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The On Being Project

Does My Body Know Something My Mind Doesn’t?

I recently learned a fascinating term: “sexual concordance.” According to Jaclyn Friedman, author of the newly released book Unscrewed, it means:

“The extent to which our physical arousal and the arousal we experience subjectively match up.”

Straight women, it turns out, have the largest concordance gap. When scientists measure our arousal physiologically and compare it to what we self-report, there is a discrepancy. They’re not sure why. As it turns out, women’s sexuality is vastly understudied.

I don’t think our sexuality is the only realm in which women experience this kind of discord between our bodies and our minds, or between the story we tell and the story we actually experience.

Case in point: My husband John and I were at an evening barbecue this summer when our then-three-year-old daughter devolved into a screaming, crying, kicking mess when we told her that it was time to leave. In other words, it was probably beyond time to leave. I told him that I would get her out to the car if he would grab the bags and our one-year-old. It was one of those “all hands on deck” moments — batten down the hatches, we’ve got a toddler-sized storm to weather.

John packed the car and handled our other daughter, while I got screaming Maya in the car seat. Then John went back into the host’s house with Stella. After what seemed like a strangely long time (and yet likely no more than a few minutes), I headed back into the house to see what was up. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him holding Stella, while also setting something down in the kitchen sink. My stomach dropped — in a nanosecond I knew he had been eating a sweet dessert while I was dealing with a hurricane of sweaty limbs. I momentarily kept my cool, gathering up the rest of our things and saying my own hasty goodbyes.

As we drove away, our three-year-old still losing her shit, I took a deep breath and calmly asked, “Were you eating a piece of pie?”

He said, “I wish. I barely had a bite of pie that someone handed to me as I was saying goodbyes.”

I then threw a tantrum that far outshined my three-year-old’s. I was livid. I felt like he had jumped ship right when I needed him most. I felt abandoned and resentful.

Long after both girls had fallen asleep, we argued in the dark of the car. He couldn’t believe I was so upset about a bite of pie that he didn’t even ask for. I couldn’t believe he couldn’t understand why I was upset: Precisely because it felt like he had abandoned ship for something as small and stupid as a bite of pie. We spit words back and forth at one another, never penetrating the Teflon wall that had been erected between us the second I registered that plate’s unmistakable clink in the sink.

Here’s the truth: Part of me thought it was funny. I knew it was a story I would tell my girlfriends later. (I didn’t think I would write publicly about it, and yet here we are.) But another part of me was so triggered by the incident, made so instantly enraged, that it freaked me out.

I think I am comfortable with the parenting dynamic between my husband and me. He does the vast majority of the cooking and cleaning and I am the more hands-on parent — spending time on the floor with the girls, navigating the majority of tantrums and night terrors. I think I am “choosing my choice” around parenting, that I am breaking a generational spell.

I grew up acutely aware that my mom felt like she became the primary parent without really getting a clear say in the matter. Even as she insists parenting was one of the best experiences of her life, she also lives with a lot of roads not taken.

The story I tell, even to myself, is that John is the Chief Domestic Officer of our home and an unusually hands-on dad, and that I am the Chief Financial Officer and a still-nursing, emotionally attached, multitasking mom. I send the thank you notes; he vacuums the stairs. I know where the book or the stuffed animal or the water bottle is; he finds and orders new clothes for the kids when there is a shortfall in the hand-me-downs. It seems, if not always exactly fair, right and mostly functional and joyful. That may sound like a low bar to some, but to me it feels like a giant victory most days.

But moments like the “pie incident” freak me out. Does my body know something my mind doesn’t about the choices I’ve made and am making? Do I consciously feel good about our distribution of labor, but unconsciously resent my parenting partner? (Which, of course, isn’t fair because how can he honor my unconscious if I’m not even aware of it?!) And if there is some kind of subconscious resentment building up in my body that I’m not aware of, is it going to make me sick?

More women than men have autoimmune diseases, and they often start during the childbearing years. My mom has one. The onset corresponded with a time when she was taking on the world — being a primary parent for my brother and me, creating a film festival that would become a community institution, fitting consulting work in to the cracks and crevices of her days, among so much else. There’s no definitive answer as to what caused her illnesses — toxicity in the environment, the overall stress that pumped through her body as a working mom, life-threatening childhood asthma.

And yes, her emotional life — conscious and unconscious — surely played a role. Dr. Christiane Northrup, author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, writes:

“Your beliefs and thoughts are wired into your biology. They become your cells, tissues, and organs. There’s no supplement, no diet, no medicine, and no exercise regimen that can compare with the power of your thoughts and beliefs. That’s the very first place you need to look when anything goes wrong with your body.”

Dr. Northrup was referring to disease, but before disease, there are emotional flare-ups that signal something deep and unheard dwelling in your body. I watch it happen to my toddler all the time — she can’t articulate that she is upset with words, but her body makes it known in big, undeniable ways. The only difference between her and the rest of us so-called mature adults is that she releases those feelings on a regular basis. They move through her body quickly. And she doesn’t seem particularly traumatized by their passage. Yet, long after she has moved on, I am fuming at her behavior.

Which is all to say — I want concordance. I want consciousness. I want wellness. I want to be able to trust my own narration of the life I’m composing, however complex it may be. My mom is teaching me something about protecting my own dreams. My daughter is teaching me something about release without shame. I’m still not sure exactly how to put it all together in this one beautiful, limited life and this one tired, mysteriously intertwined mind and body.

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