As girls grow up and their bodies change, they’re encouraged to ask their moms the hard questions.
Their mothers, they’re told, are about to become their greatest resource.
Mom, they realize, was once also confused in front of the tampon shelf at a drug store.
Sure, moms are a great resource for daughters first learning what it’s like to manage periods, body hair, and bras, but what about when it comes to sexuality and reproductive health? The relationship between a mother and a daughter is so powerful and so fragile; how do we make sure we equip mothers and their growing girls with the tools and language to help them grow together?
We caught up with some mothers and daughters to learn a little bit about what they talk about together and what’s left unsaid.
When do moms and daughters talk about sexual health?
For starters, we learned that many moms and daughters actually have a pretty easy time talking about the onset of puberty. Moms, it seems, feel equipped to explain the basics and take their cues from when and how their daughter’s body starts to change. “[My] nine-year-old went through precocious puberty starting at at age 6…so our timetable for various discussions has been moved up for her,” Gerette, the mother of two school-aged daughters, explains. Linda, also a mother of two daughters, “wanted to prepare [her girls] for when they would start having their periods,” and Kayla*, now in her twenties, recalled talking to her mom about puberty for the first time when she started noticing hair on her legs and under her arms.
The signs of puberty are tangible as girls notice physical differences in their bodies, get their periods, and have growth-spurts, so moms have concrete clues it’s time to explain something.
After the pre-teen and tween years, though, things get a little more complicated.
Since moms are acutely aware that they won’t necessarily know if and when their daughters start having sex, they have a harder time negotiating when to have a more advanced conversation. If a girl begins taking birth control, she and her mom often have another conversation about sexual behavior and protection.
“My mom and I always seemed to talk very retroactively about sex and reproductive health,” Ally, in her twenties, recalls. “We talked about sex after she suspected I might be having it. I think she was more willing to (and comfortable with) letting me kind of figure things out on my own and then checking in with me afterwards to see how I felt and to make sure that I was being safe.”
Once the basics are out of the way, some continue the conversation while others stop talking about it all together. Jessica and her three daughters “are always talking about it even when we aren’t talking about it.” She explains that open conversations about reproductive health have been a hallmark of her relationship with her girls, who are now young adults. What began as “early conversations before they had sex ed,” have grown as her girls have. “Now,” she says, “I remind them to get tested [for STDs] and to be sure their partners have been tested.” For others, like Ellen*, now twenty-four, conversations start to be dictated by necessity. “If I think I have an infection or if I want to know if something’s normal, I ask,” Ellen explains. “Otherwise, the conversation about my body has kind of stopped.”
Then, girls and their moms are past the milestone moments. They’ve hit the major topics — condoms and tampons and all — and things quiet down a little.
What do moms and daughters wish they could say or ask?
Though many mother-daughter duos manage to keep the lines of communication open, reproductive health still manages to make them squirm a little. Even when a mom and her daughter are very close, there are some things that seem to stay unsaid.
Many girls have lingering questions about their mom’s own sexual experiences or about her opinion on certain taboo topics. Some feel they know what their mom says about big issues like abortion, birth control, and casual sex but are curious about how’d they’d actually react if actually confronted with a pregnancy or health scare.
“I know my mom isn’t a fan of abortion,” says Alli, “but I wonder if she would disapprove of me [having one] right now. I know she wants me to have a future before becoming a mother, so I’d be curious to know if she’d make an exception for me.”
For some, a more open relationship with their mom would have offered a much-needed resource. “As a gay woman,” Dana*, now in her twenties, says, “there isn’t a lot of information about sexual health [that’s taught] that’s specific to my experience. Most medical information assumes there’s a penis involved. If our relationship was different, I’d want to ask [my mom] about what her sex ed experience was like. I wish I could have gone to my mom and had some conversations about sex and gender.”
Despite what their daughters might guess, many moms hope that, above all else, their girls know how to find pleasure and to feel comfortable talking honestly about sex. “The one thing I hope [my daughter] knows,” says Sindy, the mother of a teenager, “is that, as long as you are safe physically and emotionally, sex can be a great joy.” Linda, who is now a grandmother, made sure her daughters know “there’s nothing they can ever consider doing that I haven’t already done.” She was open “not to give them permission to be promiscuous, but to let them know there was nothing we couldn’t talk about.”
Do mother-daughter conversations really matter?
Though it’s easy for girls and moms to undervalue the importance of their discussions, all signs point to just how powerful they really can be.
Rachel Dart, a sexual health educator for Sex Discussed Here, co-presents their program ‘I Love Female Orgasm’ at colleges across America. Dart cites her own judgment-free relationship with her mom as the basis for her ability to teach so openly about sex, saying “if I didn’t have a mom (and a dad!) who have always been so respectful, nonjudgmental, and open with me, I would not be able to do this kind of work.”
Dart recognizes that moms and daughters don’t always know how to start having these kind of conversations, but hopes parents recognize how important their perspectives can be. “I think [teaching children] about bodily autonomy is perhaps the most important,” she says, referring to the idea that parents should empower children to decide who to kiss or hug and when.
“Affection isn’t a transaction,” she reminds: “It’s something you give because you want to.” When parents speak to their daughters about sex, even from a very early age, they can empower them and teach them lessons about consent. Dart also hopes parents impart that, no matter how their kids identify or what goes on in their bodies, if they are safe and happy they can consider it “normal.”
Not sure how to approach an open conversation?
Andrea Negrete, an actor-teacher with the Creative Arts Team offers a simple beginning: “treat [your kids] like people!” Negrete wants parents of daughters to consider how much shame and stigma girls are subjected to from a very early age. “Recognize that your daughter is a whole person who has rights to her body. Help make sure she is safe,” she advises. Of course, she also hopes girls of all ages have adults they feel comfortable talking to. If their parents aren’t those people, she encourages them to seek out teachers, counselors, doctors, or other adults they know they can go to without shame.
Moms and daughters are always renegotiating their relationships. As girls grow, so too should the conversations they’re having with their moms. Whether you’re nervous and fumbling over what to say or sure you’ve got it all down, keep talking. The more you discuss, the more you learn from each other and equip growing girls with the tools they need.