Thelma Adams has been the film critic at US Weekly since 2000, following six years at the New York Post. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, O: The Oprah magazine, The Huffington Post, Marie Claire, the New York Times, and more. Her debut novel, Playdate, is an Oprah pick, and I’m honored to have her hear on my blog. Thanks, Thelma!
“Motherhood Makes Me Feel like an Unnatural Woman”
In this section, Darlene, having unsuccessfully tried to have baby-making nookie with her stay-at-home husband Lance (ignorant that he’s spent the morning having tantric sex with the wife of her business partner) rants to herself while driving back to work.
“A fuck session,” Darlene sniffed when she was back in the Saab.
She was horny. She was hot. She peeled out of the garage, turned right, and sped downhill past a raccoon road pizza. She felt a rising panic. Her worries about the diner franchise began to balloon as Saturday’s opening party neared. (Had she ordered enough balloons?) The concerns seemed to color everything else: parenting, driving— and lovemaking.
Darlene liked sex. Ever since her first open mouthed kiss under the eaves in a junior high breezeway before school. She was good at it. Not slutty, and not so experimental, either. She still wanted to be romanced. She wanted hot baths and chilled champagne. She’d take cold Heineken. She remembered the first bath she’d shared with Lance, at his little La Jolla cottage, but she couldn’t remember the last. It wasn’t in the new house, she knew that. Darlene ducked the Saab under I-5 and stopped for a red light. A bus blasted past bearing a giant ad with the banner headline America’s Fastest Growing City above a picture of a pregnant San Diego Mayor Hackett. The square- jawed ex-volleyball star encircled two towheaded children with muscular arms. Below, in smaller type, was the slogan, “She can Hackett.”
“I’m glad she can hack it,” Darlene said. She felt like there was a stack of books—What to Expect guides, she suspected— on her chest. She had always insisted motherhood wouldn’t change her. She didn’t have two different faces, one for adults and one for kids. No baby talk— ever. No bullshit. Kids weren’t stupid, or oblivious. Belle wasn’t. Like that morning. What a disaster. “Only making love”; okay, that was bullshit. But sometimes stock phrases flew out of your mouth when you were a parent.
Not that Darlene would ever have interrupted her own parents. Their room was off- limits at the far end of their U-shaped house. Besides, as okay as Darlene’s folks were, they weren’t warm. She couldn’t imagine climbing in bed between them like Belle did with her and Lance. Married couples were either lovers or parents first, Darlene figured. Hers were the former: she and her brothers had been well fed and clothed, neither neglected nor nurtured. Her folks were totally into each other, with their nature walks and solo trips to the Sea of Cortez, their Spanish lessons and Smithsonian magazine subscription. They had been the loves of each other’s lives from the day they met over a Bunsen burner in college chemistry when her father staged a pillar of smoke to get her mother’s attention.
Darlene hardly talked to her parents now without getting a lecture on brown rice and whole grains, wild salmon the wonder- fish. Let Belle eat Lucky Charms and Hostess Sno Balls. Let her enjoy them while she was still running around enough that she wouldn’t wear them on her hips. Was Darlene rebelling against her parents? Sure. She couldn’t buck psychology. But she wasn’t blaming them, either. It wasn’t as if she was, in turn, the most responsive of parents, putting Belle first in all things. She wasn’t one to get down on the ground and dress Polly Pocket dolls in little rubber disco boleros and Jell- O-orange boots, or play Clue like Lance did.
When had it become so hard just to sit still and play? Men had Peter Pan complexes, but women had the Wendy Darlings. The Wendys wanted to fl y a little and be dazzled by pixie dust, but they were consumed with relationships and caretaking and what the neighbors thought. Wendy’s lost boys were content to fl y; Wendy had to civilize. She couldn’t abandon herself to wild dancing by firelight with the Indian braves; she had to funnel them all back into London middle- class respectability. Wendy was in such haste to grow up and become the mother, that central domestic figure; to children, their mother’s skirts were the world.
As skeptical as Darlene was of Wendy, it saddened her that she wasn’t that safe maternal haven for Belle. Lance, not Darlene, had become the Ramsays’ emotional center of gravity, the figure waiting at the window with the lit candle whenever Belle ventured outside. When Belle cried, she cried for her father. Darlene admired Lance’s gift for parenting: he had a better understanding of Belle’s needs just by listening, by waiting out her defenses with quiet talk and infinite patience. But Darlene was also a little jealous of it. She was somewhat confounded by her own emotional limits, like a person who thought she’d rented a spacious apartment and found, once she’d unloaded her furniture, there was hardly room to turn around in.
