love and war

The Emancipation of the MILF

About six years ago, Claire Dederer realized she had a problem. The problem had to do with sex. It had to do with desire. It had to do with being a middle-aged wife and mother and needing and wanting to be seen and known by new people in a new way, maybe even by people she didn’t particularly like or love or respect all that much. Her problem had something to do with sex but didn’t stop there. It assaulted her notions of what it meant to be a grown-up woman in the world and wanting to have romantic encounters with men who were not her husband. She loved her husband. Obviously, she loved her children, her family, the life they had built together. And at the same time, a part of her wanted to step outside the boundary of the polite, middle-class domestic life they’d drawn around themselves. Or, to put it more crudely, she wanted to fuck around.

At the time of her realization, Dederer had worked for many years as a critic, first in film and then in books. She never planned to be a memoirist, but found herself splicing more and more personal history into whatever review she happened to be working on. After getting married, having kids, and moving to an island in Puget Sound off the coast of Seattle, she became fascinated by the obsessive parenting culture rampant in parts of the Pacific Northwest, and began writing a memoir that would merge the cultural history of the place with her personal history as a child of a complicated separation.

The culmination of these ruminations, Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning, is out this week. In it, Dederer tells the story of what happens when a devoted wife and mother in her 40s, a woman in a basically loving and healthy marriage, stops taking care of everyone, stops subsuming her own needs to those of her children and husband, stops repressing her unruly sexual desires, and starts acting like, well … a man. By modern standards, the author’s misbehavior is mild — there is no marriage-destroying, Eat, Pray, Love–style romance or affair. Instead, she yearns and flirts; she stays out late and takes vacations with her best friend instead of her husband; she has a slew of inappropriate email friendships with various suitors, and at her most reckless, allows an unnamed, famous short story writer from California to stick his tongue in her mouth. And yet, as limited as her indiscretions may be, Dederer struggles to find a name for her new desires. If she were a man, she’d be having a typical midlife crisis. In writing about it, she’d be working in the tradition of Philip Roth, Richard Ford, James Salter, Junot Díaz, and dozens of other 20th-century male authors. She’d be behaving like Bill Clinton, Tony Soprano, Don Draper — and countless other touchstones of middle-aged male sexual freedom. But as a woman, she is setting out into the uncharted territory, suggesting, as a few brave souls have now begun to do, that the MILF might not just be a male fetish and a focus of male desire, but a person in her own right, not just an object, but a subject with things she herself would like to do.

The exploration of a mother’s midlife sexuality might not seem groundbreaking, until you think about how few people are doing it, particularly when compared to the destigmatization and taboo-smashing tell-alls younger women have been enacting in recent years. “It’s funny,” she said, the first time we spoke, “how we’ve finally begun to accept that young women might want to have sex, and that this desire doesn’t make them sluts or whores. But this new acceptance goes out the window when a woman gets married and has a baby, the point after which all her sexual desire should be laser-beam focused at her husband, contained to odious date nights and nap-time masturbation.” Is it possible, she asks throughout her book, that middle-aged wives and mothers might want to have sex, too?

I started wondering the same thing a few years ago when I emerged from what I’ve come to think of as the motherhood cocoon. At the time of this emergence, I had been married for nine years and had two kids, 2 and 5. I was far into what I now think of as the least sexy years of motherhood. I felt fat. I felt slow and dull. I felt bored and boring. I felt overfed and understimulated, always moving with nowhere to go. I felt, as I think many women do during the lactating, poop-cleaning, no-time-to-take-a-shower stage (at least in our culture that demands women give all of themselves to motherhood while doing nothing to support them) about as sexy as a block of wood. There were few moments when a small human wasn’t sucking on my breast, clinging to my body, sticking its adorable, pudgy fingers into my mouth, my eyeballs, my nostrils, my ears. The idea of physical contact with one more human was unappealing, at times repulsive. And because I had the habit of believing each new stage of motherhood would go on forever, I interpreted this repulsion as a sign my days of unruly sexual desire were behind me. One evening, I was chatting with a man at a dinner party, pretending to be engrossed in his life story, when he paused and said, “Okay, your turn. What’s your story?”

