My Best Stupid Decision

The author takes a picture of her son taking a picture from the top of l’Arc de Triomphe.

by Katy Read

The words surprised even me, tumbling from my mouth before my brain had a chance to process them.

“If you quit asking me for money for clothes for the whole school year then I’ll, um … okay, next summer I’ll take you to the European city of your choice, for a week.”

“Are you serious?” my son said.

Wait—was I?

On that night last fall, my son wanted a new shirt. I wanted peace. Both of my sons, at seventeen and eighteen, have higher sartorial standards than my budget allows—just one of many catalysts for the wearying intergenerational conflict familiar to parents of teenagers. No doubt I could have gotten him to drop the subject for the moment. But drop it for a whole school year? In eighteen years of parenthood, I had not found a way to achieve that. Clearly, it would take a bribe. A big bribe. A bribe so huge it would cost about twenty times more than the price of a few wardrobe updates.

“Let me think about it,” I backpedaled.

I thought about it, discussed it with others. Family and friends encouraged me, in the way of loved ones who like to imagine you having a delightful time overseas. My ex-husband had a different reaction, in the way of an ex who likes to imagine you paying your share of the college bills.

Oh. My. God,” he said.


Let me be more explicit about my financial situation, indelicate a task though that is, because this is the sort of story that certain internet types tend to dismiss as just another privileged person whining about her overblown problems. Fair enough, if your definition of privileged encompasses the middle class, including those of us who have slid down the ladder in recent years but are still clinging to a rung.

Yes, I know there are more harrowing recession narratives out there than “I stressed over whether to take the kids to Europe.” But this isn’t a tale of woe, really. It’s a tale of recklessness, a tale of casting aside common sense, a tale of shelling out money to buy something intangible and possibly foolish, and hoping desperately that it was not.

For most of my life, I have occupied the reasonably comfy middle of the middle class. I have acquired—through a combination of effort, luck and, okay, privilege, not necessarily in that order—typical middle-class advantages and buffers: a college degree, job skills, a resume, some savings. These can be parlayed, at least theoretically, into moneymaking opportunities not available to those who lack them. I live in the city, in a neighborhood of tidy little houses and gardens, trendy cafes, lush parks that I go out of my way to drive past when commuting to work to remind myself how good I have it. By national standards, I’m doing okay, at least for now. By global standards, I’m positively swimming in luxury. The fact that I can physically scrape together the means to pay for a trip to Europe—while others lose homes or shoulder crushing medical bills or line up at dawn to collect their family’s daily bucket of fresh water—unquestionably proves me fortunate.

It’s just that I’m not quite fortunate enough to afford a trip to Europe.

The past few years have left me, along with many of my middle-class cohort, financially bruised. My ex-husband and I split up just as the recession hit. For the previous twelve years, I’d been a freelance writer and at-home mother, developing my writing career in exciting ways but never earning close to enough to live on. I had some savings, mostly invested in mutual funds and whatnot, which collapsed by about a third in the fall of 2008. Meanwhile, my former employer, the newspaper industry, was not only not hiring; it was shedding jobs as fast as it could.

I desperately needed a steady paycheck. And it appeared to be the worst possible time to look for one.

I sold pieces of writing here and there, mostly for sums that wouldn’t have impressed a freelancer time-traveling from the 1970s. I slung sweaters at Macy’s for a dollar above minimum wage. For a few dollars more, I worked shifts monitoring online newspaper comments and deleting the vilest ones. My combined paychecks approximately covered our grocery bill. Child support and a little spousal maintenance covered the mortgage and utilities. For everything else, I liquidated investments at recessionary lows. I was so scared to even look at my bills they sometimes piled up unopened—never a smart strategy for establishing financial health.

Finally, after three years of job-hunting, I got hired as a staff writer for my local newspaper. It’s a fun, creative job and I’m thrilled to have it, but my financial problems aren’t over. The job is part-time. Nearly half my income comes from child-support payments, which will be going away before long. My retirement savings are a fraction of what financial experts say you need —and that sum is more than twice what I will gross, at my current salary, over the next two decades. Retirement is a dot on the horizon, a distant posse in an old-fashioned Western, inexorably crossing Monument Valley as a silent cloud of dust kicked up by thundering hooves.

