A place to share daily grind challenges, perspective altering experiences, and ah-ha moments.

January 6, 2014

How Old Were You?


Most of the time, my parenting posts are light on the expertise, heavy on the bumbling through. For those who wonder, I don’t work with kids professionally, for clinical reasons, but also because my own kids keep me questioning my parenting skills on a weekly basis. So, what I’m about to write comes with a disclaimer. I am NOT a parenting expert. That said, I do feel strongly about the issue of educating kids about sex, because I’ve spent years in my office working with teens, adults and couples, trying to undo harm from their “sex education” (or lack thereof).

Most of us learned about sex from an awkward sex talk, limited and late formal education, horribly unrealistic portrayal of simultaneous orgasms in movies, or from our equally clueless peers. The result (surprise, surprise): misinformed, shame-filled adults, who still can’t talk about sex, and are paying the price in their relationships and even their self-esteem.


So, it was through that lens that I began reeling when my 8-year-old son recently asked, “How old were you when you first had sex?” For a split second I thought about lying, “when I got married.” Or at least fudging the truth.

Fortunately, my therapist self is skilled in processing questions (a.k.a buying time). “Hmmm. Interesting question – why do you want to know?”

I disguised my elevated blood pressure as we laid in his bunk having a surprisingly open dialogue about why he wanted to know, when he thinks he’ll be ready (sometime between college and now – WHAT?!?!), my concern that if he knows my start age he’ll think that’s the “right” age, and, most importantly, that our bodies usually feel ready before we’re emotionally ready. Whew - that's a lot for one sentence, but a good illustration of the pressure in my head at the time.

Anyway, my blood pressure stabilized when he asked, “What is ‘emotionally ready’?” I babbled about emotional readiness, oxytocin and how sex changes things (and not always in a good way), all while considering, what should I tell him?

Finally, my doesn’t-miss-a-beat kiddo observed, “But you still haven’t answered my question, Mama.” After another soliloquy about our relationship, trust, and keeping this to himself (not sharing with his friends or sister), I told the truth. “I had sex in high school with someone I had been dating for a while, when I knew I was ready to handle it.”

Some of you are probably reeling, aghast that I would tell my child I had sex in high school. Some of you are hoping your kids wait until college, marriage, or maybe when you’re dead and buried. In my case, he’d already revealed that high school or even younger was a consideration, which is why my priority was to convey when it’s physically and emotionally healthy to have sex, and why it’s different for everyone. Whatever your priority is, this is the time to share it, when your kids are impressionable and value YOUR opinion. (We know that will change very soon, right?)

My goal behind my answer, and our conversation in general, was to be as honest, direct and shameless as I could. I let go of the desire to see him as my baby boy forever, and opted to start teaching him how to be a grown up (when the time comes) with regard to sex. I wanted him to know:

  1. My mom trusts me enough to answer my questions and tell the truth.
  2. Sex and sexual feelings are part of life and important to talk about. 
  3. Everyone is ready on his or her own timeline, and we each make a choice the first time,           and every time. 
  4. Healthy sex is mutual, respectful, and enjoyable. 


While I don’t know if we’ve conveyed messages two through four yet, when, a week later, he asked follow up questions about something he heard from a friend at school, I realized we’d conveyed the most important message. He was coming to us for more information!

So, borrow these messages, or create your own, but be sure to prepare yourself for the conversation(s). Answer questions when asked, and keep the dialogue going. You are a powerful person in your young child’s life; right now you are a resource. Don’t unknowingly encourage your kiddo to look elsewhere by dodging the tough questions.  

In preparation, consider your own early sexual experiences. Were there things you wish a trusted adult had shared? If your early sexual experiences occurred before you were ready, or were non-consensual, how will you address that when related questions come your way? How can you be honest, even if you don’t want to share your specific history? Beyond your own discomfort about your child having sex, how do you want him or her to experience sex (when it's time)? Below are some responses to try:

 “My first experience wasn’t positive, which is why I want to keep talking with you about all this, so you can experience something healthy for you.”

OR

“Sex is a private thing, so I won't tell you when, but I will tell you I felt ready. What do you think makes someone ready?”

OR

“I did it before I was ready because I didn’t have anyone guiding me about this stuff. That’s why I want talk with you about it, so you can make sure when you have sex, it’s right for you.”
OR

"I want you to experience how special and fun sex can be when you share it with someone you really care about, who also really cares about you."

