The frustrating thing about playing Scrabble with my husband has always been that he’s just enough better than me that if the luck breaks his way, he’s assured a win. If I were simply a bad player, I might be able to go into the game knowing I’d lose and therefore play with a spirit of congenial fun—kick my heels up, get a little drunk, enjoy the ride. But I’m good enough to want to win, and to get close enough of the time that losing most of the time stings that much more.
My greatest disadvantage has always been that, as a writer and English teacher, I think about the meaning or sound of the words more than I should. I get seduced by the opportunity to use a lovely, arcane word like “fecund” or the underused-in-casual-conversation “torpid,” despite each one’s low point value or the opening they might give my husband to fill a vacant triple word score or exploit an “x” that’s just waiting for a vowel (any one of which placed on the correct side of that tricky letter makes an official Scrabble dictionary word with an efficiently high point value). As a math person, my husband sees the shape of the board, the numbers the letters add up to, while I make the mistake of seeing the letters themselves.
Adding up points isn’t something new to me. My mother, a lifelong Weight Watchers member, came of age in a time when if you seemed to be getting a bit thick in the middle, your doctor prescribed you amphetamines to help you get back to a “sensible” weight. After years of struggling with her own body image issues and her medically supported eating disorders, finding Weight Watchers as a young mother must have felt to her like finding religion (which she did, years later). Freed from yo-yo dieting, my mother had discovered a way to eat healthily while maintaining the strict, nearly obsessive control she had cultivated the need for. That control came in the form of points. Every food reduced to its value in the closed-system of the Weight Watchers universe. Forget calories, or fats, or sugars—Weight Watchers points were the objective and singular measure of the worth of your food, its risk and its reward. My mother, like millions of women who embraced the Weight Watchers lifestyle, must have walked around the world as though in a video game, the point value of each edible thing hovering over it as they approached. It stressed me out just to think about it.
Once, leading up to my older brother’s bar mitzvah, my mother made a drawing of a sort of segmented rainbow made of boxes stacked end on end instead of nesting parabolic arcs. At one end, in the first box, was her current weight, at the other, in the final box (or perhaps the pot of gold at the end, I can’t quite remember) was her goal weight. She stuck the drawing on the fridge and we all watched as she climbed the arch of the rainbow, marking each pound by coloring in its corresponding box, each one a step close to her ultimate reward. I remember wanting to feel proud of my mother and wanting to support her endeavor, but also feeling unsettled by this rainbow that so starkly pronounced its judgment over my mother’s body. A rainbow that so cheerily beckoned her toward some presumably objective marker of success that confronted her every time she approached the refrigerator, daring her to decide what was more important: the food she wanted now or the pot of gold that would reward her deprivation.
Perhaps because it unsettled me to watch my mother’s body be so beholden to such a rigid system, at an early age I rejected points as a marker of my worth. I ate what I wanted, when I wanted, and though I wasn’t thin, I was active enough that my behavior never resulted in any health issues, and kept me at only a slightly heavier than average weight through my teenage years. I did well in school because I was well-suited for academic work, but I found anything that felt at all like “grade grubbing” distasteful and undignified. When I’d perform particularly poorly on a test or quiz, I’d come home and tell my mom almost triumphantly, a slap in the face to the system of points that sought to control my value. Nearly always her reply was a cheery “I’m sure there’s some extra credit you can do!”
This always infuriated me, although of course I was baiting her since I knew how the conversation would play out. I always insisted that there wasn’t any extra credit (which was true to the extent that I definitely wasn’t going to ask my teacher if there was), that this was my grade, and that was all there was to it. Even today as an English teacher I refuse to give extra credit, explaining to the students that that there is no work one can do for the course that is “extra,” since any work they do is, by definition, part of the course. Now that I’m at the front of the room, I realize that students are forced to bear many of their teachers’ pathologies in small ways like this.