This was hardly the time to be jetting off around the globe.

Unless … unless it was exactly the time.

My older son would be leaving in the fall for a college across the country. The younger would be a senior in high school. They would soon move past the stage of their lives—so endless while it’s happening, so telescoped in retrospect—when taking a big trip with one’s mom is a culturally approved option. They were almost grown men, and the image of a grown man traveling with his mother is considered so ridiculous that Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand mined it for laughs in The Guilt Trip. Since long before Kerouac, young adults have hit the road with their peers. A young person’s travel is a proclamation of maturity and independence, an act of mastering the challenges of adulthood, a quest with solidly mythological underpinnings—concepts squarely at odds, in other words, with our cultural views about attachments to one’s mommy.

Said mommy, of course, holds a different perspective. Listen, I believe teenagers are programmed by evolution to drive their parents crazy—if they didn’t, we’d never let them leave, and the human race would die out. My kids are admirably fit, in that Darwinian sense. But lately, the surges of annoyance had been accompanied by twinges of foreshadowed loss. Already, I was too aware of the sound my footsteps made in an empty house.

So as I mulled over Europe, certain stock phrases kept floating through my head. This would be the Trip of a Lifetime. It’s good to Live in the Moment. I won’t regret it On My Deathbed. Besides, Anything Could Happen: I might get hit by a bus or win the lottery (note to self: buy a ticket). And especially, What Is Money For?

Financial advisors would call these terrible arguments. I’ve written some personal-finance articles, so I’ve interviewed a bunch of them over the years. One time I made a bad joke about how I’d be living in my car someday. Politely but firmly, the financial advisor told me that’s the way people talk when they haven’t faced facts.

What is money for? Why, it’s for security, these smart experts would counsel. It’s to save for a rainy day, to replace a blown hot-water heater, to ensure a comfortable old age.

But what about the age I was right now? What about the ages that my sons were about to leave behind?

It’s on, I told my son. We’re going. And I offered the same deal to his brother.


I rented an apartment at a great price from generous friends-of-friends in Paris who were serendipitously leaving town for a week. First, we spent three days in Barcelona, thanks to a travel agent who explained that buying three nights in a hotel somewhere in Europe would cut the cost of our plane tickets, oddly, by more than the hotel would cost (if you glean nothing else from this essay, remember: always check hotel-airfare packages).

Barcelona was sunny and warm and relaxing. My older son practiced his impressive Spanish. My younger son rode his skateboard and took hundreds of pictures. In the afternoons, I left the boys to mingle with other teenagers on the beach while I wandered further down the sidewalk, past the huge glittering Frank Gehry fish, to a seaside café with wireless. I spent the afternoon of the solstice sitting beside the Mediterranean, reading and eating tapas (and posting on Facebook that I was spending the solstice on the Mediterranean, reading and eating tapas). In the evenings, the three of us ventured out for sightseeing and gazpacho, pan tumaca, paella, more tapas.

In a poetic way, I felt we were traveling back in time. When my sons were little and we spent most days together, I took them around to beaches and playgrounds and sliding hills and apple orchards. When they entered their teens and started hanging out with friends, those outings receded into the past. The boys hardly remember them now, and to them it’s almost as if they’d never happened. But I remember them. And now we were enacting a brief, improbable echo of those long-ago adventures, with tapas filling in for Happy Meals.

Paris was cooler, cloudier, more contentious. It was June, but the air felt, at times, almost autumnal. I broke out my creaky high-school French. We saw Notre Dame, Château de Vincennes, the Louvre, Versailles. We browsed in a fashionable clothing store my older son somehow knew about. My younger son took hundreds more pictures. We climbed l’Arc de Triomphe’s 284 steps. We ate escargots and cassoulet and pate and lamb confit and pastries. We sat up late around the kitchen table, discussing sights we’d seen and people we’d met, good-naturedly debating politics or culture, showing each other YouTube videos we liked.