“I got married and had babies,” I said. “The end.”

In that moment, it felt true. But a few months later, enjoying an evening out with female friends, I struck up a conversation with a woman I’d just met, a woman with amazingly long hair and cool tattoos. We were sitting side-by-side when, for what seemed like the first time in years, I noticed the existence of my own legs. Oh, I thought, there you are, legs. And then, a moment later, there you are, body. And then: I would not mind making out with a girl with great hair and cool tattoos, or with the bearded bartender who’d just served us our cider, or with a lot of other different people, men and women, friends and strangers, far less cute and smart and wonderful than my husband. I was 37, and suddenly I was acting like the woman I’d been at 21 — restless, impulsive, and ravenous for something — intimacy? excitement? affirmation? — that I couldn’t quite name.

In the year or two that followed, I, like Dederer, failed to have a marriage-ending affair. Instead, I yearned and flirted; I had a slew of inappropriate email friendships. I became enamored often and briefly and felt certain these behaviors were a sign there was something wrong with my mental health or my marriage. I’d fall for someone who was a woman and tell myself the problem was that my husband was a man. Or I’d feel attracted to someone who loved to cook and tell myself the problem was that my husband never makes more than a sandwich. Or I’d develop a crush on a friend who loved to talk on the phone and tell myself the problem was my husband’s lack of loquaciousness. It was only after several years that I began to wonder, what if it had nothing to do with my husband or marriage at all, but with a natural ebb and flow of desire, an inevitable turning outward after the all-consuming, inward-looking early years of motherhood? What if, as Dederer writes of one flirtation, “I just wanted to be seen by someone new … maybe anyone would’ve done.”

When I recalled this turmoil to her, she wasn’t surprised to hear I blamed myself. “Of course you did,” she said, “because in the rare case where we depict a married woman as desirous, it is always because she’s unstable or the husband is terrible. Both in literature and popular culture and in life. If a woman feels yearnings or sexual desires that spill outside the confines of her life, it automatically becomes a referendum on her marriage, an indication of something she’s not getting from the man. A woman’s desire has to be about her husband. And why is it that for men the narrative is almost exactly the opposite?”

“You mean,” I ask, “Because a man can be married and love his wife and fuck someone else? And we take for granted that it’s often not even connected?”

“Yes. For men, that’s the story of an affair, a story of his animal urges being served outside his marriage, and I don’t think the automatic assumption would be, Oh, his wife must be awful. In fact, the idea is almost laughable. Men are the ones who desire people outside their marriage, and they’re to be congratulated if they can resist these urges. And meanwhile, the women give ultimatums and get fed up and are slighted and suffer. Why is this the only role in the romance a middle-aged woman gets to play?” Because it’s the shittiest role, I suggest — the most boring role, the role that offers a woman nothing to do but stand around feeling superior and wounded.

“Exactly,” she says, “it’s a role of inaction.”

I thought then about “American Bitch,” the recent, wonderful stand-alone episode of Girls, the episode where Hannah plays along with her own humiliation and harassment at the hands of a lecherous, successful older novelist. The episode’s power was made clear to me by how grateful I felt throughout it, grateful on an almost physical level, for not having to be Hannah or the other leggy, hopeful young women we see flooding his apartment. But there was one person I wanted to be even less — the novelist’s estranged and embittered wife, present only as an overheard conversation. She’s a role without an actor and without a voice. The problem Dederer writes about is the problem of a woman who decides to behave more like the misbehaving male novelist than the silent and embittered wife. It is the problem of a woman who thought she’d put her life as a sexual being to bed, but then inconveniently, defiantly changes her mind. It is not, she emphasizes, the problem of a married woman who falls in love with another man. It is not a story of fleeing a marriage. It is a story of staying, of muddling through a problem both murkier and more complicated and more taboo for a wife and mother than straightforward infidelity. It was the problem of not wanting to have arrived at the end, or, as she writes at one point: “Marriage is essentially plotless, but a dick has a plot. Something happens or doesn’t happen, and suddenly you’re in a story.”

