I got married when I was 17. I was pregnant. He was 19 and in the Marines. It was late 1964 and Vietnam was just starting to ramp up. The baby was due in February and in January he was shipped off for a 6 month overseas tour. I was going to face the last months of pregnancy and birth alone.
We all know that my mother was, at best unreliable. And untrustworthy. And she had been opposed both to my marriage and my plan to keep my baby. (In those days, middle-class girls in my condition got shipped off, ostensibly to some distant relative where she had to take care of sick auntie. In reality, however, we were sent to an institution for unwed mothers, a place where we could live out the remainder of our pregnancies in secret, the babies taken from us—sometimes against our will—and put up for adoption. The girls then returned to their previous lives, pretending the pregnancy and baby never happened, sparing themselves—but mostly their parents—the embarrassing proof of their sinful ways and the tarnishing of their ever-so-important reputations.) But I thwarted my mother and got married, receiving from her the gift of “When the going gets tough, don’t come running to me—you made your bed, now you have to lie in it.”
With that kind of maternal support and my husband overseas, I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to get to the hospital once my labour started, but I figured I would eventually think of something.
As it turned out, I didn’t go into labour. I went three weeks past my due date and my obstetrician, who examined me on the 4th of March after ordering x-rays of my abdomen, sent me to the hospital for a Caesarean section the following morning—the x-rays showed the baby’s head to be too big for my pelvis.
It was that evening—the day my child was born—while I was still dopey from the anaesthesia and the pain pills, that it happened. The nurse came in with my meds—this was in the days when hospitals were well staffed and nurses did more direct patient care than they can do today—and she said that when she finished distributing the meds she would come back and give me a back rub.
Unbidden, my mouth opened and out popped “No, that’s ok. I really don’t like anybody touching me.”
In that moment I knew that I had spoken a truth of which I had never been consciously aware. I didn’t like people touching me.
But that was at odds with my behaviour—my teens and early adulthood were during the Swinging Sixties and Free-Love Seventies and I swung and free-loved just like everybody else. But I didn’t like people touching me. I didn’t.
I knew from childhood that my mother didn’t want me. She was very clear on that, even told me to my face in my early teens. I slept around both when it was the “in thing” and when it was not. I had a couple of bad marriages—one so bad I almost killed myself while in the suffocating depression it evoked in me. I then had a good marriage and he died and for the first time I experienced raw grief. I have been cheated on and lied to and treated with disrespect by a man I loved, and listened to him swear he loved me while he continued to cheat. I was abandoned by my mother repeatedly. I have been abandoned by husbands and lovers and even the child whose reluctance to leave the womb compelled the Caesarean that sparked that first epiphany.
And all of these experiences, while seemingly disconnected and spread over a span of decades, are related in one very specific way: I didn’t want people to touch me—I wanted them to want me. Not for what I could give them or do for them or provide to them or perform for them—I wanted them to want me…just. want. me.
Today, at 71 years, five months, and ten days of age I have finally figured out that what I really wanted wasn’t sex, it wasn’t cuddles, or orgasms or back rubs or hand-holding or massages or jewellery or flowers or designer goodies or presents of any kind—what I have wanted all along was simply to be wanted.
I don’t think I really know what that feels like.