We fought twice. The first time was mild. My older son complained of boredom after a couple of hours of aimless strolling around Île de la Cité. After seeing my feelings were hurt, he apologized. From that point on, both boys showed apparently genuine interest in every painting and statue and gargoyle.

The second fight was bitter. The boys were roughhousing in the garden at Versailles and I got angry. I was spending thousands of dollars on this trip, I scolded, and the least they could do was knock it off when I say so. The fight escalated through the evening until my older son swore not to speak to me for the remainder of the trip. Fine, I told him, I would leave his pre-purchased Louvre ticket on the table and he could do whatever the hell he wanted. He announced he would not be going to college after all because he could not stand to live his entire life with his mother constantly reminding him how much he owes her.

The next morning, as the boys slept in and I drank my coffee, I saw that he had a point.

My anger over the misbehavior was reasonable. But it stemmed, I realized, less from the money I was spending than from the emotions I had invested. I feared any conflict could mar our Trip of a Lifetime. Now here we were, in danger of ruining the whole thing.

So when he got up, I pretended the fight had never happened. My son followed suit. From then on, all was friendly and peaceful, or close enough. The fight didn’t wreck the experience but became just another piece of it—another echo of what, frankly, things were often like when they were little and our days were punctuated with slammed doors and “you’re the worst mom in the world”s, eventually followed, usually, by an olive branch from one side or the other: “Clean slate?”


A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay complaining about having had to sacrifice financial security in order to stay home with my sons. I criticized American cultural and workplace structures that tempt parents to reduce paid work to raise their children, but deny them a financial safety net, and even resist letting them back in the workforce afterward (a major contributor to poverty among older women). Some commenters and bloggers missed my point, thinking I regretted having spent the time with my sons (“Let’s hope they never read this and find out how much she hates them,” one hissed). And more recently, other writers have begun publishing high-profile pieces expressing regrets at having opted out.

The fact is, I don’t regret those at-home years. Especially not now, as my sons prepare to leave home. My neighborhood attracts a lot of young families, with its elementary and middle school, playground, and starter-size houses. When I’m out for a walk and pass little kids with their parents, I sometimes feel a stab of nostalgia. Then I remind myself that, though those years are behind me, I made the most of them while they were happening. However financially risky, that time was priceless.

Oh, I’d be much more financially comfortable if I had kept my full-time newspaper job all these years (although that’s far from certain, given how many reporters I know who’ve lost theirs, including half the staff at the last place I worked). The idea of living in my car someday would just be a bad joke for a financial planner, not a sort of real, if remote—knock on my particleboard desk—possibility.

In my mind, I liken being a part-time stay-at-home mother to taking a long vacation I couldn’t really afford. Not the relaxing kind, with umbrella drinks by the pool—more like an arduous trek through the jungle. But still, an expensive luxury.

Now here I was on a literal vacation, taking another ridiculous financial risk, for much the same reasons.

The analogy isn’t perfect. I’m not blaming cultural pressures for my taking the trip, nor asking society to make it more affordable. (Come to think of it, though, that would be awesome; I’ve saved receipts!) The connection is that I did both things—two costly, possibly foolish things—ostensibly for the boys’ sake but really more for my own.

Kids, as a group, are resilient and resourceful. I imagine my sons would have been fine in daycare. And someday, they’ll probably manage to get to Europe on their own, if not too burdened with college debt.

But just as I wanted time with them when they were little, I wanted this last adventure, this last opportunity to just hang out, in a relaxed way, and do fun stuff together. What, in the end, is money for? In this case, it was for enriching my own personal Trip of a Lifetime. Not the eleven-day one to Europe, but the big one, the trip that takes you through childhood traumas and dumb mistakes and jobs that suck and ill-starred romances and unforeseeable crises … and, when all goes well and you grab the opportunities as they come, some excellent experiences and wonderful memories.


On the plane home, we sat apart: the boys side by side, me a couple of rows behind them. I was absorbed in Life of Pi when my older son stood and twisted in his seat to get my attention. Look out your window, he gestured.

