Last week I helped my mom recover from major surgery. While I was caring for her, I tapped in to a lot of the feelings that come up in the relationship I have with my own daughter. I started thinking about the circle of life and how I once needed my mother in many of the ways she now needs me. Essentially, she was the one who taught me to care for someone like this. It got me thinking about what I’ve learned from her--and what I haven’t.
My mother was a great nurturer. When my daughter is sick or scared or just tapped out, most of what works to comfort her are nurturing strategies channeled directly from my mother. My ability to give my daughter (and other people) space to be her unique self is a direct gift from my mother, who was a champion at tolerance and at choosing to fight only the important battles. My mom has always been the best, most fundamental, supporter for me. She is my go-to person when the chips are down.
Photo by Cavan Images.
And yet, there are some things that were off limits for us, things I wish I’d been able to learn from my mother. One of the most important, especially considering my personal passion and the profession I’ve chosen, is healthy sexuality. Over the course of my life, we've never even had a genuine conversation about any aspect of sex. The closest we came was when I was about 12 and she asked if I knew about having a period. She gave me a book about puberty, but that was pretty much the end of our conversation. This week as I've been caring for her, we veered around a conversation about birth control without getting personal, but there wasn't any sense of personal connection--it was difficult, impersonal, and slightly awkward. We’ve never even really engaged in a conversation about the work that I do. I know she must wonder whether I’ve been sexually assaulted myself, given that I have such a strong passion for helping others through that experience, but she’s never asked, so I’ve never told her.
Because we never opened the door to a conversation about healthy sexuality, I know very little about her relationship with my father, other than what I’ve been able to see for myself. I see that they have not been on the same page about a lot of things--politics, values, priorities, etc--but I don't really understand the deeper essence of their relationship, which has been difficult for me, especially because I have seen them struggle so much.
What a big gap! My mom was there for me in so many respects, but we never got to the place where we could discuss sexuality. Unfortunately, I think this is a difficult area for many families, but it is too important of a topic to leave to the randomness of life to answer! I mean, life did give me answers, but sometimes the hard way, and now I believe that of one of my most important jobs as a mother is to pass along an understanding of healthy relationships and sexuality to my own daughter. This is not something I want to have with her in just one conversation when she’s 12, but something that we can continue for her whole life. I want her to know that sex and sexuality are things that we can talk about, whenever she needs to talk about them.
I know I’m not alone in feeling that it was impossible to talk to my mother about sex and relationships, and I wish I knew how to make it OK to start having those conversations with her now. Even more, I worry that when my daughter hits puberty, I won’t find a way to keep the channels of communication open. It is so important to me to make sure she knows what she needs to about things like menstruation, sexual pleasure, consent, healthy relationships, date rape, menopause, etc. So, as a parent, I am always keeping my heart open to ways that we can work on this TOGETHER. I learn a lot through working with my clients, and it is my heart wish that my daughter is willing to enter that same safe space with me. I hope that through an open line of communication, I’m able to save her some of life's grief by passing along what came to me as hard earned wisdom. And most importantly, I want to do what I can to help her feel confident and empowered when it comes to sex and relationships--I want her to know that it’s OK to say no to something she doesn’t want, and that a loving partner will be open to communicating about anything that comes up in their relationship.
Have you talked to your mother or daughter(s) about healthy sexuality? If you have encountered obstacles, and especially if you’ve found ways around those, leave us a comment to share how it went for you!
Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado. She has a deep passion for helping survivors of sexual violence.