Last summer I wrote an article about watching "Sex and the City" with my 14-year-old daughter. I talked about what a great bonding experience it was, and how it was a friendly way to segue into the slippery subject of sex. And I was criticized by many, even the ladies on "The View," for my questionable mothering skills. A recent New York Times article on the subject quoted another mother saying, "This is not how I want my daughter to live." And then Fox News asked me to do a segment where I was pitted against an Anita Bryant-type talk-show host who basically forecast my daughter's doom.
But I maintain that when it comes to the subject of sex, ignorance is not bliss, and silence is not golden. Teenagers are intensely curious about sex, and I appreciate anything that helps demystify it. "Sex and the City" is not the last word. It's a fun, casual way to get into a dialogue about a subject that is classically uncomfortable for parents and their teenagers. And, hey, my daughter didn't seem traumatized. Let other moms be uptight censorship-mongers. Not me.
But there is a long stretch of time to be gotten through from one season of "Sex and the City" to the next. During that time, my 14-year-old daughter has become a 15-year-old daughter. What's a mother to do?
This, of course, has been the year of the reality show. And, I admit, I became a reality show junkie. And where was my daughter? Was she interested in watching these trashy, exploitative, semipornographic sorry excuses for entertainment? No. As a matter of fact, truth be told, I'd been noticing she was avoiding me in general. This was not how a chummy mom and daughter who watch "Sex and the City" together are supposed to be! Our contact had somehow boiled down to the window of time when she made the trip back and forth from the kitchen to her Communications Center (bedroom) to e-mail, IM and phone (land line and cell) her friends.
So one night, as she was on her way out of the kitchen, I called out to her from the couch, "Joe Millionaire is about to choose between the elderly care worker and the ex-foot fetish model! You want to watch with me?"
"Mom," she said as she passed through the room, "get a life."
I turned back to the show. What was wrong with my daughter? Why didn't she want to watch trash TV like other normal Americans? I couldn't figure it out. But one thing I felt for sure, as I went to bed that night: Zora was a much better choice than Sarah, who was obviously just a fortune hunter. Joe had made the right choice.
Two days later I got the phone call. It was the father of one of my daughter's girlfriends. He was very concerned, because he'd seen my daughter emerge from the basement in his brownstone with this boy Ben and they were both, well, quite disheveled and, well, he just thought we should know.
I thanked him and hung up. Hmmm. A few weeks earlier, she'd engineered a "sleepover" with Ben at another boy's apartment along with her best girlfriend. I had put up a lot of resistance to this. (Maybe it would be OK for Samantha Jones, but not my daughter.) And I made a point of going to meet the mother of this other boy just to be reassured that the mom was sane and would keep an eye on things. My daughter assured me that this was a perfectly innocent, platonic night during which the two girls would sleep in a separate room from the two boys. I gave my OK.
Well. It was obviously time for "a talk," and as soon as possible. Now I knew why she'd been distant. She'd been hiding something from me. I felt annoyed, but I tried to get past that. Every mother knows this is the most crucial time in a teenage girl's life. You've got to keep the lines of communication open, give advice, let her know you're there for her ...
Except. The finale of "The Bachelorette" was on. I was not about to miss that. Maybe we'd talk later in the evening, right before bedtime.
But then my daughter walked through the room to get a snack when the show was about to begin, and I thought maybe we could watch together, and get into a casual chat about what was going on with her these days as far as school, boys, basements ... "You want to watch 'The Bachelorette' with me? Trista is gonna choose between Ryan and Charlie!"
"No, thanks," she said.
"Everyone thinks she's gonna pick Charlie. But Ryan is really cute and sensitive."
"You are such a loser," she said, as she disappeared into her room.
That's right. My daughter was calling me a loser for being hooked on all the sexy reality shows that she was above watching now that she had a sex life.
OK. I had to calm down. I had to remind myself that I was not the "uptight" kind of mom, and I didn't have a problem with her doing something that would make her "disheveled." She's 15, she's watched "Sex and the City," and she's a healthy red-blooded girl, right?
But why had she felt the need to keep things about Ben a secret from me? And what really happened on that sleepover? Exactly how far had they gone?
The following evening my husband and I took her aside and asked her what was going on. She admitted without any hesitation (and with some relief) that yes, Ben was her boyfriend. Now that it was finally out, I could see that she was proud of the fact. And she honestly did seem to like the little punk, I mean young lad.
