Roadkill

Somewhere in my mid-twenties, a handful of years into graduate schooling, with a series of rotating apartments and a persistently ring-less finger, my dad and his best friend, Lynn, began referring to my boyfriends as “Roadkill.” I wasn’t particularly promiscuous, but inching up on 30, the sheer numbers of boys who would never be my husband got, well… numerous. More often than not, I was the one who was bored, disillusioned, or unfaithful (sorry, boys) and the one to call it quits. Thus, Roadkill.

Ty was my neighbor and probably one of my closest buddies during senior year of high school. He will always be one of the funniest people I have ever known. Carpooling to school through rural neighborhoods we once saw a horse do a yawn-whinny thing that we imitated often and at impromptu times. It was only hilarious to the two of us. “Are you cereal?” he’d ask. “Not nece-celery,” was the answer. He loved The Grateful Dead, so my Julie Andrews covers were deliciously irritating (to him) and entertaining (to me): Roooolll A-Wheyyyy the Doooo! Do you have that one friend who makes you laugh at nothing—a Jerry Seinfeld with a Pez dispenser? That was Ty for me.

Ty and I spent many bellyaching, laughing-too-hard-to-breathe nights together. Chastely. We were truly just friends. But you can imagine how well Ty went over with The Roadkill. One summer night I brought a new boy home. Ty was over for dinner, which was common. Wine was flowing, which was really common. And everyone was making fun of each other, which is in the Stockton Family Syllabus. Future Roadkill misread the room– or was too thin skinned– and got a little territorial about being the boyfriend (with its implied set of privileges) instead of the friend. Ty didn’t miss a beat.

“Whatever, dude. Next year Britt will be with some other guy, but I’ll still… be… right… here.”

Roadkill was the only one who didn’t find this funny. He didn’t last very long. The next one did, but even he ended up smeared all over the grille. Those were Lynn’s words as he and Judy poured me the tallest and tastiest vodka tonic I’ve ever had, and listened to my latest misadventures in love. After that break up, I drove 7 hours to see them, their daughter, and to languish ring-less-ly on the deck of their gorgeous beach house… and to laugh.

I met Bernie just a few months later.

Thinking about Valentine’s Day, these memories shifted to the top of my mind like the big popcorn pieces when you shake the bucket. Suddenly I’m aware of Great Loves in my life who never gave me flowers or chocolates or rings, but made me pee-a-little giggle and poured me gigantic cocktails as I plowed through the dating years that led me to the best one.

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Ty and me on my 21st birthday. Can’t imagine why all the Roadkill hated him.

Cancer, Facebook, and Harley Quinn’s Ass

Dear Facebook Love Your Spouse Challenge,

It’s not you; it’s me. Typically happy to over-share and post flattering photos of my beloved and me holding cocktails on decks and beaches, I’m not going to do this competitively. Like many, I am exhausted of arguments that we can’t do anything if it alienates, triggers, ignores, belittles, or otherwise doesn’t include everyone on the planet. But your recent “challenge” made me mindful of how my newly widowed, freshly divorced, or not perennially-euphoric-about-her-spouse friend might dry heave at seven separate updates of Bernie and me being, well, Bernie and Me. Also, if you’ve ever read EMB (now B&B), the early years are more a tribute to my husband than Suicide Squad is a 2-hour homage to Margot Robbie’s ass.

I realize I just compared Bernie to a perfect posterior. And though he’ll appreciate that, it’s probably not what your Challenges intend us to do. Seven days of Prove You Love Your Spouse means posting pictures holding Solo cups in dorm rooms, cutting the wedding cake, blissfully unflattering moments with the first baby, and then finally the whole family at the beach/on the boat/in front of the Eiffel Tower. I don’t have any of these (where I look fantastic). So forgive me if I don’t play.

Truth be told, I avoid anything that smacks of audience participation. I ignored the Ice Bucket Challenge. I have zero interest in riding a bike from P-town to kingdom come– even in the name of Cancer. I won’t come up on stage or whoo hoo. I will raise one limp arm for The Wave. When asked to high five my neighbor in spin class, I’ll give an enthusiastic slap… but secretly I’m irritated to be pulled into her endorphin moment and peer pressured to touch her gross, sweaty hand.

