The Father of My Children
I thought I was searching for the mother of my children, but I need to find their father first.
In a lot of ways, the story of my twenties is the story of how I tried to follow “the rules” — the rules of polite society, the rules of the university I attended, the rules of the church I grew up in — and how I became increasingly frustrated when none of those instructions got me the results they promised. In Origin Stories of a YouTube CEO, I write about how I broke the unspoken rules of the educational system and the job market and was rewarded for it.
There’s another set of rules, one that governs relationships between men and women. It says that to get a satisfying and fulfilling relationship with a woman, listen to what she says and give her what she wants, and she’ll reciprocate. And if she doesn’t, it’s because you’re not listening HARD enough. Put more simply: let her be in charge.
My father never taught me this rule. He didn’t teach me much of anything when it came to women.
I didn’t have the kind of relationship with him where I ever asked him for much advice, and he never offered much. This rule was taught to me by my mother, and by movies, books, teachers, friends… it has hung in the air of our culture like a fog since before I was born, and I breathed it in every day of my life.
And I never thought to question it, because it seems so reasonable, doesn’t it?
The only problem is that it doesn’t actually work. Here’s how I found that out.
In 2011, I went to a really good party.
It was at a convention I’d been going to for a couple years, and there was a green room with an open bar and a lot of cool interesting people. One of those cool interesting people was a very attractive woman, noticeably younger than my 29, but not so much younger as to be a problem. I made my way from one group of people to another and to the open bar and back. Every time I did, this Very Attractive Younger Woman seemed to pop up over and over, almost like she was looking for excuses to talk to me.
This was not something I was used to. “The rules” didn’t have anything about this.
As the very strong drinks that they handed me at the open bar did their work, I began to think: perhaps this Very Attractive Younger Woman was interested in me. At least, she seemed to laugh a lot at even my more mediocre jokes, and she asked me a lot about myself and listened to what I had to say with rapt attention.
I began to fantasize about remarking to her that this party was rather loud, but my hotel room was very quiet, and perhaps we could continue our conversation there. And I fantasized about one thing leading to another once we were there.
I thought about Dee, my girlfriend of nine years, waiting for me back home on the other side of the country from this party. At what point, I asked myself, would I be crossing a line that should not be crossed? Would asking this Very Attractive Younger Woman back to my hotel room be cheating? Probably not. And if we were to make out a little, well, was there any harm in that really? And I mean, if she should offer to suck my dick, and I were to grant her my permission to do so, could I really be blamed for it?
I knew the answers to these questions, of course, so when I caught myself fantasizing a little too hard, to the point where I might have felt tempted to actually do something about it, I would move from one group of people to another or to the open bar and back. And then, not so quickly as to make it obvious that she was chasing me, but soon enough, this Very Attractive Younger Woman would appear and laugh at my bad jokes and bat her eyelashes.
Eventually, she must have become frustrated at my playing hard-to-get and asked someone at the party what my deal was. Because during one of her periodic reappearances she asked, during a lull in the conversation, apropos of nothing:
So how long have you been with your girlfriend?
I could have said, “What girlfriend?” I could have said, “Not long, it’s not that serious.” I could have said, “A while, but actually things aren’t going well. I don’t think she’s going to be my girlfriend much longer.”
I could have said any number of things to make Very Attractive Younger Woman feel okay about continuing to flirt with me and maybe more.
And she would have believed me, because she wanted to believe me. She wanted to believe that I was available to her.
Instead, I told her the truth. “A long time. Almost ten years.” Very Attractive Younger Woman graciously changed the subject and stopped flirting with me quite so hard. She’d gotten her answer.
I went home to Dee.
I didn’t tell her about this cool party or this Very Attractive Younger Woman. Instead, I did something almost as dangerous. I began to think about how very badly I’d been tempted to cheat. And about what might be missing from my relationship with Dee that the prospect of a drunken convention hookup tempted me so much.
The answer was pretty obvious. Tale as old as time, really. Sex.
Sex was missing.
