Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Marriage and Dating

My mother and father got divorced when I was four. When asked later whether she would remarry, my mother would say “I made that mistake once; I won’t make it again” or something to that effect (a sentiment I have heard from other divorced women of her generation). I don’t know what put her off marriage; she rarely spoke to us about her marriage to my father and she was careful not to speak ill of him. But she never did remarry.

She didn’t swear off men, though. Many, if not most, of her friends were men; I can’t remember any close female friends she had. She also actively dated and had a number of boyfriends. I don’t remember who she dated when I was very young, but I remember her later boyfriends. One of them teased me in a way I found rather demeaning – he made fun of my height and liked to smear my glasses, which annoyed me to no end. Another made passes at me, which while flattering and exciting, was also confusing; it also showed poor judgment on his part and was in bad taste, to say the least. I did like one of her boyfriends, a beefy, good-natured Italian man who used to bring us cannoli. She had rather eclectic taste in boyfriends, as they were fairly disparate in age and varied in both looks and temperament.

She never seemed to lack for boyfriends, so I assume she was popular among men. While her relationships with men were often ongoing, they also seemed less serious as she certainly seemed to make no commitment to any one boyfriend. In fact, at one point, she had two or three boyfriends at the same time. I remember that one of them (Bob) stayed with us for a while when he didn’t have a place to live, and she continued to have one of her other boyfriends sleep over during that time. This resulted in some jealousy and hurt on Bob’s part, which he poured out to me as he taught me guitar. He hoped I would comfort him in his pain, and although I cared for him, I knew this relationship was a bad idea. I don’t think I ever told my mother about the talks Bob and I had or his attempted seduction of me; I don’t know what her reaction would have been. I was relieved when he moved out.

When I was in high school and college, I was intrigued by the notion of group marriages. I had read many of Robert Heinlein’s novels, and his later works offer a vision of a society in which group marriages are the norm (multiple men and women committed to an economic and child-rearing unit, as well as being sexually intimate in various pairings and groupings). He captured a view of sex as recreational fun rather than necessarily deeply emotional, and rejected the need for sexual monogamy as the core of intimate, committed relationships. I found this idea to be compelling, both in its functional ability to provide an extended family network of choice and its vision of sexual agency for men and women. I thought the idea of a group marriage offered a potential solution to the challenge of combining work and child-rearing, as well as providing a broader economic base than the nuclear family. I was also drawn to the ideal of sexual freedom, in which men and women could engage in sexual relationships as they chose without fear, shame, or feelings of jealousy.

In retrospect, I can see that Heinlein’s utopia is built on a traditionally male vision of sexual freedom. The freedom to have casual sex with any and all partners, the cornerstone of the sexual revolution, may have been an androcentric (male-centered) model of sexuality. Not all men and women desire or enjoy casual sex or multiple partners, and sexual jealousy is not so easily conquered for many people. While I still value the vision of sexual freedom, I suspect it needs to be more nuanced and recognize a diversity of human needs, including the desire for intimacy and long-term bonding.

But I think part of the reason that this vision of sexual liberation and alternative family forms was so compelling for me was how it paralleled my mother’s choices. I never made this connection before, but my mother not only rejected marriage as a goal, but also the traditional model of serial monogamy. Rather than having one monogamous relationship at a time, my mother dated who she liked and enjoyed herself without shame. She never tried to hide these relationships from us or from the other men she dated (as far as I know). My mother provided a model of a woman who owned her own sexuality and engaged in relationships on her own terms. That provided one strand of my own emergent feminism, that women are entitled to their own sexual agency, and that they are not possessed by men. Whether they choose to embrace monogamy, polyamory, or celibacy, these must be choices women make for themselves, not at the behest of their partners.

Interestingly, my mother was planning to move in with Bill (one of her long-term boyfriends) after my brother left for college. This seems to reflect a shift from her prior relationship pattern of more casual relationships. I presume that she had become more serious about that relationship and was willing to commit to it more fully. I don’t know what precipitated her decision to move in with Bill – was she just waiting until we were older and she was less responsible for our care? Did her feelings toward Bill deepen? Had he signaled a new willingness to commit to her? I don’t know, but it clearly indicates that she was capable of serious, committed relationships, and that she was able to trust in the future of this relationship. She died before they were to move in together, so I don’t know whether this would have turned out well or poorly. But I hope that it was a decision my mother made on her own terms. And, true to her own adage, she never did talk about marrying him.

Nancy Driessel Stearns (date and location unknown)

Monday, June 8, 2009

Family stories: My brushes with death

“And when you were a baby, your brother saved your life. Your mother put you and Duncan in the bath, and she went to answer the phone. You weren’t too steady, sitting on your own, and you slid under the water. Your brother pulled you up before you could drown.”

Every family tells its stories – the funny anecdotes, the dramatic tales, the loving moments – the narrative of its collective past. For some reason, my family has a series of stories of how I almost died while in my mother’s care. I almost drowned when she abandoned me in the bath. While we were traveling in Europe, my baby carrier tumbled off the mantelpiece and I hit my head on the hearthstone. I fell down the basement stairs in our house onto the concrete floor. The most dramatic story, though, was when my mother left me to chase a groundhog. The groundhogs were decimating the garden, and my father declared war. The groundhogs were to be killed on sight. My father and brother went out, armed with baseball bats, to bash in their skulls (I suspect this was not a terribly successful strategy, but I do have a memory of a bloody baseball bat, so perhaps they got one, after all). One day, my mother was driving me home, and as she came to the top of the steep hill of our driveway, she saw a groundhog scampering across the lawn. She stopped the car and jumped out to get the groundhog. But she was in such a hurry, she failed to put on the emergency brake. As I sat in the car, bemused, it started rolling down the driveway toward the busy street below. I was young enough that I didn’t think to get out of the car. There I was, rolling toward an imminent car crash while my mother chased a groundhog, oblivious to my danger. She came back in time and stopped the car before it hit the street; I wasn’t hurt at all. But what I remembered about the story was my slow, solitary, backwards trek toward certain death, all because my mother chased a groundhog. And she didn’t even get the groundhog.

In retrospect, these stories seem to reveal a thread of maternal negligence, but I never thought of them that way. I told them as tales of danger to impress my friends. To me, these were exciting stories of my brushes with death and my inevitable ability to survive. I sometimes joked about my mother’s tendency to put me in danger as a child, but I never seriously thought of these as indicating bad mothering. It’s interesting, though, that these became family stories, and I wonder what they meant to the rest of my family.

Me, in front of the garden that we were protecting from groundhogs (Piscataway, NJ, 1969)