I explained the intricacies of sex to her, using illustrations from a 1965 book I had kept in the family more for sentimental reasons but that still proved quite accurate. After all, none of the fundamentals have really changed. Her reaction was . . . interesting. Instead of the typical ewws and yuks you would expect, she looked me dead in the eye and said: “I have two questions. Do you have to be in bed? And do you have to look at each other?”
If I hadn’t figured it out already, I knew then that this girl was going to be a handful.
My husband and I have agreed to always be open with our kids about sex and our bodies. We both grew up in homes where sex was just not discussed while we were young. When it came to “the talk,” my mother told me something about a man’s penis tickling a woman’s vagina. I give her credit for using the proper terminology, but I didn’t walk away with a profound understanding of the act.
My husband recalls his father handing him a bunch of leaflets, along with a pithy, “Let me know if you have any questions.” We wanted our kids to know they could talk to us about anything, so we have talked to them about everything. Our daughter is thoroughly mortified by this fact. She’s fond of reminding us that her friends likely don’t talk about penises around the dinner table, and she’s constantly turning down the volume on my Rihanna playlist when her friends get in the car. She even leans in and whisper-begs, “Please, don’t sing.”
But I’m pretty sure we’re doing it right. Even if it means she’s occasionally embarrassed.
She’s 11 now and going through all the typical preteen stages. She’s curious about sex, shaving and menstruation. She’s working out those dreaded girl relationships and dealing with really big feelings. In short, she’s trying to find her place in the world. And as much as I want her to come to me with her questions, I know there’s a lot of exploring she needs to do on her own. With this in mind, I picked up a copy of Judy Blume’s “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” the seminal book on female puberty, for her. She devoured it in an afternoon, looked at me hungrily and said, “More.”
I tried other Blume books, but none of them were as relatable for her as Margaret. I understood. She was like I was at that age, searching for herself between the covers of those books. So off to the bookshop we went, and the saleswoman guided us toward Candace Bushnell’s “The Carrie Diaries.” I looked at her, uncertain. I had watched “Sex and the City.” “There’s no sex,” she assured me. “This book is about Carrie Bradshaw when she was younger, and just becoming a writer.”
Again, my daughter devoured the book. Looking online, I saw there was a sequel, so I bought it. Three days after it arrived, my daughter came into my room and carefully handed over the book.
“When you read this,” she said, “I don’t want you to think you’re a bad mother.”
“It’s okay, Mommy,” she laughed. “You’ve pretty much covered it all already.”
I realized Carrie Bradshaw was a far cry from Margaret Simon. Margaret was a shy, uncertain girl coming of age in the suburbs. Carrie was a smart, sassy, adventurous fireball who wasn’t scared to grab the bull by the horns. I wondered if I’d messed up. I want my daughter to know that vulnerability is okay, that she doesn’t have to go through this alone. And she doesn’t have to grow up too fast.
But then, one night, my sweet daughter stumbled into my room and climbed onto my bed, unable to sleep. I asked her what was wrong, and she said she’d been thinking about where she might be when she gets her period. The women in my family all started early, when we were about her age, so her anxiety wasn’t unreasonable.
So we talked about menstruation. I walked her through the details and outlined the different forms of feminine hygiene, confessing that I hadn’t tried any of the new ones, such as the DivaCup or period panties. Still, we agreed that they seemed like great alternatives, and continued to talk until she went back to bed. Later, I packed a period kit for her to keep in her school bag, complete with pads, clean underwear and a spare pair of leggings. She’s growing up.
But she came to me when she needed to talk. With zero fear, hesitation or shame. It was amazing. She spoke to me about her period easily, giving me hope that our efforts at openness have paid off. And if she came to me with this, maybe she’ll come to me when she has her first kiss, is ready to have sex or is just feeling insecure about her body.
At the very least, she knows I’m here, I’ve got her back and I’ll always be honest. No matter how embarrassing.
Julie Matlin is a freelance writer living in Montreal. Find her on Twitter @jmatlin.