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Columns and Articles by Joyce Maynard

Parenting: The Girlfriend Sleeps Over
(and other highlights in the utterly shameless sexual development of my children)
by Joyce Maynard

Published in I Wanna Be Sedated, Seal Press, Edited by Gail Hudson and Faith Conlon, pub. Spring, 2005.

Willie and Charlie, smooth, debonair young gentlemen.Thirty seven years later, I still remember the excruciating shame I experienced when my breasts began developing, and the embarrassment I felt at the prospect of asking my mother for my first bra. I put it off for half a year—months in which I raced to the girls' locker room as fast as I could, on gym days, so I could secure a bathroom stall to change in. I couldn't bear for the other girls to see my undershirt. A year later, at fourteen, when I got my period, I was once again struck dumb by the prospect of telling my mother, and so I pedaled my bike to the drugstore, filled my shopping basket with a bunch of unnecessary sundries, all to mask the real purpose of my mission: buying sanitary napkins. Taking out my money to pay, I cringed at the thought of the cashier, imagining me menstruating. I would always choose a woman for my cashier. That was bad enough.

Given the level of shame I felt over everything to do with my body and sex, it is a source of some amazement that I got to the point, only nine years later, of conceiving and bearing a child of my own. One thing I knew, when the day came that I had a daughter myself (and then two sons): I wanted my children to grow up with a very different approach than what I'd known as a kid, surrounding their sexuality. I was going to raise children who wouldn't feel, as I did, that there was something shameful about their bodies. My children would be able to ask questions about sex, and when they did, they'd get straight answers.

If I was to truly succeed in raising children who felt comfortable with their sexuality, of course, I knew it would take more than words to get the idea across. And we were tested early. It's a totally natural impulse, for a four-year-old to put his hand on his crotch for a little pleasure, or simply comfort, and the enlightened parent knows she shouldn't tell her son or daughter there's anything wrong in that. But see what happens, when he engages in innocent, joyful exploration of his body at the library story hour, or when (as happened in our family one time) a neighbor (fundamentalist Christian minister's wife) stops by your house with a basket of her fresh-picked tomatoes, at the precise moment your son is engaging in the previously-described joyful exploration. (So there I was: the progressive, open minded mother, suddenly suggesting alternative activities for my four-year-old. Taking out the play doh. Setting a bowl of goldfish crackers on the table. Finger food...)

Still, I'd like to think that more often than not, the messages my children's father and I (long divorced, but of like minds on this topic anyway, I think) tried to convey to our three kids, as they grew up, were ones that taught them to feel good about themselves, not shameful.

I didn't flaunt my naked body, but neither did I go to excessive lengths to conceal it, when my kids were small. When a pregnancy occurred, or a birth, we discussed how that came about —- a circumstance that no doubt explains the report we later got from our daughter's preschool teacher, when (at age four) she was graphically enacting childbirth scenes, complete with moans of pain, during recess time.

When people talk about kids and sex, the focus goes invariably to the teenage years, but of course the way a child views sexuality at fourteen and sixteen is shaped by the signals we give her at two and four and six. I wanted those messages to speak of acceptance, ease, and a certain wholesome recognition that the vast topics of the body, of reproductive biology and sex were interesting, worthwhile, and healthy.

This is a tall order, in a culture that identifies the territory, very early on, as shocking, titillating, and unmentionable.

We always used the real names, not cute diminutives, for body parts. Young as they were, our kids understood early that those words carried a certain kind of power.

I remember a day, on a family trip to New York City, when my daughter was eight, and her younger brothers four and two. We were riding a city bus when Willy, the youngest, decided to make up a song whose much-repeated refrain featured the word "vagina." I suggested that he lower his voice, but not wanting to convey any negative attitudes where female anatomy was concerned, I didn't silence him altogether. Our fellow passengers gave us stony looks, the whole ride uptown. When we reached our stop, and I moved towards the door, one woman shook her head at me and said, "You should be ashamed of yourself."

I wasn't. I think I understood well enough, and tried to convey as much to my kids, that the rules for how things were out in the world, and how we needed to behave there, were not necessarily the same as how things were in our own family. Like every little boy I've ever met, mine loved and were endlessly amused by their penises. We lived in rural New Hampshire, on a dead end road, where major entertainment could always be provided for my sons, in the form of making designs in the snow, while they peed outdoors. On hot summer days, our kids played naked in the pond beside our house, and afterwards, smeared each others' bodies with mud till it dried in the sun, then jumped in the water again, to wash it off. All three were early, natural sensualists. I believe that's what every child is born to be, until society, or culture, or kindergarten teachers, or television and too many video games, saps it out of them.

Whatever you teach them at home, kids learn early that anything to do with sex and the body is volatile stuff. Some of the fascination is inborn, and natural. (Though I've seldom seen a little girl who celebrates her body parts the way little boys tend to do. There was a stretch of years in which my sons seemed to spend a substantial portion of their day engaged in some variation of sword play. Everywhere they looked, I think, they saw some variation of a penis. It never ceased to thrill them.)

I was cleaning one of my sons' closets one time. (This was Willy. Same boy who sang the vagina song on the New York City bus at age two. Now he was nine.) At the bottom of a stack of school papers and baseball cards and Mad magazines, I came upon a drawing. Across the top, in Willy's recognizable handwriting, the words "Why Boys Love Baseball." Below it, a drawing —- a pretty good one, actually —- of a baseball bat and two baseballs, almost tenderly tucked alongside the base of the bat, in such a way as to bear uncanny resemblance to the most immediately distinctive element of male physiognomy. Bat and balls. Got it.

