Before I got married, I went to the student health center for a pre-marriage gynecology appointment. I was a student at Brigham Young University (BYU), 20 and a virgin. I didn’t think of myself as prude or naive, but I was probably both of those things. Raised in the conservative Mormon faith, I was taught that sex was sacred, reserved for marriage, but also should be fun (Woo-hoo!), and I was looking forward to trying it out.
At BYU I heard whisperings of women sent home from the initial gynecology appointment with devices to stretch their vaginas, something to make the wedding night more pleasurable, less painful. I wasn’t particularly worried about pain, I just knew I wasn’t ready to be pregnant.
So I got a prescription for contraception. I knew I wouldn’t be good at taking pills every day so I opted for the once-a-month Nuvaring. My fiancé was a little concerned about being able to feel it during sex, a little ring of plastic resting around my cervix. I hadn’t even considered this, but I felt good about the method I had chosen and I was undeterred.
I imagined putting on sexy underwear beneath my clothes in time for my husband to return home. He would discover this and then we would engage in hot-steamy-sex in whatever room of the apartment we happened to be in. Life never really lives up to fantasy.
A pheochromocytoma (pheo for short) is a tumor that causes high blood pressure by secreting hormones that are normally secreted by the adrenal glands. Pheos are extremely rare, occurring in <1% of people with high blood pressure. I joined a ragtag Facebook group for people with pheos few years back, and in this group they refer to themselves as “zebras,” after the med school adage that goes like this: “When you hear hoofbeats think horses, not zebras,” horses being much more common than zebras.
I was a zebra. And I had been for several years though I didn’t know it. It was these tumors that caused my chronic headaches and exercise intolerance. The first tumor was discovered in March 2005. I had a nose surgery that I hoped would solve the chronic headaches couple of months before this. During that surgery I became very hypertensive on the operating table and stayed in the recovery room all afternoon, while the attendants tried to get my blood pressure under control. I was lucky I didn’t stroke out that day.
The initial tumor was discovered after a series of tests and I was advised to use two forms of birth control until it could be removed. They said if I were to become pregnant there was an 80% chance I would die. Since then I’ve looked back through medical journals, and I’m not sure where that statistic came from. There are only case studies of pregnant women with pheos because it occurs so rarely. There are not enough data points for a more robust study. But it was clear to me—pregnancy likely equals death.
So we started using condoms in addition to the Nuvaring.
I had three more surgeries that year to remove what ended up being four tumors total. One tumor remained. It was located on or in my heart (difficult to determine on cardiac MRI at that time) and I was terrified. It felt like a precarious place and the distinction between on and in felt important. Because it was small, and in a risky place, they recommended it be monitored rather than removed.
There are only case studies of pregnant women with pheos because it occurs so rarely. There are not enough data points for a more robust study. But it was clear to me—pregnancy likely equals death.
And I didn’t become pregnant. No pregnancy scares. Nothing. My periods came like clock work. But even after the hormone-secreting tumors were removed, I was advised to continue two methods of birth control as my doctors predicted a high likelihood of recurrence.
The first pheo was removed two weeks before my college graduation. Right after graduation I became a full-time employee of BYU for the marketing department where I had worked as a student graphic designer. Before the tumor, I had plans to return to New York City where I had been the previous summer doing an internship for Young & Rubicam on Madison Ave, but I scrapped this in favor of the excellent employee health plan awarded to full-time
BYU employees. It covered 90% of my medical bills.
My husband was bothered that we had to pay for contraception (I think it was $20 per month) and asked me to write a letter to our insurance company requesting they cover the cost of contraception as I had a very legitimate medical reason for using it.
I wrote the letter; I even had my physician write a letter. It was denied. They generously covered tens of thousands of dollars worth of diagnostics and treatment but NO to a $20/month contraceptive that was, according to all of my doctors, an essential precaution for keeping me alive and safe.
So we paid for the Nuvaring. And we paid for the condoms.
