Stirring at Mid-life



A few years ago I started seeing that old plastic cocktail stirrer with the breasts on it. It was brown. Fake tortoise shell. As I did the dishes or drove the kids somewhere, I'd suddenly see it in my head, as clearly as I saw it in my childhood. There had been several of them on the bar in my neighbor's finished basement. They seemed as much a part of my past as my mongrel dog.

The boobs were silhouetted down the side of the thing. The one on top was this pert little tit, with the nipple pointed upward. The words, in black, said "20 - lifty." The breast below was fuller, the underside like the bow of a ship, the nipple larger, still pointing upward. "30 - nifty." The nipple pointed downward on the "40 - shifty", the shape flattened somewhat, and fifty was "drifty" and they didn't even bother with sixty any more than they did with ten. I wasn't even ten yet when I first saw it, so I was fascinated by this was my future.

I'm shifty now. And the representation wasn't all that far off although I can still stand real straight, shoulders back, and get that bow look. And of course I scoff at the sexist creep who invented that damned twizzle stick in the first place, who figured that was something to be etched in plastic for every woman to measure her place in time. I've dreamed of producing the male counterpart, but what would be the point? Women don't buy that kind of thing and no man would use it to stir his ice-cubes around in his wild turkey on the rocks.

So when flashbacks of this stirrer started, I decided to take stock. I was forty, and if I admitted it to myself, ten pounds heavier than it said on my driver's license. I hadn't exercised regularly since my dog died during my daily walk in the woods a few years earlier. The sadness was enough to shift the scales of motivation to the inertia side and leave me sitting on my rump. And my career. Ha. It had been sacrificed to the great God of MAN. How on earth I had turned into an unhappy homemaker was beyond me. Only 15 years earlier my husband, Jack, and I had both been graduate students, with great expectations for our careers. Unnoticeably, our roles separated and I got stuck with the short end of the wishbone. My babies were more important to me than anything and I dropped out of my graduate program, assuming I would finish it elsewhere when the kids were older. Jack graduated and we moved where he wanted to go, since he would be the primary breadwinner and I could mother our children anywhere. A common story, probably.

Now here we were with our kids in school, Jack a bigwig business something, and me a miserable housewife. And I wasn't even good at that. His parents were horrified when the magnetic signs they gave me that read "Kate's Kitchen" were found stuck to the fluorescent lighting over the bench in my stained glass workshop in the basement. The house was a mess, even beyond what I was comfortable with, as my passive-aggressive side made its point. I applied to graduate schools again, although I knew it was impossible for me to drive the three hours it took to get to any of them from the isolated rural area we lived in. I talked to Jack about moving, and he and the kids all agreed that we were exactly where they wanted to be. It IS a very safe place to raise children and a good job for Jack, I can't deny that. My mother said it was selfish to think of myself at the expense of my family. So, I enrolled in a graduate program three hours away, and drove down and back for three months before it all fell apart.

When you're depressed, you never know what will set you off. I had kept it all together while I drove long distances - stayed up late studying after the kids went to bed, cleaned the house, played wife and Mom, but the exhaustion was building. One day on a morning news show, they discussed how a carcinogen had been found to be a main ingredient in pacifiers. This was the last straw. I started crying and couldn't stop. I called the local mental health clinic and was too depressed to even be embarrassed by my blubbering about pacifiers. I saw a therapist, took antidepressants, and dropped out of school. My male therapist asked me why I needed to have a career so badly, didn't my husband make enough money? He suggested that I might build upon my love of dogs and open a dog-grooming business from my home.

This might not sound unreasonable, but I was raised as one of five daughters born to a doctor father who wanted a son. We were taught to expect that we could be anything we wanted to be. I had never wanted to be a dog groomer or housewife, although I know people who are happy with these occupations, and I envy them. I fantasized about asking my therapist why he needed to work, since his wife made enough money, or why he might not consider dog- grooming. Sheesh. :-/ When his suggestions didn't work, he offered a change in medication. I discontinued my therapy and started couples' counseling with my husband. Our counselor said something that changed my life. She said to me "do you realize that you create your own reality?" It really annoyed me. Of COURSE I did, what a silly question.

But I embarked on a serious course of self-help about then. I took a new-agey type class in creating the reality you want, and learned to meditate, visualize, and set goals. My goals included that elusive career, a more fulfilling relationship with my husband, a neater home, and writing a book. All of these seemed impossible no matter how much I visualized and meditated, except the book, which I wrote. My confidence in my ability to make something happen increased when this book became popular. Although this wasn't the career I'd dreamed of, it bought us time. The dual dream dilemma was in the background, though, with all of its resentment and hurt.

