Buying Time: A feminist mom gets humbled

April 4 | Guest post by Dani Burlison

This article was originally printed in Rad Dad Zine number 18: The Sex Issue, August 2010.

indie rock girl
Ah…teen-agers. Photo by Ron Howard Photography, used with Creative Commons license.

It all started, much like most parents' fears, at the onset of my oldest daughter's puberty. Her hormones raged, mildly at first, and then swelled into tsunami-like waves — ebbing and flowing like a madwoman, charging forward and then crawling away; ranting and then crying. Demanding milkshakes and turning away from my hugs. Her half-ass attempts at dressing for school turned into hours in the bathroom. Weekend mornings pleading for pancakes and cartoons were replaced with groggy breakfasts at noon… which were followed by extended naps behind closed doors. Then, came talk of boys — and then girls — and then boys again.

Throughout those oh-so-magical first years of puberty, a deep and desperate panic crept up from somewhere inside of me. As I caught our reflections passing by a window one morning, I realized that my sweet little girl, who once nestled herself to sleep in my arms and came running and sobbing with skinned knees and gravel-embedded palms is not a little girl anymore. At all.

Instead of climbing on my shoulders to see through the crowds we sometimes find ourselves in, she stands nearly eye-to-eye with me, wearing my clothes and make-up. As a parent, I have accepted and even come to cherish the constant changes in my kids and the stages of development they weave in and out of. But I also more-recently realized, with much less confidence, that someday in the not-so-distant future, this little girl who is quickly becoming a woman is going to fall in love, have sex and quite likely have her heart broken.

My worst nightmare was for her to let the Twilight series inform her world and have her get all wrapped up in a co-dependent relationship with a whiny, starving emo vampire guy or some aggressive, angry werewolf guy (no matter how sweet his abs are).

Now, upon this realization, all of my self-righteous ideas of raising strong, ass-kicking, take-no-shit, tough-as-nails, sexually-liberated feminist daughters immediately switched to fear. I managed to keep my anxiety under wraps for the most part and expressed it casually at first, with my sweaty palms shoved firmly into my pockets. I'd hint, nonchalantly, that "Eh, boys, shmoyz: you've got the rest of your life to deal with them. They actually take a lot of time and patience to deal with. You should focus on your art and get your math grades up first. Spend more time with your friends instead of worrying about them." Eventually, however, I found myself desperate with a sense of control that I had never imagined and began, with much neurosis and embarrassment, to offer my sweet teenage daughter, cold hard cash to avoid relationships all together.

First, I dished out an offer of $100 to not kiss a boy until she turned 16. Easy enough, I thought. I could buy her obedience, right? Super easy with teens, right? Next, I stepped it up a notch and offered her $300 if she waited until she was 18 and suggested an increase in funds if she could hold it together through the following years of college. My worst nightmare was for her to let the Twilight series inform her world and have her get all wrapped up in a co-dependent relationship with a whiny, starving emo vampire guy or some aggressive, angry werewolf guy (no matter how sweet his abs are). So I pushed the money her way. Her response, complete with the stereo-typical "Are you fucking kidding me?" teenager facial expression only fueled my inner madness as she began making counter-offers, "Well, if I do get a boyfriend and start kissing and stuff, then, like, I guess I'll just give you some money, ok Mom?"

Finally, after much obsessing, I understood that I had to let it go.

I was screwed. I talked to friends and listened to advice, which made me feel mostly better. Then, I rehashed my own behavior during my teenage years, which really did nothing other than motivate me to find chastity belts and chains to lock her up with. Finally, after much obsessing, I understood that I had to let it go. More importantly, I realized that I couldn't afford or justify forking out cash for something so ridiculous when what she really needs are braces and a new pair of shoes. But I did arrive at a place of really understanding my motives around this issue. Becoming this dreadful, overprotective mother would essentially rob my daughter from experiences she needs to have to become the amazing woman that I know she is. I'd be robbing her of all of the fun and magic and awkwardness of first kisses, late-night phone calls, giggly girl-talk over rug burns, and tear-jerking, soul-shaking passion.

As I began to loosen my death grip on her, I also faced my own issues. What I was trying to do, mostly on a subconscious level but also because I am mildly nuts, was to buy my own way out of the hurt and abuse and soul-crushing heartache I had fallen victim to. As parents, we will quite often go to ridiculous lengths to protect our kids, and I found that I was a willing and eager warrior set out to battle against some mythical future that I hadn't even caught a glimpse of. I never want her to worry about whether or not she is good enough for some guy. I don't want her second-guessing herself or believing that she should change to accommodate someone else's media-influenced beauty standards. What I lost sight of in focusing in on the troubles I've seen, are the kisses that cause knees to shake and go limp, late night whispers, the adventurous thrills of vacation sex, Sunday afternoon rendezvous with secret lovers, and the empowerment that comes along with allowing pleasure and connection with people in our lives.

I know I can't protect my girls from everything, despite a natural mama bear instinct that wells up inside at just the thought of them shedding even a single tear. What I can do — and should do, is continue to encourage and empower them by example. The best I can do is to be honest and available and show them that I am worthy of the love and passion that sometimes comes my way. This will hopefully pave the roads with confidence, regardless of which direction they take. I also know that I need to let them live their own lives while I balance between stepping back and opening my arms to them when they need to come crying, with cracked hearts and bruised egos. And, just as a back-up plan, I have stashed that $100 bill away in a Swiss bank account in case my new-found humility ever takes a back seat.

  1. This made me cry! As a young mama I was a teenage girl not that long ago and realize now what I put myself and my parents through in my coming of age. They did such a wonderful job at holding back and letting me make mistakes and being there for me when I needed them that I should really go thank them for that right now. I'm sure your daughters will be thanking you soon enough too!