 OR

"Sex can sometimes feel awkward to talk about, but I want you to know that just because I'm fumbling doesn't mean I don't want you to keep asking questions. I'll answer as well as I can, and if I don't have an immediate answer, I promise to think about it and get back to you."


Whatever you do, use your answers as a springboard for conversation. Ask yourself, “How do I answer the tough questions now to pave the way for my child’s healthy adolescent/adult sexuality?” As uncomfortable as the questions and conversation may be for you, if you don’t act as your child’s guide, someone else will. And that would be a loss for both of you.

By the way, my son didn’t let up on my non-specific “when I was in high school” response. He persisted about the specific age. I suggested maybe I’d tell him when he arrived at that age. He then asked, “Will you tell me when I’m in middle school?” To which I responded, “We’ll see. Let’s keep talking about it.” And so we will… 

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I'd love to hear about your responses to tough questions from your kids. Or thoughts about what you wish someone had told you as a child. It can be about sex or other topics. 

If you’re looking for an actual parenting expert, check out my friend Tracey Johnson’s Practical Parenting website. Lots of great resources!   


Recommended Reading (and there are many more out there)
Asking About Sex and Growing Up. Joanna Cole.
The Boy's Body Book. Kelli Dunham. 
The Girl's Body Book. Kelli Dunham. 
How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex. Linda and Richard Eyre.
It's Not the Stork. Robbie Harris. 
It's So Amazing. Robbie Harris. 
It's Perfectly Normal. Robbie Harris.
Where Did I Come From. Peter Mayle.
Ten Talks Parents Must Have with Their Children About Sex and Character. Pepper Schwartz. 





April 10, 2013

Wishes and Weeds


My trouble started with my client’s gift of homemade chocolates. While gifts are officially a no-no in the therapy world, homemade stuff is an exception, and on this packed day, the cocoa concoctions were just the generous dose of sugar I needed to reenergize for evening clients. The next morning, however, I was punished: the inevitable sugar hangover was looming, complete with headache, lethargy and irritability.

I was able to maintain patience with the kiddos that morning (thankfully), but didn’t have it in me to push myself to my usual workout class. So I opted or plan B: a quick walk around the park and then take out my funk on the overgrown garden.

You see, we recently had some work done that left portions of the grass a good three to four inches below the front path, an ankle roll (or postal worker lawsuit) waiting to happen. To fix it, we leveled and reseeded the lawn, leaving sporadic patches of compost for the next few weeks. As if keeping the kids from walking and playing in it isn’t enough, the lawn’s unpleasant visual disorder was getting to me within days. There it is: neurosis exposed (in case it wasn’t obvious already).Yes, I’m symmetry obsessed, and I prefer to start and end my day looking at the balance of a well-manicured lawn and flower beds.

With the lawn looking like crap and my sugar funk altering my usual mood, I decided working on my flower beds, to create some visual interest and distract from the grass, was the best option. Secondarily (or maybe primarily), it would also provide me with a sense of control.

Assuming you’ve read any of my other posts or you’re a parent yourself, you’re already aware of the letting go required in parenting. As a therapist, it’s pretty similar. I have little control over what people interpret in our sessions, whether or when they’ll make changes, and if they do, what outcome will be revealed. So, with acceptance (sometimes reluctant) of my powerlessness in most of my life, the immediate gratification of a few hours of weeding, pruning and planting helps me feel accomplished, pleasantly expended and powerful.

On this day, I plan a 30 min walk, hour of gardening, quick shower and then off to my clients. It’s not the full dose of dirt I really need, but it’s a start. I begin walking quickly with my true desire – gardening in the rare spring sun – in mind. Interestingly, before long, my pace has shifted, slowed. I notice a patch of wishes (the seeded dandelion type) and then another, and as the walk unfolds, more than I’ve seen in my lifetime!

A little history: wishes and their earlier dandelion form are a nemesis for any lawn. Years ago, ours was full of them; it was the East Portland trend to let your lawn burnout to conserve water. Every July and August, we mowed our foot-high dandelion fields overtaking the dead front yard. Since having children, however, wishes are a welcome find, a treasure of sorts, now that the neighborhood has turned over and lawns are being groomed, seeded and yes (gasp) watered. 

