I was a shy kid, a private kid. Often, the novels that I read late into the night were my primary link to how things worked in the world. Even as a small child, I remember keeping secrets at school: the time I accidentally peed in the hallway in second grade, when I would hide in the bathroom if the teacher checked the extra reading assignments that I never could find time to do.
But, these were small issues—problems I could handle on my own. Then, puberty came along, and suddenly I wasn’t so certain any more.
I talked to my parents. I told them about my best friend and the 97 I got on my math test. I told them about how I liked English class and hated swimming.
I didn’t tell them about the bullies who called me flat-chested or burnt the ends of my hair with a cigarette lighter. I didn’t tell them that my best friend was pretty much my only friend and that her increasing popularity meant that I was alone more and more often. I didn’t tell them about the boy who I’d known since kindergarten who caused my heart to fly right up out of my chest every time he looked at me. I didn’t tell them that every sixth-grade girl but me was wearing a bra, or that I had to hide in the bathroom to change after gym so that no one would notice.
I didn’t tell them that I wore T-shirts when I went swimming because short black hairs had begun to grow under my arms and I didn’t even own a razor yet. I didn’t tell them that I was beginning to suspect that the musky smell that hovered around was coming from me or about the anonymous note someone left in my desk asking me to wear deodorant. I didn’t tell them that I was terrified both about getting my period and that I might never get it.
Somehow, I muddled through, survived the bullies and the loneliness, started wearing my dad’s spray deodorant, swiped a bra from my mom’s drawer, gathered up all my courage and bought a pack of razors–I still remember the dizzying freedom of having hairless underarms–and got my period.
I know adolescence is often a time when kids pull away from their parents, but also a time when they need them desperately. I think, perhaps, my case was extreme. While my other friends may not have told their parents about getting to second base, most of them did feel comfortable talking to their moms about bras and deodorant and shaving. The mystery of why I wasn’t able to has never been more important than now.
My son is almost 12, and already, his skin is getting oilier, the hair on his legs is thickening, and he’s starting to tolerate girls. We have a good relationship, an open one. He talks to me about friends and feelings. He even asks me questions about his changing body. But, he’s a boy, and the changes that boys go through during puberty are impossible to hide and largely applauded in our society. He likely won’t have to confront the confusing messages of desire and shame that are often sent to our daughters as their bodies begin to transform.
Young men have their own challenges to face. Certainly, I will always make myself available, but it’s comforting to know that my husband can help him and my younger son with the issues I might not be able to fully relate to.
Then there’s my 6-year-old daughter. I’ve been a mother long enough to know that the years until adolescence will go by in a heartbeat. It terrifies me to think about her navigating those rocky waters alone. What can I do to ensure that we keep our lines of communication open? I can’t ask that question without thinking back to my relationship with my own mother. She was and is tremendously open and loving, warm and generous. Why, then, did I have such a hard time talking to her?
I think maybe it had something to do with her views on dating. She was so worried about me becoming pregnant or ruining my future because of a boy that she often made being a teenager feel like a shameful condition instead of a natural transition. She’d cluck her tongue disapprovingly at my classmates who had boyfriends or even the ones who were just boy crazy. In my mind, if I allowed myself to become a teenager and started wearing bras and liking boys (which, oh Lord, I did), she would think less of me. Hiding my changing body was my only defense against what I perceived as the impending doom of adolescence.
My daughter is nothing like I was as a kid; she is bold and brave and a little bit sassy. She doesn’t seem to have trouble confronting would-be bullies or making friends. I’m in awe of how she navigates the world so assuredly. Still, I must admit that I have some residual fear over her transitioning into a young woman. The other day, she told me that there is a certain boy who makes her feel like fainting whenever he talks to her. Alarms immediately went off in my head. Words my mother had said a thousand times boomed in my ear: You are way too young for that. Don’t be one of those girls who are always chasing after boys, or you’ll end up in trouble.
Instead of voicing those thoughts, I listened to my daughter and told her that there was a boy in my first-grade class who made me feel just like that, and it’s one of the best feelings in the world. Would adolescence have been easier for me if my mother had given validity to my own such feelings? If I didn’t feel ashamed about changes and feelings beyond my control? I can never know for sure. All I can do is keep talking and listening and making sure that my children know that I will love them through every single stage of life and nothing—nothing—they tell me will ever change that.