It’s not you. It’s me. I’m outwardly sunny, inwardly a little bit awful. Recently, a beautiful friend who I honestly enjoy introduced me as “the nicest mean person I know.” And I started wondering when that happened. Thing is, Facebook, Cancer made me kind of a jerk. Touched with scary disease at a young-ish age, I was launched prematurely into that personality given to older, barely-tolerating-you characters (Dowager Countess, Emily Gilmore, most of the cast of Steel Magnolias). Breast cancer knows no “remission” and so there is a might-be-dead-next-year slogan stamped in the darkest parts of my psyche no matter how favorable my five-year statistics. So I do not pretend to like or join in or ride or run or care if I don’t.

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A sweet neighbor keeps offering up inventive ideas for Family Fun. My consistent answer: “That sounds tiring.” Others might promise to visit that lighthouse, take that cooking class, or brave that water park teeming with Pseudomonas, even if they never would. But like the Dowager, I won’t feign enthusiasm for their exhausting activities for entertainment and betterment. The Olympics are on! And someone needs to hold down this couch.

And so, Facebook, when you playfully challenge me to Prove My Love for My Husband, my answer is, “Nope.” I wonder if other Cancer victims have adopted this gave-at-the-office sort of approach to peer pressured pursuits, no matter how silly or innocuous or feel-good they might be. And I honestly adore seeing Kodak moments of the people I love as they post seven days of lovey doviness. But my inner Cancer bitch (is this a thing?) prefers me on the sidelines, even if a teeny part of me knows that if I enter any Love Your Spouse Challenge… I. WILL. WIN. Because it’s Bernie, a husband lovelier than Margot Robbie’s butt.

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They’re probably asking her if she does SoulCycle…

 

 

The Boy I Married

Bernie conveniently acquired swine flu before my 20th high school reunion. Sure, he was pukey-feverish-gray-skin sick; but if he was going to succumb to swine flu anyway, it was opportune that it exempted him from a DJ’ed evening at the Holiday Inn, imagining which boozy men might have molested my teenage boobs and dodging women in compression garments coyly seeking cosmetic surgery consults. Even if he hadn’t been pukey-feverish-gray-skin sick, I still would have given him a bye. Only a handful of people could tolerate an entire evening with strangers attempting to chitchat over Def Leppard.

One of the reasons Bernie enjoys married life is because his wife will talk to anyone. I am his social ping-pong paddle, deflecting chitchat away from him, right and left. When he rallies, my husband is really rather charming. It’s just that his default mood is… couch. I largely share this disposition, but on occasion, embrace excuses to stand in fantastic shoes and interact with things without plugs, to enjoy the ceremony of a fancy meal, to share a sofa-less evening with sentient beings. Because Bernie’s stock reaction to all invitations lands somewhere between not-enough-scotch-on-the-planet and rather-put-hot-sauce-in-my-eye, I spring these on him last minute.

Once we’ve arrived at the destination and drinks are in hand, Bernie morphs from Grumpy Couch Troll into The Boy I Married. As Valentine’s Day nears, as lonely hearts compose snarky tweets, and as unsuccessful attempts at reservations and balking at overpriced blooms take away from the swoony fun of it all, I’m listing silly reasons I fell in love with Bernie. Take note, youngsters… it’s the little things that make a boy irresistible.

·               See any movie at all

Bernie saw Crossroads with me. In the theater. Crossroads! Crossroads… the movie starring Britney Spears. Of course you haven’t seen it—it’s dreadful. But I love Britney, and I was in the mood to see her dance around in her skivvies wondering if she was yet a woman. Bernie didn’t mind. Another (wasted) evening, this lovely man accompanied me and my best friend to Duets. Duets! Duets… the movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Huey Lewis. Of course you haven’t seen it–it’s dreadful. But Bernie bought three tickets with untainted enthusiasm: no moaning, no eye rolling, no you-totally-owe-me-lights-on-naughty-stuff. This sort of social sacrifice endeared him to Emily forever, made me even fonder of his general agreeableness, and remains the benchmark for adorable things boys do for girls they love.

Cruisin'. Together.

Cruisin’. Together.

