I entered Dateland without a talk. Not only did my mother not understand the unrestricted nature of the 70s, she barely understood dating in her own buttoned-up 50s. And my father, well, obviously fathers don’t do those girl talks; although, it seems to me that their insights into the minds of teen boys would probably be the most worthwhile thing to hear. So I was completely unprepared the first time a kiss became a grind and a contest of wills far more than a testament to romance.
“Mom! Guess what?” My daughter’s deep brown doe-shaped eyes and effervescent smile were, for a change, passionately-pleased to see me and so very close to my face that I breathed in her excitement and in a rush I breathed out my response.
“He asked you out.”
“To Homecoming.” Her scream came out as an overwhelmed whisper. Even though she had told me that she was no longer interested in this boy and there had been no talk about Homecoming, there could be nothing else that could have brought that degree of passion to my generally staid young lady, now a senior in high school.
I could barely sleep that night. I was so excited for her. Her first high school date. A date with a boy she has liked for more than a year, but both of them too shy, up to the low-key, “Want to go to Homecoming?” to do more than daydream. At first I channeled myself as her. What will she wear? Will he drive or will she? Will they go to dinner first? What will they talk about? Will they be too shy and sit in silence? But sometime in the night I awoke as a protective father, sweeping all thoughts of romance and first kisses, tongue or no tongue, aside. “No more than a peck good-night. Don’t rush anything. Don’t let him touch you—anywhere.” Was I having a father’s thoughts since her father isn’t around? Or did I realize that it is my responsibility to prepare her for dating as I had prepared her for playdates and kindergarten.
How do you prepare your daughter for the thrill of love and lust and not burden her with your own insecurities? I want to protect my sixteen-year-old daughter from letting her insecurities wall her up into a cocoon of protectionism that would stifle her development as a loved and loving young woman.
My older daughter, now 21, was so distant in her teens with the pain and bitterness of our divorce that I was unable to do “the talk” with her, other than to repeatedly warn her never to let a man—anyone—talk to her the way her father talked to me. So when she called me, six months after moving to LA to attend college, that she was in San Francisco for a few days with her boyfriend, who I had never heard about, all I could say was, “I hope you’re using protection. You don’t want to get pregnant or STDs.” To which she responded, “I know, Mom,” as if we were continuing a conversation that we had been having since she reached puberty.
My own fear as a teen was that someone would discover what I perceived as my physical abnormalities and so I reverted into prudishness. And even when I rounded second base, and no words of shock or disgust were uttered for my innie nipples, I was still embarrassed for my overwhelming body faults. I certainly didn’t look like the women in the Playboy magazines my brother had shoved under his bed, as I assumed everyone looked.
A healthy sense of my physical sense could have prepared me for the overwhelmingly-physical nature of dating. My parents subscribed to the child-rearing philosophy of “praise spoils a child,” so you neither praise for internal qualities nor for external ones. In that scenario, the only way to create a healthy sense of self is through years of trial and error. At 51 I do believe that I am finally accepting of my thunder thighs and gently rolling tummy, and my now drooping breasts.
For years I have been telling my daughter how beautiful she is, because she is. I don’t want her self-esteem be tied to what a man says to her. No, I want her to value herself and build her own realistic self-assessment. Of course, this has been in concert with talking about her intelligence and her sweetness. It seems just as hazardous to ignore a child’s physicality as it is to over-emphasize it. This way of raising her seems to have worked. She will shyly smile, say “Thank you,” and then look down when given a compliment. She can wear yoga pants or sweatpants, a body-hugging dress or one of my worn-out size L sweatshirts and look equally herself. Comfy in her skin seems to have been accomplished. What else do I need to give to her so that she is prepared to hold onto herself and fall in love at the same time?
The night before the Homecoming date we had a five-minute mini-lecture in the kitchen. Surprisingly, she didn’t resent my speaking to her, and the kitchen turned out to be the perfect location since it wasn’t a solemn sit-down in the rarely-used living room, rather it was a casual chat in the one room where we meet most often.
I had hoped to mentally write and rehearse my speech on my way home from work, but no ideas or phrases came to mind. It was disappointing; I had thought a steady stream of ideas would come. But they didn’t. So I ended up doing what I generally do: wing it. And, I must admit, what came out of my mouth was far more insightful than anything that casually popped into my head since last week when I knew I would need to have this talk, and even since I had daughters who reached their teens and the inevitability of this talk, with someone, became apparent.
“I need to talk to you about dating.” She rolled her eyes and her eyebrows went up, but she didn’t resist; rather, she looked at me as an athlete looks to a coach. “As a general rule, and I’m not saying this against boys, it’s just the way it is, they will always want to do more than you will want and it’s up to you to push his hand away or say ‘No.’” That felt so true and so unknown before I said it that I surprised myself with my insight.
“Mom,” was all she said because she was listening.
I continued, still not knowing what would come out until it did, but pleased with the accumulated wisdom of 39-years of boy-girl interactions. “It doesn’t matter if he pays for dinner or what he buys you, your body is your own and you decide what you want to do. No one deserves anything just because he paid for a meal. Your body is yours.”
“Don’t let anyone try to pressure you into doing something that you’re not comfortable with. Only do what you are comfortable doing. Move his hand,” and I moved my hand over the lower and then the upper girl parts, “and say, ‘No,’ otherwise he’ll continue.” She looked embarrassed. This might have been too much for a girl who hadn’t been confronted with a kiss yet, but if I couldn’t be blunt now, when would I be? “And if you’re ever in a situation where you’re uncomfortable, call me. Thank goodness for cellphones.” I wasn’t sure if I should go there, but I gave her a watered-down version of my scary date story. “One time I was in this guy’s apartment, somewhere in Buffalo, I wanted to leave but I didn’t know where I was and I was afraid. Afraid to leave and afraid to stay. I ended up staying. If I had a cellphone, I could have called a taxi to take me to the airport rather than wait until the morning for him to take me. It was scary. I don’t want you to be in that situation.”
Those doe eyes of hers were finally reflecting some compassion for me. “Okay.”
“I mean it. You don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to do.” Was there anything more to say?
We stayed in the kitchen for another couple of minutes talking about the logistics of the next night’s Homecoming and then she went into her room.
I followed her to say one last thing. On her bed was one of her best friends.
“Did you hear our conversation?” I was annoyed, not that she possibly heard what I said, but that our poignant mother-daughter moment hadn’t just been between the two of us.
She shook her head.
“So I had ‘the talk’ with her while you were here?”
“I wish my mom would talk to me,” was her response.
That made me feel less bad about having lost the absolute intimacy of the moment. In my mother-to-all / teacher voice, I reiterated, “Your body is your own, that’s the most important thing to know.” With that, I left them, hoping that my daughter would be my surrogate to her friend and add some more of my wisdom. I was particularly pleased with my realization that men will not stop unless you stop them.
I did what I could do; now it is up to her, and to the men in her life to respect her and her protective mechanisms, as every woman deserves to be respected and heeded.
I wonder what the boy’s father said to him. I hope that he told him to respect my daughter by not seeing her body as a baseball diamond, and that he told his son that the key to happiness with a woman, at 16 or 50, is not based on what you can get or how you’re feeling, but on how you make her feel.