A year or two after all the surgeries I was chatting with my mother-in-law in her kitchen. I was rattling on about what was on my mind, as I am prone to do. I brought up how I had been considering different forms of birth control and verbally weighed out the pros and cons of each method.
When I paused she remarked, “I just knew I wanted to have children so I didn’t worry about it.” I believe what she meant by her comment was that it was something completely outside the scope of her experience. She had five children. Maybe she never prevented pregnancy. I never asked about something so personal.
But at the time, I felt embarrassed for using contraception in the first place. Her comment was a reminder of our shared religion and culture that placed so much emphasis on a woman’s primary role as mother. Mormons do not condemn the use of contraception, but the value placed on a woman’s role as mother is so elevated, I felt I was doing something wrong by preventing pregnancy. I wanted children. But, more than the actual role of mother, I wanted to follow the righteous path. Even with the risk of recurrent tumors, I felt some guilt for playing it safe. Part of me believed I should just have faith, get a family started and hope for the best. Faith precedes the miracle, right?
I wanted the carefree sex lives that I imagined were enjoyed by my friends and family in their early years of marriage.
Another part of me felt envious. This is around the time envy became a quiet companion of mine. You see, sex had already become stressful due to the stakes around pregnancy. I was comfortable on some level with taking reasonable precautions and then letting the chips fall where they may, but my husband was not. He was scrupulous. Understandably so. But I wanted the carefree sex lives that I imagined were enjoyed by my friends and family in their early years of marriage.
During my time using contraception (which has been almost the entirety of my adult life), I’ve tried numerous pills, rings, injections and an IUD. Trying the gamut of contraception is absolutely not unusual for women. Contraception has numerous side effects from weight gain and acne to heavy bleeding, depression and mood swings. Most of the women in my life have done the same because, in our culture, prevention of pregnancy falls upon the one with the womb—the one who has the most to lose by incurring an unwanted pregnancy.
I gained weight and felt impossible depression on the Depo Provera shot. I felt horrible on any of the pills called Tri-. I did better on the consistent low dose pills. But my husband was terrified of impregnating me so any late pill or missed pill threw a wet blanket on our sex life.
Even then, even while we lived in his parent’s basement, waiting for more tumors to appear, I still enjoyed sex. I just did’t have the freedom around it that I imagined I would—that I wanted.
During those years (more than a decade) I would guess many people within our conservative, Mormon cultural sphere, assumed we had fertility issues. I even had a few acquaintances ask me about infertility directly, like it was common knowledge that was the reason I had no children. I felt guilt around this too. Many of my friends struggled with infertility through those years, and they were looking for someone with whom to share the experience. But that was never the case for me. Our lack of children was due to eleven years of constant vigilance.
A New Sex Life
I didn’t ever think my marriage was great, but I didn’t think our sex life was part of the problem. I see that differently now.
Before we separated, and one of the last times I had sex with my ex-husband I told myself, Just enjoy this because it may be the last time you get to do this for a long time—and I did. In the event we divorced, I was planning on keeping my temple covenants by not having sex outside of marriage. I also still carried the belief that masturbation was a sin, so I was preparing for a sexless life.
The sexless life was okay for me for about six months after I separated. During that time, I was extremely stressed and terrified of all the kinds of divorce-related repercussions that might be headed my way. I worried about my physical safety. I worried about how I was perceived by friends and family. I worried about finances. I was working and caring for one-year-old son. Sex was the last thing on my mind.
But I remember when I started to notice I had a natural sex drive. I have to chalk it up to being natural because I definitely wasn’t looking for it. Esther Perel, psychotherapist and best-selling author wrote, “Eroticism is not sex per se, but the qualities of vitality, curiosity, and spontaneity that make us feel alive.” This tracks. I started to sift through my experience as a wife as I was getting out of the marriage. I became very aware of how I had become a shell of a human during those years. I was a walking to-do list, measuring life by accomplishments rather than joy. The weekends felt pressured as I tried to check off the box marked FUN.
I became curious about what would bring me back to life.
