“So do you and John have sex?” my 14-year-old daughter asked me, out of the blue, as we settled into a snuggle before bed a few months ago.
She was home from boarding school for the weekend, and I was eager to soak up as much one-on-one time together as possible. Her question, however, caught me completely off-guard — so I did what came most naturally to me: I employed the bob and weave.
“That’s not really the kind of question you can walk around asking people without any warning,” I told her, the glib line hanging awkwardly in the air, leaving both of us unsatiated.
“Ok,” she replied, twisting her blankie in one hand. “So you obviously do,” she added, a smirk spreading across her face. Just as the brilliant adolescent staring at me offered another chance, by flinging the proverbial door open a second time, I still froze — like a deer in headlights.
As a newly single mom, my hangup was this: Do I share information about my sex life differently when it’s not their dad I’m shagging?
Plus, I felt all the shame surrounding sex that I had accumulated in my own life — stemming from my own parents not talking honestly and openly with me about the importance of establishing healthy physical relationships — threatening to suffocate me. Which is why I delivered such a lame answer to my daughter’s incredibly curious and candid question. Don’t get me wrong: I talked openly about the birds and the bees with both my daughters from a very early age; each of them knew the egg-and-sperm facts, and each of them knew the basics of reproduction well enough to understand the swell of my pregnant belly when each of them was a scant two years old. One of them had even hypothesized that if two mommies wanted to have a baby they could buy sperm on the internet.
I had thought we were evolved when it came to this discussion — until puberty hit, and they started buzzing about my sex life.
Today, research shows that developmentally appropriate education about human sexuality — over time — is paramount in helping adolescents make informed, positive and safe choices about healthy relationships, responsible sexual activity and their reproductive health. At their yearly physical, before school starts, the pediatrician will usher me out of the room before asking each of my daughters a handful of perfunctory questions about pubic hair and periods. Sure, my older teen is learning bits and pieces about sex ed at school (she recently dropped the term dental dam in a casual conversation and my jaw followed suit), but that is not enough. “Why does everyone on the bus laugh when I pretend to smoke a cigarette?” she asked last year, replicating the motion by making a V shape with her pointer and middle fingers, holding it up to her mouth, and thrusting her tongue in and out of the space she just created. Oh boy I remember thinking. It is all. so. awkward. But it doesn’t have to be.
I’m learning to meet each of my daughters where she is by providing answers to her questions that are simple and age-appropriate. In fact, I have a new response to their myriad inquiries that is super simple: Do you really want to know? In the end, neither of them really wants to know about me and my sex life as much as they want to understand how to incorporate this giant topic—one that permeates nearly every aspect of their lives from school and friends to social media and song lyrics—in a way that does not feel so uncomfortable.
Over the past year, my 12-year-old daughter has been dismayed by her male classmates’ propensity for making “sex noises” during recess and slapping the inside of their thighs with a bare hand to elicit giggles from the other boys during class. “Why do they do that?” she has begun to ask. To which I simply reply: “Do you really want to know?” Her answer is always yes, and so I tell her. About how sex feels good, so people having sex make noise; about masturbation, and how it’s totally natural to explore one’s body. We watch Impractical Jokers together — a show about four friends who challenge one another to do ridiculous dares in public — and off-color humor inevitably arises: there are comments about “Camel Toe, The Musical” and “platonic 69” which used to make me cringe. But I now know well enough to expect the questions that inevitably ensue. Plus I’m better poised to explain, matter of factly, and keep moving.
In a weird way, I’m just waiting for my 12-year-old to ask me if my boyfriend and I have sex. When her oder sister asked the same question, I immediately wished for a do over; when the moment presents itself again, I will be ready: “Of course we have sex, sweetie,” is how I will start. “Sex is a normal, natural part of any adult relationship. Plus it’s fun!”
That’s not to say I didn’t blush a bit when my newly-turned 15-year-old asked me, after zipping up our tent on a recent mother-daughter camping trip, “So, Mom, when did you lose your V-card??” Our proximity to one another was such that I could feel the hot breath of her question on my face. And then my heart started racing. “Um, excuse me?” I sputtered. “How do you even know what that term MEANS??” I asked, never dreaming I’d be talking to my own daughter about losing my virginity. My wheels started to spin, and I was catapulted back to the evening six months prior when I had wished so ardently for a redo. This is it, I said to myself before taking a deep breath. The moment I actually willed into existence I thought. And then I told her. Turns out, it was way easier than I’d ever imagined. And the best part? By joining her in these ostensibly excruciating conversations, I’m decreasing the likelihood that she’ll make the same mistakes I did. And when she does make her own mistakes in navigating the path, which she will, hopefully she’ll be comfortable enough to tell me all about it—after asking me, “Do you really want to know?”