Dee had been my college sweetheart, and at the time we met I was a virgin in the late stages of giving up the rules of my Catholic upbringing. Those rules told me that sex was for after marriage. A lot of my friends seemed to be breaking those rules though, and it didn’t seem to be hurting them any, so I bent them enough to do some pretty heavy petting with Dee when we started dating. I told her, though, that I still preferred to save good old-fashioned penis-in-vagina intercourse for marriage.
The fact that this didn’t represent a problem for Dee, despite the fact that she didn’t share my religion or my views on marriage, probably should’ve clued me in to some things about her level of interest in intercourse with me. Regardless, she was my first real girlfriend, and I was in love (or the closest approximation a 20-year-old idiot can conceive), and getting naked and letting her jerk me off represented an upgrade from jerking myself off.
We graduated, and we moved in together. Time passed, and the last bits of my Catholicism fell away. Dee wasn’t interested in getting married, and I wasn’t inclined to press the issue. That would have been breaking “the rules” that say that you’re supposed to respect the woman’s boundaries and not put pressure on her.
Dee had decided that we wouldn’t get married, and she was in charge.
I WAS inclined to get my dick wet, though, and I decided that I was willing to do it without getting married. Dee agreed readily enough: she was not a virgin and had no objection to moving from heavy petting to intercourse.
I lost my virginity to Dee in a bed-and-breakfast I’d booked us for the occasion. It was awkward and kinda bad the first few times, and then kinda good after I started to know what I was doing.
Until, over the next year or so, it got really bad.
Dee, it turned out, had developed vaginismus. Every time we had sex, it represented a coin flip whether she would enjoy herself or experience intense, very personal pain.
She saw some doctors, and her doctors were not helpful. Their best advice was to take a long break from intercourse. I wasn’t happy about this, but I didn’t express my displeasure. It must have showed anyway, though, because she told me,
I’m afraid I’m starting to hate your dick.
In our culture, there’s a certain amount of background-level shame that’s put on men for having a sex drive, and Dee participated in that as much as anyone. It’s one of those things we don’t even notice until it’s pointed out, and then when it is, you suddenly realize that it’s everywhere. And you realize how harmful it is.
But this… this was something above and beyond even that. This hurt me in a way I wasn’t accustomed to being hurt.
Having the one person I loved and trusted most, whose acceptance I most relied on, reject me in such a fundamental way… I didn’t realize for a long time just how badly that fucked with my head.
Not until writing it down right now, I think.
If I’d had any inclination to push back against the idea of a long break from intercourse, the shame I felt when she said this to me killed that inclination for a long time.
I agreed to see if giving her lady parts a rest would help the problem.
It did not.
And that’s where our sex life was at when I came home from this convention. Every so often we’d have some. Sometimes it would be kinda good. But it was always a coin flip whether it would hurt her, and if we had too much too often, it would hurt her so much that’s she’d want to have none at all.
After my experience with Very Attractive Younger Woman, I resolved to change all that.
When I’ve got a problem to solve and no idea how to go about it, my first instinct is always to do research. The first few books I read on relationships and sex were better-organized, more clearly-expressed versions of “the rules” that I’d always followed. Be respectful. Communicate. Talk about your feelings using “I” statements. Ask her what she wants and give it to her. Let her be in charge. This was all perfectly sensible and comfortable.
The only problem was, I had nine years of experience showing me that those rules didn’t work. So I kept searching, and eventually found a plainly-bound 2011 book called Married Man Sex Life.
This book didn’t jibe very well with any version of “the rules” I’d ever encountered. It had a lot of loosely-adapted pick-up artist jargon, a lot of pseudo-scientific evo-psych stuff, some poorly-thought-out pop culture metaphors, and a lot of stuff that I was sure would offend Dee’s feminist sensibilities.
I could have concluded that this book was dangerous and scary and thrown it out. Or I could, with more difficulty, have thrown out every previous version of “the rules” I’d ever known and replaced them with this book as my new instruction manual.
What I did instead was to make the conscious choice to hold most of what MMSL said in abeyance and focus on the bits that didn’t contradict previous versions of “the rules” too badly. I started mentally filing those bits under the heading of “Shit I Should Be Doing Anyway.”
