love” in the broader sense, stealing kisses and fleeting caresses, sharing tenderness, loving each other in the uncountable little ways—and in the less dramatic daily way of working together as partners in the mundane but beautiful enterprise of raising a family.
My fourth recommendation is that you think seriously about what masculinity really means to you. Isn’t there more to the male than being, as Elvis once described himself, “horny as a billy goat in a pepper patch”? Part of masculinity, of course, lies in self-restraint, and family life continually asks that of us. It’s all part of the package. We should consider self-control, of course, just as manly as sexual desire itself.
Re-defining masculinity can also help us overcome some of our male insecurities. It’s no disaster for the domestically involved guy to feel less masculine at times, and no man should be ashamed of that. It happens. Don’t get all down on yourself if you find you’re gaining weight, or wearing sweatpants too often, or, miracle of miracles, if some night you’re actually the one who’s too tired.
But if you can define masculinity to include passionate domestic commitment–and if you come to believe this emotionally as well as intellectually–you may find yourself feeling better. Consequently, of course, you’ll be less prone to exaggerated sexual behavior, lack of sexual confidence, and other pitfalls.
And there are lots of practical things a couple can do to keep their romance alive. The most important is to actively pursue it! I don’t mean all that foolishness about her dressing in saran wrap, or him coming home in a Zorro costume. But of all the crucial aspects of a busy family’s life, what tends to get pushed to the back burner? Mom and Dad’s love-life. The kids simply can’t exist without constant affection and attention, and all the practical chores are mandatory; husband and wife often find that their own relationship is the only thing they can skimp on. But that can be dangerous. Even though it’s a lot of work and you’re already working hard enough—even though you may not feel like it at the moment—even though you think you’ve given all you have to give—you must fight to be a couple, to have time alone together, to truly share yourselves amid the endless booming distractions of family life.
So find that secret fifteen minutes; investigate the advantages of futons as opposed to creaky antique beds; keep yourselves as attractive as you can for each other; be ready to give yourselves to sudden passion–and ready not to, when that’s the more loving alternative.
A particularly helpful strategy for us has been to squeeze “dates” out of unlikely moments. Friday night grocery shopping at least allows something like conversation on the way and back (though punctuated by a kid in the backseat who wants to tell us every detail of her day); besides, we get to smile at each other a lot in the checkout line. Some of our best “dates,” in fact, have come as we discussed things over breakfast, or went for a walk, or talked in the car while our kids snoozed during a longer trip.
Even when you can’t find time alone, there are little ways to stoke your passion. How many times have our eyes met and lingered on each other for a moment during a hectic dinner, or during the protracted ritual of getting our daughter ready for bed? How many times have we joked with each other, or said excitedly “Oh! I forgot to tell you! … ” or danced to a song on the radio during Saturday-morning housework? How many times have we stopped to embrace when passing each other in the hall? How many times has the waking one caressed the face of the sleeping one? And on a seemingly more mundane note: It’s amazing how much affection is generated simply by regularly thanking your spouse for all the work she’s doing.
But there’s a deeper way to deal with all this too—and it has to do with reaching past yourself for the empowering vision of the true nature of romance and desire. It comes to me tonight as Shilly-Shally dances for us in the living room, wearing her mother’s high-heels and underthings.
In her indefatigable way, our ever-exploring daughter quickly discovered her mother’s underwear drawer, and its super-feminine treasures dazzled her. So tonight, with her mom and dad crashed in exhaustion on the couch, she’s performing for us an animated and caboose-shaking version of the Dance of the Seven Veils.
Over her jeans and t-shirt she’s wearing the wine-red camisole—three sizes too big—and pale-gold French-cut panties I bought her mother in a moment of delusional hope (or perhaps prayer). She dances and sings for us, then runs through the house playing “Beauty and the Beast” (“Do you like my party dress, Beast?” she asks breathlessly, to which I duly answer “Oh, you look lovely, Belle!”), then flings herself on the couch and eats her cracker snack, then whines (like she does every night) about having to take a bath. And why not let her wear the stuff to bed? No one else will be using it—her older brothers stay up late.