·               Pay attention to other women

I’ve always admired Bernie’s appreciation of women. Perhaps it’s that dorky, skip-a-grade Asian kid lurking inside of him, but Bernie is surprised and genuinely thrilled to be talking to you, pretty girl. He’ll make sure you have a drink, or his place in line, or help with your bags. I love how he’ll deliver my friend’s Sancerre first, that he recognizes all sorts of beauty in all women, discourages you from cosmetic surgery because you don’t need it (and means it), and occasionally is at a loss for words if a woman is particularly Julianne Moore-ish.

Can't really blame him.

Can’t really blame him.

·               Get along with Dad

I knew Bernie was the right boy for me the minute I realized Dad’s approval wouldn’t be a deal breaker. Dad is huge and loud and irreverent and thoughtful and inquisitive: first-time meetings with him can feel like an interrogation. We Stocktons don’t waste time—we want to know (right now!) what makes you do what you do, how you contribute to the universe, why you’re like that, and what you have planned for the future. A bit much for cocktail hour? Well then, go find yourself another cocktail hour. (Ours, however, starts at brunch and continues well past blurry.) All other suitors had been measured by their ability to go toe to toe with Dad. Few navigated this easily: either retreating into stunned silence, or interpreting playful banter as an attack, and many failing to count vodkas and slipping into slurring ridiculousness. It can be a tough room.

But Bernie? He thought Dad was great. More importantly, he thought enough of himself to just be himself, mind the vodka, and enjoy the spectacle. Sure, there was one Thanksgiving Bernie passed out after multiple mimosas, but if you know us well, you’ve probably missed a family meal for being over-served by my father. Today, Bernie plans bucket-list vacations with Dad, Dad’s best friend, and my brother. Although I would have married him even if Dad didn’t recognize Bernie’s quiet humor and confidence, it’s sort of awesome that he does.

When I was young and naive, I was certain Kill All Bugs would be on this list of husband kudos. Alas, my wonderful Bernie’s reaction to a centipede racing across the family room is to curl into a frightened ball of unmanliness. Instead, my husband’s chivalry involves pouring my Prosecco, telling me I’m beautiful, and saving me from a life of beepers and pantsuits by being all talented and whatnot. Occasionally he’ll even stifle his Grumpy Couch Troll reaction to “plans” or “tickets” or “party” for my benefit. But with too generous advance notice, those who prefer evenings holding down furniture to those painting the town conveniently acquire pukey-feverish-gray-skin-sickness. We have reservations for Valentine’s Day… I’ll tell him Thursday.

Happy Valentine’s Day, lovers. Enjoy the little things that make them yours.

Saw it in the theater. Opening night.

Saw it in the theater. Opening night. Was this shirt ever not ridiculous?

The Big Sister Solution

A decade ago, when I was largely alone all day with tiny, parasitic Bernie clones, I might have written something like Mrs. Rowe’s fed-up-to-here, open letter to her husband. In the moment, those feelings seem funny/true, but when read with a decade of hindsight (and larger children who don’t need pooping assistance), rants like this make me… sad. I want the whole family to race past these brutal years that inspire a meant-to-be-funny, but still quite public flogging of The Husband. I might have greatly benefitted from some part time help (and meds) as a Stay At Home Mom in those early years. Swapping a beeper and a real, outside-the-house job for never-ending days with crying children and Dawson’s Creek reruns led to a social, emotional, and intellectual whiplash for which I was unprepared. Because texting, blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and all myriad outlets that keep us intimately tied to each other’s weird little worlds weren’t in existence, I did what you do when you’re at your wit’s end with small children and never-home husband. I called my big sister.

“One of them is always crying, and Bernie isn’t home, and then when he is, he’s ‘tired’ or wants to do things off of the napping schedule. He wants to sleep when they’re awake and have sex when they’re asleep, and these wailing succubae that look exactly like him are attached to me all day and all I want to do at 8pm is drink wine without anyone touching me.”

“Jesus, Britt. You need some mommy friends.”

