To My (Maybe) Daughter

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My dearest daughter,

I’m writing this to you at age 27, at which point I still don’t know how to change a diaper.

And I have to tell you right away, I live in a world where planes crash unexpectedly, and love doesn’t always win, and I eat pesticides for breakfast. My neighbors fight when they’re drunk and my friends have cancer and twelve-year-old students sell pot out of their lockers at school. I’m sorry darling, but this world is no place for a child.

I’m looking at a beautiful bouquet of flowers on the kitchen table that your potential daddy bought me three days ago and they’re wilted because I forgot to change the water. The sink is dirty and the recycling bin smells like sour milk and Coca-Cola. My home is no place for a child to grow.

But goodness, it would be so gorgeous to meet you. See, I know what your room colors will be, and I know your middle name. I know what font I’ll use on your birth announcement and I know you’ll be loved by more people than you’ll have time to meet. I just don’t know if we should, darling…

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Because I don’t know how to change a diaper and planes are crashing down all around us and I just don’t know if I’ll remember to change the water in the flowers and sleep enough and pick you up from soccer practice and that’s so terrifying. I just don’t know if we should meet like this.

But darling, I think I would compliment you every day. Maybe 67 times in a row one morning. Maybe just once before you drift off to sleep.

I think I would let you give me manicures and always let you pick the color. Chartreuse and old lady pink and electric blue. Anything you want. I think I would put you in tap shoes before you could walk, but then I would fear that you would love it and that you would end up like me.

And you see darling, that’s really why I know we shouldn’t meet. Because I’ve made such a mess. Such a mess that I don’t want you to see or feel or crawl inside. Little girls shouldn’t grow up in their mommies’ messes. I have years of cleaning and sorting and scrubbing to do before my life will ever be good enough for you to walk around inside it.

See, I was told I was too chunky to play Kathy in Singin’ In The Rain (which is a movie you and I would watch over and over and over until Gene Kelly would be the only man you’d ever think was good enough for you) and because I had tap shoes on at age three, I always thought I’d be in Singin’ In The Rain. I didn’t know that someone could tell me no just because of what I looked like.

And my beautiful young daughter, that’s why I stopped eating.

I stopped eating so often that I would get really hungry. And when my mommy and daddy weren’t around, I would eat everything I could find to make sure I wasn’t hungry anymore. Hours of candy and toast with jelly and marshmallow fluff. Oreos and peanut butter and cheese on Ritz crackers. Things that I would be scared to bring in the house now. Things that I would be scared to introduce you to.

I’m sure that I would let you eat whatever you want, when you want to eat it because I would never want you to end up like me. Yes, I’m sure of it. We would eat when you want, what you want, how you want, so that you feel that food is abundant and available and never forbidden. You can eat anything at all and I will never say no. Unless it’s McDonald’s. Or non-organic lettuce. Or Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches.

I think I wouldn’t make dessert too often so you don’t get hooked like I did even though the recipe for chocolate cake from your great-grandmother will blow your mind on every birthday that you have. I think I would teach you how fun it is to walk, to play, to swim, to shoot hoops. I think I will always buy you clothes that will fit you and make you feel comfortable. I think I won’t keep any fashion magazines in the house. I think I will never insult myself in front of you so that you don’t think that it is something women do.

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I think I would make a vow to never talk badly about myself in front of you. To never insult my body or my hair or my choices in front of you. But surely I’ll slip one day and you’ll learn that women are supposed to insult themselves and you’ll be unhappy for the rest of your life because of my bad decisions.

That’s when I would start to fail.

I would start failing and never stop. Just like I start eating and never stop. I just would never stop failing and how could you ever forgive me for failing you?

Oh it’s true, I know we would have such fun shopping for mascara when you’re 40 and I finally let you put makeup on those beautiful long eyelashes you inherited from your grandmother. And I know we would tease your daddy about how little hair he has and we would re-decorate your room all leopard print and we would, of course, watch crime shows together right before bed.

But what if we didn’t? What if I was so bad at being your mother that you forgot all about me?

And what if we never got to know each other, and you ate soggy cereal and thought that I didn’t care, and you started to hate what you see in the mirror because I can’t get through to you in time to convince you that you’re perfect?

