My wife and I were lying in bed after making love one morning—okay, I know that must sound very sophisticated and child-free, but this was an exceptional morning: Our daughter had spent the night at a friend’s house, and my teenage son was not yet out of bed. Anyway, there we were, as close to contentment as I could hope to get on this earth, when I made a minor-league error. I asked her what she was thinking about.
“The trim size of the magazine,” she replied, “which we may have to reduce.”
I should explain that for the last year my wife has been the editor-in-chief of a new women’s magazine, and as anyone who has worked on such a launch can tell you, the work never really stops. Or, at least, you never stop thinking about it. Even during those moments when work talk was once banished.
If memory serves, I simply fell into step and began discussing the fate of oversize magazines in this competitive newsstand environment. It’s nice to share an interest—or in this case, a profession—with your mate. But there is a time and place for everything, no?
What’s depressing is that it doesn’t seem very long ago that I held my wife’s bedroom attention for just a little longer. In our early days, like most couples, we tangoed till we were sore (to borrow a line from Tom Waits). But lately I have come to feel that, like Billy Idol, I’m mostly dancing with myself.
Not that I expected marriage, and the sex therein, to be a cakewalk. But like a lot of men, I’ve always put sex high on the list of domestic prerequisites, somewhere between food and basic cable. I did not think it was something that would have to be constantly negotiated and appraised, and I admit I was sort of caught with my pants down (or up) when the trajectory of our sex life spiraled from nightly to weekly to “What’s wrong with you?” Is this common to marriage? I wondered. How could I tell? Most of my male friends are married and no doubt have similar tales to tell, but despite what some women may fear, grown men don’t spend much time talking about sex (especially if they’re not getting much). When you’re young and not getting any, you talk about it all the time, but when you’re an adult it’s not quite the same thing. In fact, it’s the opposite thing.
Now, despite Dr. Phil’s assertion that “sexless marriages are an undeniable epidemic,” that’s not what I’m talking about. A sexless-marriage story would quickly devolve into a divorce story, and my wife and I have both invested too much love and energy into our marital vehicle to sit here and watch the wheels come off. No, my wife likes sex as much as I do. She really does. She may not like it as frequently as I do. Or as urgently. Or with as many possible variations . . .
With so many couples, especially those with two careers and children, sex just falls off the list, like some dance craze from our youth that everyone’s forgotten. And men who opt for divorce and trade their old wives in for younger, more pneumatic models appear in public as graceless as Grandpa doing the funky chicken—and, soon enough, they find themselves back in the same boat anyway when the pneumatic version, too, starts yawning at eight o’clock and proclaiming she’s not in the mood.
Our situation may be complicated by the nature of our jobs. I work at home, and as such our house and its needs constitute half of my work. I’ve been a freelance writer and editor for the eleven years we’ve been married, while my wife has gone from one magazine to another, ascending the editorial masthead. As her work has become more demanding as well as more remunerative, the tasks of cooking, cleaning, and keeping track of the children have fallen to me. Nothing wrong with that: I like to cook, and after my parents divorced I became accustomed to doing household chores. But it does put us in a rather different frame of mind at day’s end. When she leaves work, she’s fleeing minions demanding her time: editors, art directors, publicists, and publishers—they all want something and they want it now. The last thing she wants to deal with when she gets home is somebody else’s needs. And though I have been gnawed by my own ducks (a son who’s lost his keys again, an editor who wants a new lead, a daughter who wants help with her homework), I, unlike her, am pretty much starved for adult conversation by the time she gets in.
Nothing in my wife’s feminist life has prepared her for the Freaky Friday feeling of suddenly finding herself cast in the role of fifties dad. “The whiplash effect can be kind of intense,” she tells me. And I can’t blame her for not wanting to come home some nights—though of course I do.
One night, my son wanders into the kitchen, guitar slung around his neck, to inquire when dinner might be ready. “As soon as your stepmother deigns to make an appearance,” I tell him. Then the phone rings, and it’s my wife herself, who claims she’s now leaving for real—she just got caught up in a meeting and then there was an e-mail she had to answer.
“Did you ever hear of the phone?” I snap before hanging up on her.
Yes, it’s come to this.
Our evenings don’t vary much. After dinner comes the nightly ritual of putting our daughter to bed (something we share, or break up into shifts, with me doing the reading and Mom acting as the closer). Then maybe a little evening news and the promise of sleep, sweeter, it seems—for her at least—than any sexual fantasy.
But hope springs again on the weekends. Of course, there’s the usual forest of responsibilities to coordinate: playdates, music, various tasks related to our home and animals, and even more work (for both of us) that must be done by Monday. That’s precisely why stealing moments of pleasure seems all the more imperative to me. Finding ourselves unexpectedly without children or chores one afternoon—someone had called to see if our daughter could stay at her house longer, my son was at a matinee—I raised the subject, and also an eyebrow. My wife looked at me as if I were speaking Urdu.