I opened the shade and almost gasped. Below the plane, the world was all white. It wasn’t clouds. It was snow. Stretching to the horizon, for dozens if not hundreds of miles, nothing but blowing, vacant snow.

I put the movie on pause, unable to pull my gaze from the view. I squinted against the sunlight angling off that stark but dazzling land, a part of the world that I had never expected to see.


KATY READ (at Twitter here) has published essays and articles in Salon, Brain Child, Brevity, River Teeth, More, Working Mother, Real Simple, Minnesota Monthly and other places. She has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and been honored in literary competitions including the Chautauqua Literary Journal Prize for Prose, the Literal Latte Essay Awards, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and the Mid-American Review Creative Nonfiction Competition. She is a reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, where she lives with her two sons. She won a 2013 grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and is working on a collection of essays about the culture of motherhood.

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On the Pain Scale

By hragv/ Flickr

by Jessica Handler

I have become, at fifty-three, a full-grown person.  Two years ago, I stepped into the role of midwife to my mother’s death. I chose it. She was with me when I began. I would be with her when she ended.

Lung cancer had colonized her brain, her spine, her right hip and shoulder. Where did this begin? My father smoked, a lot. My mother smoked, very little. My parents and little sister lived fewer than ten miles from the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station on the morning that the reactor experienced a meltdown in March, 1979; I was away at college. Mom refinished furniture for a hobby, breathed the fumes, handled the toxins. After my father was gone from her life, her late-in-life boyfriend smoked. Where did this begin? Everywhere and nowhere.

“So this is what happens when you have six kinds of cancer,” Mom said the first time she fell. She said it again the first time she couldn’t stand unaided, and the day she threw up the crème brûlêe.

“It’s just three kinds of cancer,” I said, bringing her ginger tea to the table. We laughed, a little. We are dark-humored, and fluent in the language of terminal illness.

My mother had three daughters, of whom I am first and last. Susie has been dead for forty-four years, Sarah for twenty-one. Susie developed leukemia when she was six. I was eight. She lived less than two years. Our little sister Sarah lived with a rare blood disorder and died as a young woman. Mom and I spoke of them often. Often we spoke of them without words.

I told my sisters’ names to Y., our favorite nurse’s aide. “In case she’s looking for them,” I said. For dying people, past and present run together like chalk drawings in the rain.  “She was calling for Susie yesterday,” Y. told me. I wondered aloud if Mom was troubled or frightened. “Not at all,” Y. said, relieved to know who my mother had been trying to find. “She was looking out the door, like she was calling in a child from playing.”

My heart broke.


Some mornings I woke in my mother’s bed. Others I woke with my husband in my own bed, ninety-four miles from hers. There was a moment every morning when I didn’t know where I was.

Mom’s pain was usually a two or three. On the Wong-Baker FACES™ pain scale chart, that’s somewhere between a smiley-face with barely knit brows and a smiley-face that appears to have something serious on its mind. The zero quantity of pain-free is represented by an untroubled smiley face with a touch of crazy-eyes. Neither Mom nor I reached a ten, the greatest level of pain. Ten is a crumpled, desperate face shedding drops that could be sweat or tears. Or blood. Her oncologist told us we were lucky.

My pain would hover at five, if pain scales measured the heart. I dreamed that it was me on the blue plastic draw sheet the nurses used to lift her. At the grocery store, I got lost. Which aisle has the cranberry juice? Does Mom have English muffins? This grocery store is in my city, not hers. I’m stocking my kitchen one week, hers another. I don’t want English muffins. I don’t want juice.  I have lost fourteen pounds in the last two months. My always-slender mother wasted away. She weighed so little that I could lift her like a toddler. From the bed to the portable toilet, to the wheelchair, to the piano, to the bed.


When I was a little girl, I drew pictures of birds and of girls. I couldn’t draw faces, so I put bird heads on girl bodies and made bird girls. I concentrated while I drew, singing a two-note song to myself, sustaining what I’ve come to understand as a meditative state. What am I focused on now, watching my mother’s face and seeing my own in hers? The bird-girls of my childhood drawings never flew. They went to work and ate and played and smiled their giddy smiles with beaks. They had expressive eyes.

