Published on November 6th, 2014 | by Deb Stone4
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO TALK ABOUT SHAME: Deb Stone Asks Her Daughters To Remember
A teenage girl outside the Lloyd Center Mall dances suggestively under a street light while the sway of passersby pause to admire her quiver and jerk. Where’s her mother? I wonder, and then (because I have just enough understanding of feminist pedagogy to be uncomfortable with the judgment accompanying that thought) I shake it from my mind, replace it with She’s dancing, for God’s sake, why shouldn’t she? as if some binary conductor stands one foot on each side of the crevasse that divides my brain.
Then I think: I wonder what my daughters got from the mixed messages I gave when they were growing up.
By the time my daughters came to live with me at the ages of two, three, and four they had been victimized by men they had trusted, while under the less than watchful eyes of their birthmothers. I am not blaming their birthmothers for their children’s abuse; but I am offering this as preface to the vigilance and determination I brought to the task of keeping them safe once they were under my care. When my daughters moved into our foster home, their bodies knew what no bodies that age should know and they reenacted and replicated behaviors that were not safe or socially appropriate.
When you’re charged with the parenting task to reduce a child’s sexualized behavior, trying to teach children to live in bodies with such early violations, there’s a delicate balance to the messages you give.
I’m not good at delicate balances.
I’m more of a put it all on the table and let’s talk about it kind of mom. A size it up and call it out kind of mom. A git ‘er done girl. Our delicate conversations were done around the dinner table as two adults and eight children passed the potatoes or wound strands of spaghetti on the tines of their fork. “Okay,” I’d say, “I understand we need to talk about French kissing.” Or, “Who thinks it’s fine to peep in the bathroom window when someone is showering? Nobody? Okay, great. It won’t happen again, right?”
My motto for the growing up years was, “If you can do it, you can talk about it at dinner.”
Sometimes one or more children squirmed while the rest the family discussed what might have been handled privately in a different family. Most of the foster children in our family had been abused and that abuse had continued until the terrible secret was revealed. I drew a clear line: we don’t keep secrets.
By the time the girls were in high school, one of my daughters had a habit of wearing things a little tighter, a little shorter, a little more revealing than the school dress code (or my mom code) called for. On one morning, I saw what she had on, and I pointed toward her bedroom to signal that she wouldn’t be allowed to leave the house in that outfit.
“It doesn’t mean anything about me just because I like to dress like this!”
I waited for her to layer up, hoody over the t-shirt over the camisole, even though I knew she might layer back down once she got to school. She came into the kitchen with a tear-streaked face, more angry than sad, and I motioned for her to sit down.
“I’ll miss the bus!”
“Imagine,” I said, “that you’re in a terrible car wreck and you’re hurt. A car stops to help and two people get out. One is dressed like a clown, one dressed like a doctor. Who do you want to help?”
She glared at me.
“It’s not the same!”
“People judge based on what you look like,” I said. “We all do it even if we don’t mean to.”
“I don’t care what people think.”
“Well, you should. Because people who think badly of you may treat you badly.”
I said then what I thought she needed to hear. What I thought it was my job to tell her. Was I saying that if something awful happened it would be my daughter’s responsibility because of how she dressed? Absolutely not. Is that what she heard?
My daughters were coming into their own a few short years after the country reached a new low involving the sexual shaming of Monica Lewinsky when details of her relationship with President Bill Clinton became public. My daughter wasn’t having sex with a political figure but the attitudes about “sluts” and “whores” and other derogatory labels for females who enjoy sex had escalated even in school settings. I wanted her to follow the rules that made life simpler. No calls from the high school about dress code. No boys draped over her body taking what they might assume they could.
I wanted to protect my daughter. If I couldn’t protect her, I wanted her to do what she could to protect herself. Or maybe (here, from the other side of fifty where I can take perspective) she was more comfortable with her sexuality than I.
Maybe I’d gotten so used to unteaching my daughters about sexual precociousness that I’d failed to notice they had turned a corner that was not mine to defend. They were coming into their own as sexual beings and their clothing was part of the struggle to identify and brand themselves in the way that made sense to them.
Do all mothers struggle with this?
Maybe the moms that understand dominant culture, personal agency, and sex-positive messages don’t. The moms I knew did. Especially experienced foster mothers like me that could tick off traits of attachment disorder charts and sexual behavior checklists to describe the children who lived in their home in a kind of shorthand that didn’t intend disrespect but demonstrated it anyway. Casually, the way labels can be used to elevate one’s own status, as in I recognize these patterns of behavior and can manage them in the children I parent, otherwise known as I am a great foster mom! while trying to figure out how to intervene with children who hump the family dog or simulate sex with their foster siblings.
I was trying to unteach what perpetrators had taught.
Body space: “Put your arms straight out at your sides. That’s how much space you have to keep between yourself and other people unless they say you can come closer.”