Boy, did I. None of my besties in the area had started breeding, and absolutely no one I knew in the medical field ever quit their life-saving jobs to stay home with non-verbal bundles of sleep-averse, ever-hungry pant-shitters in embroidered onesies. I was lonely, exhausted, and prone to unattractive moods swinging narrowly between irritated and glum. In that moment, my Big Sister–staunch defender of all of my wants, needs, and beliefs, champion of All Things Britt— the Catholic, opinionated, occasionally scary Zealot Sister… sided with Bernie. Gently, and really quite beautifully, Paige refused to sing my Battle Cry Against The Ineffectual Husband. Instead, she shared some excellent advice, recommended a book, and insisted I get some mommy friends.

I was fabulously bad at the mommy friend thing. I scouted out the local playground and attempted to make nice with the ladies who corralled their strollers by the benches. I never got past a few awkward exchanges before I realized they were all wearing long skirts and head scarves and maybe the Orthodox Jewish Mommy Group wasn’t keen to take on a blonde shiska with the whiff of friendless desperation. I tried another park.

Lonely Mom with a small girl who insisted on wrong-footed shoes seemed like a good option. Surely, this was a pick-your-battles kind of mommy who also cozied to the idea of mid-afternoon wine? As it turned out, Lonely Mom picked absolutely no battles and was still breast-feeding her Dorito-munching toddler tyrant while defending the values of the Family Bed. She made me sadder than her husband I already was.

What I did have, however, was A-Ma. Bernie’s mom raced up to Boston on the Fung Wah any time I called. Honestly, any time. One particularly brutal day, I told her I couldn’t shower without hearing both boys wailing on the baby monitor, that my dreams were exclusively about the sounds of wailing on the baby monitor, that I hadn’t eaten anything but Blow Pops and Hot Pockets for a week, and that I didn’t know if the stains on my clothes were pre- or post-intestinal foods. She arrived that afternoon. A-Ma remembered the unholy, not-cute-at-all daily grind; and with only one foot in the door she’d say, “Go! Go to take nap!” I promised then and there to be that kind of grandma some day. She saved my life (and improved my marriage) more than once.

Perhaps what the author of Five Things You Should Never Say to the Mother of Your Children really needs is a nap and A-Ma. In fact, the first comment after her light-hearted rant against her husband was from the author’s mother:

Recommend you withdraw this blog. Can talk details later—- Love, Mom

I quite agreed with her, recalling the advice Paige recommended to me 10 years ago, when I was exasperated with the man I love the most. First, she reminded me that Bernie was no mind reader and that stewing silently and acting the martyr would lead more quickly to marital strife than to any sort of enjoyable co-parenting. She annoyingly insisted I plant myself in his loafers, and made me read The Bastard on the Couch—a fantastic collection of essays written by dads (and written in playful retaliation against The Bitch in the House, which largely described what I was becoming). Where Momma Rowe gets angry that her husband is allowed to poo behind closed doors apart from the toddler audience with demands, I’m now more apt to think, hey, why share the pain? Go ahead and lock the door. Lucky you! This stay-at-home blogger also, with great humor and exaggeration, suggests sex is off the table until the children are big enough to sit at it.

This is where Paige’s big sisterly advice might have sounded supportive:

“Fuck your husband.”

However, she didn’t offer this as a scatological slam on bathroom door-locking spouses; no, she meant it quite literally. (She also never, ever said this. Well, she said this, but not like this… because she’s classier than I am.) She waxed Catholic: the vows and sacraments and quaint ideas about contracts and promises and vaguely about the baser biological needs of boys in general… and she said all of this without making me throw feminist arguments at her, or throw up in general. In the end, she was really just suggesting that I act with greater kindness and love, and that I find some mommy friends who would understand why sometimes that seemed impossible.

GrandMomma Rowe is adorably protective of her son-in-law… much like Paige was for Bernie back in my days of Days (of Our Lives). Long hours with demanding children and soap operas will make anyone a little nutty. But without an Internet forum for irritated moms to publicly berate their constipated, celibate husbands, we had Big Sisters and A-Mas. The Big Sisters and A-Mas understand you, listen to you, and then tell you to take a nap and to shower and to quit it. They’ll keep reminding you that there is an end to it all, will never (ever!) tell you to “cherish” days of sleepless, messy torture, and they’ll make you feel warm, and loved, and heard.