The truth was, Belle was daddy’s little girl— something Darlene had never been and had always craved being. In the Ramsays’ tight triangular relationship, the relationship of parents with only children, that left Darlene out in the cold. She reacted by distancing herself from both Lance and Belle. She simultaneously hoped they would reach out to her, and yet searched for a place like her diner, where she was central, as she had been central when it was just her and Lance.
But wasn’t that an argument for having more kids? Darlene tried to visualize their next baby, maybe a mama’s boy. She tried to spin out the imaginary threads of the child’s life, to see his face, hear his laughter, and imagine his obsessions with Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. Howling was all she could conjure, so she unconsciously picked up speed on the Pacific Coast Highway, slaloming on the curves north of Torrey Pines. On her right, the Pacific glittered like panels of aluminum foil, distracting. Come play now. Don’t plan. Let go.
Darlene remembered the first three months after she had Belle. They were the hardest days of her marriage. Everyone acted as if she was supposed to be blissfully happy, but she’d never felt so incompetent. Pregnancy was okay, but once the baby arrived, everything else failed. When she bathed Belle, she feared she’d either drop her or drown her. And the nursing. She couldn’t nurse. The baby didn’t latch. Her nipples were like chew toys. She went from capable wife to a motherhood wash-out. It only made her feel more pathetic that it was all supposed to come naturally.
The big meltdown occurred a few nights after Belle’s birth. At two-thirty a.m., when Darlene was so sleep- depri ed she would have confessed to any crime if only she were allowed a four- hour nap on a concrete floor, she begged Lance to call the lactation consultant. She couldn’t breast-feed on her own, but she hated to ask for help. Ninety minutes later, a plump fairy breast mother with brown bangs arrived with her claims that even— unbelievable—fathers could nurse.
The consultant, Astrid, removed a breast pump from her macramé bag as if it were a kilo of home- grown pot. She unraveled the transparent rubber tubes and yellow suction cups while she explained to Darlene that nursing was absolutely natural. Darlene had bristled, but Astrid assured her that she’d never known one woman who couldn’t master and enjoy the pleasures of nursing, potentially for two full years. If Darlene hadn’t already been attached by her tits to the sucker, she would have bolted. She lay there with some stranger rubbing her own hands for warmth and touching Darlene’s breasts. Astrid gave them the occasional squeeze and shift to keep the milk flowing.
Darlene’s sense of individuality seemed to ebb away through her own convex nipples. She had felt like a cow, as she tried to capture first one, then two ounces of milk. Astrid peered down encouragingly, as she had on countless other women with breasts large and small, nipples like Tootsie Rolls or goose bumps. While Lance had stood alongside, eager to learn, Darlene didn’t think he understood the indignity of being milked to someone constitutionally opposed to domestication.
Darlene felt entirely uninspired to repeat that natural experience. Motherhood made her feel like an unnatural woman. Wasn’t there a Carole King song there? You make me feel like an unnatural woman; oh, baby, what you’ve done to me. There were so many things women never sang about: Where was King’s breastfeeding ballad? Or Judy Collins’s miscarriage lament? Or sobwriter Laura Nyro’s postpartum depression wail? Darlene had caved to peer pressure and the surgeon general, but breastfeeding never made her feel one with the universal mother. [Read more…]
“Go west, young man!” said Horace Greeley, eastern newspaperman. It was the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and supposedly good advice, particularly for young men. So off they went, two college friends from Harvard, Theodore Roosevelt and Owen Wister, to discover and invent the American West. Teddy was the Rough Rider who became president and Owen Wister wrote a novel, ‘The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains,’ that still defines the masculine code of the cowboy.
“The Virginian” started as a series of letters that the homesick Owen was writing to his beloved mother. He was traveling in the West to recuperate from an unspecified illness he suffered after his father made him return from his musical studies in Paris to work as a bank clerk in New York. Apparently the fact that Franz Liszt thought the boy had talent did not impress Dr. Wister.
When Owen came back East to study law (another of his father’s failed attempts to make him a respectable breadwinner) he reworked some of the letters into publishable vignettes. Before he actually had to start practicing law, he strung a number of the vignettes together into a sprawling novel that features an unnamed tenderfoot narrator telling the story of an unnamed young man from Virginia who lynches cattle rustlers, wins the love of a blonde schoolmarm and outdraws the chief villain in a gunslinging duel.
