An open letter …
On the ticking clock of life
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.
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.