An open let­ter …

On the tick­ing clock of life

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - MEGAN NICOL REED - Do writee. megan­ni­icol­reed@gmail.com

It is the most deco­rous of sex scenes. Clothed all in red, the Com­man­der’s wife’s thighs strad­dling her bon­neted head, once a month, at her most fe­cund, the hand­maid lies prostrate upon the mar­i­tal bed while the Scrip­ture-spout­ing Com­man­der takes her. There is no fore­play, no skin, no plea­sure. There are nei­ther loud grunts nor soft moans. Just the pro­cre­ative act. And, each time I watch, the shock of it, the ut­ter hu­mil­i­a­tion, takes my breath away. Barely men­stru­at­ing when I first read Mar­garet At­wood’s sin­is­ter vi­sion of a bar­ren fu­ture, I had for­got­ten, or per­haps I never fully com­pre­hended, quite how dis­qui­et­ing The Hand­maid’s Tale is. How fea­si­ble that in a world of in­fer­til­ity, chil­dren — and the abil­ity to carry them — might be­come the most pow­er­ful cur­rency. Th­ese past few weeks, care­fully eke­ing out the tele­vi­sion se­ries of the best-sell­ing book, episode by episode, night by night, I have been think­ing about child­bear­ing, about whether my gen­er­a­tion has been leav­ing it too late.

A month off my 43rd birth­day, I find my­self at a cu­ri­ous point. Three dear friends, all my age, have had ba­bies re­cently. I watch them in awe and won­der. Mar­vel that their bod­ies were ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing life, that milk runs from them. And con­versely, while th­ese friends ex­pe­ri­ence a last flush of fer­til­ity, an­other friend, also my age, has just be­come a grand­mother. And even though I know the maths adds up, I strug­gle to con­ceive how any of it is pos­si­ble. Peri-menopausal, th­ese days I am more arid desert than ripe fruit. I am of­ten tired, fre­quently grouchy, and, in­creas­ingly, re­sent­ful of my chil­dren’s de­mands. I love them so thor­oughly it fills me with fear, and yet I catch my­self cal­cu­lat­ing how long un­til they leave.

Two Satur­days ago, a day in­dis­tin­guish­able from the rest with the in­ces­sancy of its rain and its cold, my hus­band, daugh­ter and dog went for a walk. They re­turned with my daugh­ter’s friend and her dog. The dogs barked, the girls screamed, all four dug in the mud. Wet and filthy and un­car­ing, they ma­rauded through the house. Meet Sludgie, they said, pre­sent­ing me with a slug. They made a home of dirt and sticks and leaves for their gas­tro­pod in my Tup­per­ware. They left the lid off so Sludgie could breathe. Sludgie es­caped. Hys­te­ria en­sued. Where’s Sludgie, they cried. Yes, I said be­tween grit­ted teeth, where ex­actly is Sludgie? And I longed, how I longed, to sit qui­etly some­wh­here stil­lll andd clean.l

Is there an op­ti­mum age tot re­pro­duce The prob­lem, of course, is thaat the phys­i­o­log­i­cal ideal sel­dom in­nter­sects with the psy­cho­log­i­cal. Theree were scan­dalised whis­pers at my highh school of girls who’d had thee mis­for­tune to fall preg­nant, but fo most of us chil­dren were off thet agenda un­til ca­reers were fir­rmly es­tab­lished. When we took offo over­seas and threw about our highly dis­pos­able in­comes, I pitied my few friends who were left be­hind, broke, puree­ing pump­kin, chang­ing nap­pies. Now, though, with their chil­dren hav­ing all but left the nest, they are largely free to do as they please. Do they feel for us as we con­tend with young chil­dren just as we are start­ing to come apart at the seams? As our ap­petite for joy­ful chaos grows pro­gres­sively out of synch with our chil­dren’s?

At least I am not caught, as many of my peers are, be­tween the com­pet­ing needs of chil­dren and age­ing par­ents. Be­cause my par­ents re­pro­duced young, they are still vig­or­ous, not yet frail. I envy them their still, clean homes. On wet Satur­days, they do not hunt high and look low for slugs, but light theh firef and d read db books.k I willll a dvise my chil­dren not to tarry when it comes to ha aving their own. Not, though, be­fore they have left ho ome.

FOL­LOW­ING ON

Last week I asked whether wwe need to econ­sider what masculinity meeans. I en­joyed alerie’s let­ter. Valerie’s moth­eer was con­vinced she was hav­ing a boy. “I wass to be ‘Gary’. Some­times in a crowd I will look around to see hich man looks most li­kee the man I might ave been. I imag­ine tthe spec­trum of minin­ity/mas­culini­ity be­ing over­laid with two bell cu­urves, each with long tails: onne ‘fe­male’ and the other ‘male’. They over­lap.” Wor­ry­ingly, though, sev­eral read­ers coon­cluded we’re on the same paage in think­ing it is both re­pugn­nant and sin­ful to ques­tion one’s gen­der; that, like them, I beel­ieve gen­der is set in stone. For the record: you thought wwrong.

Is there an op­ti­mum age to re­pro­duce? The prob­lem, of course, is that the phys­i­o­log­i­cal ideal sel­dom in­ter­sects with the psy­cho­log­i­cal l.

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