Before my mother flew, before she closed her eyes and dreamed morphine dreams, our eyes locked over the commotion; so much to say, and nothing to say. We spoke without opening our mouths. We spoke without words.


Mom died in her bed at home. She was seventy-eight. Hers was what hospice will tell me is a good death. A great death, the social worker will call it.

Several weeks earlier, to a nurse, a visiting friend, a relative—I no longer knew, everyone seemed interchangeable but my mother and me—I spoke for Mom on her behalf, even though she was right there in the living room with us, in a wing chair reading about Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. I spoke as if she weren’t there. “I don’t think Mom will want that,” I’d said, about a sandwich or a painkiller or someone’s insistence that she go outdoors in the wheelchair she loathed. Mom looked up from her reading.

“I can speak for myself.” She was smiling, but I’d hurt her feelings.

Drawing her out, I toyed with grammar, a subject that entertained us both.

“I’ve made you object and subject,” I said, “so what’s the verb?”

“Am,” my mother told me. “The verb is ‘I am.’”


On what would be the last night of her life, I fell asleep just after midnight, curled up beside her. When the nurse woke me, I was surprised by my calm. But that night, we were doing nothing but waiting, my mother and I. She had been on morphine for two days, bitter pills the nurse slipped under her tongue. Mom winced when she tasted them. She hadn’t spoken for two days, and then only a whisper: “I love you,” to Y., who had been part of her life for nearly a year, who climbed into the bed with her that morning to hold her and weep. When I stood beside the bed and asked Mom to rest, to take it easy, she mouthed, “I will.” I told her she’s my favorite mother. She smiled. I’ve told her that for years. Two nurses rolled her like a log and changed the draw sheet. We had a hard night. The oxygen she never used, never needed, became urgent for the first time the night before when Mom suddenly couldn’t catch her breath. I rolled the blue O2 machine from where she’d secreted it behind a nightstand. The evening assistant helped her with the cannula. “Do you want me to call hospice?” I asked Mom. She nodded, taking in the canned air.

At one in the morning, I sat cross-legged on her bed, holding her cool hand. I thought about how death is the exact opposite of birth. An obvious cycle and a thought not original to me, but I’ve never had a child and never witnessed a human birth. There was no sweat, no blood, no sound but Mom’s subtle breathing, arrhythmic and gentle. Her bedroom smelled of lavender from the bushy plant on the patio and from her hand cream. I held one of her lavender sachets to her nose. She grimaced, then relaxed. “Tell her what you’re holding so she doesn’t startle,” the night nurse told me. I did, then held the sachet to Mom’s face again. This time, she was calm.

The night nurse had woken me, saying barely audibly, “It’s time.” Time for what, I wondered, thick with sleep, then saw where I was, that my mother’s hand was entwined with mine. I was neither anxious nor weeping, not begging Mom to try and live one more day. There’s a falsehood in that statement: I was anxious. I lived with a low frequency of anxious for two years. I didn’t want her to ever die, to leave me. There was not one thing that I could do to change our course.

I asked the nurse to tell my husband, dozing in the den. She vanished, returned with him, tucked a chair behind him. We focused only on Mom. Her breathing slowed; her apnea grew longer and longer. She stopped. I looked up, gestured to the nurse. I remembered her name: M., from the compassionate care team, the end-of-life, round-the-clock team. She held her stethoscope to my mother’s chest, my mother skinny and sleeping in her white waffle-knit long sleeved t-shirt. M. shook her head, told me she’s still with us. Mom took another short breath, shallow, a surprise to me, and then she was empty. As empty as an overturned glass. M. flicked her penlight on and leaned into Mom, lifting an eyelid. She shone the light, closed Mom’s eye, and said, “She’s gone.”

We took from Mom’s pinky finger the silver and jade ring that my grandfather made, and I put it on my own.


Full grown comes and goes with me. I don’t feel grown, and then I do. There is no choice. I wear the ring, and I feel my mother holding my hand. I hear her voice, flying just outside the scrim of my world. “I am,” she says. You are.


