Tu BiShvat, the birthday of the trees, is this Thursday. Trees are often used as a metaphor for family, as in family trees, so this week Esther, 28, of West Roxbury, debriefs with us about her family and the strong foundation she gets from talking about sex…with her parents.
One night when I was 11 or so, I fell asleep reading “What’s Happening to My Body?,” and my mom must have seen it when she came to tuck me in. The next day, she sat me down and asked, “Do you have any questions about your body or about what you were reading in that book?” I remember thinking that I actually should ask if I had questions; I didn’t because it was still mortifying at that age, but the door was open.
I have a clear memory of sitting in my bedroom when I was a junior in high school and telling my mom that I was taking birth control pills (days before a trip to see my boyfriend for the weekend in Cape Cod), and that I had been getting them from Planned Parenthood. She asked if we were also using condoms, and we were (most of the time). I felt simultaneously comfortable and super awkward.
There have been two major events related to sex in my life that I told my mom about only after the fact—a sexual assault, which was traumatic, and getting an abortion. I think I felt so ashamed that I didn’t share with many people at all, let alone my mother. But through my own healing process, I realized that I am really close with my mom and not sharing these things with her was preventing me from fully getting over them. I also knew, in my older brain, that she would just want to hug and support me, not berate me or shame me.
Telling her about the assault was hard—I told her when I was a sophomore in college, and it had happened in middle school. She was really sad, and I knew that would happen. I felt sad for not telling her sooner, but glad I had eventually.
With the abortion, telling her was a relief. It felt like this unnecessary secret I had been holding onto. My partner encouraged me to tell her because he knew how close we were and that it was weighing on me.
And now, when I have an issue or problem or question or concern, I know it’s important I talk to her, because she’s my mom and she knows way more than I do about most things. And she wants me to.
Having these difficult conversations with her has allowed us to become even closer. It feels like talking about sex with your parents is taboo, but I know she’s open about it, so I can be too. And I feel, in general, like I can be open with other people about sex as well, when appropriate.
I’ve been thinking about all of this a lot lately because when I was working in the South, I had teens coming to me with questions and concerns all the time. I knew they received abstinence-only education in school and that many of their parents wouldn’t be open to talking to them about sex. They couldn’t ask questions about sex because questions implied they were having it, which was unacceptable (to their schools and parents).
I never felt like I was doing something wrong to my parents by having sex of my own free will.
Now that I live with my partner and he has his own relationship with my parents, it’s made me a little clearer about my boundaries. I want to be respectful of our privacy while still allowing myself to be open and honest with my mom. I’m transparent with both my partner and my mom that the really intimate stuff stays in the bedroom, but if I had a concern or a problem he knows I would reach out to her. I think she also knows not to pry; to allow me not to answer a question if I don’t want to.
If other people want to try talking to their parents about sex, I think even just saying, “I wonder if I could ask you about [something]” is an amazing way to open up the conversation. Also, remember that however squeamish it may make you, your parents were likely at some point sexual themselves (maybe still!). Being a little more realistic about the sexuality of people you care about may help you remember that it’s not shameful to admit you have sex, or want to, or don’t.