The novel, dedicated to Teddy Roosevelt, was published in 1902 and reprinted 14 times in eight months. It has been the basis for at least five movies, the most famous version starring Gary Cooper in 1929, and a television series with Doug McClure. Owen Wister never had to clerk or practice law after the book came out.
Readers in Floyd Memorial Library’s book discussion group loved “The Virginian.” Mainly they admired the hero and his uncompromising moral sense. Only I was outraged by the denouement, when the heroine’s moral stance is thoroughly compromised. That’s just my feminist nit-picking, I suppose, and my feeling that the writing is dated — by that I mean that there is a measure of sexism, racism, anti-Semitism and pro-plutocrat sentiment that has to be “understood” because of how long ago the book was written — was generally dismissed as not germane. I admit that some of the stories, like the baby switching, are really funny, some of the characters memorable, and some of the descriptions of the landscape quite lovely, but I am not an uncritical fan of this particular Horseman of the Plains. I think I might like the Gary Cooper version better.
Meanwhile, I actually went west, myself, all the way to Los Angeles, where I had never been before. I know Gertrude Stein was referring to another part of California when she said “there is no there there,” but I think it’s a perfect way to understand L.A.
While I was there, I went to a wonderful bookstore called Book Soup and heard Thelma Adams reading from her debut novel, ‘Playdate.’ This is a novel of the contemporary but no less dangerous West. Encinitas, a suburb of San Diego, is being threatened by raging wildfires fanned by the Santa Ana winds, while the children of two different families are trying to figure out their places in the social order, given that some of their parents are sleeping with more than each other.
This is a new and different way of looking at Western masculinity, from the standpoint of a stay-at-home house-husband who is practicing tantric-yoga sex with a neighbor whose husband is busy helping the house-husband’s entrepreneurial wife with a franchise idea worth millions of dollars. This novel has parts that are sidesplittingly funny, memorable characters and great descriptions of the weather and landscape, but it is definitely not dated, nor does it describe a West that I would want to inhabit any more than Owen Wister’s version.
Thelma Adams has been a film critic for many years, first at the New York Post and since 2000 at US Weekly, and her writing is witty, sexy and sharp as a tack. She grew up near Encinitas, but has long been relocated to the relative sanity and safety of the East Coast.
The East Coast, in particular Sag Harbor, is the setting of the 2011 Long Island Reads selection. The title is ‘Sag Harbor,’ the author is Colson Whitehead, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s a fine read, as are ‘The Janus Stone: A Ruth Galloway Mystery’ by Elly Griffiths and ‘The Hunger Games’ by Suzanne Collins, which is the first book in a trilogy aimed at young adults. I can’t wait to read the next two installments: ‘Catching Fire’ and ‘Mockingjay.’ “The Hunger Games” is soon to be a movie, made, no doubt, in the arid, windy canyons of greater Los Angeles.
Tonight, while I was watching my darling daughter Lizzi in a dual role as Mrs. Darling and Tiger Lily, so sweetly maternal in one and so commanding in the other, I remembered a passage about gender roles from Playdate. I think I might have coined the phrase the Wendy Darlings, a very different female syndrome from the Peter Pan complex. My fictional entrepreneurial mother Darlene worried the idea while driving to work after a frustrating encounter with her husband, Lance. In the play, Wendy promises Peter Pan she’ll return to Neverland every year to do his spring cleaning. Not something that would occur to Darlene – or me.
The Wendy Darlings (from Playdate)
“When had it become so hard just to sit still and play [Darlene thought]? Men had Peter Pan complexes, but women had the Wendy Darlings. The Wendys wanted to fly a little and be dazzled by pixie dust, but they were consumed with relationships and caretaking and what the neighbors thought. Wendy’s lost boys were content to fly; Wendy had to civilize. She couldn’t abandon herself to wild dancing by firelight with the Indian braves; she had to funnel them all back into London middle-class respectability. Wendy was in such haste to grow up and become the mother, that central domestic figure; to children, their mother’s skirts were the world.
As skeptical as Darlene was of Wendy, it saddened her that she wasn’t that safe maternal haven for [her 10-year-old] Belle. Lance, not Darlene, had become the Ramsays’ emotional center of gravity, the figure waiting at the window with the lit candle whenever Belle ventured outside. When Belle cried, she cried for her father. Darlene admired Lance’s gift for parenting: he had a better understanding of Belle’s needs just by listening, by waiting out her defenses with quiet talk and infinite patience. But Darlene was also a little jealous of it. She was somewhat confounded by her own emotional limits, like a person who thought she’d rented a spacious apartment and found, once she’d unloaded her furniture, there was hardly room to turn around in.