I became curious about what would bring me back to life. I was a vibrant and joyful child, and I wanted to reclaim that. So, like I said before, this absolutely tracks with Perel’s definition of the erotic. I began to focus on the present moment, in part because future and past thinking was gnarly enough to demand a reprieve! I found joy in those little moments, sensory experiences like eating breakfast, walking with my son in the stroller at night under the stars and the palm trees, putting my feet into the sand, letting the freezing winter ocean swirl around my ankles and toes. I was moving out of my head and into my body in those moments.
I waited a year and a half after our separation to start dating. I felt like enough time had passed that I was ready to move into the next relationship. I was so wrong. But, I was ready to start that process.
I had a conversation with one of my close friends who had pre-marital sex experience (being as I had none!). Sex had been on my mind, but I also felt that desire in my body, to my core. I had been putting it off because I didn’t know what to do with it. I brought up masturbation because I was trying to figure out what to do with my sex drive as I had no outlet. She had a different opinion than I expected. She believed there was a place for masturbation. And she sort of gave me the permission slip I felt I needed to explore that which had always been forbidden, and so forbidden in my mind, I didn’t really even know how to do it.
I sat with that for a while. Around that same time, I learned that the paraganglioma tumor in my neck was growing (paraganglioma is just a broader term for neuroendocrine tumors like mine). It was not secreting adrenal hormones like the pheochromocytoma had, but it was growing— a little reminder that life is precious, and I am not permanent here. As I said before, the whole divorce brought the preciousness of MY life to the surface. The fact that I had spent more than a decade (a decade I didn’t plan to live through at its beginning) in a marriage that didn’t make me happy seemed to punctuate time, but also life LIVED during that time, as the most precious commodity.
Sex was always a good thing in my life, even if it had never been a great thing. I wanted to explore it further. Yes, there was a part of me that was that casual about it. But there was also a deep longing in me, something beyond simple horniness. A part of me knew that it would be healing, but I resisted this because of the covenants, because of the garments I wore every day reminding me of those covenants, because I loved going to the temple, I loved my faith, and my community at church. All of that was on the line—if I chose sex. For the first time in my memory, I chose my desire over all of those other things.
The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands
I left my ex-husband once before in 2010. I felt unseen, unheard and uncared for in my marriage. But I took him back after two weeks for a couple of reasons. The first and most powerful was fear. I believed no one would want a 27-year-old, divorced, cancered woman. That is what my culture of origin taught me. The worst thing I could be is a spinster. Divorcé wasn’t even on my radar of possibilities.
And it stemmed from purity culture, like it or not. By purity culture, I mean placing high value on virginity. For example, teaching young women that losing their virginity effectively turns them from a fresh stick of gum into a wad of disgusting used gum. Even though I had followed the rules, I knew in my LDS community, I would be much less desirable as virginity, this one, pristine quality had been lost in my first marriage. I wanted children and a husband, and I believed that if I ended this marriage I would never have an opportunity for those things.
The second reason was because I was convinced by my bishop (male clergy) and some family members that the problem had been that I was unclear in my communication. My ex claimed that if he had only known how I felt and what I wanted, things would have been different. He believed I kept those things from him. And it was believable to me because of the great lengths I had gone to keep the peace! I knew I had quieted some of my important desires. With the time that has passed, I now see that I had not been secretive or withholding of my desires. Simply put, a girl learns to stop asking when the answer is always No.
I was convinced to reunite with him, and this was again related to the culture around men and women. Women are taught to expect to be patient with their husbands, to understand that men are not emotionally evolved creatures. I read Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s book, The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands in my first year of marriage. I think my husband recommended it. The premise of that book is that if a woman is unhappy in her marriage it’s most often her own fault, and what she needs to do is be nice to her husband (care for and feed him and put out) and happiness will flow.
I’m not a man hater. I love men. But also, that advice is complete horse shit. I did my best to properly care for and feed that man for years. And what I received in return was the blame for his inattentiveness. After all, we can’t expect men to be responsible for their thoughts about the naked female form, about their roll in unwed pregnancy, sometimes even sexual assault and rape, so how could I expect this man to know how to listen to me? It’s not in his chromosomes.