But as Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 learned when he tried to defy The Party, rejection of the system often functions simply as an acknowledgment of the primacy of the system itself. And despite my hatred for the translation of one’s behaviors and habits into a system of points—maybe because of it—I eventually found myself at its mercy in ways I’d never anticipated.
My husband and I got married young (he had a final for an undergraduate math class the day after our wedding), and had children soon after. I didn’t regret or resent this, and enjoyed keeping house and raising our young children. When they got old enough to start going to school, however, he and I both looked to ways we might continue to grow as people—him seeking out an MBA that became the bridge to his career in finance, me returning to the comedy I’d done in college by taking classes at iO and Second City, and later performing with an improv team at iO as well. We enjoyed our new endeavors and supported each other’s goals. But I noticed something, too, in how I encountered this new phase of our lives. As a stay-at-home wife and mother, the boundaries of my activities were clear, success relatively straightforward. (Did I provide for my child today? Did I play with her when she wanted to and put her down for a nap when she was tired? Did I buy the right groceries in sufficient amounts? Did I make a good dinner within a reasonable budget? Check, check, check, check.) But with the kids at school and my husband and me pursuing various and separate interests and activities, it was harder to define what success looked like for each of us, individually and collectively. I could have used a rainbow chart on the fridge about then.
And so, untethered from the myopically singular focus of those early years of marriage, I found myself mentally keeping score, of the number of hours each of us spent out of the house pursuing our interests, of the number of new friends we made through our activities, of the number of times we each woke up in the middle of the night to care for a crying child. My scorekeeping extended beyond logistics: I noted the number of times per week we had sex, which times I was in the mood and which times I wasn’t but did it anyway because he was and I loved him and it was fine, really, but still I should get some credit for that, right? I gave myself mental points for watching a show he liked more than I did, for not watching the show I really wanted to watch because he wanted to talk instead, for listening to him, for loving him. And I gave him points, too, when I perceived he’d acted selflessly for my benefit. None of these things were things either of us did with particular strain or difficulty, but there was a cost incurred nonetheless, I decided, and that cost needed to be accounted for.
There was another layer, too, that many young mothers will have already recognized in my story, which is the guilt embedded in making time for your own pursuits when you have young children. Men, I know, feel this anxiety, too, but there is an undeniably greater expectation upon women to give themselves entirely to their families. And if you have given birth to your children, as I did, and nursed them, as I had, the right they claim to not just your time and energy, but your body itself, can create a subtle antagonism, as well. I felt, in those early years of wifehood and motherhood, that my body was not mostly for me anymore, and felt with equal and opposite intensity the desire to reclaim it once it was no longer so deeply beholden to the needs of my children. Still, I felt this reclamation required a trade-in of accumulated goodwill in the form of points I’d subconsciously cash in for the right to my own time and space.
My mom always loved those Weight Watchers-branded treats you could buy in the store with the calories and points written out right there on the front of the box. The strategy with these items, it seemed to me as a child, was to make them as large as possible without spreading the calories so thinly throughout the product that it lost all taste. “I dare you to eat me and feel deprived,” these algorithmically designed treats seemed to shout. Of course, I’d eat them, too, because they were there, and of course, they were nowhere near as good as, say, a regular ice cream sandwich or bag of chips. The cookies were thicker, maybe, but the texture was at once airy and cardboard-y. The ice cream was thin and would gum up quickly in the freezer. Half a “regular” ice cream bar would have probably had the same amount of calories, though perhaps more points, but that was, I understood even as a child, besides the point. This was a system, and if you kept to the system, if you followed its rules, you would reach your goals.
