An Interview with Heidi Raykeil
Rebecca Kaminsky: How are you handling the success of the book and all the publicity, and what does your husband, JB, think about it?
Heidi Raykeil: It’s crazy! Self-promotion isn’t really my thing; it’s hard for me. When I was writing the book, I never thought anyone would actually read it! Or that I’d have to put myself out there like this. I mean, I wrote the damn thing, isn’t that enough? But of course it’s not — if you want to sell books. And I love the book. It’s like another baby, really; I conceived of it, labored over it, and somehow pushed it out — and now I want the world to get to know it — and coo and caw over it, of course. So I’ll do what I need to do to get it out there, but honestly it really does stress me out. JB is much more natural and sane with all this publicity stuff; he’s always been a big talker, so that helps.
It’s also a lot of pressure to be the self-described “Naughty Mommy.” Now every time JB and I have a big fight or go a while without having sex, I feel like a fraud. I imagine everyone thinks we have this perfect relationship and have everything all figured out now and we’re swinging off chandeliers in every free moment. But of course that’s not true. We’re still just regular people with regular ups and downs. Although it is true that the sex we do have is quite a bit better than it ever was before. That part really is true.
RK: So, what do you think is the most important thing a new mom should know about her libido?
HR: Whew, this is the million-dollar question. Everyone wants to know what the ONE MOST IMPORTANT THING is for finding a lost libido. There isn’t just one thing, no magic pill or sexy cure-all. What I found was that my libido is this fussy, complicated, heavily layered thing —not unlike me in a bad Seattle winter– that is always in flux. It comes and goes due to hormones and stress and how much I like my husband at any given moment.
I think a new mom should know there is nothing wrong with her if she doesn’t want sex. She should rest assured that she’s not the first person in the world to feel that way and she certainly won’t be the last. But for heaven’s sake — talk about it! Don’t drift away from your partner and become a master of faking and avoiding and pretending. Because that’s when I think we really start to hurt each other, and ourselves.
And use lots of lubrication!
RK: I’m curious if you became more comfortable writing about sex as you wrote your column and while writing the book.
HR: I still can’t believe I wrote a book about my sex life! I’m definitely more comfortable writing about sex now and talking about it with JB or strangers who email me. But I confess I still balk when good friends or family members want to get into their details with me. My dad recently tried telling me about his sex life — ah, thanks, but no. It’s funny, but Naughty Mommy alter ego aside, I’m really a very private person.
RK: So, how did you decide what details were too private to share?
HR: Both JB and my mom said essentially the same thing while I was working on the book: write what you need — and if I have a problem with it we’ll work that out later. That really freed me up. Of course, there are lots of things I left out or kept just for us. There are things JB and I do in bed, and fights we have, that the world won’t ever read about. There’s got to be some mystery.
RK: Were you concerned about how your mother would react to your writing?
HR: Well, besides JB and me, she’s really the only other person I give any background info on in the book. Her early struggles balancing motherhood and her life as an activist certainly had a big effect on me and, obviously, on my own choices as a mother. I was worried I might hurt her somehow by not just writing in great big letters MY CHILDHOOD WAS PERFECT. But that was really more me being weird about it than her. When I told her I was worried about what she would think, she said, “be brave and write what’s true,” so I did. And now she’s my biggest fan.
RK: In the acknowledgement you thank your son, Johnny, who died soon after he was born. Your words, “To Johnny, for breaking my heart and leaving me wide open,” were beautiful, and my heart ached for you. If you are comfortable with it, I’d like to hear why you kept his story out of the book. Those who read your essay about him in Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined might be interested to look at the connection.
HR: All of this book-writing business came about because of Johnny. I wrote that essay out of pure necessity, to try to process what had happened. It was the first thing I had written since college; it’s what led me to the motherhood writing group where I met many of the women who started Literary Mama and to my column. I really believe that finding my writing self again is yet another gift Johnny gave me in his short life.
