Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

The Last Gate

Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

The Last Gate

Article excerpt

The nearer I get to expressing my essence, the louder, more zealous that belittling voice becomes.

Natalie Goldberg, "Meeting the Mind: When to Silence the Inner Critic"

"Jonathan is adding the nipple," I say to Ted, who is tapping at his baby's mouth with a spoonful of mashed organic sweet potatoes. With one hand. With the other, he's gathering up the squirm of baby's muckied right hand, which instantly follows the orange mush into his mouth. There doesn't seem to be enough room for both food and hand.

"He needs a nipple with his food," I say. It's clear from Jonathan's eyes that putting his fingers into his mouth makes him happy--to gnaw a nipple--feeling something makes safe this something new in his mouth. And then there's that delicious ooze between his fingers, creaminess on his chin. But his father is pulling his hand away, and spooning at his chin. Or trying to. The fingers want to be where they want to be. And I want to fix Ted and Jonathan's frustration. I add, "He needs the feel of Mommy's breast when he eats"--his own nipple fingers, soft palm--his way of having her warm body. Touch and taste neatly separate for adults. For baby, that's not even something of which to conceive.

This is a late first child--Ted almost forty, Jennifer thirty-four. Before they married five years ago, she was hesitant about having children, told me so one night by our lit fireplace while Ted and my husband, Mort, snored, one on the couch, the other propped on pillows on the floor. There were seven nieces and nephews on her side, six nieces on his. They were both social workers. They were in love with each other--and she with singing; he, his guitar. More than enough family, more than enough to do, to be. Mort and I had been Ted's professors; then Mort was Ted's best man. I read Corinthians at the fairytale Christmas wedding. Soon after, Jennifer developed chronic fatigue. Part of me--and of this I am ashamed--was relieved. There will be others like me who do not have children. I will not be alone.

So, for six weeks after Ted's joyful, if tired-sounding, birth announcement on our answering machine, I went into mourning. Could not--for all my usual exuberant note-writing, for all my predictably prompt returning of calls and visiting with homemade flower arrangements--could not respond. Despite myself, I felt betrayed. Actually, I felt devastated. So much so that I could not tell these longtime friends what was wrong, though I felt safe enough with them to be silent, for awhile.

It was with some effort that I rallied for the child's welcoming party--they had called again with confused urgency to make sure that we would come, although Mort had returned the RSVP. Mask, mask--don't dampen joy. Mort and I arrived at the thronged homestead: Ted and Jennifer treated us as prodigals, instantly wrested Jonathan from the crowd to place him in my arms--click/flash/wheeze, click/flash/wheeze--photo after photo. The only childless married woman there, I will work hard all afternoon to involve myself in intense, distracting conversations. Smile, smile--as everyone confirms the joy of having children by bragging to me of her or his own. I will search for bromides to shield myself, the social mortar of customary phrase--"How peaceful he is. He looks just like you." I will even test myself on the hard stuff, "Now you have your own family? I'm so happy for you.

Five months later Mort and I visit Ted and his family for an intimate weekend with Jonathan, in the small house where Jennifer's mother was raised. Everywhere there is history--a refrigerator scaled, like a knight's armor, with acrylic-framed family photographs. And over the piano, on the mantelpiece, on end tables and walls, in voluminous brass-bound coffee table albums are wedding pictures, sepia ancestors, close-ups of Jonathan's fingers in Jennifer's hands, his face--multiplied in its protean moods.

My family experience seems diametrically opposed to Ted's and to Jennifer's. …

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