Once I left the house for the night, in those early days of post-homemaking freedom, I wasn’t eager to return. I now had built-in, pre-approved activities (my improv classes and later, when I was cast on a team, rehearsal and shows) and because my husband had agreed to these, I felt I couldn’t be penalized for being away from the family during these times. I would stay out after almost every rehearsal or show, often late—as late as my younger, single teammates were willing to stay. I closed down the bar a lot. And I made some truly close friends during this time, but I would also stay out regardless of who was there, like eating an entire single-serving package of unsatisfying chocolate chip cookies (and, let’s be honest, sometimes two packages) because it was my cheat day and damn it, I deserved it. I was reclaiming myself, I believed. I had earned this right. I cast my husband as an unwitting obstruction to even the most lukewarm of pleasures I’d felt I’d earned. Reasonable conversations about how long I’d be out turned into perceived accusations that he didn’t trust me or want me to be happy. Almost every choice between him and my other life became an arduous negotiation. I didn’t blame him, exactly, but I did too often treat him like a barrier rather than a partner.
This story doesn’t end badly for us. My husband and I are fine. We’re great, honestly. We’re, as our teenage kids often say, “relationship goals.” We communicate and care about each other’s triumphs and challenges, we fight well and make up well. And we were okay then, too, for the most part. It was a challenging time, but we’ve had other challenging times, too—they happen with some regularity when you stay married to the same person for a very long time. But what I’m particularly struck by when I look back at myself then, is how young I was—a child, still, really—and how much I struggled with what it means to truly and constantly live in relation to another person, especially as a woman and a mother.
“I got my body back!” the magazine covers triumphantly splash across their covers regarding the triumphant return of a celebrity mother to her former Aphroditian glory. By this we are meant to understand that, having finally wriggled out from under the demands of pregnancy and its aftermath, our heroine is “herself” again, by which we are meant to understand, she has returned to a body we recognize as “her,” and is once again fit for our consuming gaze. She has achieved her goals, probably, through a strict regimen of diet and exercise, with the help of a personal chef and trainer and by committing the type of time and energy to her rehabilitation that most of us could never afford. All the hard work was worth it, though, we are told, because she has “reclaimed herself.” This, of course, is one of the crueler fantasies of the patriarchy—that the choice to bear and raise children needn’t, and shouldn’t, result in any permanent change to one’s psyche or body or ability to life a full, independent life. If only the woman is committed enough to following the rules, she will reap the rewards, which are implicitly defined as some sort of return to a pre-motherly state of womanhood.
Historically, women have tended to transition from their parents’ home to their marriage with little or no time to explore their identity apart from such familial structures. Today, though, it’s generally believed that having more years of adult living, of knowing your own goals and needs and boundaries, can be an asset, especially for a woman, who has to fight harder for her independence and freedom than a man. Of course, this can also make the integration of an entire other person into your already established patterns a challenge. What’s hard about going the other way, about marrying before you’ve established those adult patterns of thought and behavior, is that you have to figure them out individually and collectively at the same time. You have to learn about yourself as a unique individual in the world as you develop in relation to another person. Now add the existential strain of giving over your body to the growth of even more individuals who will continue to depend on you physically and emotionally throughout their lives. In this scenario, the tension between growing up as a person and growing toward another person with whom you have chosen to share a life, especially for a woman in our world, is compounded geometrically. To succeed requires constant recalibration of the balance between your own needs and your commitments to your family as you navigate how to give without resentment and take without guilt. It’s complex, and nuanced, and it’s not something easily charted, tallied, or won.
I’m still working on this balance, and given that I only have about eighty or ninety years tops to get it right, I doubt I ever will. The natural lessening of the hands-on demands of parenting as our children have grown has reduced the sense of pressure on my body and time, for sure. But I’ve also stopped trying to keep such meticulous score of how much time I’ve given and gotten in return, and that’s helped, too. So has the fact that I’ve started beating my husband at Scrabble more regularly. Because although I’ve tried to stop measuring out my life with coffee spoons, I’ve also stopped fighting the fact that small victories are allowed to count for something, even if that something is just bragging rights. Because no matter how much I grow, I hope I’ll never be above a bit of pettiness.
Rumpus original art by Cody Bubenik.