For a few years starting when I was 9 or 10, my mother had a sex therapy practice. Her office was the book-crammed living room of our apartment, delineated by a heavy black curtain that she drew when she had a client. After school, my younger brother and I would tiptoe from the front door toward our shared bedroom, usually stopping to crouch behind the curtain for a few minutes when it was closed. We’d make gag-me faces and stifle giggles as these faceless clients, and sometimes couples, would unload about sex: the frequency with which they had it (or didn’t), their confusion about it or fear of it—and my mother’s calm if slightly impatient voice would nudge along their revelations. Although the mechanics of sex must have been largely mysterious to me then, I’d picked up enough from the dirtier Judy Blume books to follow along. Which made me equally embarrassed for these people, and ashamed of my own curiosity.
OTHER MOM ESSAYS IN THIS SERIES:
- My Mom Had Me at 18 and When My Daughter Was 18, I Got It
- Why My Old Journals Make Me a Better Mom
- A Big Shout-Out to the Working Moms, Mine Especially
- Notes from a Proud Mom and Her Teen Drag Queen
- Here Is a List of All the Ways I’ve Turned into My Mom
- Confessions of a Hypocrite Mom
- Mom to College Kid: Text Me, Maybe
- What Mom Got Right—Even When She Messed Up
- Anger Management, Mom Edition
- And Now My Kids Are Moms
This was the late 1970s, and my mother’s career choice was both personal and political. A former model, she was, in her mid-30s, a finer-featured Ali MacGraw who had grown up in the morally constrained Midwest before moving to New York for college. When my parents’ marriage collapsed, along with the entire postwar social structure, my mother joined a variety of women’s lib groups. Among these were pioneering sex educator Betty Dodson’s workshops, in which a dozen or so women would sit naked in a circle and enact a kind of genital show-and-tell. (The class was as radical then as it is today. Dodson still teaches it.)
I think my mother saw sexual liberation as the apotheosis of personal empowerment. So in our household, sex was not only not taboo, it was also flaunted as something of a lifestyle choice in the way that some homes are filled with plants or art. There was the considerable library of illustrated books on nudism and the Kama Sutra—along with a rotating cast of boyfriends I would find rifling through our fridge in nothing but a towel.
And so maybe it is not surprising that instead of The Talk, I got Dodsoned. One afternoon after school, when I was around 13, my mother handed me a small mirror to squat over in our bathroom and proceeded to give me a point-by-point lesson on my reflected anatomy.
Why is it that so much of what a mother does out of wanting the best has the opposite of its intended effect? Even, and maybe especially, when it’s done to make up for a deficit in her own life? All those piano lessons a mom insists upon—because she was denied the same—wind up causing music aversion. Likewise, her avoidance of the subject of money—to protect her kids from the shadow of ruin she grew up with-—breeds their own financial irresponsibility.
I imagine my mother’s intention that afternoon in the bathroom was to make me feel at ease with what was between my legs—to give me the keys to my own engine, so to speak. “Why would you be any more afraid of what’s down there than of the inside of your mouth?” she said. But my head swam with static as she described each part’s function, feeling more faint than self-actualized.
My mom eventually stopped practicing therapy and went into the more lucrative, if equally sex-soaked, field of advertising. Meanwhile, I have children of my own—three of them—so ostensibly I grew comfortable enough with sex to have it.
Photo courtesy of Alex Postman
But talking about it is another thing.
When our boys were 5 or 6 and demanded to know where babies come from, it was easy to rely on cartoonish metaphors to explain the body’s mysteries: The daddy plants a seed in the mommy’s tummy, and a baby grows there. I was all too happy to abide by a pediatrician-approved don’t ask, don’t tell policy. As the boys got older, I delegated the specifics to my husband, insisting that as the owner of a penis, he was the better explainer of it.
When we had a daughter, though, I knew I was on the hook. During her grade-school American Girl phase, I found a proxy for The Talk: AG’s Care and Keeping of You, which dispenses cheerfully candid lessons on health and hygiene. Now she is 13, approaching the age of my Dodsoning, and I know I have some work to do.
The other night, in a quiet moment lying together on her bed, I asked my daughter whether there was anything at all she wanted to ask me about sex. I was playing it cool, ready to field any question, no matter how specific or graphic or personal.
“Ew, mom, I already know everything,” my daughter said, instantly exasperated.
From who? I asked. From her best friend, she said, whose high-school-age sister tells her everything. I felt a twinge of hurt for being scooped, followed by a swelling of relief, despite knowing that whatever my daughter learned from a 17-year-old couldn’t possibly be sufficient. We lay next to each other in silence. While I was searching for the words “Never mind what you heard, here’s what I want you to know,” my daughter answered a text. And I left it at that: certain that I had just abdicated an important task of motherhood—but mostly afraid of saying too much.