Saturday, July 12, 2008

Daddies, Daughters and Budding Sexuality

It's not unusual for our driveway to be filled to the brim with cars. With six drivers in the family, each with a car, and with frequent visiting friends, there have been times when you'd swear we were having a party, when actually a few of the kids' friends were simply chillin' at our house.

So last Tuesday morning, when I backed out of the driveway on my way to work and noticed Kat's boyfriend's car in the driveway, I didn't think much of it -- until I came to the sudden realization that... yeah, THAT.

He'd spent the night -- right under our roof, right (so to speak) in front of our eyes.

At 18, Kat is an adult. She's graduated from high school and is on the verge of beginning her adult life. She could move out if she so chose, and we're under no legal obligation to house or feed or clothe her anymore. But for a myriad of reasons she's still home -- and probably will be for the next year or so. Tom and I are thrilled that she'll be staying (probably significantly more thrilled than she is since really, at 18 one should want to be fleeing the nest) because she is one of those easy "kids" (in quotes) to raise and to have around. She's responsible, respectful, mature, and easy-going, and has never caused us any trouble.

But what's this? Blatant sleeping-over-of-the-opposite-gender?! Is this a covert act of rebellion? Our non-rebellious Kat?! As I backed up past her boyfriend's car at 9 AM, I remember thinking, 'Hmmmmmm... very interesting. This will warrant a chat.' I wasn't upset or offended or dismayed. I was simply... well, interested.

That evening, as we ate dinner on the deck, Tom was the one to bring it up. "So I noticed Stevo's car here this morning," said Tom, without a hint of anger or accusation.

"Is that a problem?" Kat asked.

I don't even remember Tom's exact answer; I only remember thinking how far we'd come since Elisabeth had divulged her budding sexuality to us a few years earlier. That was a dramatic and destructive drama that played out for months and wreaked havoc not only on Tom and Elisabeth's relationship, but on the family.

Granted, there were some factors working against Elisabeth. She was our first child, she had a bit of a rebellious streak in her, she was a bit younger, and we weren't as fond of her first serious boyfriend as we are of Stevo. But mistakes were made and lessons were learned back then -- mostly on our part.

Elisabeth had confided to me that she and Marcus, her boyfriend of a year, were serious and had decided to become sexually active. Because she was already working as a Teen Mentor and Health Educator at Planned Parenthood, obtaining birth control was easy. When she showed me her pack of half-empty birth control pills, she asked whether I thought she should tell her father. I replied that I'd never kept a secret from him and didn't want to start now. Besides, I assured her, her father was a reasonable, open-minded and understanding man, and based on everything I knew about this man I'd known for 25+ years, she could count on a reasonable, mature, open-minded reaction from him.

I encouraged her to tell him.

Suffice it to say that my advice to Elisabeth was one of the biggest mistakes I'd ever made. Big, big mistake. Tom reacted in a way I could have never predicted -- perhaps because I wasn't aware of how protective a daddy can be of his oldest daughter. He flipped. He all but forbid Elisabeth from seeing Marcus, saying Marcus wasn't welcome in our home anymore, forbidding Elisabeth to drive to UW (where Marcus went to school), and engaging Elisabeth in arguments that basically told her that he forbid her to have sex. Never would I have predicted such a reaction from liberal-minded, easy-going Tom. Never. But this was his daughter and his fatherly protectiveness over-shadowed any objectivity or reason (or, I must must admit, maturity), and his reaction could only be described as dramatic.

Elisabeth, who became more calm as Tom became more outraged, only maintained (correctly, in my opinion) that her sexuality was none of her father's business. He could make all the rules he wanted to try to prevent her from having a sexual relationship with her boyfriend, but he could not control her sexuality, nor could he prevent it. Arguments ensued and continued for months and a wedge was driven between the father and daughter who had been so close for years and years. If I had to take sides -- and ultimately I did -- I argued that Elisabeth was right: her sexuality was her own, she was being responsible about it, she was in an established relationship, and it was none of our business.

The wedge that was driving father and daughter apart was also beginning to drive husband and wife apart and I HUGELY regretted encouraging Elisabeth to tell her father anything. It was, and continues to be, one of the biggest mistakes I've made as a parent. I've come to realize that it would have been just fine for this to be Elisabeth's and my understanding and that there's nothing wrong with some mother-daughter confidentiality.

Elisabeth and Tom slowly mended their relationship and lessons learned turned into actions taken -- or not taken. Elisabeth advised Kat not to make the same mistake she had in confiding anything about her sexuality to her father (but did encourage her to confide in me), and Tom came to realize that kids who are young and innocent for such a short time DO grow up and mature and make their own responsible choices because we raised them to do so. And I leaned to keep some things confidential and that it is OK to have a few secrets from one's spouse.

When Kat came to me last year and told me that she and her boyfriend were considering becoming sexually active and asked me to come with her to the doctor to obtain birth control, my first response was "Of course... and yes, I will keep this confidential." Like her sister, she was in a loving, established relationship and she'd made a mature, responsible decision about her own sexuality, and I was honored to be involved in helping her act responsibly.

"Don't ask, don't tell" quietly became the agreed-upon credo between father and daughter as Kat entered the same territory that her sister had a few years earlier.

So when Stevo's car sat in the driveway last Tuesday morning, I really wasn't sure what sort of reaction it'd get from Tom. And when Kat asked that evening whether her boyfriend spending the night presented a problem, I only remember that Tom's facetious answer, along the lines of "Huge problem. Huge. You are in such trouble, young lady!" was a relief to all -- and that, while it probably wouldn't be discussed further, it really didn't need to be.

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Jen said...

We are so strange here in the U.S. I wish we would accept the fact that kids need sex education and that sex happens. Period. Germany is so much more forward-thinking in this area (and Sweden and Denmark and probably other European countries, but those are the ones from which we've had exchange students).

BethanyWD said...

Wow, what a wonderful, thoughtful post. Thank you for sharing your family's experiences and insights (I have a feeling my husband and I will behave in much the same ways that you and Tom did!). What impresses me the most is the relationships that you have with your children - close and trusting. That's awesome - I hope my children and my's relationships continue to develop in this manner.

Anonymous said...

What a great post! I'm fortunate to have a similar relationship with my son — I can't get over sometimes how open he is with me, and I see the evidence of the guidance I've given him over the years to respect women, to be responsible, and to be considerate. "Boys will be boys" has never flown with me.

I think it's universal for daddies to have a hard time with their daughters' sexuality. I remember a friend of mine (guy) when his daughter was born told me "I'm going to lock her up in a closet until she's 30!" (Jokingly, of course!)

J said...

Funnily enough, an 18 year old having a serious boyfriend stay over wouldn't even warrant a mention here in Germany

Goofball said...

My parents would never have been so open to me. I didn't have a serious relationship before I had moved out anyway, so it never posed a problem...but it would have if I still lived at home.
Which would have resulted in me keeping secrets.

Not all European families are so open-minded in that area at all!

Anonymous said...

Great Post! Funny, Chris is only 5 months old and I am already terrified that he will start dating the "wrong kind of girl." LOL!

Unknown said...

Your post has left one burning question with me. Now that Tom is taking things more easily, is Stevo allowed to sleep over again?

Also check out:

And imagine Tom's Reaction if that had happened.

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