(Note: I refer to my daughter, Madison, as Thirteen in much of my writing because so much about that year thirteen, both awesome and maddening, defines her today.)
My kids—both my daughter and her brother—tell me everything. My daughter will spill at the drop of a hat; my son, in his own time—I only need to be patient. They ask me questions about things and reveal themselves to me in ways I never would have with my own mother, which kind of left me out there when it came to boys, sex, and my own body.
If you were to ask me, I’d tell you that I’m not sure how I managed to create the vibe that makes them feel so at ease asking me anything and telling me everything. But somewhere along the way, I must have made a decision.
Sometimes when they tell me stuff, I give them the side eye and tell them it’s too much information, but they remain undeterred. Mind you, it is a blessing. In exchange, a mom only has to be willing to hear hard things and, then… well, just listen.
Some of the most important conversations I have with my daughter happen via text—whether she’s at home, I’m at work and we’ll inevitably meet up at the dinner table, or she’s 2,000 miles away for the summer like she is as I write this. Occupational hazard of being the parent of a millennial, but I’ll take it.
I let her talk. About everything. The way I wish I could have talked to my mom.
Lately, she has been asking a lot of questions about dating, sex, and relationships. I must admit, I sometimes cringe a bit because the questions get a little graphic. Sometimes they’re just complicated. Questions like, “How will I know when I’m in love?” She pulls no punches.
I waver between offering her a pair of rose-colored glasses through which to view love and relationships and keeping it real, or as she would say, “keeping it legit.”
I want her to experience her first crush, her first kiss, her first love like in the movies, or like in the songs we hear on the radio. Like the way Ed Sheeran sings, “kiss me under the light of a thousand stars…” Like the way Bruno Mars is all, “cause you’re amazing just the way you are” and “strawberry champagne on ice” in his music, which is all about the urgency and desperation of young love and sex, sex, sex.
“How will I know when I’m love?”
“Well,” I tell her, “you’ll get a queasy feeling in your stomach, and all of a sudden, the world is all topsy-turvy. You might not be able to eat or sleep and everything is either very romantic or very tragic. You totally understand where Romeo and Juliet were coming from. But you should know, that that peculiar and exhilarating feeling is all chemistry. Literally.
“There’s dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical. Oxytocin promotes bonding and intimacy. Norepinephrine increases your heart rate and gives you that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling. Throw in a few pheromones, MHC, your basic hormones that are in overdrive at sixteen, the right lighting, and a well-timed whisper in your ear and you’ll find yourself an ingredient in the biochemical cocktail we mistake for love every time we think we’ve met the one. It’s nature’s way of making sure we procreate.”
So, the mechanics of love—you got that. But do you get how essential it is that you know who you are, inside and out, before you fall in love? You need to know your body. Touch your body. Everywhere. Feel your body. Look at your body. Marvel at your body.
Remember the time you told me, “I love my boobs?” Well, you should. They’re yours. Love and embrace everything about your body, God-given and wonderfully made. Nobody else in the world is you and nobody else in the world should love you and your body better than you.
The notion of “The Talk” is at least insufficient or, at most, a misnomer. Like talking to our children about anything important—friendships, faith, managing money, internet safety, or college—it can’t be just one talk. It needs to be a series of talks.
And there is no one way to have “The Talk.” As a matter of fact, texting is ideal for squeamish, or easily embarrassed, parents. No one has to see you sweat, and you can take your time crafting a response. Another good venue for “The Talk” is the car—you’re keeping your ears peeled, but your eyes on the road. Turn down the radio a bit. And just let them talk.
I let her talk. About everything. The way I wish I could have talked to my mom. And when I weigh in, I tell her:
“You stay so busy [that’s a good thing for teens thinking about sex] with school and your writing, theater, activism, and the Black Student Union, traveling, and getting your college scholarship mojo working. You have lovely friends. When would you find the time?
“Seriously, when you meet someone, focus on the friend part of having a boyfriend. Learn how to talk to each other, find common interests, be each other’s cheerleader, get to know his friends because birds of a feather, and all of that. Does he read? Because if he doesn’t read and doesn’t ask you from time to time what you’ve been reading… There are other fish in the sea, boys are like buses—another will be along in 10 minutes—and did you know that chocolate is full of dopamine? I’m just saying.
“Full disclosure: I didn’t have a boyfriend in high school or college. Yet, here you are!”
“Know your deal breakers,” I want to tell her. “Unfortunately, knowing your deal breakers typically comes with experiencing a lot of first dates that turn out to also be the last date. If something’s not right, if you’re not fulfilled in a relationship, if those butterflies have turned to knots, and crucially, if you’re not safe in a relationship, it’s time to stop and reassess. You can go or stay, and you owe an explanation to no one.
“Rather than thinking of falling in love—which connotes a certain powerlessness, as if it just happens—approach love the way you do everything else: knowingly. Anything you’ve ever been excited about, you’ve followed up by doing research. You Google, read, listen to podcasts, and ask me a ton of questions. You take notes. You become an expert about your favorite subject du jour. Love is no different. Do your research, keep your eyes and ears open. Let your brain take the lead, then let your heart follow.
“Know your heart,” I want to tell her. “Know your mind and guard them both, but not so much that you miss the chance to have a relationship with someone who truly enriches your life, who brings you a certain calm, and who supports you as you reach for your full potential. Someone who will be by your side and have your back at the same time. Someone who thinks your Spotify playlist is eclectic rather than strange—’Is that Khalid and The Little Mermaid soundtrack?’—and someone who knows that you will ask for a cinnamon-raisin bagel only to pick out the raisins and loves you still.
“Above all, know this,” I will tell her. “Every relationship has the potential to either empower or diminish who you are. When given a choice—and you always have a choice—choose the former. Stay empowered.”