This is why we can’t meet, darling. Because the world is a terrible place and there will be drugs in the locker next to yours and your science teacher might like kiddy porn and the school lunches are made with terrible preservatives and you might not get the lead in the school play and a football player might break your heart or worse and why would I want to put you through that?

Your twenties will consist of credit card debt and student loans and dead end jobs and terrible men and multiple roach-infested apartments and you’ll push me away even though I want to help you and I won’t know where you are in the middle of the night or if you’re driving drunk or if you’re sleeping in a ditch on the side of the highway. I won’t know and then I can’t keep you safe and that’s my job and so many times in my life I didn’t get a job because of circumstances out of my control and this time I got a job that I really really wanted but it turns out I’m simply not cut out for it because I’m a terrible mother and I don’t know where you are and you’re 28 years old and I can’t protect you and I’ve failed.

I want to tell you darling, that if I’ve learned anything in my 27 years on this earth, it’s that no one else can make you happy unless you’re already happy inside. Isn’t that the funniest thing? I never would have thought it to be true until I got older and started thinking about the first time you and I would meet. See, where ever you are, there you are, yes, and if you’re not happy inside your own sweet body, how can you be happy if the circumstances around you continue to change? You must find the inner peace, the inner strength, the inner love within yourself before you can go around giving away all your peace and love to anybody else. You cannot rely on someone else to complete you, or make you happy, or heal your sadness. And goodness darling, I guess that means I can’t rely on you to complete me, or make me happy, or heal my sadness. That would be quite a job for you in all your tinyness and I’m smart enough to know that it just wouldn’t be fair.

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And of course, of course, I know that I could bring you into this world and love the shit out of you, love you and do everything I can to make you happy, but when you leave me at 18, at 28, at 40, I’ll revert right back to my 27-year-old self who wasn’t quite happy inside before you came along. And without you I’ll fail miserably at managing my own life, facing my own fears, loving my own body that once housed you. And I can’t come to you for help because you’ll be raising your own tiny thing, and although I’ll want to give you advice and say, “No! Don’t have her, don’t do it, spend your life alone, tap dancing, avoiding food, figuring out how to be happy”, you’ll hate me for my advice and of course I’ll glue my lips shut and stay in the car while you register for strollers and bouncy chairs.

No, I simply cannot have you, because I know how happy you would make me and I think that I might smother you with compliments and hair barrettes. I think that I might brag about my professional manicurist who paints my nails chartreuse and old lady pink and electric blue and I think it would bring me great joy to brag. I think that I would teach you to tap dance in a little studio I’d have your daddy build for you with mirrors and lavender paint. I think that you would make the best Mother’s Day gifts. I think you would be able to change the world if you wanted to.

But we simply can’t darling, because I still haven’t changed the water in the flowers and I still haven’t quite figured out how to stop eating all the chocolate chips.

You know, your potential father always tells me to make my decisions based in love, never fear. Easier said than done, am I right? Yes, you’ll find he’s wise. Unfortunately, he makes so much sense sometimes that it drives me bonkers. But I mean seriously, I’m writing you this letter because I love you, and I’m pretty sure that we shouldn’t meet because I love you so much that I cannot bear to let you experience any pain or heartbreak or disappointment.

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Which I suppose your potential father would say is actually a letter based in fear.

Which I suppose means I’ve made a mess in my head again and I won’t have time to sort it out until I get home from work on Friday and finish doing all the dishes I left from the week of stale sandwiches and bowls of sickening ice cream.

I suppose at the bottom of the sink I’ll find a blurry reflection of myself, huddled over the dirty sponge in a mess of fear and sadness that I am choosing not to meet you because I love you too much.

I suppose in my reflection I’ll see a face that would very much look like yours and cheeks that once got pinched by a loving aunt and eyelashes that I inherited from your grandmother.

I suppose I would want you to experience that loving pinch from your aunt and your grandmother in every sense of who she is and I suppose I would want all those people that I talked about to meet you and love you and join me in telling you how fucking amazing you are.

And I suppose that your potential daddy is right. There are a million and one reasons to avoid meeting you, based in fear.

The only reason, and I mean the ONLY reason I would say it’s acceptable for us to even consider meeting, is love.