Today, I reflect on this lovely, but invasive, weed, and appreciate the irony. I see beauty in the blooms and seeds someone else tends but find frustration (and even loathing) when I’m the one tending. I even laugh out loud, recognizing that the reason I was enjoying today’s walk at all, was so that I could get a little exercise before returning home to shape and WEED my own little piece of earth.

Thanks universe, I guess I needed that. Message clear, I extend my walk another loop. At least for that day, I let my sugar funk go, not by obsessively tending to front yard disorder, but by delighting in the wishes and weeds. 

November 15, 2012

Losing My Sh#@!


I’m a pretty capable person, typically aware of my strengths and liabilities. One of the things that I thought was a strength was my parenting skill, but today I’m not so sure.

Not looking ready to leave in 6 minutes.
Here you see my little girl six minutes before our scheduled school departure this morning. As I snapped the pic of her lying naked on the kitchen floor, complaining of being cold but refusing to put on her clothes, I knew that I needed to brace myself for the next 15 minutes. I knew she was hungry and tired (her brother awoke her at 2:45am yelling LOUDLY due to growing pains), but knowing it wasn't enough to avoid the impending disaster. 

Lying in her bed until she returned to sleep at 3:30am, I expected that the morning would be challenging. When she crept into my bed at 5, the exhaustion scale shifted to a whole new level. We snuggled, me half asleep, she wide awake, full of chatter. As she asked me to fix breakfast at 5:30, I made the choice to shape her sleep patterns (and mine) by telling her it was still sleep time. I suggested she go downstairs to get a yogurt if she couldn’t wait, but, of course, she’d rather snuggle. Given her history with blood sugar, I should've known it would behoove me to walk down the stairs and get the yogurt myself, but then I’d be "giving in," limiting her competence, and further reinforcing her dependence on me, right? More importantly, I was still clinging to my last few moments of interrupted sleep. 

At 6:45, her brother snuck into bed, and, shortly after, the phone rang; it was a call from daddy, who was out of town for work. Given the kiddos don't like to talk on the phone, I indulged their rambling conversation, giggles and teasing for about 10 minutes, even though we were now within 45 minutes of scheduled departure. You may think 45 minutes is plenty of time to eat and dress, and for my seven-year-old, that’s true. For this particular four-and-a-half-er, 60 minutes seems to be the sweet spot. Again, I made a choice, overlooking my history with her and prioritizing the benefit of connecting with daddy. Maybe at that point I should've accepted that we would go late to school (as I’ve done a time or two). On the other hand, that would reinforce the idea that she doesn’t have to do what she doesn’t want, and it would punish my rule-following first grader who dressed and readied himself on time. With that reasoning, I continued on my path to the deadline.

Not new to the dressing struggle with this kiddo, I patiently helped her select her clothes to put on at her leisure as I cooked breakfast.  I made breakfast and lunches while she wriggled around the floor, putting on her tights and promptly removing them because they were "not right" (code for "I don't want anything touching me before I've eaten"). Normally I wouldn’t even attempt the tights, but given that her patient pre-K teacher just talked with us last week about getting leggings or tights on her for warmth and appropriateness (did I mention she’s also a bit of an exhibitionist?), I’ve been trying to add leg coverings to our routine (with limited success). Aware that power struggles never end well, I ate and perused Pinterest, while acting completely detached from any outcome related to her eating or dressing (reverse psychology 101). I watched the clock tick and waited for her to decide she was ready to eat and dress, as I reminded her every couple minutes of our remaining time until “mommy helps you.” On most days, this works.

A little backstory for those of you who don't know us personally: I am a rule follower, my first born is a rule follower, my husband and daughter, not so much. He told me when she was six weeks old - "I hope you're prepared - she's me in a dress." I thought, "What do you know? She's six weeks old!" Turns out he was more right than he's ever been. I console myself with anecdotes from moms of “independent” little girls who say it gets easier and that the teen years are a breeze compared with friends whose daughters have been great until 12 and then get defiant. I'm not sure if I believe them, but I'm holding onto the possibility. I feel my real age outpace my biological age with each time sensitive departure. Hearing myself warn that we'll have to stay home from gymnastics or whatever "if you can't get yourself ready and use nice words," I wonder if it’s helping or hurting to keep her from pursuits that may channel her energy and build discipline. On the flip side, how much stress is gymnastics (or anything) really worth? I remind myself of the outcome studies of willful children - that they typically fare well as adults. I console myself with the belief that my daughter won't be a follower; she’ll stand up for herself (even if she ends up the ring leader of future rebellion). I know my neuropsychology and the biological limits of her impulse control at age four, something my husband laughs about saying, “You’ll be saying that when she’s 25.” Maybe he’s right again, but when "I hate you" rolls off her tongue, it enables me to let it roll off my back with a calm retort like, "you sound pretty mad."  

