I have a strange affliction when it comes to talking to my daughter about sex. Yes — she is only two and half, so our current sex talk is limited to things like locker room discoveries, birth stories, and, most recently, an awkwardly established set of rules that include things like, “sand is for digging, not putting down your underwear,” and “toothbrushes are for teeth, not vaginas,” — but it is here, exactly, that I falter. Every time I say the word “vagina,” I find a strange cascading lilt to my voice, one carried with a halting and falsely positive pitch normally reserved for questionably fun terms like: “babysitter” or “long car ride.”
I don’t know where this lilt comes from. I certainly didn’t grow up with it. My mom, determined to raise a sex-positive young girl, said “vagina” not with a lilt, but with the ferocity of a two-year-old snatching back a stolen toy. She taught me the word “clitoris” the same time she taught me “belly button,” “toes,” and “elbow.” Even today she shines when she tells the story of how, at just barely two years old, in the middle of mass, I cried out: “Mommy, these overalls are pinching my clitoris!”
She claims to have been embarrassed, but deep down I think she must have thought my tiny voice, stating so clearly my tiny needs, must have been a kind of miracle. I can only imagine the sex education she got growing up in an Irish-Catholic family with five boys, a stern — if loving — sick mother, and an alcoholic father. I imagine the nuns who raised her, so quick to write off her intelligence, her passions, her self, were also quick to tell her what they thought she needed to know: Stop Sinning. Get Married. Make Babies. Be Quiet.
And so, emblazed with the newly won freedoms of the time, my mother devoted herself to inoculating me against the shame, timidity, and expectations she had grown up with. She enrolled me in assertiveness training and loaned sex education books to my fifth-grade teachers. he hung out with lesbians, before HBO made them cool. She was straightforward and passionate when she talked about sex, her words matching the grainy black and white intensity of the photos in Our Bodies, Our Selves, which sat openly on the bookshelf of her quiet new apartment.
When I was 15, she took me out to brunch for a “woman-to-woman” talk. She knew I had a boyfriend and that things were getting serious. She talked to me about taking care of myself. About being sober. About using two types of birth control. About getting on the pill, when I was ready. And then, over tea and croissants and country cheese, she grabbed my hand, pulled me close, and said, “Honey, I want to buy you a vibrator.”
And yet here I am, lilting. Unsure. Panicked that the way I say “vagina” now will set into motion my daughter’s entire sexual future. Panicked that I will try and try to do the right thing, to say the right thing, to be the right kind of mother, and yet, somehow, I won’t. I am terrified my daughter will make the same mistakes I did.
The fact is, by the time we had that sex talk, I had already done IT, was doing IT. My first time was when I was still 14 and my boyfriend and I had been going out for four months, practically four years in high school time. The night it happened I was not sober, not on the pill, not assertive. I didn’t tell him what I liked, or didn’t like. I didn’t tell him anything, really, except for a slurred, “OK,” when he started unbuttoning my pants. Instead I laid there stiffly and watched the ceiling fan spin in the dark while he took care of things. And when I woke up in the middle of the night and found my young boyfriend rooting around under the sheets, checking out my wiring, poking around in the dark to see how things worked, I just laid there, pretending to be asleep, and let him look. It’s one of my fondest memories of him; it was sweet, in a way.
I don’t know why I didn’t say anything. Or why I didn’t say anything the time I got in too deep with The Football Player, or let The Cheater spit on me, or wore the stupid clothes The Controller bought for me. I don’t know why I let myself spin from one bad boy to another, giving and giving and giving and never expecting anything better for myself. I don’t know why I could never take the empowerment my mother tried so hard to give me.
Growing up, I wanted nothing more than to learn about sex from a tattered old library copy of Judy Blume’s Forever like everyone else. I wanted my mom to be like other moms: at home, happy, appropriate. I hated that her vocabulary included words like “erotic,” “sensual,” “passion.” I wanted only for her to be passionate about the life she had, the one I could see her shedding a little bit more of each day like the dried snakeskin and skeleton leaves that decorated the fresh subtle paint on her walls; the life she was growing out of, the same way I outgrew my favorite red shoes and my imaginary friend and horses. I wanted so desperately for that old life to be enough for her, because that life was the one I knew. That life was the one we were in together, not just on weekends or Wednesday nights.
Maybe that’s why I never turned out to be much of a taker. Because I saw taking from the sidelines, the back door, the view of someone left behind. And as a child, I didn’t know that mothering wasn’t just a phase one could outgrow, move past, leave behind. Back then, when she was out there taking, I was at home secretly wondering, as even the most loved children do, if maybe I was the one she was trying to escape, if I was the one holding her back.
I’m in the locker room of the YMCA with my daughter, watching her shower after swimming lessons. She looks absurd in the two piece suit she’s wearing, its teen-age cut underscoring her huge milk belly. I imagine, for a minute, the day she asks me to buy her a thong. She shoves me off as I finger her hair and I leave her in the shower while I run to pee. As I’m walking away, she cups her hand (the wrong way) to her mouth and shouts across the room, “MA, YOU GOIN’ POOP OR PEE?” I cringe as the naked old ladies around us laugh, and I quietly mouth back, “Pee.” I close the stall, then grin as I hear her yell again: “FROM YOUR VAGINA?”
As much as I’m embarrassed, I’m proud. My little girl is carrying the family torch. She is sharp, outspoken, shameless. She will make her own mistakes, but she also knows I’m there to shout to, to cry on, to help put the pieces all back together. Fired up in my own way by her young confidence, I yell back, liltlessly: “Yep, my vagina.”
After my last Naughty Mommy column my mom sends me an e-mail with the words, “Proud of You” in the subject heading. She has become my biggest fan, my best supporter, my confidant. How could she not be proud? I’m writing a sex column, for God’s sake! But I think it’s more than that. I think she’s proud I’ve finally found my own voice, even if it is still shaky at times. I think she’s proud of the way I’ve built my life, proud of the way I’ve taken on motherhood and proud, I think, that I’m trying to do it differently.
I open up the e-mail; she is gushing: “My daughter is writing like such a slut . . .” she says. “I’m so proud!”