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So, we’ll see darling. I’m not saying it’s a yes. I’m saying that it’s a maybe. Don’t argue with me young lady, I said I’ll think about it. I have some cleaning up to do and some soul sorting and some flower water to change and the list goes on but I’m overwhelmed so I’ll stick with my maybe. And until I am in the right mind to make a decision, I ask your forgiveness for what happens between now and that potential meeting.

Because I love you and I already love my chartreuse manicure and your tiny feet and your laugh and it hurts my heart like crazy to think this world is too messy to keep me from ever hearing your laugh but out of fear, I must protect you from it and thus the cycle starts all over again and I’m so confused about what I want and what you might want and what sort of relationship we can even have in such a place where the planes are always crashing down.

But I would love the fucking shit out of you. So I’ll keep thinking on it.

You room colors would be baby turquoise and rich plum and your middle name would be my grandmother’s – Janet.

Holy shit darling, I love you more than you will ever comprehend,

Mom (maybe)

What I Know About 14

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14-year-old-girl Image via Shutterstock

My fourteen-year-old bursts from the room she shares with her younger sister.

“MOM! She threw my blankets on the floor AGAIN! After I’ve REPEATEDLY asked her NOT to!”

I can tell by the tone of her voice it’s going to be one of those evenings. The ones where hormones collide with perceived injustice to create a vortex I inevitably get sucked into. I know it’s going to start with me calmly trying to talk sense into an irrational brain, then escalate into a ridiculous argument, then culminate with me throwing up my hands and probably yelling more than I want to. I know that.

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Over the years, I’ve nodded along with mock sympathy when other moms would lament their challenges with their teen daughters. But I really thought my daughter would be different. I really thought I would be different. Somehow I thought her kind disposition and my relaxed temperament would make us immune to typical mother-daughter squabbles.

You’d think I’d have learned by now that motherhood doesn’t work that way.

It’s not like she’s a bad kid. She’s pretty awesome, actually. But MY LORD, the drama. She saves it all up just for me. Perhaps I should feel privileged. Perhaps this is normal—in fact, I’m sure it is. But it’s exhausting. The stomping and the eye rolling and the demon that possesses her without warning. The constant pushing of buttons and boundaries and the relentless questioning of every rule she doesn’t agree with.

I love her to no end, but I hate the hormonal upheaval happening inside of her. I know it has to happen. I know the pushing and questioning are necessary steps to independence. I know that.

But I’m worried. I’m worried that time is running out and I haven’t prepared her enough for the world. I’m worried that I’ve somehow forgotten or neglected some major life lessons throughout her childhood. I know that teaching those lessons is not 100% my job. I know that there are things she’s going to have to learn and experience on her own. I know that.

But I’m scared. I’m scared about her growing up and losing her innocence. I’m scared of mean girls and handsome jerks and date rapists and persuasive peers. I’m scared that she might make the same mistakes that I made, and mistakes that I didn’t. I know I have to trust that we are doing our jobs as parents. I know that she will make mistakes and that she will learn from them—and that even hard lessons are still lessons. I know that.

But I’m sad. I’m sad that she’s too big for me to pick up and cradle in my arms to make everything okay. I’m sad that I won’t always be there to protect her. I’m sad that one of these days I’m going to blink and she’ll be gone, off having her own adventures, forgetting to call her mother. I know that that’s just the cycle of life. I know that she won’t understand the fierceness of my love for her until she has kids of her own. I know that.

When I step back, I can see that so much of my frustration with her right now is wrapped up in my own fear, worry, and sadness. That’s where most parental angst comes from, isn’t it? And I’m guessing a lot of her own angst comes from the same place. Growing up is exciting and scary and awesome and confusing. I remember that. I just never realized it would feel the same way from the other side. Now I know.

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So when she bursts from her room again, I know what will happen. We’ll argue. She’ll roll her eyes. I’ll lose my patience. She’ll stomp away. I’ll put my hands to my head and vent to my husband.

Then I’ll calm down. She’ll calm down. We’ll talk, then laugh. I’ll wrap her strangely grown-up body in a hug. We’ll both say, “I love you,” and we’ll mean it.

Thankfully, I know that, too.