We proceeded to have the inevitable conversation about how important it is to have a mature, intimate relationship before becoming too physical with a boy, so we really felt that she should not be having sex, so, as my daughter would say, yadda, yadda, yadda.
She reassured us that they weren't doing anything stupid like that. She said she didn't want to do that yet, and looked at us like we were a couple of perverts for even thinking such a thing.
I felt relieved.
Then she said, "So can Ben sleep over?"
"What?" I said. "No."
"Because you shouldn't be sleeping in the same room together."
My husband looked at me. He taught her to swing a bat -- this was my domain.
"Because it will make it too tempting for you to go too far."
"That's not fair. My friend Amelia gets to have her boyfriend sleep over."
"Just because you had hang-ups about your body ..." she hurled at me, "I don't have to have them about mine!"
This was a low blow. She'd read my novel (some people would say it was inappropriate for a 15-year-old) called "Thoughts While Having Sex," which is about a 25-year-old woman who is very anxious about sex. No matter how many times I'd told her it was fiction, she liked to think I never made anything up. She was now touching on something that did make this more confusing for me. In my 20s I did struggle with feelings that sex was not supposed to be for "good girls" (like me) and I didn't want her to have that same experience. I didn't want sex to seem forbidden to her, or like it was just for "other girls" or "bad girls."
But she was only 15.
The talk ended on that unsatisfactory note. And it wasn't until the following morning, when I went on a walk and was thinking about everything, that I realized I hadn't said anything positive about the fact that she had a boyfriend! As if all this news had simply been a threat to her maidenhead. As I arrived home, she was just leaving. I got in what I wanted to say just as she stepped onto the elevator. "You know, during our talk I forgot to say something."
I held open the elevator door. She raised her eyebrows at me.
"Congratulations. You're doing great in school, you look great, and you have a boyfriend. I'm proud of you!"
She smiled, said thanks and looked quite relieved that the elevator door was closing. Of course, I had thoroughly embarrassed her. But somehow, I had remembered in the nick of time to say the right thing.
After that, she was in a much better mood around the house. She didn't have to keep Ben secret anymore. And it became clear that the secret had been wearing on her. And she could now bring him over, and we could actually get to know him, and they could "get disheveled" in the comfort and privacy of her own bedroom instead of some friend's basement. She made me promise not to tease her about him, which I promised. And I realized that she needed us to adjust our perceptions about her. She was older now. "Getting disheveled" was not just something she was watching on TV; it was something she was actually doing.
Though the question persisted. Exactly how far had she gone? How far were they going to go? Should I get her birth control just in case? Would that only encourage her to go further? I wasn't sure what to do, but I did want to try, as much as possible, to stay in contact. Since we were back on a friendlier plane, I thought maybe she would be into watching some TV with me. And so I asked her one evening as she was passing from the kitchen to her Communications Center, "Want to watch 'Married by America' with me? It's really bizarre. This guy is proposing to a woman he's never even seen! There's a partition between them and a hole for her to stick her hand through so he can put the ring on her finger!"
"How stupid can you get?" she asked, and sat down next to me on the couch.
Finally, I thought, we're going to have some quality time together.
"Mom," she asked, "can Ben sleep over?"
Not this again. Couldn't she at least wait until a commercial break? "No."
"I promise, we'll sleep in separate rooms."
"I'm not staying up all night to make sure."
"Why don't you trust us?"
"Should I trust you? What did you do that night you had that sleepover? Before you told me he was your boyfriend?"
"We didn't do anything. I swear! You see?" She stood up. "This is why I didn't tell you! Now you know about him, so you set all these restrictions!" She headed to her room, turning for a moment to toss off the coup de grâce. "It's not like we can't do whatever we want to do when you aren't home, you know!"
Yeah, I knew. So what's a mother to do? Letting Ben sleep over did not necessarily mean that they would have sex. But wouldn't it make it more likely to happen? So wouldn't it be sending the wrong message? I was not giving in on this.
Even though 15 just sounds too young to me for sex, some of my favorite, most accomplished, smart and interesting friends tell me they had sex at that age. I went to one of them, also a mom, for advice.
We met for coffee at a diner a few blocks away. Laura told me she practically lived with her high school boyfriend -- slept over at his place all the time. When she got pregnant, it was his parents who took her to get an abortion. Her parents never even found out. They didn't seem to want to know what had been going on, was her impression. They had thought of her as "the good girl" and trusted nothing was going on. Even now, she was full of regrets. She wished she hadn't been so active then. She felt she had allowed herself to be used, wasn't really ready for it, and the abortion still made her unhappy. "I wasn't really making my own decisions," she said. "And the sex was more about pleasing him than me."
