A stunted maternal instinct. A long-dormant sexual awakening. A nascent midlife crisis. You might call it the perfect storm.
When the cab from Paul’s pulled up to my house, it had finally stopped raining. Ours was the smallest building on the block, an oasis of warm yellow stucco tucked between taller wooden Victorians. All the lights were off. I put my key in slowly and turned the lock silently, afraid to drag what I’d just done into our safe space.
Scott was asleep. I unzipped my boots and padded into the bathroom to wash my face and hands, the same bathroom where, six months prior, a digital test had blinked “Pregnant” on one of the happiest mornings of my life. Only twenty-four hours later, though, I came to realize just how strong was Scott’s aversion to fatherhood—strong enough to make me feel relief when the follow-up blood test came back negative. I wasn’t pregnant after all. Or I had been pregnant, but had miscarried. Either way it didn’t matter. I was forty-four, with no desire to become a single mother via adoption or sperm bank. What I’d wanted was not, as so many women put it, “a baby,” or even “to be a mother.” I’d wanted a family, with Scott.
I’d always known Scott was uninterested in kids, and when we married I wasn’t even sure how interested I was, but the question was troubling enough to send us to months of premarital counseling, where the therapist—a sixty-year-old man whom I considered the wisest I’d ever met—concluded that if I ended up wanting children badly enough, he believed Scott would get on board. I was thirty-six then, and the midlife urge to reproduce before time ran wouldn’t actually kick in until thirty-nine. That’s when the talks began in earnest: Let’s just take birth control away and let Mother Nature decide; I won’t ask you to do in vitro or anything extreme; if we do get pregnant I’ll do most of the work (yes, I actually said that).
When words failed, I resorted to the body. I took pole dancing lessons, learned how to striptease, bought books on tantra. Along with my interest in getting pregnant came, not unexpectedly, a heightened interest in lingerie, blindfolds, and dirty talk. Knowing what a gentle, kind man Scott was, I’d always assumed that if I did manage to get pregnant, he’d warm up, just as the wise therapist had predicted, just as I imagined so many stoic men did when they realized they were slated to become fathers. But I was wrong. Instead of softening him to the idea of parenthood, my false alarm pregnancy awakened Scott to his need to get a vasectomy and be done with the dilemma once and for all.
I slipped into bed. Scott, facing away from me, didn’t even rouse. I nudged up behind him as usual, hanging my arm over his waist, and waited for something to happen, some fracture that made it clear things had changed forever.
But nothing happened. My warm bed enveloped me. A hiss echoed far in the back of my mind: adulteress, adulteress, adulteress. It was drowned out by my husband’s steady breathing, our cat purring peacefully at my feet, and the surprising recognition that my house was still standing, my life still intact.
So this is how people do it, I thought. It’s not even that difficult.
It took forty-eight hours for the reality that I’d cheated to hit me. Scott and I went to Napa to research a travel story I was writing, and after a day of vineyard-hopping, we checked into a plush bed-and-breakfast in Yountville. As Scott dozed off, I lay in bed next to him reading a magazine and came across an ad for diamond anniversary rings that showed a couple meeting, marrying, having children and grandchildren. A few pages later I flipped to an ad for a mattress, on which a gorgeous couple sprawled with their three young children. Next up, a celebrity profile noting how “crazy in love” a famous actress was with her husband, and how she quizzed him on having kids before agreeing to marry him.
I closed the magazine and tried to sleep. My limbs buzzed and my head started pounding. I massaged my temples, as if that could stop the gathering onslaught. Of course I knew that glossy advertisements were not the place to go looking for truth. But the storm that had been looming since the moment I rang Paul’s doorbell was so inevitable that it took only a few pretty pictures to invite its descent.
I curled up on my side. The pain knifing my forehead was more than physical. I blamed myself, not just for Paul—for everything. For marrying Scott when I knew he didn’t want kids. For not having slept with more men before I married. For wanting both passionate sex and motherhood while doubting I could handle what either of them would require of me. For masquerading as a carefree little tart with Paul when in reality I was a damaged weakling. No wonder my marriage was floundering. I was pathetic.
I sat up, switched on the light, and dug through my purse for ibuprofen in vain.
Scott rolled toward me. “What’s wrong, kitty?”
“My head’s killing me. I need some medicine.” I missed the days when I could tell him anything. No matter how difficult the confession, we could count on the honesty to add one more layer to our strong foundation. Even if I hadn’t been keeping a deadly secret, that habit had ceased a few years back.
He got dressed, drove us to a convenience store, and went in to get me Advil. Two minutes after I swallowed the pills, the pain migrated to my stomach. I broke out in a sweat, my vision spinning. I opened the passenger side window and hung my head out. Back at the hotel I shook on the toilet, holding on to the sink and breathing slowly so as not to pass out.
“Are you okay?” Scott asked from the other side of the closed door.
“Yes,” I moaned. “I’ll be out soon.” Twenty minutes later I shuffled to bed, clammy and exhausted.
The next morning, I awoke to a fully formed certainty flickering in the space behind my eyes. It said: I refuse to go to my grave with no children and only four lovers. If I can’t have one, I must have the other.
Later, friends (and strangers) would question why I considered lovers a replacement for children. I didn’t consider them a replacement. I thought of both as separate kinds of evidence of a life fully lived. I could sacrifice one for the other, but sacrificing both was not an option. However, that morning in Napa, the epiphany pulsing inside my skin wasn’t rendered in that much rational detail. It knew what it knew. It informed me what was going to happen: I was going to have to either leave my husband or, if I wanted to stay married, initiate an open marriage. It wasn’t interested in proof, arguments, or anyone’s approval.
When we arrived home, Scott dropped me off in front of the house and went to park the car. As I approached the door, I bent down to pick up a scrap of cardboard lying in the entryway. No more than an inch long, it looked as if it had been ripped off the corner of a cereal box. I unfurled it, turned it over, and saw written in minuscule, perfect script: “Find for the defendant: not guilty,” like a note a juror had written during the trial of an innocent person.
I looked around, wondering who wrote it, why, and how it had blown into my doorway and landed at my feet. Find for the defendant: not guilty. I was indeed guilty: of lying, stubbornness, and, worst of all, betrayal. I wasn’t deluded enough to read the note as absolution of my actions. What I took from it was absolution of my desire. Make that plural: all my desires. To marry Scott despite his imperfections and mine. To have his child though he didn’t want it. To try to harness my sexual energy within the marriage. To now turn that energy elsewhere. My competing desires for security and newness, domesticity and passion.
I might not get what I wanted, but I wasn’t going to stop wanting. I was done talking through my dilemmas. It was time to follow my instincts and see what wisdom I could gather up through my body.
As I pocketed the little slip of cardboard and put my key in the door, I heard Scott’s beloved Walt Whitman singing down across the ages: “Urge and urge and urge, always the procreant urge of the world.”
Four days later, Scott went to his vasectomy appointment alone.
Robin Rinaldi is Together’s consulting editor.
Adapted from The Wild Oats Project: One Woman’s Midlife Quest for Passion at Any Cost, published by Sarah Crichton Books.