I wondered how other women were dealing with this “problem,” the problem of erotic or sexual existence post-marriage and -motherhood, so I asked a writer named Arielle Greenberg, a woman who’s been living in and writing about a polyamorous, open marriage for several years. Not long after her daughter was born, she says, “I came to realize my libido was simply too big for the marriage … we weren’t open at first. We were just pragmatic.” Luckily, she and her husband, whom she describes as a confident and easygoing guy, were equally willing to give the new arrangement a chance.

As Greenberg saw it, “We’re taught by this culture of monogamy to put so many expectations on our partners. And if they don’t live up to all our needs or expectations or desires, we blame them for it. But what I’ve come to believe is that our needs and desires shift over time and in different phases of life.”

When I asked her why she thought there was so much unease when it came to mothers like herself, living with their children in open marriages, she suggested that accepting these arrangements would require accepting that a woman might be a mother and also a person with unruly, lively, maybe even promiscuous sexual desire, and “we live in a culture that desperately wants to preserve categories. Motherhood should be preserved with childhood, which is a category that should have a lack of sexuality. We don’t want to be able to flip a switch and talk about the same woman who’s just taken very good care of her young children in an appropriate way and then allow her the space to go do something that we think of as taboo or sexually provocative.”

I began wondering if there were that many women and wives and mothers who wanted to flip the switch. Was it possible that for most women, Claire Dederer’s “problem” simply wasn’t a problem, that by the time they got through birthing and nursing and raising their children, there was simply not much left of that other kind of hunger?

“I don’t think it’s a problem for everyone,” Dederer said. “But I think it’s a problem for more people than you’d think.” She told me how when she spoke to women about the idea that maybe emotional and sexual life doesn’t have to end with motherhood, they’d often get this look in their eyes, a look of panic and recognition, and she’d know in that moment that they were having an affair, or they were trying to have an affair, or they had just ended an affair, or they were having an emotional affair, or they were having an intense, romantic friendship that might as well have been an affair. It was an expression of wanting to call for help but not having the vocabulary, and at the same time hating themselves because the experience didn’t fit with their notions of what marriage was supposed to be.

I asked a friend of mine, a therapist in Chicago named Elena Vassallo Crossman, if she had encountered such women in her practice as frequently as she encountered men in similar turmoil.

“No,” she said, “Not as much, but I think that’s because many, many women have internalized the culture that disavows this kind of desire. It is a culture that’s very comfortable with women as mothers, and any role beyond that, no way. And that’s because what comes next, the next stage, the stage where a woman is for herself and not giving everything away, not seeking her partner, not giving everything to her children — I think it has the potential to be the most generative, creative stage in terms of woman’s energy. She emerges from that dependence on relationships when everyone was looking at her for her utility. It has the potential to be the most powerful stage, and so a culture that disempowers women has to disavow it. This is why middle-aged or old women are witches and crones in fairy tales. It’s why they’re ugly. And if they’re not ugly, they’re dark. We have to make that power dark.”

I told her then about a strange dream I’d had a few months before the election. It was 1998 again. I was in college. The Clintons were back on the near side of middle age, going about their business of running the country when the Lewinsky scandal broke. In my dream, it was not Bill who held a press conference, but Hillary, supportive husband at her side. She appeared calm and presidential before the cameras and reporters. She appeared utterly unfazed. “Thank you for your concern about our marriage, America,” she says into the camera. “But Bill and I have a very strong relationship, and we fuck who we want.”

“Would have been fun,” my friend says. “What do you think would have happened?”

I tell her the truth. “I think we would have burned her at the stake.”

