Our Mothers, Sex…and Freedom

For reasons I have never quite understood, children tend to flinch, blanch and wince at any suggestion that their parents might have had sex for the pure pleasure of it, rather than solely for the purpose of having children.  It has never made sense to me that a child might prefer to think they were conceived by an emotionally disconnected physical act, rather than one drenched in pleasure and absorbed in carnal indulgence and abandon.  It seems to be almost universally against the nature of children to think of their parents as having had a sexual appetite, let alone a possibly ravenous one.  Taking pleasure is often perceived as selfish, and parents are supposed to be decidedly self-less.

Indeed if children were to spend any time thinking about their parents having been so physically and emotionally enraptured and enwrapped, other questions might arise from which to further flinch, blanch and wince.  Such as how often their parents had sex.  And what kind of sex they had.  And where they had it.  And under what circumstances.  Which might actually lead to a conversation with their parents about, well, you know…sex.  Children don’t want to go there.  Nor, really, do their parents.  Parent/child conversations about sex usually revolve around the egg/sperm get together, and preventing pregnancy and being responsible and careful and cautious.  With all the worry involved, how can one openly and curiously venture into the dangerous territory of physical pleasure?

All of which musings would naturally lead to these dreaded, inevitable, inexorable, and ultimate queries:  Within all of our parents’ wanton and woozy pleasure, did they actually mean to have us or was our conception merely a byproduct of sex rather than as the sole intended purpose of it?  Are we meant to be here, or were we merely accidents?  Isn’t the purpose of everyone’s parents’ union about the creation of us?  Isn’t everything about us?

As far as my own parents are concerned, I have often wondered whether my mother really wanted to have children, whether she ever really felt free enough to have made the choice to have us unencumbered by cultural expectations.  There are many similarities between my mother’s childhood and my own.  Her father died when she was seven, turning her into her mother’s helper, a title with which she in turn anointed me when my father died when I was five.  Such premature early life responsibility can certainly dull one’s desire to embrace the responsibilities of raising children and dampen one’s enthusiasm for staying home.

My mother was born just before World War I, lived through the Great Depression and worked as a Teletype operator near the end of World War II, when she met my father.  She was in her late 20s.  The end of the War represented the beginning of a new life, away from the confines of her family.  Romance, love…and sex…surely beckoned.

The stories my mother told me after my father died about the very early days of their relationship, which had been a well-documented romantic one, hinted at a wistful longing for the freedom she so clearly enjoyed before we came along.  Once, somewhat hesitantly, she confessed, “Your father wanted to have children and so we did,” suspiciously leaving out her own complicity in that decision. Still, it never occurred to me that my mother regretted having had children, only that she was acutely aware that her choices seemed to be limited, and that a very large part of her own life, separate from her life with my father, had gone unexplored once she became a mother.

I’m constantly asked why I never had children, if I ever wanted to have them, if it was a mistake not to have.  The underlying assumption is that whatever joy a woman might get from a life without children – work that she loves, adventure, travel, following her bliss – could not possibly match the joy she would get from having children.  If a woman doesn’t have children, there must be something terribly wrong with her joy meter.  If a woman doesn’t have children, then, horrors, she must be having sex for fun!  She must be selfish.

In last week’s post, On Birthdays and Black Nail Polish, I wrote about my personal quest for freedom and romance as a young woman and why I never wanted to have children.  So I was intrigued to read in today’s Sunday Times a brief interview with Helen Mirren – who also chose not to have children – entitled, The Reluctant Libertine, in which she talks about her own mother’s love for her father, and sex, and about her mother’s longing for freedom.

And as Hurricane Irene has now come and gone, I cannot help but remember that Irene is a character in John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, who leaves her controlling husband…in search of love and freedom.  The Saga was published between 1906 and 1921, around the time of my mother’s birth, a time when it does seem that indeed a woman’s choices were limited.  Perhaps Irene didn’t really intend to destroy everything.  Perhaps she just wanted to stir things up a little and remind us not to assume anything.

She certainly did that.

Helen Mirren: The Reluctant Libertine

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