Last year, I sent out a Christmas newsletter. With the magic of Photoshop, I gave myself a family of four posed alongside a Christmas tree: This family included myself, boy-band heartthrob Harry Styles, and two darling moppets named Garance and Servanne. The accompanying text explained that Garance was bookish and exploring asceticism, while Servanne studied Aramaic and wrote plays; Harry and I, meanwhile, had spent the year making passionate love in Montenegrin lodges and befriending a fox. I made the whole thing bizarre enough that it was clear I was a clever, self-aware woman having some fun. But really, this was all an elaborate lie. My actual fantasy husband is an ordinary man I dated briefly. And, instead of congratulating our daughter (still named Garance) on her transcendental breakthroughs, I like to imagine him telling her to wash her hands before eating the adequate but hardly decadent dinner he’d prepared.
This, reader, is my darkest, most twisted fantasy.
I can unflinchingly tell a partner or friend how much I like imagining bondage with my imaginary hot older brother. But if I let word slip about Garance and the hand-washing, I’m pretty sure I’d risk incarceration for obscenity. Today, I submit, it feels more acceptable to admit to daydreams and fantasies that are erotically charged and sexually taboo than ones centered on the intimate substance of a relationship and family.
Generations of women had to endure (and many still do endure) sexual shame and repression before women like me could explore their sexuality in all its freaky glory, and I am deeply grateful to have had the space to do so. But sometimes a gal just finds herself tied to a bedpost in a room littered with popped balloons, samurai swords, and Richard Nixon masks and, well, she craves something more taboo. Sometimes I just want to make smoldering eye contact with a man, lower my voice an octave, and whisper, “I look at your body and, I, I can just see you raking leaves from the second-floor study where I’m working on a manuscript while the kids are at Girl Scouts and piano lessons.”
I regularly indulge in rich fantasies of married domesticity alongside people I’ve dated for only a short time: The scenarios I imagine are often shorter than movie scenes, brief glimpses of conversation shared while cooking a family dinner, or of getting into bed together, exhausted, and having unspectacular sex because we’re putting in an effort even as we’re pulled by the forces of age and gravity away from the erotic insatiability we once shared. Though the fantasies are short, they are dense with meaning and intimate dynamics.
My husband in these fantasies is often a grizzled outdoorsy type who teaches our children to gather berries, but occasionally he is an academic who teaches them Latin and calculus in preschool and it kind of fucks them up, but in a cute way. He is sometimes played by a real-life boyfriend, but often by a new prospect or one-off fling. Regardless, I’m using what I know so far of his physicality and personality as an avatar for what he could be — even mentally playing out really minor fights and aging us less gracefully than we might hope to in an effort to give the scene more texture.
Some of the friends to whom I’ve admitted these fantasies have dismissed them as “dull” or “mundane.” I prefer to think of them as tranquil. And I have found that I’m hardly alone in secretly harboring a very boring domestic fantasy life. One friend told me she’d recreationally imagined marriage with every man she’s ever dated — growing up in a single-parent household has made her singularly fascinated with partnership, she confided. Another woman, Ruth, told me that her fantasies tend to focus on brief, slightly chaotic scenes, like preparing children for school or a meal. She said that she’s “very consciously made an effort” to imagine non-idyllic scenarios. “There’s a ton of shit that happens in life that’s gonna feel awful,” she explained, “so don’t let your fantasies be too rosy.”
Lest anyone assume this is only the pastime of women, several men admitted to similarly quotidian imaginings. Sasha, 27, said his fantasies included frying eggs for a wife while she was asleep upstairs, or “folding my girlfriend’s laundry, having her books on a bedside table — just having possessions that are half mine.” James, 28, said his fantasies range from picking out countertops and reading magazines together with someone he loves to his years-long desire to have children. He told me that he’s never felt comfortable sharing such fantasies because of how men are socialized: “It is a symptom of generally being told not to be overly expressive, that domestic life is a sign of softness or weakness or surrender.”
For a long time, I berated myself for indulging these little Snapchats of a future that is not guaranteed. To an outside observer, casting imaginary husbands might seem like a way of overinvesting in partners who haven’t consented to play house with me. Craving such things felt regressive, pathetic: I could be out climbing corporate ladders and terrifying men with my sexual and intellectual prowess! But the thing about fantasies is that you don’t actually know if you want them to come true until they do. I’ve insisted on playing out sexual fantasies that were sometimes mind-blowing but often mediocre, and sometimes downright catastrophic. Similarly, having a kid who refused to wash her hands would probably be a nuisance. But fantasizing is different from planning and most adults can tell the difference. In sexual fantasies, everyone is just a little bit sexier, a little bit more skilled, and a little more naturally in tune with their partner’s desires — but we don’t all return to real sex with a list of demands culled from our imagination. We entertain the fantasy because it is a safe space to explore how we might react to a given scenario, not to make us more single-minded in pursuing it as a reality.
Tapping into my domestic desires represents a reprieve from daily uncertainty and offers hope that something different is possible. I am probably not ready for such fantasies to become lived realities; I don’t even know if I want them to. For now, I am a firm believer that my extra money is called “disposable” income because I am meant to spend it on absolute garbage, which is why I currently have a lot of glitter makeup and throwaway smartphone apps instead of a station wagon. One of my favorite apps is FaceFusion, which allowed me to create my little monster babies with Harry Styles for the newsletter. But I don’t even need a face-fusing app to concoct imaginary children with an imaginary spouse in order to represent the things I haven’t yet experienced. And that is the stuff that fantasy is made of: the unknown, the things made exotic not by a particularly exciting or salacious set of characteristics but by their mystery and distance.