Besides, it’s important for her to play dress-up, one of the many ways a child practices for adulthood. She’s already begun the process that will culminate in her going to the junior-senior prom wearing stiletto heels, black hose, heavy make-up, flashy jewelry, and a tight black dress with plunging decolletage, in that utterly transparent imitation of womanhood high-school girls are so drawn to. And someday she’ll meet a guy—the real thing, this time—and fall in love, and marry, and he’ll probably buy her a wine-red camisole and pale-gold French-cut panties, which they’ll put to good use—and that will eventually produce children, perhaps a daughter—who will then run around the house with her mama’s pretty things over her jeans and t-shirt. And some night she and her husband, crashed on the couch, will realize just as I have tonight that right before their eyes stands the living symbol and embodiment of their sex life.
For it’s the inevitable nature of love to bear fruit.
One day while dusting I happened to notice a little blotch of ink on my wife’s white desk-blotter—and immediately saw it as an island. Putting the dust rag down I began doodling with a ballpoint pen, naming the bays and peninsulas in tiny print, imagining us walking the island’s forested hills and surf-washed beaches. For a time I was lost in that most common of fantasies indulged in by busy parents: just the two of us, alone and free in some far-off place, with all the time in the world to catch up to our own hearts. I could almost hear cruiseship-commercial music in the background.
How good it felt to escape the constant demands of being somebody’s father (that is, the sometimes-overwhelmed father of three very intelligent and energetic young somebodies)—and to escape with the one I love! So in my waking dream the two of us hiked, and swam, and made passionate love, and read books without being interrupted to change bandaids or make sandwiches, and slept deep, unbroken sleep. And the ripe fruit just tumbled from the trees.
A week later, dusting near the blotter again, I saw that my wife had added her own doodles, sketching in a house on the island, a library, a swimming pool. So I contributed a few more touches of my own. Without exchanging a word, we’d entered a secret world together.
Week by week the dream-game continued. The surprising thing, though, was that even though we were together in our fantasy, we gradually grew lonely–just as our love in the real world created a kind of loneliness in our early married life. As dreams do when they’re taken seriously, our blotter-island reverie slowly became more realistic and practical. The island seemed empty without our kids playing in its breakers, or running its trails, or flinging mud at each other with plastic sand-shovels—so we’d soon added a tree-house, a play center, and a stable. Eventually we penciled a beautiful, bustling city onto the mainland coast, then built a wonderful school just across the channel from our dock—only noticing then that our tranquil island fantasy had begun to resemble the close-quartered, high-tempo, demanding life we’re currently living in the real world (except that in the fantasy, of course, we had lots of cash).
What happened to the two lovers reading beneath a tree or sleeping naked in the afternoon sun? The same thing that happened in reality: Our love blossomed—it overflowed. Sitting at the desk with pen in hand one cleaning-day morning, I realized that we’d fantasized ourselves right smack into the middle of the lives we’d wanted to escape from.
Romance is far too powerful and beautiful a force to be limited to two people. It could never be accurately represented only by roses, candlelit dinners, gifts of jewelry, and the pleasures of the body. Romance stirs through the world like wind, and through our own bodies and hearts, a great waking of lives, a lord of the air bringing profound sweetness and imperious commands. All our human smallness bends before it; not even a woman’s “evil-twin” PMS or a man’s constant lustful-coyote howling can keep its deeper powers at bay. And it teaches a profound lesson: that beyond sex and passionate expressions of love, the most romantic thing of all is simply to be there for each other, to be good to each other, to lovingly share our lives.
So here we are in this life of ours, lovers disguised as Mom and Dad, with jobs, a car, a house, kids to look after and fuss with and all the rest. And this, we know, is the true life of romance, however unlikely that may seem.
Still, that doesn’t keep me from whispering a line from Yeats in her ear, as we’re folding the day’s last basket of laundry:
To an isle in the water
With her I would go …
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