JESSICA HANDLER is the author of the forthcoming Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief (St. Martins Press, December 2013.) Her first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009) is one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Brevity, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and More Magazine. Honors include residencies at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize.


The Hole in the Story

By Beth Hannon Fuller

by Jody Mace

When my father was a teenager in Atlanta, wild dogs had become a problem in Adams Park. He and his friends were enlisted by the park rangers to ride through the park on horses, shooting the dogs. He never said much more about the incident, but why would he need to? The bare bones of the story were plenty.

I didn’t entirely believe it, but it was still my favorite dad story. I liked it better than the many variations of how he impressed the staff at restaurants (Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian) with his linguistic prowess. (He punctuated these stories by spitting out guttural sounds that he claimed were phrases in those languages.) I liked it better than the one about how he played golf just one time, with coworkers, and they were amazed at his natural skill. Or how, while in the Air Force, he was invited to become an astronaut, and, after successfully completing training, he decided he didn’t want to be an astronaut after all.

Those stories were lacking a couple things, but most notably, teenage boys galloping on horseback shooting guns in a park.

There were some holes in the story. It didn’t seem likely that any governmental authority would enlist teenagers to shoot at dogs, even back in 1949. But not just that. At the time, my father lived above his father’s grocery store in an urban area, sharing a bedroom with his Yiddish speaking grandmother. He rode streetcars and bought candy. He didn’t have a Wild West kind of upbringing.

He’s eighty now and his memory is shot. It’s not just short-term memory, although the repeated phone calls asking me what time I’m picking him up for lunch can send me around the bend. He’s losing details about things I thought he’d never forget: which college my brother went to, what musical instrument I played as a child. The other day a new acquaintance asked him how his wife died seventeen years ago and he didn’t seem to remember that she died of metastasized breast cancer. He didn’t remember the chemotherapy, the radiation, the surgery, her devastating decline. He answered, “It wasn’t her heart,” then went quiet. Maybe he just didn’t want to talk about it. Maybe it was too traumatic to revisit. But maybe the memory really was gone.

So when he tells his unlikely stories there’s no way to really know which details spring from memory and which are just from the habit of telling the story. When you repeat a story a lot, details gain authority—even if you’re not eighty.


When my son was six, he accidentally knocked a trinket off a table at a flea market. The vendor exploded at my son and towered over him, waving his arms and yelling, until my boy started to cry. The item, which was worthless crap anyway, wasn’t even broken. My husband confronted the vendor. He didn’t actually say much—just, “If you have a problem with him, talk to me!” But we hadn’t even reached the car before the embellishments began. My husband was all in this guy’s face. He shoved him. The vendor cowered before him. He apologized. In some particularly enthusiastic tellings of the story, the vendor wet his pants. When I try to picture this event, I see it just as we tell it. My husband, nose-to-nose with the bully, standing up for our little son. I’m sure that our son, now fifteen, has no doubt about his dad’s heroics at that flea market.

That’s the power of story-telling. The way you tell a story can become more real than what really happened.

So who knows what happened in Adams Park in Atlanta sixty-four years ago? There’s no way to verify.

But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t going to try. During today’s visit after the usual business (the 500-foot roll of professional grade plastic wrap that he bought me off the internet, why his remote control didn’t work, the new brand of pickle relish he’s trying, which of the Harry Potter books is his favorite), I asked him about the story. For the first time, I asked him if it really happened the way he always told it.

And this time he told it a little bit differently. He said, “So they let us ride the horses for free or very cheap, and we rode around and scared the dogs away from the picnic tables.”

“So the part about the guns, that was just made up?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t shoot at dogs.”

“Had you ever ridden a horse before then?” I asked.

“No, I don’t think so.”

And suddenly the picture in my head changed. No longer did I see horses galloping through a park, ridden by wild, gun-wielding boys. Now I imagined city boys timidly perched on gentle horses, walking on a path.

The story was terrible.

“Dad, I think you should tell it the old way.”

But he had already moved on.

