My husband, Ed, slightly blanched, tosses a half-dozen condoms from our personal supply to me in the kitchen. That morning, in a post-coital calm, I had suggested to him that we should make sure our daughter has a stash of her own. He rolled his eyes and held his head. This is a dad who still waits up for his daughter every time she goes out. A dad who, for the freshman year homecoming dance, followed her to the restaurant and ate dinner at the bar to make sure she and her group were OK. Condoms? For his baby? But his urge to protect quickly became practical, and he nodded, “Yeah, yeah, I know we should.”
Meiko, 18, is leaving home to go far, far away for a long, long time. What adventures await her in Belgium, where she will live on a small farm and work at an alternative school? What will she see, whom will she meet during these six months?
What if she meets a boy she likes? Meiko is smart, beautiful, artistic, and athletic, and she’s never been in a serious relationship. In high school, most of her friends did the “group hang” rather than the pairing-off thing. Despite media reports about the outrageous percentage of teens “hooking up” randomly and casually, my conversations with Meiko indicate that she and most of her friends played it pretty safe in high school and were not sexually active. If I learn, years from now, that I was dead wrong about this, I’ll let you know!
In any case, it occurs to me that maybe Meiko should be equipped for sex, not that she would, but just in case, or if the situation arises, or just to be safe, but not to promote . . . I mean, really, how many young Americans lose their virginity in Europe? And contract herpes along the way? (I’m remembering the early 1980s, before we were conscious of AIDS.) Meiko should at least be protected, and I figure that it’s my job as her mother, since I can’t stop her from becoming sexually active, to see to it that she’s safe from STDs and pregnancy. I would be greatly comforted if she waited until the maturity of 21 or so before taking on the huge responsibility of a sexual relationship. But in the heat of the moment, who’s going to ask me? And it’s not like I waited for some magical threshold of readiness myself.
Perhaps I can do more for her than my mother did for me when it came to sex. When I graduated from college and moved in with my boyfriend against my parents’ wishes, the only guidance my mother offered was, “In our family, we don’t believe in abortion.” She didn’t ask me if we were using birth control or discuss relative merits of various contraceptive methods, she didn’t ask me if I’d seen a doctor, or hand me a book or pamphlet, or offer to make an appointment with a gynecologist.
I want to acknowledge my daughter’s fullness as a human, as a woman, and allow her to claim her power and privilege as a sexual, hormonal being in her own way, in her own time. I want her to be familiar with the sacredness of sexuality and intimacy. I don’t want to present sex as a mechanical act simply requiring the right equipment. But, at the same time, I need to be practical and concrete.
We have sex talks in our house, but as in most parenting matters, I’m somewhere in the continuum between permissive and authoritarian, cool and uncool, laissez-faire and overprotective. Except for chores and TV, I rarely make my kids do or not do something, but I try to compel them inwardly to do the right thing, cultivating inner responsibility and discernment. Our sex talks have been more philosophical than how-to.
But now that Meiko’s going off on her own, I figure that along with her raincoat and her work boots and her journal and her dictionaries, she needs condoms for her year abroad. So, how do you equip your daughter with condoms? Do you give her one, four, twelve? To give one seems symbolic in a silly way, but to give a whole stash seems decadent. Should I give her some of her dad’s condoms? That feels a little creepy, though certainly convenient. Do I get colors, flavors, novelty condoms? Oooh, yuck. I don’t want her to feel obliged to have sex as soon as she goes abroad. She was instructed to pack light and only has one suitcase. I don’t want her to fill her toiletries bag with rubbers, for God’s sake. After all, they do sell condoms in Belgium.
Meiko rolls her eyes and holds her head just like her dad when I hand the accordion-folded condoms to her. Simple Trojans, extra thin, ribbed. All this, when I don’t even want anything vaguely phallic to come near her. Not my sweet, chaste daughter and her innocent yoni! “Now, I don’t know when you’ll decide you’re ready to be sexually active, if you’re not already. . . .” I begin.
“I’m not,” she bluntly states.
“Anyway, I just want you to be protected,” I say, going on a bit about readiness and intimacy.
Katja, 16, walks through the room. “Look, Katja,” Meiko exclaims, “Mom gave me condoms!”
“Ooh! Now you can have sex,” chirps Katja.
This morning, Ed and I wake before dawn to take Meiko to the airport. “dear family,” she writes on the kitchen message board, “I will miss you when I’m gone. there is no family as weird as our family.”
Her suitcase just barely makes the weight limit at exactly 50 pounds. She’s got her euros and her debit card, her boots and her books. And not one condom too many.