Related post: The Multiple Personalities of a Tween Girl

10 Things (You Might Not Want To Know) About Raising Girls

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One minute you are a new parent, counting tiny little fingers and toes and plastering your daughter (and everything around her) with Pepto pink, gloriously ignorant of what comes down the road…

1. Someday you will have to teach this person how to use a tampon. Good God! The humanity involved in this situation. The look on your daughter’s tween face as you unwrap the tampon, slide down the applicator and explain how to insert it. That gaping mouth and huge eyes as they exclaim, “You put that where?”- Then telling her this is all happening because she is “growing up,” as you simultaneously whip out a pad that looks (and feels) like a big diaper.

2. Your daughter will one day have body hair. Ugh. Just ugh. While husbands can express pride as a father over any body hair their sons manage to grow, for me this part is a chore. I hate shaving my legs and armpits and as for the rest, holy shit, didn’t I have enough to handle covering the tampons?

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3. You are going bra shopping one day with someone that is 11 going on 25. You will be ready to outfit your chick, standing with the Supergirl underoo set balancing on your finger, as you point and smile from across the aisle. And if your child is anything like I was, she will immediately reach for the lacy padded bra (a fact my mom shared at dinner that night with extended family). Sigh.

4.  Boys aren’t the only ones that stink. You carefully bathe your tiny babe when she’s little. You slather her in Baby Magic; sniffing her head like it’s a drug, right after her bath. Then…one day she smells like her brother’s P.E. bag. You gotta start that love of bath and body products sometime. Now is that time.

5. Your darling will not put on Gymboree and Hannah Anderson forever. Oh for the days you could outfit your girl in the appliquéd dresses with matching tights, hair bows and shoes. Or that stage when she would not leave for the grocery store unless she could go in her Cinderella costume, complete with plastic, clunky slip-ons. Choose your battles, Mama. Remember the days you dressed as Madonna, circa Like A Virgin? It could be worse.

6. Someday you will be the dumbest person on the planet. Remember the times your mom would start out, “You know when I was your age…” as she delved into some story-who knows what it was, were any of us listening? While in your head you were saying (in a bitchy little voice) “She doesn’t understand.  She has no idea how I am feeling.  Will she ever stop talking?  Why is she wearing that shirt with those pants?…”  No life experience or degree will count here- it will happen to you, too.

7. One day her phone will get more face time than you do. Think it’s cute when your toddler plays on your phone?  Good. Without parental intervention, it will likely become her main form of communication. Do society a favor and teach your child how to carry on a conversation. If your daughter is texting you from inside the same house, there might be a problem.

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8. Someday, boys, damn it. Your hubs will handle the chat with any suitors, but you get the hard part. Not all boys will like her back. And some will take her sweet little heart – chew it up, spit it out and rub it in margarita salt. That’s when she’ll need you most and like your mother before you, you won’t know what the fuck to say. Boys suck.

9. Someday you are going to have to talk to your baby about babies, sex and contraception. You are going to have to whip out the biggest cucumber in the produce aisle to show her that, in fact, no boy is “too big” for a condom. You will tell her that her body is HERS. That sex is nothing to rush into (and you probably won’t tell her, but in your mind you know, “first times” usually bite).

10. Someday she will hate you, but not forever. Girls are hardest on their mothers. In the meanest, MEAN GIRLS way they will tear you down as their hormones seethe through every inch of their body. She will be such a little asshole that you just won’t be able to stand her. But you will, because once upon a time she was that precious chubby cheeked baby and she is yours AND you are stuck with her, just as your mom was stuck with you.  And hopefully, one day she will have a girl too and know the precious moments and living hell she put you through.

Related post: Glitter is the Devil (And Other Things Moms of Girls Learn)

Glitter is the Devil (And Other Things Moms of Girls Learn)

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Contrary to popular belief, I was ecstatic when my doctor announced in the delivery room that a third little girl would be joining our family. I grew up with two sisters, and couldn’t wait for my three daughters to experience the same excitement and volatility of being trapped in an emotionally unstable, explosively melodramatic, all-female shitshow.

Plus we already had all of the girl stuff, which made things easier because I place an inordinate amount of importance on logistical household efficiencies. Our boy name was Jessica, and Jessica was going to look just precious coming home from the hospital in his little pink gingham Lilly Pulitzer classic shift dress.