As I walked home, it was all swirling around in my head. You want your daughter to enjoy her body. But you want her to be ready for it. Because you don't want her doing it just for him, or to be cool, or to impress her friends. It should be for herself. I thought about my own early experiences, which didn't take place until college. My first boyfriend wasn't the one I lost my virginity to. But he was the first one that I slept in the same bed with overnight (never actually having intercourse). And I remembered how truly wondrous that was. The first time I actually felt another person's body up against my own. Naked together. Soft skin to soft skin. The giggly, silly newness of it all.
But even so, did I want her to be experiencing this when she was so young? With the possibility of pregnancy looming? No! It seemed like I had to find a way to encourage and discourage at the same time.
Laura and I had agreed on one thing. The best thing you can do is let your daughter know how you feel. Beyond that, she's going to make her own decisions. And, as the mom, I was not likely to be the first to know. In fact, there seems to be a need for our teenagers to do all this in secrecy. I know one mother who put one of those programs on her daughter's computer that read all her e-mails and could see what porn sites she might visit and which child molesters she might have been chatting with. I considered it briefly, I admit, but it is such an invasion of privacy that I couldn't.
When the subject of "Ben sleeping over" didn't come up for a few weeks, I dared to believe that maybe my daughter had accepted my feelings on the subject. Then, about a week before she was going to camp, we were watching a documentary on MTV, "The Social History of Piercing." We were in my bedroom, and I was glad she was there. She often used to station herself in front of my bedroom TV while I worked on my computer, and it seemed like "old times." So I was working on my computer, turning around every once in a while to watch. I was especially turning around when they started talking about piercings on the hoods of men's penises and near the clitoris. I didn't even know the piercing thing was "happening" in these strategic locations! So now I guess you could say that I was learning from watching her shows. And these 20-ish kids on TV were talking about how much better these piercings made the sex and yes, this wasn't a comedy like "Sex and the City" on a pay channel like HBO, this was a documentary on the channel whose demographics are specifically geared toward the teenager.
"Do you know people who do this?" I asked her.
"Yeah," she said, as if anyone should know that of course people get pierced in these places. It was on MTV, so why shouldn't she think it wasn't general information?
"Do you know anyone who has one?"
"I knew someone who wanted to do it," she said. "But her mom wouldn't let her."
"What do you think of doing that?"
"Yuck," she said.
I turned back to my computer with relief.
"But I do want to get a tattoo," she added. "Something small and pretty."
"I don't know," I said, hating how stuffy I sounded. "Once you get it, you're stuck with it forever."
"That's why I'd put it where you wouldn't see it when I'm wearing clothes."
Oh, right, I thought, so only her boyfriend would see it when she was naked. I refrained from saying that or something equally negative like, well, you know it hurts. She knows it hurts. And it's her body. So I kept my mouth shut.
And then she asked, "Can Ben sleep over the night before I go to camp?"
I sighed. "No."
"For the same reasons I've already told you."
When that night arrived, she and Ben went out to a nearby Mexican restaurant to spend their last time together before being separated for the summer. They were in the living room watching TV together when my husband and I went to bed that night.
The next day, Ben arrived again early in the morning with bagels and orange juice and flowers. They had breakfast in her bedroom with the door locked.
The day was the usual frenzy of last-minute labeling, laundry and packing. She was moody, and I had to remind myself that even though she was happy to be going back to camp, she was not happy about saying goodbye to Ben. He was going wilderness camping and would be gone until after she returned in August. Maybe I saw him as a predator. But they had grown close, and she really was going to miss him.
After we got everything in the car, I took my tour of the apartment to make sure all the lights (and computers) were off. I checked her bedroom. And saw that she had packed the sheets off her bed. And she had scattered the red and gold petals of Ben's flowers onto the white mattress pad. I smiled. It was so romantic. And I couldn't help wondering. Ben had stayed quite late the night before. And he had arrived quite early that morning -- before my husband or I were up. Had he never really left? How far had they gone? I stared at the flower petals on the bed, as if they would reveal the truth. The only thing I saw was my own curiosity. And the hope that whatever they were doing, she would not get hurt. And that it would be wondrous.