*BEST of mamazine.com* Naughty Mommy: Talking With Heidi Raykeil
by Amy Anderson
Heidi Raykeil's new book, Confessions of a Naughty Mommy: How I Found My Lost Libido, is a funny, smart, and (yes, I have to say it) sexy memoir of her first several years as a mother. The book, which started as an anonymous Literary Mama column, is an exploration of the ways motherhood affected her sexuality and search for a kind of motherhood that would allow her to feel like a woman AND a mommy.
mamazine.com: One of the challenges you face in your search for your lost libido is a sense that while your life has changed in dramatic ways, your husband's has not. You write, "Once things settled down, once he returned to work and I became the baby expert, life went more or less back to normal for him. He was spending three-quarters of his day with the same people, the same projects, and the same dumb emails jokes as before. 'Father' did not change him the way 'Mother' transformed me."
This whole idea that fatherhood is different from motherhood seems like one that takes a lot of thirtyish couples by surprise; after all, we grew up with Free to Be You and Me, and many of us planned to share caregiving 50/50, or at least as close to it as we can. What were some of the differences between how parenthood affected you, the mother, and JB, the father?
Heidi: Yeah, that whole <span class= txt_ital'>Free to Be thing really threw me for a loop. But the biggest surprise for me was that I didn't really want it to be 50/50. Despite the tough parts, I loved staying at home. It was better than most of the jobs I had before; taking care of other people's kids, doing other people's laundry. To be honest, I loved not working. I always have! I loved being able to breastfeed whenever my daughter wanted to and schedule my days around her. I guess in a lot of ways I grew up thinking that I should want more, that I should want everything to be exactly equal. But it wasn't like that for me. For me, what I wanted more than anything was just to have the hard parts of my job acknowledged so I didn't feel so guilty about staying home, so I had a little more support in certain areas.
I think one of the biggest differences between JB and me as parents is (still) his ability to compartmentalize. When it was just me and my daughter for ten hour days our lines as separate people really blurred; physically, mentally I still felt like we were one. It felt totally natural to me, so natural that when it came to having sex or hanging out as an adult, as, ME, I floundered. I didn't know how to just turn that off and be me, as I was before. But my husband seemed much more able to shift between roles. He always treated my daughter as an amazing, awe inspiring human who stumped him sometimes with her needs and wants and was always separate from him. She was something he couldn't wait to 'get back to' whereas I never really ever left her (emotionally, at least). I thought of her more as MY amazing, awe inspiring human. It's still hard to let go of that, let go of her as a part of me and see her in the world as a strong, competent little girl in her own right. I love it. But it's hard.
mamazine.com: "My relationship to feminism has always been a little bit rocky," you write, noting how your mom's seventies feminism left you wanting "chocolate, dammit, not carob" (god, I relate to that one!) and "a nice, quiet house with a nice, quiet mom who was at home. I wanted more of the personal in my life, and less of the political." This book is about sex and marriage and motherhood, which have all been affected by feminism over the past few decades. How would you describe your relationship to feminism these days?
Heidi: Carob, Man! It's dysfunctional!
Well, when I was a teenager and young adult I did refuse to call myself a feminist. As a kid I thought feminists were fat angry women with short hair who hated everything. I associated them with the hard time my mom was having, the way she was gone all the time and divorced my dad. Not good associations! Later, in college I was terrified the whole women's studies department hated me because I stole my future husband away from one of them (I didn't, really—it was that open relationship thing gone bad). But this is how I thought of "the feminists" for a long time—as a big "they" or "them." Even when I was writing the book I'd cry to JB: "Oh no, do you think The Feminists will hate me if I write that?" And he's the one who would say: "Who? Your friends? Your mom? Me? These are feminists. You are a feminist. Deal with it."
He had a point. And since I have a daughter and lately I've overheard so many bright, tough young women refuse to call themselves feminists I guess I just figured it was time. For me, feminism is about being able to do whatever you want to do to be a whole, happy person, and not being told you can't or held back in some way just because of your gender. That's not so radical. It's one reason all this mommy war stuff wears on me. Oh my god! Women want different things in life! Who knew? But let's not use what we want as a way of cutting down or putting down or keeping down other women choosing to do other things. Ultimately what I learned from my mom in the seventies was that depressed angry women have a hard time being the best moms and the best people they can be. And that's a shame for everyone. So let's do what we need to do to allow women happiness and fulfillment wherever they want to find it. Again, that's not so radical, that's not so hard to get behind.
mamazine.com: Intensive mothering is the norm for many educated middle-class parents these days; those parents are often the ones who make extended breastfeeding a priority and who can afford to have one parent stay home but can't afford much babysitting or daycare, which often means the mother ends up spending virtually every second with the child. You write, "For me, motherhood was so consuming because I couldn't treat it like a side dish; it felt so all-or-nothing. Over the years, though, I learned that it's less all-or-nothing than it is a fine balancing act—of knowing when to hold on to myself, my daughter, my marriage; and knowing when to let go of fear, of society's fucked-up ideas, of my daughter, of old baggage." That's one of those things that I can know and yet have a hard time doing. What are some of the ways you've changed the way you deal with this balancing act over the years?