But I’m tired of talking about our fake son Jessica. Let me tell you what I know about raising little girls:

1. Be warned – girls can be every bit as gross as boys. Except it is freaking disturbing. When hanging out with my nephews, I am surrounded by a cornucopia of bodily excretions. Farts. Burps. Dropping trou and peeing in the front yard. Poop talk. Boogers flying to and fro. Unidentified matter wiped on my pants. It all seems very organic, normal and expected. Because they are boys. And boys are disgusting.

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But there is just something straight up haunting when a little girl with ribbons tied around her pig tails lifts her leg at the dinner table and rips off a seven-second fart like it’s her job. My eldest daughter has even gone so far as to teach herself how to fart on command, once taking it too far. And by too far I mean a change of underwear was involved.

My husband paused his standing ovation long enough to wipe a tear of pride from his eye as she screamed, “Whoopsie!  Guess I gambled and lost!” and ran upstairs.

So sorry if I’m not racing in for a front row seat when my 3-year-old walks penguin-style out of the bathroom with her ruffled bloomers around her ankles and screams, “Hey everybody! Get in here quick and check out my monster turd!”

I just still believe in maintaining a certain level of mystery in our home.

2. Speaking of wardrobe changes, outfitting three little girls every day is like trying to solve the same riddle that has a different answer from minute to minute, all with a clock ticking in your ear.

I have long since abandoned the idea of giving any sort of input on daily clothing selections.  I don’t comment, speak, breathe or make eye contact as they are weighing their options.  My job is to simply make sure everything is covered that needs to be covered and no one smells like urine.

“Listen, sister,”  I’ll say. “YOU picked out this adorable little dress in the store. And I bought it. With money. Because you said you liked it. Now wear it.”

“But it’s so itchy!” She’ll say, poking at the soft, 100% cotton fabric like it’s a vest of thorns.

Once a selection is made I slowly tiptoe down the stairs because I don’t want to upset whatever balance the universe has achieved when they find something they like. And it can be anything.  Really – I don’t care. The cutest little dresses hang lonely in their closet still bearing store tags, but duds like this get worn to the threads:

I waved goodbye to matching bows and ruffled socks long ago.

Of course they usually change again before breakfast, after breakfast, as I am tearfully begging them to put on their shoes and get in the van, after they are in the van, before naps, after naps, before bed and sometimes in the middle of the night if they have a concept they want to test drive for school the next morning.

We are never on time. For anything. Like, ever.

“This shirt raises up when I lift my arms!”

“I guess I just feel more like something in a lighter shade of pink today.”

“I was just kidding when I put on this shirt.”

“But there’s spaghetti sauce all over this dress!”

In their defense on that last one… I am a bit of a slacker when it comes to housework.

*licks mac and cheese off dirty fork and thoughtfully places it back in silverware drawer*

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3. Glitter is the devil. Glitter should be treated with the same respect you would give someone standing in your living room with the Ebola virus. It is infectious. If allowed into your home it will multiply exponentially until it defiles every available surface.

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It all seems innocent enough. “Oh but this headband is super cute,”  you’ll say, putting it away in the vanity.

Then two days later you catch a glimpse of yourself in the bathroom mirror and realize you’ve just sat through a one-hour PTO meeting with a bedazzled mustache. The more you wipe, the longer and more lush said mustache becomes. Oh look, now you have matching sideburns.

Don’t be a sucker. Any toy, article of clothing or human being who enters your home brandishing glitter should be burned and discarded immediately. The end.         

4. Hair. Prepare yourself to accept failure. Hair is a big deal. It’s super hard to remember to take my Valium in enough time that it kicks in by the post bath de-tangle. And that hour of blood curdling screams is nothing compared to every morning when I have to figure out what to do with it that won’t make them look like rabid wild animals.

I had just mastered the art of the ponytail when one day my so-called “friend” sent me a link to a YouTube channel called Cute Girls Hairstyles.  They have simple little ‘dos any parent could easily bang out in no time:

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Any parent except me, apparently. Unless step #1 was, “Go into the linen closet where we have placed an expert to do it all for you,” this was not going to happen.

