For her junior prom, my daughter Katie selected a persimmon-colored, silky, draping, hugging dress. This launched a rather protracted discussion about—yes—underwear.
"So," I casually commented one day, "when do you have some time so we can run out and get a slip and underwear to go with your dress?"
I felt her freeze up. "A slip?" she replied, looking down at the bagel she was smearing with cream cheese.
"Yeah, I thought you might like a nice pretty slip to wear with it. We could even get some nice panties and bra." I swear I saw her physically cringe at the words.
She was too polite to smirk to my face. I raised her right, after all. She just looked up at me and said, "Mom, nobody wears slips."
This went on for weeks. She enlightened me. The obvious choice was a thong. A thong? Aren't those for your feet?
When she tried it all on for me, I was caught off-guard. I looked at my innocent daughter's shining face, her beautiful body in this elegant sheath, and I said, "Girl, that boy is gonna take one look at you and he's gonna have a …" You can fill in the blank. Heart attack, you might be thinking. No, nothing so delicate.
Not my finest mothering moment. I immediately recoiled at my crude comment, and while I was wondering if she even knew what that word was, she laughed. Not only did she know exactly what I was talking about, she only pretended to be shocked.
Oh dear. I mean, it's not as if we hadn't had our share of talks about sex and protection and intimacy. But up to that point they had all been in the realm of clean, clinical, respectful, hypothetical dialogue. Well, OK, mostly monologue.
This was somehow different. I had inadvertently touched on a language that I thought would be foreign to her, which, I discovered, was definitely NOT.
This, I realized, is my daughter awakening to her sexuality.
Are you waiting with bated breath for the enlightenment I am about to impart regarding ushering our daughters into this most sacred, most delicate, and perhaps most fierce time of life?
The secret words for talking to our daughters about sex?
I got nothin'.
Because this awakening that I saw, that scared me, triggered me, and made me feel desperate to do for her what my mother couldn't do for me, had so little to do with sex. I couldn't control her sexual initiation. She would do it. I couldn't control whether she got hurt or not. She would someday get hurt. I couldn't control her decisions if she found herself pregnant.
We make it about sex because, yes, there is a sexual awakening. But there’s a lot more going on, and I think we do our daughters a disservice if we don’t nurture the fullness of their awakening.
I recall telling a friend that I felt like Katie was returning to my womb and asking for nurture and protection while she birthed herself into womanhood. And reflecting on her adolescence now, I remember the sweetest moments of her peeking out of my metaphorical womb into the world, venturing a risk here, a challenge there. Like during labor when the cervix dilates. Little by little, still in my protective nurturing care, we were birthing her together, 3 centimeters, then 4, then 5, until she was ready to emerge.
It felt sacred. Second only to her physical birth.
In retrospect, I see more clearly now what we together were rebirthing her into. And, let’s be honest, what really scared me: the fact that it was time for her to start navigating her own life. And the reality that the guidance our culture provided—rewarding performance, achievement, and self-control—often came up short. My daughter dutifully did all that but still felt lacking. Here's what she really wanted:
First, a solid, stable, and sacred space, call it the womb, where she could be in my presence and feel whatever it was she was feeling. She knew instinctively that she would need to learn to feel just for herself.
Second, a deep pool of my experience that she could feel safe to draw on. Did I tell her about my sexual escapades? Of course not. Instead, I shared appropriate bits and pieces of my story when it made sense. She would need to know that she will make mistakes, and bad things will happen, and she will survive.
Third, my vulnerability, such as it was at the time. I stood before her, many times, emotionally naked and unashamed, even in the face of raw family experiences. She would need to find how to embrace vulnerability for herself. She would need to birth into the uncomfortable and the real. She would need to feel safe in the face of life’s challenges.
Every child does it differently, just like every physical birth is different. Some will want out of that womb prematurely, some will kick and scream, some will not want out at all. Just as physical birth is an intensely symbiotic process between mother and child, so too is this rebirthing. As a mother I had to listen for those labor pains, those cues about my daughter's readiness. Sometimes I got it right. Sometimes not so much.
When my daughter was busy growing body parts in my womb, every new cell, every new limb and organ and fingernail was surrounded by me, touching parts of my body. Touching and separating, touching and separating.
So, too, with the rebirthing. So many processes of reconnecting and letting go.
Katie wanted a lot of touch. Not just a kiss or hug or pat on the back. She wanted to be snuggled into me, wrapped into my body in some way that felt protective and reassuring to her. And how blessed was I, that I could do this all over again? Feed her energetically with peace and hope and love and, yes, let her pour into me her moments of adolescent confusion and grief.
Katie’s 26 now, married, career bound, living her own independent life. But she still comes over and cuddles with me. We still navigate transitions together, perhaps not as significant as that first rebirthing, but important nonetheless.
Right before she got married, we had a date to shop for bridesmaids' shoes. I am a slow learner, so at lunch I brought up sex, birth control, and what have you. She said, "Why did I know we were going to have this conversation?"
"Because I'm your mom," I replied. "Do it for me."
Photos (top to bottom): Self-portrait by martinak15 from Flickr (CC); photo by Julia Caesar from Unsplash; photo of author and daughter provided by Christine Christman