"You love your job more than me," I accused. He said no, of course, and was angry that I'd say this. But he didn't look for another job in a place where I, too, might be happy. We were compatible on the surface; it's amazing how you can develop a workable system for co-existing and even fool yourselves. Underneath we grew further apart, each angry and mistrustful, our life- dreams at odds. We did the easiest thing, which was nothing. My resentment and his guilt drove him to spend more time at work and our distance grew.

I read Living Together and Feeling Alone, by Dan Kiley. I smiled when I read about how many of the women who came to hear the author speak, had a fantasy about their husband dying. I knew that one. The author wrote about how lonely it is to be in a lonely marriage, because unlike an unmarried person, you can't even search for what's missing. You supposedly have it. I recognized the loneliness he spoke of; the emotional distance and lack of support. I realized that I envisioned marriage as a joint venture where two people love each other enough to work as a team, moving in directions that maximize the happiness of each, even if it means compromises. It seemed clear that Jack did not share this vision. I started to think, seriously for the first time, that my marriage of 18 years might really not work. Just like my parents'.

I read Sharing it All, by Lucia Gilbert, and learned that some men do not adapt well to a relationship in which both partners have careers. The example sounded like my husband. I thought of his parents with their clearly defined traditional roles- his mother waiting on his father and his father supporting the family financially. I envisioned Jack with a new wife who enjoyed cooking his meals, keeping his house clean, massaging his feet and doing all those other things that are not enough to make me happy. I imagined her well-made-up face, smiling, and her matching clothes and curled hair. The pain in my gut reminded me of how much I loved this man, even as it struck me that we were doomed. With that thought and its sadness also came a feeling of exhilaration. Things would have to change.

I made a decision, right then, to follow the suggestion in Kiley's book: to take care of my own needs and to quit expecting someone else to meet them for me. I sat crying at my computer that day, supposedly working on one of my writing projects, but really too miserable to think, when Jack called. He asked why I was crying and I couldn't speak. I sent him e-mail saying I was dreadfully afraid for our marriage; that I hated the life I was living with him- the angry, frustrated and lonely person I'd become; that it had become easier to have him gone than to have him there, a sad reminder of how alone I was. I told him of my expectations for my life, and how I was unable to even strive for them within the confines of our relationship, and how I didn't feel his love.

I guess I sounded serious because within minutes he was home, which was a miracle since he NEVER left work in the middle of the day. For the first time I'd really said it and he'd heard me, and we could never go back to the security of pretending everything was fine again. We started leaving our children with a sitter and going out each Friday night. These dates were heavy discussions of how we both felt about each other and what we wanted. In the beginning we weren't sure of anything, including our love or our desire to stay together. What we had become to each other had dwindled to superficial coexistence with lots of angry/guilty feelings driving us further apart. Where had our love gone? Even saying these things to each other, through tears, felt liberating. We were relating honestly for the first time in a long time. We were sharing our thoughts and our fears. We were working on making it better for both of us, even if that meant separating. One night I asked him to look at my life, my daily existence, and to think if it seemed right for me. I said I needed something else; and that I was going to make sure it happened, one way or another. He started to cry. He not only heard me, but he felt how I felt, and he cried in my arms and said he was sorry. For the first time in an awfully long time, I felt loved and loving.

At first I didn't trust that our relationship could really change like that, but it has continued. Just as Jack was agreeing to move, I was admitted into a law school only an hour from our home, that I hadn't had the confidence (or maybe credentials) to apply to before my publication. It's funny how goals happen at their own pace, as long as you keep on hammering. My life is now full of studying, parenting, and working with people, and I can't imagine a more supportive partner. Jack and I clean the house together on weekends and it's no longer a control issue, so no one is angry. Since I've been gone a bit more, he's gotten closer to the kids. Our nights out continue, but now they are fun and we look forward to them all week. We both have this sense that we are growing, separately and together, at a rapid new rate. It feels romantic all over again.

So the "drifty" that is my future is taking on a different meaning for me. So what if my body shape changes? So do my priorities and my competencies and the deepening of my understanding and love. And sixty doesn't even rate a plastic breast? Cool! Imagine the freedom. :-) I don't need to be attractive to the man grasping that twizzle stick, the one stirring his drink at my ancient neighbor's basement bar. I have found my partner and life is only getting better.


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