“No, I had never shot at anything at that age. Except this one time with Joe Arnold, who you didn’t know. He had a gun, a little .22 pistol, and we decided we were gonna go and shoot things. And I had a knack for it.”

He paused and leaned back.

“I shot a hole right through the middle of a dime.”


JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child Magazine, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. She likes to hear people tell their stories, especially when she’s not sure if they’re true.

In Praise of Synthetic Vaginas

Photo by Hey Paul Studios/ Flickr

by Catherine Newman

Because a blow-up doll will surely take up too much room in the bed, what I really want is a syngina. You’ll want one too, trust me. Go ahead and Google it. You’re going to be like, “Wait! I’m not a tampon manufacturer needing to test absorbency!” That’s okay. I’m not either. My interest in a synthetic vagina is purely personal. I plan to deploy it as an occasional stand-in for my real vagina, the same way a college may hire an adjunct to replace a professor on sabbatical—with the sabbatical being taken, in this case, by my own weary crotch.

Heterosexuality is a bizarre and perverted phenomenon. Whose idea was it to combine reproduction with sex? Because it was a bad one. At forty-four, after more extreme reproductive experiences than you could count on my nipple hairs, sex feels about as festive to me as a Ferris wheel erected in a cemetery. It’s thrilling, sure, and the views are great, but it’s also just plain weird, and sometimes kind of sad and scary.

In the twenty-five years that Michael and I have been together, I have peed on one gazillion pregnancy tests, give or take. I have thrilled to positive and negative results both, to plus signs and minus signs, double lines and single lines and subtle ombre shiftings of color, as well as the subtle absence of this shifting of color, from white to blue, or white to pink, or white to some other shade of white, and “Honey, are these two colors the same color or not?” (“Um. You mean the white and, uh, the white?”) I have also wept over positive and negative results both. I have thrilled to a positive test, my heart briefly soaring, mere moments before sighing and picking up the phone to call Planned Parenthood. I have wept over a negative pregnancy test, cried for the baby I didn’t want but now wouldn’t get to have, mere moments after clasping my hands in prayer that it would be negative.

Wanted pregnancies have devolved into bloody phlegm, me on my hands and knees on the bathroom tiles, keening, or me propped up in bed, munching on a donut with sticky equanimity. Unexpected pregnancies have progressed into toast-induced vomiting and colossally pendulous hemorrhoids, and then into babies who braced themselves stubbornly against my pelvis and had to be forcibly excavated with scalpels and sections, my belly traversed by a transcontinental railroad of staples and stitches. An unwanted pregnancy was terminated with suction and ad hoc Slavic-inflected counseling (“You khev heared of diaphragm?”), with a stupor of grief and relief and Valium, watching The Bird Cage with Michael and snorting laughter out of my nose at all the funny parts. “You would normally have hated this movie,” he said, and I said, “I know,” and shrugged pleasantly from beneath the drugs. Grief morphed briefly into regret, morphed back, later, to relief. (That anybody would use the fact of grief or regret as an argument against reproductive rights always strikes me as short-sighted. Should every potentially regrettable choice be illegal? Marriage, paint colors, teetery t-strap sandals? Having sex or a baby? Ordering a second basket of fries or a third mojito?)

I have squinted at an ultrasound with my mystified gynecologist until she clapped and said “There!” and pointed to the IUD listing over at the edge of my withered whoopee cushion of a uterus. “Probably not a great fit for you,” she said, adding, superfluously, “birth-control-wise.”

I have had allergic reactions in the vagina, to latex, lambskin, and spermicide. I have had literally dozens of yeast infections and figuratively millions of UTIs. When I explained to my ten-year-old daughter that women get more bladder infections than men, she said, wisely, “Well sure. With women, it’s like you’re walking right into the house. Men have a kind of a mudroom.”

My body is a wonderland. If, by “wonderland,” you mean mismatched breasts like a hedgehog family’s deflating air mattresses. If you mean brown, rubbery nipples that appear to have been pilfered from a 1970s-era baby bottle before getting glued on. It’s not just regular aging—like the fact that my neck looks like somebody’s ill-cared-for scrotum. It’s not the constellations of moles and acne and wrinkles, like a crazed galaxy spanning multiple eons. It’s that my body is like a beautiful and terrible reproductive neighborhood. Sexuality is in the mix, sure, but it’s a flowering window box on a condemned building, with the wrecking ball swinging noisily in the background.

