“How to do you handle it?”
The final question at the end of a lengthy private message on Facebook. The parent of a girl that has been friends with DJ since they were six had messaged me asking how we navigate her dating. How much supervision? Do you worry about sex? How do you handle it all?
Hidden in between her words was the same conflict that I was having. I could recognize it. How do you strike the balance between being a feminist and protecting your daughter? And how do you do it without guarding her virginity as though it is more important than who she is, but not hand her a condom and a locked room and telling her to go to town?
Both of us grew up at the same time – in the late 80s / early 90s. We were encouraged to be whoever and whatever we wanted. But the underlying current was still to be a “good girl” because no one wants a slut. Slut shaming and the emphasis on our ability to keep our legs closed were the norm. And what I saw happening was girls having sex too soon – before they were ready. Girls never able to get out from the shadow of people shaming them as a way of revenge. And it didn’t matter if they were the class valedictorian or the class clown – your ultimate value in the community was measured by your purity.
And what happened? Pregnancy. Abortion. Risky sex. Sex being used as control. Sex being about self-esteem. Because while the girls were told to keep their legs closed, the boys were measured by their conquests. If they weren’t fucking around with someone, something was wrong. The dichotomy between what was expected of the girls vs the boys was crazy.
Enter parenthood. And by this point in my adult life, I found there was nothing wrong with sex and liking sex and having sex. There was no shame in it. It was healthy if you took care of your health concerns (STIs, etc). Even things like masturbation, a topic with teen girls that was never discussed as normal, was exactly that – normal. The shame was gone.
We have never not talked about sex in the house. Not in detail or anything but we talked about it. Being married to a husband who teaches sex education every year provided a basis for the discussions. Our conversations with the kids helped a lot when puberty was at its worse. I recall DJ coming up to me, asking for a hug, then whispering in my ear that puberty was weird. She had the words to understand her feelings and connect the dots between what was happening physically and emotionally. This is a girl who has no problem texting her dad at the store saying she needs tampons and telling him what kind. A friend of hers was asking about periods one day, and she was honestly answering all of his questions. He joked after that when he has a girlfriend, he is going to know so much that it may embarrass the girl when he asks what she needs.
The focus instead was on doing things at your own pace. While her middle school friends were pressuring her to date just because a boy liked her, she was bucking the norm. She didn’t want to date. She didn’t want that pressure. She didn’t want to be in that drama. She didn’t feel it was genuine or where she was at – so she focused on friendships. Last year, when she met the right person, she decided to start dating. And that brought to a head a lot of things. Questioning are we reacting this way or that way because that’s what we’re expected to do because she is our daughter? Or are we doing it for a genuine concern? It’s funny how many times it’s the former and not the latter.
And honestly, G and I had lengthy discussions about it too. Because while he is pretty liberal and open minded about things – his daddy bear instincts of “protect my daughter” was at play. It led to a lot of discussions. As I would explain to him, being a teenage girl who had always been trusted in a number of ways only to have it all seemingly revoked because of dating was far from easy. I don’t think I rebelled much in high school until I started dating. If I was 1 minute late from a date, the accusations were thrown my way. I was out having sex. I was out doing something wrong. Even though it had never been who I was, because I was dating, it must mean that’s who I was now. As a teenage girl, it was frustrating. It was confusing. It was unfair.
I never wanted to be that parent.
Though, I wasn’t going to be the parent who threw caution to the wind and figured whatever would happen will happen – so just let it go. I knew parents who did that – and they were grandparents earlier than they had hoped. Or some other trouble would happen for the boy and the girl involved.
So instead, I decided to focus on communication. I wanted to hear what she had to say. I wanted to hear how she felt. I wanted to be the one she felt comfortable asking questions. I wanted her to keep talking. I know that as long as she is talking that all will be okay. The minute she stops is the minute I will worry.
And that is what I told the other mom.
I told her that as long as the communication is open and honest – the more I’ll not worry. I want to get to know the person she’s dating – to know that it’s healthy – to know that the person is trustworthy. And the way to do that is to talk. If she is concerned, I want her to be able to talk and know there will be no judgement. Even if, inside, I’m screaming.
My job isn’t to command my daughter how to be a lady. My job is to teach her to respect herself enough that she will make the right decisions for her – healthy decisions. My job is to teach her that her body is her own. That her feelings are not tied to others – but to how she feels about herself – how she sees herself. My job is to help her navigate the world – and that includes love and sex. My job is to build her up – not teach her shame. My job is to help her find her own self worth – not to teach her that it is only tied to her hymen staying in tact.
As I told a classmate that commented on Facebook one day that if anyone hurt his daughter, they will need to watch out for him. I told him that knowing who he is that I doubted he was raising a fool – a victim – who wasn’t going to lay down and let someone walk all over her. His daughter who was 18 at the time thanked me because that was true. Her dad, my classmate from high school, said the same thing.
And that, right there, is the best thing we can do for our girls.
Give them the tools, including the 2×4, that they need to make their own path. And let them know that we have their back if they need it. But we have faith in their skills because Moe did not raise a fool.