Then again, having 100 strangers offer thumbs up, preach-it-sister encouragement probably works, too… as long as The Husband is in on the meant-to-be-funny part.

This was ridiculously useful to me back in those days that seemed like 54 hours apiece.

This was ridiculously useful to me… and reminded me why I love boys in general, and my own in particular.

Opting Out

I am the prototypical opt-out girl. With two graduate degrees, a handful of publications, and many assurances of some sort of pay-the-bills job in science or medicine, I waddled my 9-month-pregnant self right out of the workforce. The New York Times reminded me I’ve reached a decade of unemployment. And just as Brodie turns 10, Judith Warner revisited women, like me, who in the budding new millennium dropped careers in the name of Motherhood. With the luxury and support of their husband’s income, as well as a shared idea that this was the right choice for their diapered ones, these women might have blushed a bit about becoming June Cleaver… but it was with superior, Family First! aplomb. The article reveals that ten years hence, they want (need) to use their Ivy League brains for something more enjoyable (profitable) than manic volunteerism or soccer halftime snack planning.

In short (which the article is not), many of these women find themselves under-utilized, or unfulfilled, or divorced. Though not a single one of them regrets the opt-out decision, none mentioned the fate of the children they placed ahead of a paycheck. There was, however, a fair amount of bitching about the laundry. The article is well-balanced, and does feature stories of the genera of women I love interrogating over cocktails: the ones who have found a flexible career that celebrates their smarts without sacrificing “quality time”—whatever that entails for their family unit. These ladies often describe their new jobs as “falling into my lap…” which is how work feels when you don’t actually have to do it. These enviable women have the continued support of their husbands (in both a financial and a we’ll-outsource-the-laundry way) and happily traded their yoga pants for pencil skirts and are leading non-profit organizations and small businesses.

But there were more moms whose lives took another turn. As their kids reached less-likely-to-get-head-stuck-in-bannisters ages, they felt the need to redefine themselves as more than crust cutters. These same do-gooding mommies who devoted a decade to poo and Polly Pockets and Legos and laundry now find themselves unable to tackle all of that after an exhausting day in a pencil skirt. And because a woman who lands a demanding new job may occasionally want someone else to wipe the sticky counter, or an appointment to address her dark roots, the confused husband in the messy house sees it like this:

“Once she started to work, she started to place more value in herself, and because she put more value in herself, she put herself in front of a lot of things — family, and ultimately, her marriage.”

He sounds just like William H. Macy in Pleasantville: “… and there was NO DINNER!”

Honey... I'm HOME!

Honey… I’m HOME!

This quickly sums up why I found the entire article irritating and depressing. Though masked as The Plight of the Opt Out Mommy, the undercurrent through it all was The Erosion of Marriage as exhausted couples try to do their capital B best at everything, except being very nice to each other. Who would want to live in any proximity to a woman who doesn’t “put value in herself?” What a dick, right? Or, maybe just a sort of sad guy who got sidelined as Wife morphed into Mommy who then turned into Working Woman who isn’t getting the laundry done. (Maybe still a bit of a dick.) I’m stunned and sad. Also, smug and lucky.  I’m Smucky. After ten years, Bernie and I still have regular check ins: Do you care that I bring in not a single penny and yet stand here in Jimmy Choos? Do you want to stop stepping on Legos and finish a residency in critical care? The answers remain no, and no. And even as Bernie brings home the bacon, and I fry it up in a pan, we still keep tabs on The State of Us. Are you happy? Am I happy? Do we still like each other? Yes and yes and yes.

Annoying Smucky Girl might also be an anomaly among Opt Outs. I love the laundry. My favorite part of the day is when all of the beds are made and no one is hungry. I spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking about flowers. And when asked what I plan to do when the boys no longer require my immediate and unrelenting crust cutting services, I defer to my algorithm (which last night leaned heavily toward the >4 cocktails pathway). Opting out has never affected the value I put on myself because what I do will never be who I am. Also, even though I take pride in my folded fitted sheets and meal-making, these little boys benefit most from watching Bernie and me be nice to each other… which I hope would happen even if I decided to don a pencil skirt and bring home a paycheck.