I weep and rage. I’m sad sometimes, or overcome with joy. I fill up, spill over with nostalgia: These silver c-section scars! These golden children! The blinding lights of my life, who bring me to my knees with love, a thousand times a second. I shudder and burst into tears and cry until I laugh.

And Michael? Michael just comes and comes. He has experienced this same twenty-five years as a more or less happy collection of orgasms, as if he’s the simple hydraulic version of a senselessly complicated machine. He has also seduced and delighted, to be sure. Baffled and alarmed, he has held me while I wept. He has fathered two beautiful children in a beautiful way. But for him, sex is still about, of all things, pleasure. It is not a holy act of grief-stricken joy. It is not exhibit A in a report about PTSD, or a tearful, garter-belted clown in a postmodern circus. He does not cling to my neck, weeping, “This is how we made our babies.” His cheerful seed sprays hither and yon. And I hate to begrudge him.

Thus the syngina. I’ll put my novel down, even, and turn towards him willingly, my fake vagina at the ready. I won’t worry, for the thirtieth year in a row, about getting pregnant. I won’t experience full-body flashbacks. I’ll just smile and encourage and my vagina will wink at me, like a retiring police horse, before its blameless and well-earned rest.


CATHERINE NEWMAN is the author of the book Waiting for Birdy and the blog, where she writes about parenting her kids and feeding her family.


by Gina Kelly

by Jennifer Niesslein

Thanks so much for checking us out! On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, FGP publishes essays that tackle those moments in life when you wonder, what’s next?

Maybe you’d like to know more.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed Nicholas Christakis. Christakis studies how people—even people who don’t know each other—influence one another’s choices in life, from weight gain (or loss) to divorce to mood. One thing he said stuck with me: people are open to change when they’re in a “liminal state.” Which is fawncy talk for being in transition.

“In transition” pretty much describes where I am. Last year, my beloved friend and business partner, Stephanie Wilkinson, and I sold our magazine. For me, that meant I pretty much sold my identity. (Read all about it here.) I looked around at my friends, and they were all going through different, but no less earth shaking, transitions. We were all done with the celebrated firsts: first kiss, first sex, first long-term relationship, and in many cases, first child. We were left with the sometimes glorious, sometimes messy, stuff that comes with adulthood.

From way back, I’ve looked to writing to help me figure out the difficult stuff in life. Before I discovered reading for wisdom, I read for information. I learned about sexual intercourse from the World Book Encyclopedia that my mom ordered one book at a time. (In case you’re wondering, it happens by a man inserting his penis into a woman’s vagina. In practice, this is not an especially helpful description.) I founded Full Grown People because I find comfort, empathy, and intellectual stimulation in reading other people’s stories.

The topics here run the whole gamut: romance, family, health, career, dealing with aging loved ones, and more. But what draws everything together is the sense that we’re all feeling our way along. There are a gazillion how-to books on all of these subjects, but I’ve always been interested in the how-come.

I hope you’ll find here what I’ve been wanting to read: well-told true stories of how different people have figured it out as they’re going along. I think every age has the potential to be an awkward age, and as my teeth migrate steadily back to where they were pre-braces, I’m revisiting those feelings of let’s pretend again. Let’s we pretend we know how to dance. Let’s pretend we know how to kiss. Let’s pretend we know how to dress for work. Let’s pretend we know how to date after many years. Let’s pretend this new career move isn’t scary and thrilling as all get-out. Let’s pretend we know how to deal with our father’s dementia. Let’s pretend we know how to say a final goodbye to our mother.

Thanks for pretending with us.

P.S. To stay in the loop and help us spread the word, you can sign up for the weekly newsletter (over there on your right), like FGP on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and do what one does on Google Plus.


JENNIFER NIESSLEIN is the founder and editor of Full Grown People.