As resistant as we are to reimagining a woman’s “natural” attitude toward monogamy, or what she’s supposed to be once she’s through giving all of herself to husband and children, there seem to be at least some signs of the culture pushing back. This occurred to me shortly after Dederer and I began to talk, when over the course of a few days I found myself binge-watching the HBO series Big Little Lies, one of at least four new series (The Affair, Gypsy, Divorce) that focus on the erotic yearnings and exploits of middle-aged mothers.

What all these shows share is a willingness to take for granted that a mature woman’s love life might be every bit as sensuous, tawdry, complicated, and overflowing as that of any woman in her 20s. None of the shows spend any time setting up this proposition. This is particularly the case in Big Little Lies, lauded for its gripping and nuanced depiction of domestic violence and female solidarity, but which I found equally groundbreaking in its unapologetic depiction of a high-strung, sexually restless housewife (played by Reese Witherspoon) whose doting and devoted husband is unable to stymie her messy and unseemly desire. It’s a depiction of female infidelity we seldom see, a depiction where the infidelity itself is incidental, a plot point rather than grounds for matrimonial reckoning or moral judgement.

Or I think of the reception given to Brigitte Macron, certainly more celebratory and less mocking than it would have been at any other moment in recent history.

Or I think of Susan Bordo’s new book, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, which seems to me the first honest reckoning with the distinct and particular brand of age-based misogyny to which she was a victim: “She was accused of having extraordinary powers that ‘enabled’ her husband’s infidelity … She even had her own ‘familiar’ — her husband — with whom she frequently merged, shape-shifting into a slithery, elusive man-woman called ‘The Clintons,’ … [she] became a living Rorschach test of people’s nightmare images of female power.”

In our last conversation, I asked Dederer if she thought this new willingness to confront our fears of midlife female power (sexual or political), or to represent the lively erotic lives of older and sometimes married women without mockery or judgement, might suggest the presence of a larger cultural shift on the horizon. Is it possible we might be nearing a moment when married women and mothers can partake in some of the freedom and inventiveness and boundary-breaking younger, single women now enjoy?

“God, I hope so,” she said, though both of us were far from certain. I told her how it seems to me that women’s sexual liberation exists on a spectrum. If one end resides in The Handmaid’s Tale’s dystopia where women are nothing more than walking wombs, and the other end resides in, oh, I don’t know … Sweden, then American women must be more or less in the middle, with no one too sure of which way we’re headed, but with younger, unmarried, child-free women leading the way.

How odd it is to exist in this moment of so many contradictions when it comes to our thinking about female sexuality. “We’re living at a time,” I said to her, “when women, some women, some young women, have more sexual freedom than ever before. It’s sort of okay now to not get married. It’s sort of okay to say you don’t want to have kids. It’s sort of okay to have sex with other women, or to have sex with men and women, or to be into kink, or to be sex-positive, or polyamorous, or whatever. So we’ve given these young women more freedom than ever before, but at the same time, the vast majority of women who choose marriage and motherhood choose to do it in a deeply traditional and all-consuming way. We expect so much from marriage, so much from motherhood. For many of us, marriage is no longer a religious sacrament, and for women who work, it’s not necessarily a financial necessity, and yet we continue to insist these roles are not just important, but the essence of everything we are, the fundamental measure of our worth in the world.”

Even Dederer admits that for all she’s learned about her own reckoning, for all she’s grown in the course of living and writing her memoir, it was not her desire to stand up for herself that began it all, but devotion to her daughter. She told me it started because she was reading Peggy Orenstein’s book on girls and sex. “As the mother of a teenage daughter, I was affected deeply by her claim that girls fare better when they can take ownership of their sexuality, when they can be in touch with their own desire instead of focusing so exclusively on meeting others’ needs, when they can say without shame that they want it.” She read Orenstein’s argument, and she thought, yes, that was what she wanted for her daughter, the freedom to feel what she feels and want what she wants and not take any shit for it — the courage to take possession of her own desire. “I read this and I was so fired up on my daughter’s behalf,” she said. “But then I thought, wait — I want those things, too. I want them for myself.”

The Emancipation of the MILF