Privacy: “It’s okay to touch any part of your own body but you need to do it privately.”
Safety: “No kissing adults on the lips. No sitting on laps. Side arm hugs.”
These aren’t the kind of rules I wish for children. I hope for a world where all children experience safe rough-and-tumble play, kisses and hugs and laps and tickles and the full range of delight that bodies bring at each developmental stage. But I had children whose bodies had been vessels for adult men.
Body space. Privacy. Safety.
Imperfect conversations. Arguments. Tears.
Present day: The teen at the light pole dances, and after the initial cognitive dissonance I think, She looks comfortable in her body. I wonder if my own daughters, now in their mid-twenties, are comfortable in theirs. How did my messages withstand the test of time?
I called the daughter to whom I had once posed the clown and doctor question a decade earlier. “I’m writing an essay about the messages I gave you about your body and sex,” I said.
A muffled sound came over the phone.
“Are you crying?”
She was. She had burst into tears at my question.
“I was sitting crisscross applesauce,” she said in a little girl voice I hadn’t heard in years, “with my hands in my lap. You came in and said, ‘Don’t do that. Keep your hands on your legs.’”
“Oh, honey,” I said. “That’s not what I intended to convey. I probably walked through the living room, saw and redirected you without giving it much thought. There were many of those moments with all of you kids. I’m sorry I said it in a way that made you feel bad.”
“I felt like I’d done something wrong.”
“You hadn’t. You just needed a reminder about privacy.”
I asked if she felt the same way about the messages I gave her about sex when she was in high school.
I heard her snuffle and compose herself. Her voice became that of the independent young woman I know her to be.
“Mostly you talked about birth control. As we walked into Fred Meyer, you’d casually ask if we needed any.”
“I remember saying things like, ‘If you’re old enough to have sex, you’re old enough to tell me you need birth control, and I’ll help you get it.’”
“Yeah. We knew we could come to you but it felt a little like a trap. You would get me the birth control but first I’d have to have a two hour conversation about being safe.”
I was expert at talking past the point of positive yield. It’s how I process things. I’m hardwired to jabber-jabber-jabber until I understand, or until I know someone else understands the point I’m trying to make. I was born in 1960, the year Joe Jones rhythm and blues hit You Talk Too Much reached #3 on the pop chart. If there was a theme song for my parenting style, Jones’ hit song had to be it: “You talk too much / you worry me to death. / You talk too much / You even worry my pet. / You just ta-ah-ah-ah-lk / talk too much.”
The second daughter I asked is more reserved. “I don’t remember you talking about sex much,” she said. “You gave me some books about bodies changing, but I don’t think we talked about it much. I just remember hearing the other girls getting in trouble for sneaking clothes they weren’t allowed to wear.”
“What do you remember me saying about your body?” I asked the third daughter.
“Don’t be a slut!” she said.
“I’m pretty sure I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t say that but that’s what you meant.”
“I didn’t intend for you to infer the word slut.”
“Oh, I know, I’m just saying that’s how I heard it. You said we had to dress how we wanted to be perceived. The message I got was not too low, not too tight. Wear appropriate clothes. You wanted us to be responsible but gave us wiggle room.”
“Then why did you say slut?” The talk-talk-talk part of me wants to make sure my daughter knows I wouldn’t label anyone that way.
“It’s just how I thought of it. It’s how kids talked about other kids.”
“What do you remember me saying about sex?” I asked.
“Don’t be stupid!”
“Okay, I’m certain I didn’t say that…”
“No, but that’s what you meant.
I wanted to correct her. To clarify that I meant don’t be reckless, but she had already moved on.
“If we were going to have sex, you wanted us to be safe. Use protection. When I made the choice to have sex I told you I needed to go to the doctor. I got birth control. I knew it would be a little scary the first time because of what I’d gone through, but I told my boyfriend if I say stop, you need to stop. He was respectful and understood. If I wasn’t taught to talk about what happened to me, I wouldn’t have been able to tell him what I wanted. I wouldn’t be able to enjoy sex.”
I knew this daughter had struggled with her body image as a preteen and adolescent, compounded because she shared a room with a sister who was taller and slimmer than she was.
“How do you feel about your body now?”
“It depends on the day. I’m fatter than I want to be. But there are days I get dressed up, look in the mirror and think, “Damn, I look good!”
I think about the young woman under the street light. Some people smiled as they passed her. Others gawked. She was dressed in an outfit that accentuated her curves. Her hair and make-up were all done up. She exuded confidence. I smile as I remember her, think: Good for you! Dance, girl, dance!
I imagine her thinking, “Damn! I feel fine!”
Note: The author’s adult daughters consented to their stories and photographs being shared for this essay.
Featured image (painting) by SeSe kim (flickr creative commons license)