And I know this because once I tried to French braid my daughter’s hair. I would have had better luck gluing feathers to my arms and jumping off my roof. Which has crossed my mind more than one time as someone stood before me on the hairstyle stool screaming balls.

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It was three minutes of pure hell that ended with her flailing around on her bedroom floor like I had stabbed her in the kidneys and me nursing a case of arthritis. Mid-way through she decided she had enough and took off running down the hall, dragging me behind with my fingers still intertwined in her hair. I had invested too much time and I refused to let go and not finish the job.

And that was a just a simple French braid. There was no way this cascade-flower-knotted-twist extravaganza is happening.  Not now, not while she is conscious. But now, seeing how adorable it was on the other little girls, I know what I have to do.

Chloroform.

5. The future of another woman’s inherently fragile body image rests squarely on your shoulders.  No pressure, though. A few days ago my daughter asked me if I thought, “The kids would think she was beautiful and like her” if she wore a certain dress to a birthday party.

Well crap. We’re here already?  I’d already expertly dodged her image-related questions such as, “Mommy, why do you wear makeup?”, “Why do you put that foamy stuff in your hair?”, and “Why do those underwear make you cry (Spanx)?”

I couldn’t think of a single answer to her dress question that wouldn’t turn me into a flaming hypocrite. So I told her the truth.

“Honey, the people who matter in your life don’t like you based on what you look like or what you wear. They like you if you pull all of the weeds out of the flower beds and scrub the baseboards.”  Then, stroking her hair and giving her a big hug I said,  “So let’s go ahead and get you started.”    

6. Boys let them flop around on the outside, girls keep them tucked away deep, deep inside. Then use them as a weapon when the time is right.

I’m talking about emotions.

When angry with one another, my nephews will punch each other in the head and move on.  (Side note – they will also punch each other when happy, sad, or to indicate that dinner is ready.) But girls tend to be a little more imaginative/sadistic.  “Oh, you stole my favorite outfit and wore it to the party?  No big d… I’ll probably just cut your hair off at the ponytail while you sleep.”

A long time ago my sister and I got into a HUGE fight. I’m not sure exactly what started it or why she was mad, but it may have had something to do with the fact that I smeared a huge handful of whipped cream across her face and into her hair for no reason at all while her back was turned. I knew from the moment she spun around she meant business. Even though she was three years younger she had about twenty pounds on me so I high tailed it to my room and locked the door. A half hour without any action, I timidly peeked my head out only to discover she was back in the kitchen like nothing ever happened.

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“Let’s just call a truce, okay?”  She yelled over her shoulder.  “I’m tired of fighting.”

Satisfied she had recognized my position as the dominant female, I sat down to enjoy the piece of banana cream pie I had abandoned on the table when she gave chase. The minute I shoved an enormous mouthful into my face I realized something was very, very wrong. That something was that she had dumped an entire container of salt and garlic powder on said slice of pie. After vomiting in the sink for ten minutes, I truly appreciated the power of the female mind.

A punch in the head – unkind.  Mess with another woman’s pie – well that’s just fucked up.

7. They’re so fancy.  No really… inappropriately so. One night after dinner, the girls informed my husband and me that they wanted to put on a “dance show”.  All three excitedly ran upstairs to change into what we presumed was their dance leotards, tutus, tights and tap shoes while my husband and I turned on some top 40 music and settled in on the couch.

What came downstairs was illegal in 34 states.

They had put on every piece of sequenced clothing and jewelry they could find, smeared lip gloss from their chins to their nostrils and proceeded to own the song Fancy while strutting around the living room in my stilettos.  There was pouty lips and hair tosses and prancing around and at one point my innocent little baby bent over exposing her Pull-Up, grabbed her ankles and instructed us to “smack her booty”.  My husband and I just stared at her open mouthed, too stunned to even say a word.

“What the hell?”  He murmured under his breath.  “Did you teach them how to dance like that?”

“God no!”  I said.

It was not the first time I’d lied to my husband.  I totally taught them how to do that.  In my defense, though, it wasn’t on purpose; I had no idea they ever watched me cook dinner.  I was probably going to have to dial it back a tad.