To me, it was super clear that I would leave his story out. It’s not the kind of thing I can mention just in passing. It’s a whole story on its own, and I thought it would overwhelm any other story I was trying to tell. Of course, my experience with Johnny absolutely affected the way I was with Ramona. It really brought to light the intensity of my feelings for her, which definitely played a role in my lost libido. But it also let me explore those feelings of motherlove in a way I might not have let myself pre-Johnny. I didn’t hold anything back with Ramona. And that’s a part of the book I’ve gotten a lot of response to — it may have been a heightened experience for me, but many women identify with that. I don’t think you need to have lost a child to feel overwhelmed by the beauty and terror of loving something so much.
I would love to write a book about Johnny some day. To me, Confessions is really a story about learning to let go and hold on; it’s about letting go of fear and resentment and desperation to control. And holding on to what really matters: my self, my relationship, my connection to others and the world around me. I think a story about Johnny would have a lot of those same themes.
RK: Why should a woman care so much about the decline in her libido? Is it possible that it could just bounce back naturally?
HR: Sure, I think it can bounce back naturally, but I also think it’s dangerous to assume that. It’s like waiting until the kids are off at college to deal with relationship issues — because who knows what kind of damage might be done by then? Pretending that sexuality isn’t important to women or to our relationships is dangerous. Women are so often encouraged to put aside our own needs and wants for the sake of others. And I think having a healthy libido is all about learning to listen to and take care of our own needs. It’s easy to forget that sex is good or important when you’re overworked and under-supported. But sex is important — it’s physically and emotionally healthy for us and the truth is it’s an important part of a marriage. For JB and me, sex is the glue that keeps us more than just best friends. It’s sticky and messy and sometimes slow to come out, but let’s face it, without it it’s too easy to slip off and away from each other.
RK: What’s the deal with pity sex? I thought the politics of pity sex was one of the most interesting themes in the book. I’d love to see a pros and cons list of reasons for pity sex. Really, is it ever a pro?
HR: Well, I break it down like this: pity sex is bad sex. Pity sex is sex you don’t enjoy but you have with someone because you feel like you should — for them — or so you can cross it off a list or have a comeback when your husband says you never have sex. Whereas pity sex is always bad (JB has dubbed it corpse sex), charity sex is neutral; the sex itself might be good, or not so great. It might start off neutral then suddenly and surprisingly grow into pretty darn good. Either way, though, it ends with both people feeling connected and warm and open. But pity sex ends with at least one person feeling bitter, cheap, or smug.
As you know from the book, I think bad sex is unhealthy and leads to less desire, less sex. But neutral sex is ok, I think. Even now there are times I don’t think I’m going to like sex, but when we get going, I do. Sometimes I think if I waited for my libido to be the only initiator, we’d only have sex once a month when I’m ovulating! Now, I’m more flexible about what “being in the mood” means. Because sometimes you just have to do it when you have the opportunity and see if your body follows. Of course the key to that approach is being able to say, “Whoops, I guess I really wasn’t in the mood” and not having it explode into a huge fight with hurt feelings.
One of the biggest things I learned in the course of writing this book is how important sex is to my husband. Not in a primal man-need-stick-thing-in way, but in a sweet way. He uses sex to say things to me he can’t say with words. He thinks of it as a gift he’s giving me, not a demand he’s making of me. Knowing — wait no — believing that makes it a lot easier for me to stay away from bad pity sex and stick to the good stuff.
RK: What do you plan to work on next?
HR: My editor and agent keep asking me the same thing! I’ve got a number of ideas, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be about my sex life. Maybe someone else’s. . . . At this point my stock answer is pretty much the same one I give when folks ask if we’re going to have another baby: I’ve given myself another year before I even start thinking about it.
RK: I’d also be curious to hear about your reading preferences. What would I find on your nightstand (aside from a bottle of Probe) right now?
HR: MMM, Probe. Though Liquid Silk is my recent most favorite . . . then there are these all natural scented lubricants that are supposed to be pretty fab, too.
The sad truth is that I don’t read nearly enough. I’m mostly only able to handle magazines — staples like: Bitch, Bust, The Sun, Brain, Child, and, I confess, People — and also some nonfiction that’s easy to put down and pick up. Other books keep me up too late because I get compulsive about finishing them. So I’m a television addict instead. I like my drama in hourly increments. And damn, I do love the drama!