Changing Body, Changing LifeSeptember 19, 2013 at 3:37 PM | Posted in Anna is my step-daughter., What's up? | 7 Comments
Early on in my relationship with Bill, when Anna was in second grade, he told me that she had posed a question to him from the back seat of the car: “Where do babies come from?” This caught him entirely unprepared. “I can’t talk now, I’m driving,” he told me he told her. I suggested that maybe he get her a book if he wasn’t comfortable talking about it because he couldn’t avoid it forever. So he gave her a copy of It’s So Amazing! She thought the cartoon bird and bee were a bit goofy, and she complained about (but continued to be interested in) the pages with drawings of naked people, but after a few more questions about eggs and sperm she pretty much dropped it. We were in the midst of an unpleasant court case with Bill’s ex-wife at the time, including being evaluated by a psychologist, and Anna’s mother attempted to use the book as evidence that we were sharing pornographic information with the child. Hunh.
A few years later, when she was 10 years old, we gave Anna the next book in the series. It’s Perfectly Normal talks about sex, gender, sexuality, sex organs, reproduction, puberty, relationships, family, and health in a way that is appropriate for that age range. Instead of sitting down with her and discussing it, we gave it to her casually and let her peruse it on her own. We thought she would come to us with any questions and, when she didn’t, we assumed all was well. Then one late night she defaced the book and marked it up with several disparaging words representing her feelings about the various sensitive topics. And she apparently told her mother she was uncomfortable learning about some things because I got an angry email message from Bill’s ex-wife listing the very specific details that she thought Anna was too young to know about. Hunh.
1. Giving the kid a reference book has mixed results.
2. Discussing sex and related topics with Anna upsets her mother.
Here’s the thing, though: Anna needs to learn about sex (and related topics) in a thorough and healthy way. There is always a way to bring it up an an age-appropriate way (as the books demonstrate) and, even if accidentally age-inappropriate, good information too soon* is better than too late. Anna is bombarded continuously with society’s lessons in sexuality, both subtle and overt, and it is up to the trusted adults in her life to provide guidance. There are only so many times I can say “Sex isn’t really like that” about something she saw on Glee or Desperate Housewives or Scandal without being driven to give her a deeper, more nuanced explanation. (Yes, she watches those shows. Judge away!) What middle school covered in health class was laughable and her parenting team (of which I am a member) kept punting. Now she’s in high school.
*An example of this would be when I showed her how to put a condom on a cucumber before she had any real contact with a boy. My intentions were good but my execution could’ve been more empathetic. Hey, better to freeze up with me than when presented with an erect penis, right? That was my logic. Her mother wasn’t happy about that, either.
I understand that I’m not Anna’s mother. I’m not one of Anna’s natural parents. But I am a parental figure and I take that role very seriously. I have no interest in undermining or usurping her parents’ authority. Really. If Anna’s mother wants to be the one to cover tender issues with her then I respect that. (I didn’t handle the menstruation talk or tampon lesson, and I wasn’t the first one to buy her a bra, so see?) But more important to me than her mother’s feelings is Anna’s well-being. I care about her too much to not share what I can.
So, lessons from before apparently not learned, I decided to give her a book. I checked out Changing Bodies, Changing Lives from the library a long while back to examine its contents and was impressed with the breadth and depth of the topics discussed. I kept waiting for the right time to give it to her when I realized, hey, NOW is the right time. Duh. So I ordered the book and began to stew about what I would write inside. Last night I took notes from a few links I had bookmarked and wrote a rough draft. Then I slept on it. This morning I reread what I had written, made a few tweaks, and got down to business. I knew that, as an overthinker, I needed to put pen to paper in a permanent way before the “Are you sure you included everything?” thoughts kicked in.
This book covers a wide range of relevant topics very thoroughly. It is an excellent read and reference. I hope you (and maybe your friends) are able to draw from its wisdom now and for years to come. It is not only about sex but, let’s be honest, that’s what I was thinking about when I bought it. Please absorb all it has to offer, of course, and know that any topic is open for discussion whenever you’d like.
I am not one of your parents, legally speaking, but I function as one and I love you. I want what’s best for you. I want you to know yourself—your values, your feelings, your beliefs, your strengths, your faults, your body, your desires. I want you to know that it’s OK to ask for what you want and make clear what you don’t want, about anything, anytime. I want you to have great sexual experiences. I want you to tread wisely over the delicious and treacherous terrain of sexuality. I want to give you some advice.
✩ I worry that the images of sexuality you internalize from TV can be especially misleading. Yes, sex can be spontaneous and passionate and special. It can also be awkward and quiet and boring. It can be a jumble of feelings and intentions, good and bad. It can avoid intercourse altogether and still be fantastic. It can be enmeshed with violence. It can be enlightening or confusing. But it is hardly ever simple and rarely makes a situation less complicated.
✩ Porn is the model for today’s adolescent boys. I guarantee that you will not meet a boy that hasn’t been exposed to it. Know that pornography isn’t inherently bad but it is a poor tool for teaching healthy relationships, sexual or otherwise. Porn made for men has no intimacy or romanticism, is focused exclusively on sex organs, and reinforces the idea that to be manly a boy must be a stud. It gives heterosexual boys the impression that girls exist for their pleasure, to do any position they want or role play to their liking. Be confident enough to call bullshit on this thinking/behavior when you spot it.
✩ Sex(ual activity) is a healthy, normal thing in the right circumstances. It is supposed to feel good—that’s the point of it. It’s about the desire to give and feel pleasure for all parties involved. It’s not about losing it or getting it or giving it up. You shouldn’t feel rushed or uncomfortable or pressured. You should say YES only to what feels good physically and emotionally and say NO to what’s unwanted, hurtful, or coerced by anyone.
✩ Putting yourself on a schedule to lose your virginity will only increase the potential for making bad decisions. You want the first time you have sex to be memorable in a positive way. Trust your instincts. Be discriminating and look for someone who deserves the honor of sharing your body in such an intimate way. (This applies to non-intercourse sexual activity too.)
✩ You are ready for sex in all its glory and complications when you are ready for the physical and emotional consequences. And remember, if you aren’t comfortable talking about it then you shouldn’t be doing it (whatever it is).
You are already navigating puberty with a fair amount of maturity and insight. You have emotional intelligence in spades. You are smart and beautiful and wonderful. Listen to your gut. Stand up for yourself. Know your worth. Think critically. Treat others with respect & expect it in return. Think things through, make decisions, and own your actions. Find your strength. Spend time figuring out who you are, what you want. And know that, no matter what happens, you have a safe place here at home with family that is always on your side.
Rock on, kiddo—
[signed and dated]
This is a bigger risk for me than it has been in the past. I didn’t consult with Bill about any of this and he had no input on what I wrote in the book or even my purchasing it. I suspect Bill will be OK with the book and my message but maybe not with my blogging the story. I worry that if Anna’s mother objects to the book, the message, and/or the blog post then I will have disturbed a balance that took a long time to find; she and I communicate regularly now via email and it is friendly. I have no idea how Anna will respond to any of this. Here is why I’m doing it: Anna deserves what I have to share and my best in giving it to her. Others may benefit from my sharing this experience with them as I learn so much when others tell their stories. I am explaining the risk, and have included the context of some past history, with the hope that a reader might use it as inspiration to share something that’s scary for him/her. Fingers crossed that my aim is true.