8. It is really, really fun.  

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Because – well – doing girly stuff is awesome. Nails. Facials. Dance recitals. Dresses. Princesses. Building fairy houses. Bring it.

And you may be thinking, “Well, boys can do all that stuff too.”  And you’re exactly right. In fact, I highly encourage everyone to stage a stuffed animal wedding complete with ’80s-themed rehearsal dinner in their playroom immediately. We all come to the reception dressed in our best old prom dress, retired recital tutu, or just butt naked with a big blue wig and drink Ginger Ale out of my Great-Grandma’s depression teacups.

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I know the day will come soon enough that they’d rather drink anti-freeze than be seen in public with me. If my calculations are accurate that will be happening by about first grade. Instead of enchanted evenings I’ll get eye rolls, instead of play weddings I’ll get “whatever, Mom” in my face when I make the tyrannic request to please sift the hair out of the shower. Soon they’ll be too busy with their friends and boys other things and in their minds I’ll be relegated to my rightful role of cook, maid, or chauffeur.

A chauffeur with a very good memory who happens to be an excellent storyteller. Especially stories involving pretty young women who used to have an above-average aptitude for sharting their pants at the dinner table.

Because, well, I’m a girl too, after all.

Related post: Your Penis Won’t Fall Off And Other Things Boys Should Know

Darling, We Don’t Play With Our Vulvas At The Table

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girl-pouting-at-table Image via Shutterstock

It happened yet again. As I was sitting at the table for dinner with my children, I noticed my daughter’s hand fishing around under her skirt.

“We don’t play with our vulvas at the table. Go wash your hands and finish your food,” I scolded. She nodded, ran off, washed her hands, and resumed picking at her dinner.

Small children, they touch themselves. A lot. It’s fascinating to them. Small children have no sense of shame or disgust or fear of their bodies. A body is what it is. It does what it does. And everything that it does is kind of amazing, because they’re not old enough for lower back pain. It’s not sexual, it’s just… fact.

The first time I caught one of my kids playing with their genitals, I said nothing. I was momentarily paralyzed with indecision. One thing I knew for a fact I did not want to do was to shout, “No!” or “Stop!” What good could that possibly do? Sure, I would be spared the awkwardness of catching my child playing with her genitals on the living room floor, but what kind of lesson is that? To fear or ignore your own vagina?

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I thought about it for two days, and of course she gave me a second chance to react.

“Sweetie, we don’t play with our vulvas in the living room,” I said. Which sounded ridiculous and strange, but nonetheless true. Why is everything with little kids “we” statements? “It’s okay to touch your vulva, but people are private, and it’s a private thing. The only places where you should touch your vulva are in the bathroom or in your bedroom. If you want to play with your vulva, please go to the bedroom.”

She smiled and did, without question, because compartmentalizing where you do perform activities makes sense to little kids.

“We don’t eat in the bathroom, and we don’t play with our vulvas in the living room,” became the new mantra. And yes, eventually it became, “We don’t touch our vulvas at the table.”

I’m what some people call “sex positive.” That doesn’t mean I talk with my four-year-olds about how great sex is and how good it feels. It means I don’t pretend it’s something other than it is.

As parents, we lie all the time. About the Easter Bunny or Santa or the Tooth Fairy, about how long ten minutes is, about whether or not we remembered they wanted to have grilled cheese for dinner again, we lie a lot. But one thing I never lie about is sex.

I don’t want them to grow up ashamed of their bodies or confused about what they do. I don’t tell them about cabbage patches or storks, I make an effort, always, to be honest about human reproduction. Every aspect of it.

I’ve had conversations with other moms about having “the talk.” I don’t think my kids and I will have that particular talk, because they already know. And we talk about it often- kids are obsessive creatures. We read Where Did I Come From? and What Makes A Baby which together cover every aspect of the subject. We can talk about IVF and c-sections, because both of those are part of the story of their births, and we can talk about the fact that yes, mommy and daddy still have sex regardless of our plans for conception. And when they’re older, we’ll start talking about contraception.