When I filtered out the stuff I wasn’t sure about, the practical upshot of what was left was:
If you want to get more sex, maybe try making yourself more attractive.
This was still against “the rules,” of course. “The rules” said that she was supposed to “love me for who I was.” Still, a little self-improvement seemed harmless enough.
So I got on this self-improvement kick. Started working out. Started dressing better. Started making plans for us instead of defaulting to “what do you want to do tonight?” I applied for a promotion at work and got it, and was promised another one within the next two years when a coworker was scheduled to retire and free up an even better position.
I started initiating sex more often, and when I’d get rejected, started accepting that graciously and trying again the next night instead of getting butt-hurt about it.
And it worked. Sex went from this once-every-other-month special treat to once or twice a week.
Dee loved the changes in me. She wrote me a touching handwritten letter telling me how she’d never felt closer to me.
The vaginismus never fully went away, though. It was still a coin flip — or maybe, at best, a one-in-three chance — that any time we had sex, she’d wind up feeling some amount of pain.
A funny thing happened next.
I’d started all this for no other reason than that I wanted more sex. But it was a process that was hard to stop once I’d started it. I was in better shape than I’d ever been, feeling more confident than I ever had, feeling better about myself than I ever had. I liked that feeling, and wanted it to continue. Without realizing it, I had begun dismantling “the rules” I’d been living by and holding each one up to a new standard, which was:
Does this actually work? How’s that working out for you?
And when I did that, I realized a couple things. First, making myself more attractive was not enough to fix our sex life. Dee needed to get back to the doctor for her vaginismus, and if the first doctor she tried was less than helpful, she needed to find another one, and another one after that if necessary, until she got this problem under control.
And second: I wanted kids. I’d always known this on some level, but Dee had no interest in kids. Whenever she asked me about it, I’d tell her, “Well, I always wanted to see Paris, too, but if I never do, I won’t, like, go to my grave regretting it.” This was a shit answer and we both knew it, but we didn’t want to break up, either, so we had this sort of unspoken pact to ignore it.
But third and most importantly, I realized I’d let her be in charge of the relationship, and that wasn’t working.
If I wanted to get my needs met, I needed to try something different. I needed to try being in charge.
I broke our unspoken pact. I told her,
I don’t want to be your boyfriend any more. I want to be your husband, and I want to start a family.
And that was when things started going downhill. She toyed with the idea of changing her priorities for me the way I had for her for nine years. We went to parenting classes together. We started doing couples therapy. We did all the things “the rules” tell you to do when your relationship is in its death throes but nobody’s willing to admit it yet.
And this pattern emerged over the next month or two. When it seemed like I might break up with her over this, she’d start to get more optimistic about the prospect of kids. When it seemed like I was settling in to stay, she’d remember all the reasons she never wanted kids. She’d become sullen and withdrawn and drag her feet.
Finally, in a therapy session, I pointed out this pattern. I told her that she didn’t want kids and never would and it was time to be honest about what that meant for us. I drove home, packed my bags, and moved out.
She wrote me another letter — Dee was always big on putting her thoughts down on paper, it’s one of the things we had in common — listing all the things she would look forward to about having kids. I saw her in passing while I was picking up some boxes from our apartment. In a moment of weakness, I told her, “Now write me a list of twenty things you’re doing to prepare for kids. Because otherwise that just sounds like another ‘maybe,’ and I’ve already said I won’t stay for ‘maybes’.”
She called my bluff. She knocked on the door of my Dad’s house, where I was staying, the next day. She had a beatific smile and a list of thirty things she was willing to do to prepare for kids. She said that she’d had a revelation: she didn’t want children. She wanted MY children. She said she wasn’t proud of the way she’d behaved over the last couple months, but that she felt like a fog had lifted from her mind. She was ready, she said, to do this with me and do it right.
I asked her to leave me alone to process what she just told me. She hugged me and left. The strength left my legs and I laid down on the floor in a fetal position. She’d just given me everything I ever wanted from her. There was only one problem: she didn’t mean a word of it. Oh, she meant it in that moment. But it wouldn’t last. This was just the same pattern playing out in a more dramatic fashion.