…how could I expect this man to know how to listen to me? It’s not in his chromosomes.
It seemed that it was also my job to carry responsibility for the success of household communication. And more precisely, to do it without being a nag, and initiate sex but only at the right time, and to pursue career and personal interests, but only as it aligned with husband’s wants and needs and his picture of womanhood.
So I invited him to move into my apartment after two weeks. He seemed repentant and I was the eternal optimist. It was almost instant after that when he began to punish me with silence and a cold shoulder. After all, it would take HIM a long time to forgive ME….for what? I guess for wounding his pride and humiliating him in front of the very small handful of people who knew about the split.
I took Celexa, an antidepressant, for about six months after the split. It took the edge off of my anxiety, made it easier for me to tolerate my wintery partner and almost impossible to have an orgasm. I regret it now because I didn’t need to be medicated into docility. I was appropriately outraged, wounded and bereft.
I accepted that my wagon was eternally hitched to this man. He didn’t want children for many years. Not yet, he would say and then name a dollar amount we would need in the bank or the completion of school, or money for a house, and then retirement…it was always something.
He told me just before we conceived our only child that he thought he was too selfish to have kids. I insisted we proceed, but I think he was being honest. Again, culture around men influenced my thinking. I expected men to be selfish creatures, their wild nature meant to be domesticated and improved by a wife and children. Insisting upon this next step was my role.
I was 31 at the time, and I felt my biological clock ticking. I also felt the foolishness of all of those years of, what ended up being unfounded, fear about my tumors. Plus, I was the eternal optimist, blindly hoping that a child would give him a reason to think of someone else, even if having a wife, even a wife with life-threatening illness, couldn’t.
That sounds like I’m answering a biggest weakness question in a job interview. You know, when they want you to state what’s wrong with you so you twist a strength into the format of a weakness, something like, “I just work so hard it makes other people uncomfortable sometimes.” But the dark side of being an optimist is it is tied to the belief that, I am exceptional. I believed I had some power to transform this indifferent creature into a good husband and father. I believed I was special.
He saw me as a wife in the conventional sense, as a helpmeet, a vessel, a source of labor and income and dinner and grocery shopping. And this is why I left. The more I tried to be myself the more clear it became that there was no space for me outside of my designated role.
Why am I choosing to share this very personal story at this time?
Excellent question. I’d love to tell you. I suppose some of my readers are voyeurs and only want the dirt on my life and my marriage. I didn’t write this for them. I wrote it with hope that this meandering tale of marriage, contraception, sex and womanhood would build imagination in my readers. Imagination is the first ingredient for empathy.
I never spent any time studying feminist issues until about three years ago. I didn’t like or identify with the word feminist. It felt like a word for loud, annoying women who want to be men and don’t value family and children. I was raised in a family and religion that places the highest value on those connections, so that definitely wasn’t me, until I realized how those values (the ones I possessed) had, in a very real way, marginalized me directly.
I suspect that some women feel the way I used to feel about “feminist issues” such as abortion, access to contraception and access to sex education. Simply put, it doesn’t affect me directly, so I don’t want to think about it. I get that sentiment deeply—in my bones. Most women I know have a lot on their plate. They are properly feeding and caring for husbands, children, extended family, neighbors, congregations, and communities.
I was raised in a family and religion that places the highest value on those connections, so that definitely wasn’t me, until I realized how those values (the ones I possessed) had, in a very real way, marginalized me directly.
I don’t personally have any experience with abortion, and yet, I found myself crying in the car on my way to work after I learned about the leaked Supreme Court document that revealed a plan to reverse Roe v. Wade.
Let me explain. Women have been socialized to be a vessel. We have been socialized to believe that our central purpose is our use and our highest value is selflessness. What greater act of selflessness is there than to become a mother? A woman gives over her body, her sleep, her food, her earning potential and her hobbies to bring a baby into the world. Sometimes she must sacrifice her friends, her family of origin, work, colleagues, or possessions because she has a baby. It is beautiful. It is important. It is an experience I absolutely wanted for myself.