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Because lying to your kids about sex helps nobody. Telling them that sex is “only between mommies and daddies” is a lie that leads to confused, hormone charged teenagers. Telling them that sex is “only something that happens when two people love each other very much” is a lie that causes hormone charged teenagers to confuse “love” with “lust,” or “obsession.” It leads to leaps of logic like, “If I have sex with them, we must be in love.” Or worse- “If I love them, I have to have sex with them.” And how many teenage tragedies are based on that misconception?

The truth is human beings, almost universally, like sex. It feels good. I’s supposed to feel good. If it didn’t, the human race would die out. The truth is sex isn’t special and magical just because it’s sex. The truth is you can have spectacular sex with strangers who’s names you don’t even know. The truth is that just because you can, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

And that’s what sex positive parenting really is. Not telling kids lies about sex to keep them from behaviors we don’t think are healthy. It’s telling them the truth, the whole truth, and letting it sink in so they can make their own good choices.

It’s telling them that sex is good, but it’s dangerous if you’re not careful. It’s teaching them to require their partners to use condoms, to buy their own condoms if they’re planning on having sex. It’s teaching them that while sex feels good, they can feel good on their own too. (Just not at the table.) That while sex combined with love is often the best sex- transcendent sex- that grows the bond of love and builds a closeness that is almost impossible to find otherwise, sex isn’t always like that- even with people you love. That sex can lead to pregnancy and disease, even with protection, so engaging in it is a commitment to deal with any consequences.

It’s telling them they’re not wrong, or sinful, or bad, if they have sexual feelings. Or even if they have sex. It’s teaching them that sex happens, whether people always make good choices or not. And it’s giving them the tools to ensure that when they’re ready, they’re smart and cautious and conscientious.

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There’s a lot of black and white comparisons when it comes to sex ed. Some people think once kids hit puberty, if they don’t have a strong fear of sex they’ll have as much as they can, as often as they can. There’s a lot of abstinence-only sex ed, based on teaching kids, “SEX IS SCARY! DON’T DO IT!” and it’s about the least successful program anyone has ever invented. In states with abstinence-only sex ed, teen pregnancy rates go up and up and up.

Telling children the truth about sex isn’t giving permission for them to have it- and this is the most important part- because nobody has the right to deny them permission for sex but themselves.

And that’s the thing I try to keep in mind when I say things like, “We don’t touch our vulvas at the table.” Sex is something that ONLY happens when both people WANT it to happen. And that means that the only people in the entire world with any kind of say over whether or not my children have sex is them.

I don’t get to tell my kids they have to have sex, but I also don’t get to tell them they can’t. They’re in charge. Your body, your decision.

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I never want to be responsible for setting the precedent that another person gets to tell them what to do with their bodies, and especially with their sexuality. I don’t want to be the gateway for a manipulative, potentially abusive boyfriend or girlfriend.

So I teach boundaries. Appropriate places. Hygiene. I teach my children that nobody is allowed to touch their bodies without permission. When we get in tickle fights and they say, “Stop!” I stop.

And when we talk about my pregnant friends, we talk about uteruses and sperm and eggs.

Most of the time, it’s not uncomfortable. Most of the time, the conversation lasts fifteen seconds.

Someday the conversation is going to be a lot uglier. Someday, we’ll have to talk about rape, and explicit and enthusiastic consent. Someday we’ll have to talk about healthy masturbation and pornography and realistic expectations of sex and sex partners and body image and a lack of shame for their bodies. And those conversations are not going to be as brief or straightforward.

But I’m ready. Whenever that day comes, I’m prepared. Because the groundwork is there.

“We don’t touch our vulvas at the table.” It’s absurd, but it’s got all the important pieces. It’s a micro-lesson in safety and consent and social propriety. I don’t think I’ll be able to say, “We don’t lose our virginity in the back seat of a car after a Prom party,” with a straight face, but I will be able to say, “We don’t have sex without thinking long and hard about it first, and we certainly don’t do it without being careful, and being safe, and being totally confident in the maturity of our partner and our ability to handle the repercussions if we get a disease or get pregnant.”

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Because that’s true. We don’t.

But I like that when that time comes, I’m part of the “we.” If I can tell my kids “we” have to be careful, they’ll know that no matter what happens, I’m in their corner. I’ve got their backs. Even if “we” make bad choices, I’ll still be there to help make things right again.

Related post: My Daughter Masturbates – Is That Normal?