It had taken packing my bags and moving away to get this commitment out of her. I couldn’t do that again. When visiting doctors about her vaginismus became frustrating and she didn’t want to do it any longer, I couldn’t just pack my bags every time and move away. If God forbid I actually got her pregnant with a child she never actually wanted and she resented me for it, moving out wouldn’t fix it. I’d moved out once, and not as a tactic or a bargaining move but for good and sufficient reasons. Once was enough and it was time to be done.
I don’t know how long I lay there on the tile. I’ve never felt emotional pain in such a physical way before or since.
I was like a starving man with a plate of poisoned food in front of me.
Going back to Dee didn’t lead to a happy life and a family and someone who accepted and loved me. It led back to the same hell I’d been going through the last two months. The one where she made all kinds of well-meaning promises when I had one foot out the door, and became sullen and withdrawn and shamed me for wanting to make love to her when I put that foot back inside.
I don’t know how long I lay there. I do know that eventually I got up and did what I had to do. I told her, in so many words,
I’m sorry, Dee. Too little, too late.
What had happened there? How had I gone, in less than a year, from desperately seeking Dee’s approval for a little bimonthly sex to rejecting her even when she offered me everything I’d ever wanted and had never dared to ask for? Was it really just a few push-ups, a new shirt, and a raise at work?
Yes and no. Dee was my first real girlfriend and the woman I’d lost my virginity to. In my mind, the only alternative to whatever dribs and drabs of affection she had to give was being alone forever. Very Attractive Younger Woman showed me that there were other women capable of being attracted to me. That was part of it.
But it was more than that.
The more I improved myself, the more I liked myself.
I liked being the Ben who was honest about he wanted out of life and was busting his ass to get it. Way better than being the loser Ben who dressed like a slob, had a shit job, and let his girlfriend be in charge. I liked the new Ben I was becoming so much that being alone as him seemed better than being Loser Ben with Loser Dee at his side.
When that happened, the power dynamic of the relationship changed. Now, instead of me trying to convince Dee to fuck me, it was Dee trying to convince me that she was capable of getting her shit together enough to be worth having kids with. She didn’t do a good job of it, because her actions didn’t match her words. She was dragging her feet, and I lost patience with it.
The natural end to the story would be, “And then I found the Woman of My Dreams and put a bunch of babies in her and we lived happily ever after, The End.”
Maybe that WILL be the end of the story, but if so, I’m still in the middle. I’ve dated many women since Dee. That last summer together with her — before I brought up kids and things went really bad — the one where she wrote me that wonderful love note and our sex life was better than it had ever been… at the time, it seemed like a golden age. If I had it back now, it would seem like the bare minimum I might be willing to accept.
My old ceiling has become my new floor.
I’ve been with a few different women who were very interested in doing the marriage-and-kids thing with me, and maybe I’ll tell those stories too. The truth is, in the years since Dee, finding the right mother for my children has become something of a secondary concern.
More urgent to me is finding the right father for my children. Finding him by creating him inside myself. When I’m inventing excuses to avoid doing something difficult or painful, my mentor says,
Ben, your unborn children need you to nut the fuck up and do the thing. You won’t be the father they need until you do.
It’s a little manipulative, but it always works, because he’s always right.
I’m creating inside myself the kind of father that I wish I’d had. The kind that might have told me things like,
Son, if she’ll agree to three years without intercourse, she’s not going to suddenly turn out to be a sex maniac just because you change YOUR mind.
Well, it sounds like she’s saying all the right words. But what’s she DOING? That’s what you’ve got to pay attention to, son. Her words don’t matter. Her actions do.
Son, quit worrying about whether she likes you enough to fuck you, and start worrying about whether you like yourself. Once you get that figured out, either she’ll fuck you or someone else will.
You’ve let her be in charge of the relationship the whole time. Is that getting you what you want? How’s that working out for you? Sounds like time to try something else.
Son, it’s okay for you to want sex. It’s not okay for her to shame you for wanting sex. What she said to you was unacceptable, and if I were you I’d be seriously rethinking whether you want someone like that in your life.
That sounds like a good father to have. I didn’t have that father growing up. But if I work hard enough, my kids might.