The problem is that not everyone gets to do in the way they imagined. I think most of us imagine having a baby with a loving partner, someone who can support us through those major sacrifices. But we don’t all get that. I’m not sure that it’s even a majority of women who get that.
My ex-husband has always loved our son. He always wanted to be involved, but he didn’t ask to get up in the night to help with feedings and he wasn’t the first one to jump up when the baby needed changed. I didn’t expect him to. I assumed that role. And I took it because I was socialized to do so, by my culture, but also by him who had required for so many years that I provide HIS care before the baby even came.
I wanted to be a good wife. I believed a good wife was patient, easy-going, selfless, quiet, and small. And I did my damnedest to embody those things. Sisters, do we really believe the pinnacle of the feminine being is without a self?
For my 20s I struggled because I was not living life for myself. I thought I was going to die of cancer by age 26 so I focused on my role as wife and tried make things easier on my someday-to-be-grieving-widower. At the time I could see that I should be living like I was dying, making the most of my time left on earth (however one does that!). But this was an impossible puzzle, because what I wanted was to be a good wife and a good wife is selfless. The resentment of this paradox festered within me. I wanted to live and I wanted to be good, but to be good, I had to be self-sacrificing.
When my ex-husband and I started to talk in earnest about divorce, I remember he said to me one night that I had to let all of that resentment go in order for our relationship to have a chance. He was absolutely right, and I knew it. And beyond all reason, when I offered up that resentment to god, because I had no idea how to rid myself of it, it vanished instantly. It was replaced with a keen sense of what was true in the present moment. What was true was that my husband had no intention of giving me space in our relationship to have a self. What was true is that if I stayed I would shrink to nothing, like one of Ursula’s emaciated shrimp that litter the floor of her sea cave.
Since that realization, my life has opened up. It happened gradually, but I started to believe that if god loved me as much as I loved this little boy (or even more), then my happiness might matter. That was actually my big feminist awakening. I was holding my son in the rocking chair as he nursed from a bottle and peered back into my eyes. It was a picture of selfless motherhood, mother love. Maybe it’s poetic that that is when I could finally hear the voice of my heavenly mother, the divine feminine. She told me I was important. As important as this baby boy in my arms, as my husband, as my father, as my grandfathers, as any man who has ever walked the earth or ever will.
It happened gradually, but I started to believe that if god loved me as much as I loved this little boy (or even more), then my happiness might matter.
I know we have laws for a reason. I hate the idea of killing babies. I hate the idea of abortion. I don’t think anyone, or rather extremely few (to eliminate hyperbole) feel joy about abortion. Most of the women I know that feel strongly about abortion believe in a higher power. They love babies, others and their own. They are trying to be good and do good in the world. They are kind. They are ambitious and generous and they’ve got grit.
My argument is that what women are asking for is not unreasonable. It’s not unrighteous. It’s simply to have the ability to direct their lives, to have babies when they are ready to have babies, to explore their ambition and creativity and vitality.
Sex After Divorce
I chose to break my temple covenant, not because I was horny and needed an outlet, but because I felt like I was missing out on precious years of my life. I was compelled to claim my own sovereignty. I wanted sovereignty over my life in all ways. I wanted to feel the full impact of my choices. I wanted to be completely awake and alive.
Me! Who never questioned the church, my marital vows and covenants, the culture that told me my needs were secondary if they were to be considered at all. I was complicit with all of those things for 35 years. I lived those values.
I found a man to date who was interesting and interested in me. Our physical relationship progressed quickly. I found myself drawing imaginary lines around parts of my body, places clothes had to remain, the same way I did when I was making out with my high school and college boyfriends. All the same it lit me up in an entirely new way and I found those lines slowly disappearing.
