In my research on women and girls they have taught me this: When it comes to learning about sexuality, yes, girls want information from their mothers, but far more than that, it’s the emotional connection to us they crave. The more emotionally connected to them we are, the more we support their life long ability to be emotionally connected to themselves.
Our daughters want to feel that learning about sexuality is just another thing their mothers are happy to lovingly guide them through. They want to bond with us around the bodies we share as females in the world together, and they want to feel proud and confident in those bodies.
As parents, we’re so freaked out about what could go wrong if we talk to our daughters about sex that we fail to consider the harm that can be done if we don’t. The consequences of our silence–or more accurately as daughters experience it, our withholding–can deeply affect a girls’ sense of self as well as the quality of her relationships. Where education and support could be building security, shame and self-consciousness creep in instead. We can easily see how this might inhibit her feeling comfortable in future sexual relationships. But we need to realize that shame and self-consciousness also affect how comfortable and honest she can be in non-sexual relationships, including the mother-daughter one.
When I give readings or talks on this topic, it doesn’t matter if the audience is one of teenage girls, college women, or mothers—some are almost always moved to tears in thinking about how alone they felt and how much they missed their mothers when it came to both growing into and living with their sexuality.
Some felt their mothers’ silence embedded in them a sense of guilt and discomfort in their own skin. Some felt they weren’t worth their mother’s time and effort. Some lost faith in their mothers because their mothers weren’t able to push through their own anxiety to be there for them in the ways they needed them to be. Some felt their mothers didn’t teach them anything because they themselves didn’t know very much. Some felt resentful that, without support, their sexuality couldn’t be assimilated into their sense of self like other facets of living could, like their intellect, creativity, kindness or athleticism.
And for those of us who think the importance of talking about sexuality is blown out of proportion, please know that some of our young and adult daughters are in crisis and we will never know. For some, mothers’ reluctance to discuss sexuality led to daughters’ decisions not to confide in their mothers child sexual abuse, rape, abortion and marital strife such as affairs. In each case they reasoned, if my mother couldn’t even talk to me about normal sexual stuff she certainly won’t be able to handle being there for me around sexual complications or traumas.
None of these conditions made daughters feel stronger or more connected to their mothers. They had the opposite effect.
“The Talk” is an outdated concept. What our daughters need is a series of conversations over the life cycle. When our girls are little, some of those conversations may only be the length of a sweet, impromptu question and answer. As our daughters age, others may unfold over days as you each sort out what you want to discuss with each other about anatomy, desire, decision making, and how love works.
No matter how they come to you, these aren’t moments to dread; they’re moments to savor. When you engage the content of your daughter’s mind and, as she becomes sexually active, the contents of her heart as well, you’re not only helping her deepen her understanding of herself, you’re deepening the quality of your relationship with her. As the mother of a young woman approaching 20, I can tell you what an honor it is to be lucky enough to have such conversations.
Joyce McFadden is a psychoanalyst, author of Your Daughter’s Bedroom: Insights for Raising Confident Women and The Women’s Realities Study. You can find her at www.joycemcfadden.com,, or on Twitter @Joyce_McFadden.
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