(References sexual assault, may be triggering)
A few nights ago, my daughter and I stood together in a long embrace. We had just had a conversation about boys and boundaries, and this was a we’ll find our way through this together hug. To me it felt like a reward for presence, for showing up and staying the distance even though it had fallen short of my personal best parenting moment. I could not help but notice the top of her head against my chin. She’s grown a lot in the past few months. She likes to remind me that she’s 12, and that she’s in the seventh grade. Intuitively, she is letting us both know that we are at a crossing.
“Mom, this probably sounds weird but…your heartbeat makes me feel calm.” Recently, she has taken to inserting a disclaimer before risking commentary of any kind. Still, she took the chance of letting me know that I am her safe place. She trusted me enough to sit with me and tell me she has a boyfriend. These are the riches of parenthood. This is the magic of 12.
Twelve-year-old brains have only just begun to marinate in the hormones that will eventually infuse their days with impulsivity and angst. There are a few lingering moments of simplicity. Twelve-year-old girls still take their mother’s hands (when no one’s looking). They want to be with us. They want us to see them, to know them, not as wistful reflections but as who they are and who they are becoming. No longer able to be swayed by subterfuge or fantasy, they watch us. They see us and they see through us. Life gets real at 12.
When my daughter tells me she has a boyfriend, she is revealing her deepest secret. She’s opening the door and inviting me in because she needs me to be there with her. She’s excited and afraid and confused. She wants to know that what she’s feeling is okay – that she is okay.
In our house, we’ve always had frank discussions about growing up, about body parts and the differences between us. It’s an ongoing conversation. My children might call it a lecture and sometimes it is. We answer their questions directly and then add footnotes for future reference. There are certain things we want them to know. We discuss friendship, boundaries, personal space, privacy, pleasure, and safety. We tell them about coercion and abuse and the absolute agency of “no.” Sometimes they hear what we say. Saying it makes us feel better.
This is different. My daughter doesn’t need a lesson. She doesn’t need to be scared away from affection or embarrassed into doubt. This is not about body parts, or privacy, or safety. This is about her, and me, and trust.
The uncertainty of becoming can be overwhelming. At 12, change is happening at high-speed. The elements and energy of mind, body, and spirit are on a ride that rearranges and eventually transforms. It is in the rearranging that our children need us most. They need us to be with them at the precipice so that their landing into adolescence will be soft. We cannot underestimate the value and power of our presence on the ride. Nor can we mistake how difficult it might be to hold on.
Boyfriend. I feel a jolt when it comes out of her mouth. She says it with a look that lets me know it’s more than a word, more than imitation or affectation. She feels it. I’d like her not to. I’d like her to refocus, to go back to concocting the edible slime and crayon lip gloss that was overflowing in my microwave only a minute ago. I don’t get to decide. I can’t control what she feels.
Honestly, I’d like a little more control. Fear is playing inside of me. I can hear the echo of my mother lecturing – repeating the repressive admonitions she heard from her mother, who heard them from hers, who heard them from the ages. I try to avoid regurgitating my history. I’m not always successful. Over time, I have learned to draw from intention, but in a state of reactivity, the old stuff comes out first.
I do not want my daughter to submit to shame or narrow-minded moralism. I want her to know her power. I want this because I believe it is every girl’s right. I want it because in the throes of repressive instruction and narrow-minded moralism, I was pushed to the ground at age 12, and sexually assaulted by a group of my classmates. It happened after lunch, every single day that seventh-grade spring.
I hold that girl inside of me, and I see her often in my daughter. In the likeness I recall images and smells and the visceral sensation of lying in the dirt and weeds with my skirt up and my legs spread apart. I also remember the fluttery warmth of a first crush and the longing to be noticed by the boy who sat next to me in class. There is a sweetness about 12, an innocence awkwardly striving to sophistication. This is where my daughter has invited me to be with her.
The other night, while we sat talking, I told her a bit of my story. As I spoke, I realized that I know few women who do not have a story of sexual assault. Nearly always told in whispers and bound in layers of shame, they are matters of fact invisible in the shadows. Recent history has shown us that there are no rewards for breaking the silence. Secrecy, however, is a kind of eternal return. It has perpetuated denial and denied the liberation of true healing – individual and societal. It has informed what and how we teach our children about the most intimate parts of themselves. Worst of all it has enabled a legacy.
In the United States today, one in nine girls under the age of 18 experiences sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult1. Federal crime data indicate that for every adult-on-child sexual assault that is reported to occur in a school, there seven such crimes perpetrated by students2. Comprehensive statistics on peer-assault are not recorded. This fact is evidence of a contemporary culture that denies full personhood to children and diminishes the enduring effects of such acts. This is not okay. As parents we have the power to affect change for our children and for theirs.
To parent is always about history and healing and love. It is natural to want to protect our children, and ourselves, but our fear does not serve us. It comes from something that is not now and what they are feeling is now. There is an urgency in their emotion which will not yield to our unease. They need us to be grounded and present and non-judgmental. When they feel safety and strength in us, they will come to know it in themselves. When they feel trust from us, they will be able to trust themselves. When we let them know that their feelings matter, they will believe that they matter. They will feel held in the space of a mother’s heartbeat, and then they will know their power.
1 Finkelhor, D., Shattuck, A., Turner, H. A., & Hamby, S. L. (2014). The lifetime prevalence of child sexual abuse and sexual assault assessed in late adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Health, 329-333. Retrieved from https://www.rainn.org/statistics/children-and-teens
2 McDowell, R., Dunklin, R., Schmall, E., & Pritchard, J. (2017). Hidden horror of school sex assaults revealed by AP. Retrieved from https://www.ap.org/explore/sch...-revealed-by-ap.html