It’s hard to describe the explosion when all of my competing selves crashed into each other in the summer of 1984.
“I was 24 years old and playing racquetball with my identity.”
Each serve of the ball had me trying out another part of myself. The new parts collided with a loud thwack against the walls I’d grown up surrounded by. In the racquetball court, sound is heightened, senses are heightened, and sometimes, the ball hits you in the ass.
I haven’t played racquetball in years. I didn’t know until writing this blog that racquetball was the peak sport of the 1980s. Imagine that. Very few times in my life have I been on-trend. Racquetball didn’t last long in my limited repertoire of athletic things. I think I was too busy turning my life upside down.
Six Months of Motherhood
It was around six months after my daughter’s birth. My body was beginning to feel like mine again after having been inhabited for nine months. I was dutifully playing all of my parts: college teacher, member of the church couple’s group, wife, new mom. I faithfully carted my baby and all of her paraphernalia to all of her daddy’s softball games. I was in church every Sunday.
And then, with a twist of fate, a new person, a woman unlike any woman I’d ever met, dropped into my life. (For more on that moment, see And So It Began…)
I was infatuated. I knew on some not-quite-conscious level that: A… making friends with a person SO outside my small circle was not a good idea. B… spending time with said person in frivolous activities which took me away from my child, was going to put me in conflict with pretty much everyone, including myself. And C… enjoying a non-church, non-husband’s-softball-game-related activity would be considered wayward.
The Summer of ’84
This blog post sent me time traveling. Back to the mid-80s. Back to that fateful summer of 1984. I’m lying on a chaise lounge beside a swimming pool at someone’s apartment complex, covered in oil, and listening to Prince, “When the Doves Cry.” Because of my new friend, my sound track has recently–and very abruptly–switched from Amy Grant, Kathy Troccoli, and Sandy Patty to the Pointer Sisters, Laura Branigan, and Prince. El Shaddai to I’m So Excited.
What a Feeling!
The music! It’s hard to describe how the music of the 1980s coincided so perfectly with the beginning of my self-discovery. I came alive. The feeling you get when Jennifer Beals (or her dance double–we didn’t care, right?) performs at the end of Flashdance while Irene Cara is belting out “What a feeling!” Embodied, visceral, sexual, liberating.
The Mother of all Conflicts
It had all started with a hallway conversation. Her, “Oh, you like racquetball?” Me, “Yeah, we should play sometime.” I still remember the courts—on the campus of Mississippi University for Women—aka the W—my alma mater and, at that point, my employer. I remember exactly where those courts were at the back of the W campus. How the gym smelled—sports and sweat and strength. The anticipation of something new. Me, exploring my athletic side–it’s a very small side. I had dropped the fifty-plus pounds I gained during my pregnancy in a matter of weeks. At 24, with a high metabolism, I was feeling hot.
But here’s the problem. Hear that sound? It was my newfound sense of sexiness hitting the wall of motherhood. Yes, I know now, from the viewpoint of forty years later—and a lot of therapy—that sexuality and mothering can reside within the same person, along with a whole lot of other things. But, at 24? Not so much. Also, in the far corners of my mind, whatever was brewing within me was unthinkable. Thwack.
And so, I played racquetball with her. Thinking back, I’m not sure exactly how I got up the nerve to ask my mother to babysit, but somehow, I did. I felt conflicted and guilty the whole time. That was pretty much my state of being for the next several years.
But, here I was, slamming the ball into the walls, running, sweating, feeling strong.
Until a breast pad (yes, I was still breastfeeding) slipped out of my bra and went skittering across the court floor.
I was mortified.
I remember the surprised and somewhat revolted look on her face. Her next words are etched in my memory. “Why would you want to have kids?”
Did I gush in response over the raptures of motherhood? No.
Did I come up with an at-the-ready maternal response? No.
I couldn’t respond, because I’d never asked myself that question. I didn’t have an answer. Circle back to knowing—forty years later—that the reasons we get pregnant have very little to do with the reasons we mother. Did I get that then? Nope.
After reading my first blog, my older daughter (the one who, in 1984, was staying with Grandma while I lustfully played racquetball and sunned myself by a pool, listening to Prince croon about the sweat of somebody’s body, and, of course, feeling sinful) asked me, “Mom, did you want to be pregnant or was it just something you thought you should do?”
My answer was yes. Yes, I wanted babies. I loved babies. I’d grown up around babies. I had five older siblings. I became an aunt and babysitter when I was seven years old. AND yes, it was the next logical thing to do in my well-planned, conservative, Southern Baptist life: Marriage and college (I did those together), a church home (a given), a job, a house, BOOM… time for a baby!
My daughter accepted my answer, but I’m not sure how satisfying it was. Hear that? It’s my fragile mothering pedestal toppling yet again. Damn!
Back to that summer day in 1984, when I was burning with embarrassment over ruining my newfound sexiness with a wandering breast pad, I could not come up with anything to say. I just laughed it off. Should I have noticed that the very fact my new friend asked the question–why would you want to have kids?–was a red flag? Absolutely. But I didn’t. This was my first encounter with a woman who did not fit within the walls. And, oh how confining those walls were becoming.
A Strange Excitement
Suddenly, I found myself acting deliberately casual (yes, that IS an oxymoron)—while not feeling casual at all—about the whole new friendship I was forming outside my cloistered community. Did it take me away from the endless weekends filled with one softball game after another? Yes. Here’s where my motherhood was a bonus. I started to choose to stay home with the baby, rather than schlep my daughter and all of her baby stuff to yet another endless hot Mississippi day of watching softball. What did this do for me? It gave me a little freedom from the confines of the roles I was stuck in.
A strange excitement bubbled up as I stepped outside my walls. Yet, there was also the soul-poisoning, creeping ivy of self-contempt. A growing sense that what felt so right was fundamentally wrong, even perverted in the eyes of my family, my church friends, and definitely, my preacher.
Everything had fit together so neatly before that summer. By August, everything was odd; out of place. I didn’t fit and I didn’t want to. But, as I would soon discover, belonging mattered… a lot.