    6 agree
  2. I'm years and years (and an x chromosome) away from having to deal with this for my little boy, but it is -very- nice to read. I have cousins around this age, and even though I don't see them that much, it's hard to think about them going through and doing things that I know other teens go through (I was sheltered and didn't really go through them myself. xD)

    It's so hard to accept them growing up, and so easy to want to shield them from everything ,but sometimes all you can do is offer them good information and good examples and let them do what they will with it.

  3. that was my first response too! this made me cry! as a single (to clarify: not with my daughter's father, never married, we coparent) mother in a heterosexual relationship but who identifies as bisexual, i spend quite a bit of time thinking about how my values and beliefs will transfer into my daughter's life. what if i have more children? what if i don't? what about the pressures of identifying as bisexual though i've never dated or been intimate with women? what will i teach her? who am i? i absolutely fear these things for her, though she is only 3 now and my concerns are more centered on "can she play in the yard alone? will someone snatch her up if she walks away from me at target?" these issues are very much a reality, and a reality that will linger at my arm's reach for several years before it becomes present, daily, new struggles, new battles, new accomplishments and revelations. this is so beautifully, wonderfully written. proof, indeed, that we are codependent with our children; we are human, we make mistakes too, there is ebb and flow and push and pull and we learn. i love the words about what we forget to remember in the midst of the troubles: the kisses, the wonder, the everything. i wish i would have had more of that in my youth, and i will strive (i first typed i hope to, but it is intentional, isn't it?) to give those things to my daughter all the days of her life.

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  4. I laughed when I read about the bribery–my mom did that, too! Only it was about piercings. I sent her the $50 back with a picture of me and my new tongue ring (which seemed more ethical than keeping the cash after I broke the promise). I think that raising kids that you trust to make good decisions is better than giving them cash and then hoping that they'll do what you decided was right for them. It sounds like your daughter is well on her way.

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  5. I have two girls now, (almost 3 and almost 3 months) and I am terrified of this time that will happen. I was not allowed to explore, and that made me move several states away at 19. I am afraid of not finding an in between. I'm afraid of hurting them by either letting them explore too much, or with my bitterness. :( May all our daughters blossom!

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  6. Yes, I keep remembering what I did as a teen.

    Now, does anyone have any teen boy stories?? I have 3 boys now (ages 9, 7, & 2 mo.) and am hoping for inspirational storeies to help us navigate these waters…

      • Thanks! I should rephrase this to say, I'm looking for more stories I haven't already read! (I think I've read everything here from the beginning)
        I am looking forward to how this Halloween will go because my oldest says that he wants to grow his hair out and dress as a girl. I told him that his hair wouldn't be as long as he wants it by October (cause he'd shaved it off in January), so we'll have to get him a wig.

    • I have two boys who are 15 and 22. My oldest had girlfriends from the time he was 13 and my youngest has been in an intense relationship with one girl for the last year and a half. So, I've had my share of fear and trembling. I never thought I could control their decisions. I just always try to stay close to them and be a support person when they need it. The big message that I've worked very hard to get through to them both is that they must always respect girls. To treat them with kindness and to always believe that no means no and stop means stop and never to push a girl to do something that would make her uncomfortable. Oh, and there's the pregnancy talk, too. That it would change the lives of not only the two of them, but their families as well. How they could never walk away from that responsibility. My boys seemed to appreciate that I was up front and open with them about these things. That I honor them by taking their relationships seriously. They know they can talk to me about anything. Not that they do, they are both pretty private about their personal lives, which I can understand. I never told my mother anything when I was a teen. The hardest thing was deciding whether or not to give them condoms. Would that be tacit approval of them having sex at such a young age? My then-husband and I did decide to give them to the boys when they were each 15. With a little speech about hoping they didn't need them, but if they were going to be in that kind of situation, they'dbetter make sure to use them. Embarrassing for all of us, but important nonetheless. My boys have become lovely lovely young men with great respect for women. I am sure they will stumble, but they'll know how to make things right again. It always comes back to kindness, to love, to knowing that there's always someone who will be there for you no matter what.

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  7. Bribery wouldn't be my first reaction. I hope my own coming-of-age stories will be cautionary.

  8. Great article. I have no idea how I'll deal with this when it comes time, but I'm not looking forward to the internal struggle.

  9. I'm now remembering the best advice I got from my dad when I started bringing boyfriends home.

    "Remember. All young men are pigs. I know, I was one. And they talk. And they may stretch the truth. So you could get an unwarranted reputation… and one boy thinks he can take it one step further than the last guy. So be careful."

    At the time, I was mortified, but I appreciate the message he was trying to give me without being too preachy.

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    • I hated the "All boys are pigs who only want one thing" speech. I had to bite my tongue on my natural reply, which was something along the lines of "What do you think I want *them* for? Cupcakes?" The reputation part would have been a relevant part, if it had been included in the speech I got.

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  10. I am so happy to read this here. It is comforting to know that I am not the only liberal minded mother out there searching for a tower (a la Rupunzel) in which to lock my Sprout when she reaches those volatile teenage years.
    There are those of us out there who still grieve our adolescence (or lack thereof) and who bemoan the fact that we grew up FAR too quickly. The question I find myself asking on this subject is "How do I help my daughter enjoy her youth without being too lenient (as my own mother was) or too restricting (as I can already feel myself wanting to be)?" I think that boundaries are important, but, my God, how do you determine what's reasonable when you never experienced them yourself?

    1 agrees
  11. @ shesaidsvengali,
    you trust that the universe put this child in your care for a reason and trust yourself to parent in a caring way.

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