Friday, July 31, 2009

(Post)Modern Love: The Annunciation


It was our third hour at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and my husband, Stephen, was practically making love to his audio guide, a long telephonic device he held to his ear and listened to as if the female recording was whispering sweet nothings to him. If he could French-kiss her he would have.

We were in a fight. Over breakfast at our hotel that morning, Stephen read in an American newspaper that men also have a biological clock. He then went on to say, quite casually, that he’d like us to, “hop on the baby train sooner rather than later.”

For him to say this aloud meant he’d been thinking about it a great deal. Stephen’s a brilliant writer; he does not throw words around. The newspaper article was probably just the cherry on the sundae.

“WHAT?!” I had shrieked so loud you’d think I just found a roach in my Flakes di Frosted.

The explanation for my scream was simple: we had said we would wait. For the last two years, we’d been enjoying each other, traveling as much as possible, and focusing on our careers. Twelve years Stephen’s junior, I had assumed my youth was a gift: we could put off having kids longer than most of his friends, who by now were in their 40s and saddled with three or four children.

Not once did I consider how it must be for Stephen to have no childfree friends left - no one to go to movies with at the last minute or out for drinks and a guy-chat because most of them were coaching their kids’ little league games after work or had to race home to spell the wife while she took a much-needed rest. I never thought about how this was affecting him.

“Am I holding you back?” I asked him, as we took an after-breakfast stroll through the Piazza del Duomo.

Stephen thought about this. (He had to think about it!)

“No,” he said, a little too hesitantly for my taste. “But if we start now, I’ll only be 59 when the kid graduates from high school.”

My heart sank. Another side of his struggle I hadn’t even thought about: his age and issues with mortality. I’m an awful wife. But, in my defense, it’s easy to forget Stephen’s age because he’s so young at heart, runs ten miles a day and takes care of himself so well.

“Fine,” I said. “But this isn’t a unilateral decision, you know.”

“Oh, I know,” he said. “Hence we don’t have kids yet.”

Had he been making concessions all this time? And if so, why didn’t he speak up sooner?

“But I’m not yet 30!” I said. “I’ve got a lot of life left to lead!”

“It’s not a degenerative illness, Carrie. It’s having a kid.”

He had a point. Why did I associate having children with an end point? I’ve always loved kids, yet felt like I’d be giving up my own life in order to bring another one into the world.

At the museum now, I felt nauseous, and it wasn’t the heat in the un-air-conditioned gallery. It was terror. I was seeing stars. And plastic primary-colored baby equipment littering our custom-designed living room back at home. I saw spit-up in my hair and on my shirts. I saw my computer and social life collecting dust.

I thought about how different it is for men. They can say casually, over eggs in a foreign country, that it’s time to bite the bullet and start a family, and that’s it. For a woman, it’s to say goodbye to her life and career as she once knew it. Everything will be turned upside down. And while I’ve always wanted to have children and still do, would I ever fully be ready to give my life over to that kind of insanity? Stephen could go back to work the day after the birth if he wanted. He could escape.

So there we were, standing in the Uffizi gallery, in a standoff, enjoying things at very different paces… He listened to his audio guide and I sat on a bench, writing notes and hyperventilating.

It must have been ‘unruly kid’ day at the museum, as they were everywhere I looked.

Screaming at their parents, hitting their mothers, arching their backs as they threw tantrums on the floor, beneath priceless works of art. The parents looked worn out. Especially the moms, with dark circles under their eyes and grey skin and wrinkles from frowning so much. I was tired just looking at them.

Stephen stopped listening to his audio chick, spotted me sitting on the bench and came over, told me, “you embody the joke about the American who pulls up to the Louvre and says, ‘which way to the Mona Lisa? I’m double parked.’”

I wasn’t proud of this, but I was also no longer ashamed of the fact that I didn’t love museums. I’ve always found them overwhelming. There’s no way I could possibly take it in all that art.

I pointed out the miserable parents and their horrible kids. “You’re projecting,” Stephen said. “They don’t look that unhappy to me, Carrie.”

We see what we want to see.

Stephen and I had been married for a little over two years, after dating for less than a year. Now we were so far past the “come here often”s of dating, that it felt like another life ago, in a way that made me both relieved and nostalgic. In that other life, we had agreed that we’d wait to have kids in order to fully enjoy each other, our careers, and travel.

Now, it felt like he had turned on me.

“What about our three year plan?” I asked him. “Remember, we were going to travel and have as much fun as possible before we start a family?”

He gestured to the museum behind us. “We go on a couple trips a year and we’re almost at the three year mark!”

