Be warned. There is going to come a day in your parenting career when you will open your mouth to give advice to your kids and nothing will come out. The lack of words is usually because you aren’t sure what to say or you simply don’t want to say it. My own speechlessness often occurs in response to the not-in-the-book sex questions or the drug and alcohol queries about my past adventures. I personally don’t agree with the “come clean and tell-all” approach being talked about in some parenting circles, since a question asked by a tween has a very different context than that same question posed by a teen. Take sex, for example.
Last week, I had the opportunity to hear Ayelet Waldman speak and offer up her opinions on teen sex. I’m still spinning.
You may remember Waldman as the woman that set mommy groups on fire with her comment that she loved her husband more than her kids in an article she wrote for the New York Times back in 2005. She had a quick rise to fame alienating many moms across America as she continued to share that her still-passionate married sex life took precedence over her 4 kids. I vaguely remembered this controversy when I was invited to a fundraiser for a health center in San Francisco that serves teens. Ayelet Waldman was to be the guest speaker and I looked forward to hearing from her. I’d never read any of her writings — I guess I was too busy raising 5 kids while enjoying my perfectly average sex life.
As Waldman began to read a chapter from her book about her teen sex life, I could feel myself getting uncomfortable. She shared with the crowded room how she lost her virginity at 14 to an Israeli soldier while living on a kibbutz. She explained that as she moved through her teen years, she was quite promiscuous. She said it wasn’t until her 20’s that she made a pact with herself never to have sex again with someone she didn’t really like. Shortly thereafter, she met her husband and began her career as a Bad Mother. By the time she opened up the conversation to questions, my head was spinning. One particular question stood out for me.
Have You Told Your Children About Your Sexual Experiences?
To paraphrase, she said that not only has she shared her sexual history with her children, but she also has a box of condoms open and available in her bathroom and hopes that when her kids are ready, they will have sex in their bedrooms and not sneak around in a car (her oldest is now 15).
I looked around the room to see if anyone else disagreed.
I was very careful in how I shared my sexual dalliances with my oldest daughter. You see, I had a memorable speechless moment when she was 12 and asked me how old I was when I first had sex. What I recognized in that moment was that my answer would give her a benchmark for what she thought was an appropriate coming of age, so I hesitated in answering. My experience was unusual in that I went to college at 16 and so although my first experiences were at 16, I was a freshman in college. After some stammering, I went with the “in college” answer. I didn’t want to lie to her, but I knew she didn’t really care about my personal story – she was fishing for tacit approval. And at age 12, she wasn’t going to get it from me. I trusted that we’d be revisiting the topic many times during her teenage years.
And I was right. 5 years and countless sex talks later, at age 17 she now knows my story. She also knows that back in the dinosaur ages when I first started having sex, the message was all about not getting pregnant. Today, my message for her is about being safe- both physically AND emotionally. The HIV, STD, and pregnancy talk is straightforward, and there are tons of books and websites and pamphlets to help guide you through the facts. However, the sex talk about how I hope she never has to wake up and look in the mirror and feel used or shamed is a much more personal discussion. It was strange to tell her some of my stories and feel the past hurts resurface for me as I confessed that I haven’t always been able to look in the mirror without tears. Sexual shame for a drunken, stupid choice is a hurt that sometime never heals.
She gets it now. At age 12, she wouldn’t have understood what I was saying.