So why does the morning rush always suck me in?! On a morning like this, sleep deprived myself, I lost my sh#@! By the end, she'd hit me, for what I don’t know; I was threatening to hire the nanny daily and tossing around “GD”s like a trucker (let’s hope they don’t repeat that at school). Fuming, I forcibly pulled on her shirt and uniform, feeling like I was breaking a horse, but a horse with one last kick, wrestling on her tights, only to have her pull them back off, again. Amidst the “help” with her clothes, coffee went flying. I grabbed a sponge and took my rage out on the au lait coated floors, giving me just enough time to regain my composure before walking outside in earshot of neighbors. “Deep breaths, deep breaths” I told myself as I walked to the car, put down her backpack and plate of eggs, and turned back to the house to collect her.

There she was, sobbing and yelling, barefoot on the front steps. It was a sad sight, even for an enraged mom. Silently, I took the hand of my defeated four-and-a-half year old. We walked down the steps to the car, she struggling to speak through her tears, "you're so mean." My rage shifted to remorse, and I thought the worst was over. But we had one last stand: the seatbelt, which she unbuckled twice, again forcing my hand. In retrospect, I could've waited then for the full crest and fall of her meltdown, but I was still thinking of my poor seven-year-old, covering his ears and rolling down his window to escape from his little sister's tantrum. I felt bad for him until he threw in “this is why I wish I didn’t have a sister” to which I snapped back, “this is partially your fault for yelling and waking her up!” Low blow, I know. Not proud.

Still refusing food, but at least tolerating the belt momentarily, I stepped on the gas (thankfully avoiding fatalities on our biker heavy street). Two minutes later, as I parked at school, she was hyperventilating. Starting to feel the dopamine chase away my adrenaline rush, and heartbroken that our interaction had deteriorated so quickly, I invited her to my lap, still without tights or shoes. I held her close, stroking her tangled mess of hair to ease her breathing (brushing was way more than I was going to take on today). After a minute or two, she quietly started sucking up her applesauce pouch, followed by inhaling her scrambled eggs and half a granola bar.

Her typical animated self.
Within moments, she was different. Animated, chatty and smiling, she willingly put on her tights, shoes and sweater, as I wondered why this was so hard just 10 minutes earlier. She was over it, and I, a 38-year-old woman (and therapist who should know better) felt shell-shocked. Realizing I’d once again taken the bait of a frontal-lobe challenged four-year-old, I felt like a giant heel.

As usual, she chatted with classmates on the playground, took me on our daily tour around her classroom, and hugged and kissed me as if nothing had happened. I left hoping there might be a chance she’d forget this and avoid years of therapy at my hand.

Returning home, still troubled by the encounter, my tired mind raced… How did I let this happen? I know the pattern, why can’t I interrupt it? I consider the conflicting parenting approaches in my head - an occupational hazard for sure. I need to be predictable, consistent, not find myself in a battle of wills. I have a star chart, but even keeping up with that feels exhausting. Maybe I just don’t have the energy for motherhood. Was it just the sleep deprivation last night or am I becoming generally impatient?  Do I need to be less disciplined about getting to school on time to acknowledge her rhythms, or more rigid about getting up earlier to allow room for her pace? Yesterday was so perfect! She dressed herself, ate, sang and walked calmly to school, arriving early. How did things go so wrong today? Will she ever outgrow this, and will I ever be good at it? And what the hell are we going to do when she's in puberty and I'm in menopause? 


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After a long day at the office, I’m back in the kitchen where it all started. I feel a surreal detachment from the morning’s events, but I'm still beating myself up for letting it escalate. I look again at the picture of my sweet girl (amazing how 12 hours will shift perspective) and feel an intense blend of sadness and love. I just want to cuddle her up in her little pink blankie and say “I’m sorry and I love you.” 

I hope that’s enough.