“What are you talking about? Are you counting the time we’ve been dating, too?”

He nodded.

“You can’t do that!” I said. “You have to go by how long we’ve been married!”

I wanted so badly to just come out and tell him I needed more time. I wasn’t ready. But I didn’t want to dissuade this desire of his, as I married him partly because I loved the fact he wanted children, and was so good with them.

I wandered into the Botticelli room and stared at The Birth of Venus, the goddess with her strawberry blonde tendrils wrapping around her body and covering her nether regions. The story was that Venus emerged from the sea, born a full-grown woman. If only babies were born full-grown and could feed themselves, instead of needing their mother’s milk every two hours. No seventh grade awkwardness to help them through, no threatening to kill their prom dates for standing them up. No. Instead you got this beautiful (albeit naked) young woman who could help her parents in their advanced age.

As I was navigating through the crowds in the museum, I saw a pack of four moms pushing strollers, looking bone tired and charging toward me like a sleep-deprived version of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

I turned away, only to be greeted by a painting of a mother holding a baby to her fleshy breast that drooped in the shape of a teardrop. I turned again right into one of Titian’s zaftig women lounging on a chaise, her childbearing hips on full display. I sneaked to another room. Caravaggio. Surely Caravaggio could calm me down. But instead, I stared at his oil on canvas mounted on wood depiction of Medusa. The snakes were tangled and Medusa’s eyes were wild, a little bloodshot. Crazy eyes. Now, granted, she had snakes for hair – I’d be a little out of sorts myself. This is what I will surely turn into, stretched too thin as my toddler thinks it’s funny to poop on the carpet. I’ll be reduced to shuttling kids to the mall and buying them cell phones when they’re six.

I looked away and found that the stroller apocalypse was back on my tail. I hid behind a pillar out of their way and tried to catch my breath.

I spotted Stephen looking at a painting of the Annunciation and nodding. What was he nodding about? Did he “get” it? What was to get? Did my judgments make me ignorant or did my ignorance make me judgmental? I looked at it myself: the angel Gabriel knelt before Mary, telling her she would conceive a child to be born the son of God. In this version, her facial expression was different from all the other paintings of the Annunciation I had seen. In this one, her head was slightly cocked, her eyes the slightest bit squinty in disbelief, as if to say, “Whatchu talkin’ about, Willis?” Of course, I was probably projecting.

I couldn’t stop thinking about how much my life would change once we had a family. I’d be pulling all-nighters, living my life in sweatpants, cleaning up various fluids. It was mostly mother’s work. Dads came home at night, swooped the child into the air with their fresh arms, becoming the hero. That was how it was when I was a kid: mom was the bad cop because she was with us more. She did most of the heavy lifting – the cooking, the mundane household chores, helping us with homework, and the difficult task of disciplining three children who were very close in age. Dad was at work, which was in no way easy either, and though my mother worked too, I always felt like she envied him for getting to spend more time out of the house, as her work hours were abbreviated because she had to take care of the kids once school got out.

My siblings and I knew our mother was a brilliant woman with advanced degrees and a full time job, yet there she was every night, cleaning up after her family. I would later, in college, identify my discomfort when I learned about the gender ideologies that placed these tasks on women’s’ backs. These gender roles were added on top of a full day’s work. Did motherhood insure this would happen? Would I become one of those mothers with a dazed look in her eye that might have been from exhaustion, unfulfilled dreams, the “problem that had no name” described by Betty Friedan, or all of the above?

I searched for Stephen and when I found him across the room, for a split second, I didn’t recognize him. Who was this man? This was the man I was spending the rest of my life with? Raising kids with? Did he wonder the same thing about me? Who is this woman I married? And why has she been going through a Unabomber fashion phase? (I’d been wearing a lot of hooded sweatshirts.) We’d reached the point in our marriage where I was annoyed by the way he slurped his soup and he had figured out that when I didn’t wear eye makeup I looked like a fetus. All bets were off.

I joined Stephen beside yet another portrait of a woman who had been dead since the 16th century. He wrapped his arms around me and pointed at a little boy – the only well-behaved kid in the whole place – and whispered: “We could do that!” And the way he said it, with so much joy and certainty, reminded me of why I loved him, his hazel eyes with starbursts in the middle, so excited and full of hope. For a moment, the idea of doing anything, including raising a child, with this man by my side, sounded like the best idea I’d ever heard.

***Carrie Friedman lives in Los Angeles. Her new book, PREGNANT PAUSE: My Journey Through Obnoxious Questions, Baby Lust, Meddling Relatives, and Pre-Partum Depression is on bookshelves and

No comments:

Post a Comment