Heidi: I left it out of the book for a lot of reasons, but my daughter was born about a year after the death of our firstborn baby, a boy, who lived for only twelve days. Obviously that affected the way I was with my daughter, the way in which I was so consumed with her. I used to think my experience of mothering was particularly intense because of that, but now I think that losing Johnny gave me permission to write about the intensity of my feelings for Ramona without feeling self conscious or trying to reign them in. And, interestingly enough, that's a part of the book a lot of mothers tell me they really identify with—the overwhelming sense of motherlove. And I think the intensive mothering you're talking about lends itself naturally to those strong feelings. The issues you bring up: not being able to afford much babysitting or eating out, long long days alone with baby, etc. are hard to really talk about because we're so privileged to have the choice to have one parent at home. But that doesn't mean it's easy. That doesn't mean we don't need more support or some help or a place to vent. It's hard when you try to bring these things up and the instant reaction is, "Well, you can always go back to work."
I think one of the biggest things that helped me get some balance was to stop feeling guilty about my choice to stay at home, my choice to mother so intensely. When I felt like I really deserved a break, or a life, suddenly it was much easier for me to make time for it. It's a lot like with the sex. When I stopped having guilt-based bad pity sex, it created a lot more room to hold out for the good stuff. And when sex is good, you tend to want more of it. Same with taking care of ourselves in other ways—when it's not painful for us, it's a lot easier to do.
On a really practical level, finding a writing group I could bring my toddler to helped immensely. I was able to see that I could mother in the way that felt safe and comfortable to me, AND still think and care about other things. I think we still fall into the Either/Or trap too easily. EITHER you take care of others OR you take care of yourself. You're a homemaker OR a career woman. An artist OR a present mother. These days, there is more room for AND. AND is an important word. I think remembering that could help with the mommy war stuff a lot, too. We're similar because we're all mothers, AND, we're different because we're all unique, complex human beings.
mamazine.com: The book ends with two lists of suggestions about smoothing the path to sex. Both are aimed at men, and one was written by you, the other by JB, your husband. I have to admit I usually hate lists like these, but I realized as I read yours and JB's that I hated those other ones because they were all about what the woman needed to do, which usually involved things like making herself have sex even if she was exhausted and not into it or letting go of her frustration that her partner couldn't seem to scrub a toilet to save his life, not to mention, you know, wrapping herself in Saran Wrap and meeting the husband at the front door. In other words, very retro, dated stuff that puts all the responsibility for maintaining the emotional and sexual relationship on the woman and lets the man completely off the hook.
You and JB, on the other hand, advise the guys to do their chores, to stop counting how often they're having sex, and to talk about what's going on (or not going on). I'm wondering how you went about writing those lists—did you know what he was going to write or was it a surprise? And why do so many publications still insist on publishing those other kinds of lists, do you think?
Heidi: I was worried about including the lists because I didn't want to end up doing the "quick fix" thing that I slam in my book. That's why when media ask me for the' ONE THING WOMEN CAN DO TO FEEL SEXY AGAIN,' I balk. That's the point of the book—there isn't one thing, it's an ongoing project, it's work, it's a mish mash of things for both partners to do. I asked JB if he wanted to write something for the book, but I had no idea what he would come up with. Well, that's not entirely true—I had some idea because he was my main source of support/feedback/critique while writing the book. He was awesome about sharing his perspective and keeping the book from being just a bitch session from me. When he came up with his "Dear Fellas" piece, it was a great moment; I felt like he really learned a lot from the book, he really got a lot of the things I was trying to say. It's cheesy, but in many ways I wrote the book as a love letter for him, to try to explain what the heck was going on for me. I think it worked. Of course, we're always still working at it, but at least we fight less about it now!
As for those damn lists...all I can say is maybe they think that if they keep us feeling bad enough about ourselves (despite the weirdness about sex in this culture due to our puritan history, everywhere you look there's sex. There's this idea that we're all supposed to be super sexed up all the time. So when we, naturally, don't feel sexy all the time it's as if something is wrong with us. Add it to the list: we're too fat, too ugly, too old, too boring....) we will spend time worrying alone about our inadequacies rather than speaking up together and demanding the things we all deserve: true equality, a better voting system, affordable health care, good safe jobs and childcare and schools and maybe even social security and tax breaks for the years we spend taking care of our children (and/or our parents). Now that's Naughty!
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