My husband, John, was the first to notice something different about some of the mothers who went to our pediatrician. We were leaving an appointment just a week after our first child was born, when a friend arrived with her three-day-old. For this visit, I had tented myself in one of my husband's shirts to conceal the post-partum middle I was still afraid to gaze at. My friend wore a pencil skirt and a crisp blouse, unbuttoned just enough to reveal a bountiful nursing bosom. The makeup she wore gave her a healthy glow, and the gloss on her lips shone like an invitation for a closer look...or more.
"Wow," John whispered. "She's sporting cleavage to the pediatrician's office!" My friend's get-up was a little strange, I thought. Then I remembered how adorable this doctor was.
Another woman first recommended our pediatrician, telling me that she knew other parents were happy with him. "And he's really cute," she added. I thought this was an odd thing to mention, but when my husband and I met with him later in my pregnancy, I understood. Our prospective pediatrician was cute like the best-looking guy in high school: fit but not too muscle-bound, he had a soccer player's build, a square jaw and short dark curly hair. I immediately resolved not be affected by his looks. I grilled him, asking even more questions than I might have otherwise. When he held up under questioning, I figured we could live with a handsome pediatrician. Besides, was I really going reject him for being too cute?
"Good to see ya' man," our new doctor said to John as we left the office, earning himself the nickname, "Dr. Dude" in our house forever.
During my first few months of motherhood, I met other moms in town and we discussed our babies' every sniffle and the curse of reflux. "Who do you see?" they'd ask. When I told them we saw Dr. Dude, I heard the same responses: "I could never go to him; he's too cute." Or, "Everyone says he's so good looking."
The cute doctor was a fun thing to talk about, I discovered, something that allowed moms to innocently trot out their dormant inner hot tamales. But some of us were too embarrassed to acknowledge his appeal; seemingly immune to Dr. Dude's hotness, we'd talk earnestly about what a great physician he was. If anyone mentioned his good looks, we might say, "Oh? I hadn't noticed." But the practice's waiting room told another story: blow-dried hair, makeup, clean clothes, heels -- this was not the typical uniform of stay-at-home moms, and certainly not of the mothers of sick children.
When John and I discussed the Dr. Dude phenomenon at dinner with another couple, the wife admitted, "I might give my hair a brush and throw on a little lip gloss before I go in to see him." She went on to giggle through a story about nursing her baby in his office.
"That was a bummer," John said on the way home. "Do you think she wants Dr. Dude?"
"No," I told him. "She's a stay-at-home mom. Ours is a sexless world."
"No more sexless than mine," he said. But he was missing my point.
Discussions about our different roles often ended like this, with John trying to assert that his life was as difficult as mine, and no one getting the sympathy they craved. "I know, me too," he'd say when I mentioned my chronic exhaustion. What I wanted to hear was, "You must be tired! You work so hard for us. Go take a hot bath and go to bed." I realized that John would have liked some sympathy from me. But I was usually too busy feeling exhausted and unappreciated to be the bigger spouse.
I hadn't meant to imply to John that our friend wasn't intimate with her husband--I wasn't talking about our real sex lives at all. I meant that her husband and mine commuted into New York everyday, to offices where people dress up to make themselves attractive and where sexuality crackles in the air as people watch each other walk down the street. When I told John that we stay-at-home mothers inhabited a sexless world, I was talking about a world where it was almost impossible to entertain the notion that someone might find you worthy of a second look - unless you had borne his child.
In my world, the pediatrician is one of the few men I see, and I'm lucky if I get to shower every other day, which is actually convenient, because my approach to the Dr. Dude situation has been a forced nonchalance about his looks. I refuse to primp in any way for our meetings. I don't shower in advance. I wear my hair in a greasy ponytail, and I eschew cosmetics. All this, to prove to him and to the world that I'm not at the pediatrician's office for a little male attention--that I'm immune to the jaw!--and also because, after a certain point, I had no choice.
Haggard became my signature look after my third child was born and chose to nurse at an Olympic pace, and my two-year-old decided that she could only sleep if her head rested on my wind pipe. Our family endured the Spring of Affliction that year, boasting six ear infections, three unexplained fevers, five episodes of pinkeye, two stitches, one case of bronchiolitis treated with a nebulizer, and pinworms. I developed a rash under my right eye that seemed to flake and redden more with each minute of sleep lost.
The nurses at Dr. Dude's office greeted us like old friends during our frequent visits. There was talk of us getting our "usual room." The kids had endured so many appointments that their clothes were covered with the gummy residue of all the stickers they'd received for good behavior.
No matter whom he was scheduled to see, Dr. Dude always began by asking, "So, what's up with everyone?" One day that spring, I wearily gave him a rundown of our collective ailments, spent simply from keeping my jaw in motion long enough to get the words out.
"Wow Becky," he said. "You must be really tired."
I felt my eyes well up. I was so grateful for the sympathy and validation that I wanted to hug him right there on his little vinyl stool. I felt guilty for having ever joked about his dudishness to anyone. And then, I wished I had washed my hair.