I was terrified. I was still wearing my temple garments. I was still attending church. I didn’t even have proper panties! I was trying to figure out how to honor myself within the confines of my religion. But I gave myself the space to explore and figure out what was right for me. Sex after divorce was incredibly healing. I needed that experience. I needed to give myself the grace to be awkward, but also hot, sensual, complex and adventurous. I needed to feel whole as a woman. Sex was exactly what I needed, when I needed it.
It was my new partner’s unmitigated enthusiasm for my body that transformed me. He was a completely new exploit. I had only dated Mormon men previously, and Mormon men who were trying to stay inside the same imaginary lines I was. This man had no lines. It was freedom I had never experienced.
For most of my sex life, I was criticized—only in small ways, but a multitude of small ways. The hair on my body, that grew from my nipples, was unexpected. My vulva was described as, “so weird” (…that’s right…So weird.) I tried to make sense of that. I had no vulvas for comparison, except my mom and sisters, and I had never examined their parts up close. At the start, I was pretty sure my genitalia was in the neighborhood of normal. But years and years of anything will create ruts in the mind that are hard to grade out.
My new partner looked up at me once from between my legs. I had made some mildly apologetic comment about the state of something down there. He said point blank, “Michelle, this is a world-class pussy.” That moment is cemented into my mind. I remember the part of the bed we were on, the time of day, the lighting—I remember because it was healing.
A big, lingering question was answered: Am I defective? No.
I used my imagination to open up life for myself. But I had lots of practice with imagination before that. For all of my 20s, I used my imagination to relate to the women around me. Women who had what I wanted. Women for whom life dealt the hand they more or less expected, a supportive partner, to raise babies with. I used my imagination on their behalf as I watched them face miscarriages and difficult pregnancies, infertility and too many children too soon. I used my imagination to care for them as they faced these difficulties, all while I waited for my own motherhood story to unfold.
It feels like a great tragedy when women don’t use their imagination on behalf of their sisters with other types of difficulties than the ones they’ve faced. I felt compelled to tell my own story so completely because I have realized that I, too, sometimes lack imagination, and I have particularly in the past. What I mean by that is I had a lot on my plate. I didn’t have the mental or emotional space to consider stories of women I didn’t know and, because I was in a fairly homogenous culture, the women I knew, were mostly facing the same things.
Now think about your own story, if you were to write an essay like this. Wouldn’t it take paragraphs and pages to flesh out the complexity?
- How you thought about sex before you tried it.
- What your first experiences were like.
- How you navigated sexual desire and its relationship to your own worthiness.
- Finding partners or not finding partners.
- How you handled menstruation, contraception, pregnancy and post-partum.
- Even things like sexual assault and childhood mistreatment.
- Devastating miscarriages and the shame around an unwanted pregnancy.
- And what about menopause? I’m not even there yet and my story is already long.
Life is messy. How can we legislate the creation of life? Something so personal, something so ancient, something so sacred. Legislation around abortion is something, I am convinced, we as a society would not tolerate, if we had not been, for millennia, swimming in the ideology that a woman, at her highest use, is a vessel.
My appeal is for the women who read this: Would you lend your imagination to the women who have walked a very different road than you? Would you consider that the lines religion draws around this very personal, ancient and sacred part of life, might not be universally applicable? Making abortion illegal places almost all of the risk of sex on the partner who has the womb. Sex. Something that is also so personal, so ancient, so sacred.
Abortion is only one part of a much larger sifting that is taking place right now. I have a Ruth Bader Ginsburg calendar on my kitchen wall because, without her, after my divorce, I would have needed a male cosigner to buy this house. I would have needed a male cosigner for my credit card, my bank account. She paved the way for me to attend college and graduate school on equal footing with my male peers. I am paid a good salary, equivalent to my male peers, and I had maternity leave and did not lose my job when I chose to have a baby, thanks to RBG and people like her. My life would look very, very different today had our legislative process gone differently in the 20th century. The lives of all women would.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how life might have been different for you. What would it cost you personally to put down the stone, and write in the sand while the crowd disperses? To give a woman her freedom? It takes a willingness to see oneself as human and fallible.
It takes imagination.