Perhaps one element that contributed to the almost crackling sense of sexuality around our household, during those years -- and beyond -- came from the fact that I was a single parent, and though I hardly carried on what anybody could have described as a wild social life, a child grows up differently, when his mother's dating, than he might if she is simply, safely, married off to his dad.

I didn't flaunt my relationships, when I had them, and except for a couple of times when a relationship had reached a level of seriousness allowed me to believe it might become a permanent one, boyfriends didn't sleep over at our house. Still, over the many years of my single days, my children witnessed no small amount of dating and courtship activity —- not always confined to those weekends when they were away at their father's house. There was one awful night, when I went out on a date despite the fact that my older son Charlie was suffering from what seemed like a minor stomach ache, only to return home (at three a.m.) to find him moaning in bed, gripping his belly, with what turned out to be a case of acute appendicitis that had me racing him to the hospital for surgery before dawn.

That event alone might have produced sufficient guilt in me that I'd have given up dating forever, only it didn't. I remember another Friday evening —- my children having been picked up by their father for two nights with him —- when I was preparing to go off for the weekend with a boyfriend. Suddenly I heard the door open downstairs, and footsteps on the stairs. Next thing I knew Willy (now ten) had burst in the door to my room, having returned home unexpectedly to pick up crucial piece of sports equipment. He thought he'd give me a kiss goodbye. When he entered the room, I was in my underwear —- the kind a woman might save for a weekend away with a man.

He looked at me sharply. "What's the point of having purple underwear if nobody ever sees it?" my son asked. But I knew what he was saying, really. That he knew somebody would.

I like to think that among the many difficulties of growing up in a single-parent household, one positive element was my sons' acquisition of an unusually keen sensitivity towards women. As uncomfortable-making as it must have been for my children, growing up with a mother who was, herself, struggling through some of the kinds of things more typically experienced in adolescence (like wishing you had a date for the dance) the experience gave them a level of compassion and openness they might not otherwise have achieved. Because I had no steady, ongoing partner through the years, my sons recognized, more swiftly than a boy might, whose father was in residence, the need to offer not simply physical assistance for things like cleaning up the kitchen or shoveling snow, but to provide a certain amount of understanding and sympathy too. There was the night, one winter -- my sons around eleven and thirteen -- when I headed out, dateless, to a local dance, without having figured out that if ever there were a night I'd be unlikely to find unattached dance partners, February 14 would top the list. So I returned home about fifteen minutes after I'd taken off for the dance, and collapsed in tears on our living room couch, where my sons had been sprawled, watching an action video.

"Everyone else had a boyfriend," I wept.

My younger son rubbed my neck. His brother stroked my hair. No doubt their sister would have said something comforting too, but she was out (at a dance, in fact. She had a date.).

"If I was one of those boyfriends, I would have left my girlfriend to dance with you, Mom," Willy said.

Charlie concurred.

I put on a record then —- Louis Armstrong —- and the three of us danced.

My daughter was the first to reach adolescence. She had a boyfriend -- and then another -- but my strongest image of her teenage years is not so much of Audrey, entwined with a boy, as it is of Audrey, surrounded by a large and boisterous crowd of friends. Our house was often where they gathered, up in her room, listening to music, and it never seemed all that surprising when I'd wake up the next morning to find that a whole bunch of kids had slept over there. I can remember countless times when I'd come into my daughter's room in the morning to find two or three kids stretched out on the floor, and another three or four (along with my daughter) on the bed. The whole thing had the feeling of a campout sleepover, and specifically because there were so many kids around the whole time, it seemed pretty clear that whatever was going on in my daughter's room, sex was not a part of the story.Somewhere along the course of those years, no doubt, that changed (though never, I think, during the course of those big group sleepovers).

But maybe because Audrey was the lone girl in our family -- and maybe because she was the oldest -- our communication on the subject, though frank, was conducted almost entirely through letters I wrote to her, and left on her bed. I sensed she'd like it better that way -- that she would like a certain respectful distance, and that her mother not be sitting next to or across from her, studying her face, as we addressed the questions of virginity, birth control, the nature of sexual pleasure, or the importance of never doing anything just to please a boy, and being true to one's self.

Then Audrey left home, for college. My sons were just fourteen and twelve when their older sister went away, and I entered what I think of now, looking back, as the second phase of my parenting life: Boy World. And because the boys I lived with were boys who loved girls, it was Boys and Girls' world, often.

It's no big surprise, I think -- given their level of exposure to the not-particularly-well-concealed vulnerabilities of women (one in particular) and the unusual access they'd been given to the lives of at least two well-loved female figures in their own lives -- that my sons developed a certain very positive reputation among girls, at an early age.

Girls have always loved my sons. (It didn't hurt that they were also handsome and funny. But above all, they were kind.) More than once, Charlie would find himself the lone boy, invited to an all-girl party.

When he was thirteen, Willy began buying flowers for girls he liked. (Just one flower, but it would be a rose.) At fourteen, he came home one day with one of those little recipe books they sell at the supermarket checkout counter -- "Romantic Italian Dinners" -- and announced he was inviting a girl over, for whom he intended to cook a meal. He set the table with a white cloth that night, stuck a candle in an old wine bottle, and bought sparkling grape juice. The meal was pasta with home made spaghetti sauce, and tiramisu. I made a point of going upstairs to watch a movie early, that evening, but I could hear the music he'd selected, as the accompaniment for the meal. Django Rinehart, jazz guitar.

Part Two of The Girlfriend Sleeps Over





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