Even though MJ and I have lived together for three years and do most everything together, I still insist that he leave me alone and not come in the bedroom when I am getting ready to go out for our date night, which is only a date night because I said I wanted to go on a date, which I only did so I would have a reason to get dressed up.
It’s Saturday and I start getting ready an hour before it’s time to go. I take a very long shower, put on Astrud Gilberto, and try on three different dresses before deciding on an outfit. It is an extremely girly display of primping and preening and even includes detailed eye shadow and mascara. These are not the things you would have expected from me a year or two ago. They would surprise you, even make you worry, check my temperature, wonder what’s going on with me. MJ puts up with it like a trooper and lets me worry about the right dress, the right shoes, everything, even though he is one of those perfect guys who tells me, as I shoo him out of the bedroom, “you don’t need to try to be pretty, you just are.”
For a reason I haven’t yet put my finger on, in the last year and a half I have become obsessed with dresses. I was never one for shopping, and never one too concerned with clothes as long as I had enough to get by, but one day I went looking for a dress for a party C was having and something just clicked in me. It is not a general love of shopping. I am not interested in pants, or shirts, skirts or shoes. Only dresses. I feel this odd compulsion in me to find a perfect dress.
Already the landscape of my closet has changed immensely. The back wall has a bar that is filled with dresses. They are arranged in my own version of order. The far left contains the dressiest of the dresses, one nearly formal gold gown, three tight black cocktail dresses, two sultry shiny red dresses with low necklines. I own far too many of these night-only, dressy outfits for a person with no social calendar and few events to attend. These dresses are followed by the wintery ones, the heavier materials, the sweater dresses. The medium weight ones come next, colors starting to brighten as it nears the summer end of the spectrum. Some are dresses for work, some are silly dresses, one with big swans all over it, another with flying birds. They blend into bright spring dresses with full skirts in flower patterns or bright pastels. And then comes the maxi dresses, the summer comfort of no sleeves and light, thin material. I now spend my mornings looking over them, picking and choosing what to wear.
I long to have reasons to get dressed up. I long to go out for date nights, or parties (though I do not particularly enjoy much of the actual party part), or concerts, anything in which it is at least acceptable to wear a fancy dress, even if not at all required. We often look mismatched together, MJ and I. He in casual attire and me in some dress and heels, makeup all done and tiny purse in hand. He’ll ask “is it okay I’m wearing this?” without realizing he’s the one who is dressed appropriately for the occasion, not me. I look like the girl who got the evening plan of dinner and a movie confused with a trip to the opera.
Each time I decide to dress up for some night out, I will do so behind closed doors, and when I am all set to go, I will come out of the side of the house where the bedrooms are and walk into the living room where MJ has been waiting for me for some time, and I will stop in front of him and ask how I look. I get this giddy excitement in my stomach as I do it, a combination of nerves and hope, and though it makes no sense whatsoever, I wait literally with baited breath for his reply. I do not doubt for a second how MJ feels about me. I do not think for a second that his feelings are limited by or tied to anything as simple or superficial as how I look. I know he is that perfect guy who says things like, “you don’t need to try to be pretty, you just are.” And yet, I stand there each time hoping this will be the dress, the time, in which he is bowled over by my beauty.
It’s a terribly unfair thing to do to him, particularly when he doesn’t know it is happening. And particularly when he always responses perfectly, telling me how pretty I am and how nice I look. And I do feel great, and I do feel pretty because of him and his reaction, but inevitably by night’s end I am thinking of when the next date night might be, and what I should wear, and how I look, and whether I should go shopping for a new dress to make sure I look okay, and whether, most of all, he’ll be bowled over by my beauty.
The compulsion for dress shopping is actually disturbing to me. I feel this odd need to not only find the perfect dress but to own dresses, many dresses, slews of them. In idle moments I will shop online the favorite stores of mine that carry the kind of dresses I like in the sizes I wear. I look when I don’t have money. I keep the coupons that come in the mail in my purse on the off chance that I’ll find myself in a store. I think about finding dresses, almost all of the time. I worry about how I look way more than I have ever before, including those awkward teenage years.
I can think of reasons, maybe. Weight has always been an issue for me, and I can say with certainty that I am at my heaviest now. The concern about how I look coupled with the process in which I have been slowly losing weight, might spur one to be more clothes and image focused, but I don’t think that’s it.
I’ve been feeling particularly old lately. Thirty-five has been the first milestone birthday in which it has struck me that my age has consequences, that I am not the young one in the office, or the family, or anywhere anymore. Feeling older might make a person worry about their appearance, and try to dress differently, but I don’t think it’s that either.
When MJ and I get home Saturday night, I hesitate to change clothes. I sit on the bed, still in my dress, makeup on, the only difference at all is that I’ve released my long brown hair from the clips that held it back for the night. I smile almost shyly and tell MJ that in addition to my pretty dress, there are pretty things underneath it. I am not referring to my soul or personality. Expensive lingerie has been a close second to dresses in recent compulsions.
What I think it is, is this. Despite all my feminist ideology, despite all my intellect and common sense, despite all MJ’s efforts and reason, I cannot get over this one thought: that being infertile makes me feel like less of a woman. I feel like I’m not really a woman at all. I cannot create life or sustain life. I’m not soft and gentle. I am not warm and nurturing. I do not glow, am not attractive, am not maternal, am not loving or sensual. The necessities which create my body are lost on me: these breasts serve no purpose, my insides are useless. In the Darwinian race to reproduce, I am false advertising. I cannot help you pass on your genes. I am no good to your efforts to reproduce. I am not at all what is expected of a woman.
I am desperate to feel otherwise. So I buy dresses and I get dolled up, and I put on heels that I hate, and apply layers of makeup that I don’t need, and I care so much what you think. I care so much that I look like a woman. I care so much that I feel like a woman. That I look beautiful, that I spur a sense of attraction in MJ, that I can be wanted, feel wanted as a woman, because lately I don’t feel like much of woman at all. And I don’t ever feel like it’s enough. Not enough dresses, not enough nights out, not enough response from MJ. Never enough, because when it’s over and I take the dress off and it’s morning again, I’m still just this infertile person who can’t have kids. Who can’t conceive or sustain a pregnancy. Who can’t do the one biological thing I was designed to do.
On Sunday I do not wear a dress to the grocery store, or while folding laundry, or making dinner. I take a day off to wear sweat pants and be comfortable. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I felt dumpy and unattractive. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I didn’t care as much since MJ had gone into work for the day and wasn’t around to see me. And in the back of my mind I am already thinking about what dress to pick out of my closet and wear to work tomorrow.
I don’t know how long this will go one for, this compulsion. It’s not the worst thing in the world – dresses are infinitely more comfortable than many other forms of clothing, and as a short heavyset girl I long ago decided pants were the enemy. But I wish I loved dresses because I loved them, not because I was constantly trying to cover up this fault of mine, this loss of some idea of womanhood. And I wish I could give MJ a break, because he doesn’t deserve this level of crazy. He is one of those perfect guys who says, “you don’t have to try and be pretty, you just are,” and I love him for it. But I wish I didn’t also feel like I’ve let him down, like I falsely led him on about what kind of woman I was.
That is what infertility is, I think, at it’s heart. It’s a lot of wishing. It’s a lot of hoping things will change, wanting things to get better. It’s a lot of doubt and it’s a lot of daydreaming. And it’s a lot of dressing the part, when really you’d rather be in bed in pajamas with the Kleenex nearby.