"Once teenagers have had sex, trying to convince them not to do it again is like trying to convince a dog that chicken bones are dangerous. It's impossible."
That's what I told my friend Mary Tom when she called to ask for advice. Her daughter is sixteen and has her first serious boyfriend. Her son is fourteen. She knows she has some rough years ahead. Among my group of girlfriends, my children are the oldest – 24 and 21 – and my parenting experiences have provided everyone else with examples, good and bad and very bad.
"What did you do?" she asked, after I'd given my solemn, definitive edict on sex and chicken bones.
"I chased them around the house yelling ‘Drop it! Drop it!'....Oh, you mean the teenagers? Nothing. At that point there isn't a whole lot you can do. Not legally."
She wailed in despair.
My children are now young adults and they don't share their sex lives with me, but I know they have "sex lives" and have had them for a while. Even before they had sex lives, I understood they would eventually have them, and set about preparing all of us, knowing ultimately I wanted them to feel comfortable with their bodies, free to explore and express themselves without shame. Those years of awakening sexuality are heady, exciting times and the last thing I wanted was wind up the main topic at their adulthood therapy sessions, blamed for their sexual dysfunction along with everything else I'm legitimately on the hook for. Besides, there were other teenage pitfalls that seemed more serious -- One of my son's classmates died in a drunk driving accident. One of my daughter's classmates committed suicide after failing to kick a heroine habit. That kind of serious. -- and while abstinence is an admirable choice if it's freely chosen, I never liked the idea that "purity" is a method of judging character. In short, if they could avoid the drugs, I'd be mostly okay with the sex and rock'n roll, especially the rock'n roll. How about that Elvis and his quaintly writhing pelvis?
That doesn't mean I bought them tambourines and a Hair soundtrack and let them loose. It doesn't mean I kept quiet about the responsibilities and complications that come with sexual relationships. I made sure they knew reproductive system physiology and all about the sin tax diseases, spirochetes and external crawlies. I wasn't above using humor and reverse psychology. At the breakfast table I primly told them, "Sex is dirty and disgusting. Unless you're married...."
"Then it's just disgusting," my son interrupted.
"Hey, Mister! You were born with a nine pound forehead. You need to think about how that happens."
He choked on his cereal.
"That's right. Until you can imagine standing at the business end of your girlfriend ready to accept whatever comes out as ‘the best thing that ever happened to me,' you'd better be very careful."
My daughter said, brightly, "Birth control. It's the shit!"
"Thank you for that word from our sponsor," I told her.
As often happened, I lost my buoyant attitude rather quickly, needing to close on a very serious note. "Just...Please...Don't be a cautionary tale. That's just about the worst thing you could end up being. Like your friend Jay. He missed out on a full scholarship and had to go straight from high school to work, and his girlfriend has already moved on to another boyfriend..."
By then, they'd stopped listening and had wandered off. During their teendom, I often felt like I was performing the world's longest and least appreciated one-woman show, re-enacting the Death of Vaudeville, impersonating myself in cheesy variety acts, looking for the one that would return me to my former glory as the center of their universe -- a big-time star. They'd already moved on, replaced me with themselves, leaving me with my spinning plates and an old-fashioned magic routine. I reeked of flop sweat.
I had faith in them and their choices anyway. It helped knowing – now, twenty-five years from high school – the experiences that seemed to have such weight, have floated away in the face of more important, far-reaching, mistakes. I regret Eddie, shoulder pads, teased "rooster" bangs, Rick, and harem pants with the same light recriminations. With much heavier sorrow, I regret being so careless with Mark's heart, all the sarcastic, hurtful things I said when I was trying to be funny, and worrying too much about what people thought of me. Those are the memories that burn and itch like an untreated STD, many years later.
And I know for a fact Mary Tom doesn't regret her high school boyfriend Felix nearly as much as she regrets Daniel, the man she married in her mid thirties, when she was recently widowed and vulnerable, the man who left her and her children emotionally and financially flattened.
At a recent reunion, I spoke with a girl who'd had an abortion in our Junior year. We were close then and I was a confidant, witness to her turmoil. I made the appointment for her because she was too upset to do it herself. "It's just an appointment," I said. "You still have time to think about it." She seemed to bounce back quickly and we remained friends through our Senior year, until she left for college in Georgia. It was wonderful see her at the reunion and catch up. We hugged tightly and bounced side-to-side in a gleeful dance. She's an accountant, married, with three sons. I suspect sometimes she wonders "what if..." but she's clearly happy with her life, not hollow-eyed and tortured by guilt. Then there was the girl who got knocked up in her first year of college, had a baby and dropped out for a while. The first night of the reunion she drank a few beers and annoyed everyone with pictures of her kids. (I think that was me.)
We were, all of us, sexually active and good girls. Good students, good daughters, good friends who became good mothers, good wives or partners. Which confirms my belief that sexuality shouldn't ever be labeled "promiscuity" unless you have made that distinction for yourself, about your own behavior.
I reminded Mary Tom of these experiences, survived or forgotten, or remembered in the here-and-now with fondness for our foolish younger selves. She continued to fret. She wanted practical advice that would halt her daughter's sexual maturity in its tracks, and I had none to offer, other than -- "Don't buy her a car she can lie down in." and, borrowing from my daughter, "Birth control. It's the shit!"
After I hung up the phone, I called her right back. "I thought of something," I said. "The next time you eat chicken, keep the wishbone. Save it for a time when you really need it, and I'll come over and pull it with you."
I already know what I'll wish for, closing my eyes as I pull. I'll wish for Mary Tom to be happy, and that will take care of everything.