Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Necessary Awkwardness

For every stage my daughters go through, every life event they experience, I have a memory of myself at that very age and stage. I try very hard to meet them where they are, acknowledging their unique personalities, but I also try to recall where I was at that point and what might have helped me, in case they can't articulate what they need.

We have talked about menses openly and regularly (ha!) since they were in elementary school. I wanted them to be comfortable and knowledgeable. Unashamed. I wanted them to feel competent to care for themselves. Nobody did that for me and they wouldn't know to ask. I've taught them to track their cycles and to carry spare supplies. When they find themselves unaccountably emotional, I gently remind them to check the calendar. Might that be why they are feeling this way?

We have talked about sex. Not in a titillating way, but in a matter-of-fact way.  The mechanics are old news around here. They knew about egg and sperm long ago. They have known how the baby "gets out" for what seems like forever. They were curious and interested and so I explained it all to them. We use no euphemisms in our house. We name the parts accurately. I have always acknowledged (out loud) that they may be attracted to someone of either gender or they may be attracted to both genders and it's all perfectly normal.

For quite a few years, that was enough. A couple of years ago, I realized it was time for a different kind of sex talk. The sex talk I wish I had been given. The sex talk that might have prevented some of my own bad experiences.

My first boyfriend, when I was 13 and in 7th grade, was a 17 year old junior in high school. Our paper routes were adjacent, so we walked many miles together every afternoon for a few months. As time progressed, many of those walks ended in make-out sessions that I was completely unprepared for. He gave me attention and made me feel special, so I went along with it for a while. We broke up before things got too far out of hand, but not before I had a neck covered in hickeys that I tried in vain to cover with make-up. I truly had no idea how it happened. I thought he was just kissing me. I don't recall either of my parents commenting about it, though how it could have escaped their notice I don't know. I was the talk of St. Joe's for months.

So, instead of the mechanics of sex, now we talk more about the feelings. We talk about having crushes. We talk about how overwhelming it can feel when you really, really like someone and you want them to like you back. I have spoken to them about how nice it feels to be physically close to someone you care about, but how that does not have to result in intercourse. There are many, many ways to be close and to express love and affection. One act does not necessarily lead to another. There is no time-table or standard progression and anyone who tells them there is, is lying.

My daughters know that they own their own bodies.  They and only they decide who - boy or girl - touches them, where, and when. They must respect the boundaries of others, as well, if they are more physical than the other person is comfortable with.

I try to teach them to pay attention to their instincts. How does a person make them feel? Do they feel respected and cared for? Do they feel pushed, rushed or manipulated? Are they having fun? There are allowances to be made for adolescent awkwardness in flirting and in communication, surely, but if they are always feeling like they are defending themselves or arguing about why they do not want to do something, that should be a warning sign. If a situation makes them uncomfortable, they have a special code to text me so I can retrieve them without embarrassment.

I tell them about a couple of my high school boyfriends: big, muscular boys who were like octopi the minute the lights dimmed in the movie theater. I tell them how it felt to be constantly wrestling with those boys; that I thought it was normal. I tell them they don't have to put up with that. They can just get up, walk out and call me. It's not okay to be treated that way, but nobody ever told me that. Nobody ever told me that I could set a boundary and expect it to be honored. And so I tell them.

We talk about how our culture teaches boys that they are expected to push girls for sex, but often the boys may not really want to do it. They may not feel ready, but they are feeling pressure from their friends. Maybe some boys don't have anyone telling them the truth: that sex is only good when it is fully, joyfully consensual.  I don't want to scare them, but I tell them anyway.

We don't have these talks all at once, but in bits and pieces, and most importantly, often with Hombre. We touch on it during car rides or waiting in the drop off line at school. Maybe if I see something on TV or hear a song on the radio that brings it to mind. My girls are embarrassed, more so now than when they were younger, as the implications are far more real now that they are in middle and high school. They roll their eyes and tell me that I am "awkward." I probably am, but I don't care. I want them to know what to expect and to feel like they can handle it.

I worry and yet, as I watch my eldest walk out the door to the waiting car of her first date, I find I am mostly concerned about his driving skills.