So…I thought that writing this blog post would be a breeze. Or, as the children I teach have learned to say – easy peasy lemon squeezy (they’ve learned that from me, of course) but I digress…
Where were we? Oh yes, I thought that writing this article would be a breeze. After all, puberty hit me like a freight train on steroids.
Body hair AND facial hair at 9.
Periods at 9 and 3/4s (yep, just like the platform) together with a diagnosis for PCOS.
Uneven boobs at 10 or therabouts.
Stretch marks at 11.
Periods which lasted for months at a time at 12.
Puberty was – shall we say ? – a rather full-on experience laced through with childhood trauma. No child of mine was ever going to go through what I did, I vowed in my early twenties when I was child free and a far superior parent to what I am now. In fact, when my nieces first had their periods, I rushed in with advice. I couldn’t wait to have a daughter because I was going to get it all right this time…
Except, my first child to go through puberty won’t be my daughter. It will be my son. His experience will be quite different to mine and it occurs to me that if I’m to truly bring up a feminist son, I need to walk the talk. This is more than the birds and the bees talk, this is my chance – or rather our chance – to talk about the seemingly endless multiplicity of things that matter. Indeed, they not only matter. Matter is the minimum. The Talk, much maligned, is essential. And, when we frame it like that, we can also see that one talk won’t cut it. And neither, it would appear, one article.
I teach secondary school aged children. I’ve seen the symptoms of puberty. I’ve been riding that rollercoaster of big feelings, big changes and hormones for a while now, as a passenger. I’ve conducted sex-ed classes but that’s not enough. It’s never enough. I have never thought about it from a parent’s point of view. I’ve not thought about it from any point of view other than my own. The other issue is that as most teachers will confess when pressed – is that their own child or children receive only a fraction of the attention that they give to their pupils…
So, what we have now is a child hurtling towards prepubescence and two parents who are unprepared. The fact that we are parenting a tween only caught up with us recently, when we realised that the reason we couldn’t find anything in his size in the high street store is because we were in the wrong part of the store.
Standing there surrounded by dinosaurs and rockets which were apparently no longer going to be part of my son’s wardrobe, I flashbacked to being just shy of 9 and 3/4s and discovering the word ‘prostitute’ and ‘sex’ within moments of each other while sitting on a low hanging branch of the tree that guarded the end of my primary school playground.
Childhood was about to come to a grinding halt. Within months, I’d be battling pads, wings, shame and spiked underwater and a feeling of inadequacy in a failing body which would go on to stay with me forever. Standing there, I felt this strong urgency to haul my son away front the ‘NASA’ and ‘XBox’ t-shirts he seemed hypnotised by and sit him down to give him the Talk. I knew that if I did, it would all come pouring out of me.
And that’s just off the top of my head.
A few moments later, at the cashier’s desk – yes, even a visit to a high street store can be sobering in Switzerland – I calmed down enough to understand that the unplanned Talk I suddenly longed to give would benefit me more than him. That my urgency was a result of me centering my own trauma responses rather than centering him. It was his Talk and thus he deserved a more prepared parent.
So I started looking for answers. Very swiftly, I unearthed something that felt personally disturbing. I realised that I had been enjoying a position of privilege as the mother of a male child. I had felt quite safe delaying the Talk(s), society doesn’t look at him in the same way it looks at someone else’s daughter or even mine. Male privilege includes being able to enjoy being a child for longer. It includes being able to smile and joke endearingly about ‘girlfriends’ and ‘boyfriends’ without really interrogating the context in which those terms perform.
Looking for answers also led me to tripping over social media, of which I am the avid consumer, not my child. Yet.
I came across the ‘How Hard Did Puberty Hit You? challenge. It involves posting two photos of yourself for a comparison. A puberty- hit you and a you as you are now. The resulting ‘glow-up’ is the point of engagement. It’s heartbreaking and hilarious at the same time and yet the point it makes is all very clear – puberty is a hard, hard time. And while, there’s a conversation to be hard about how puberty is framed on social media, it also brings home the more immediate point that people experiencing puberty will also be using social media…
Things on the internet live forever. Today’s tweens and teenagers don’t have the luxury of making mistakes and making gaffes in private anymore. They have to learn on the job. Part of the Talk needs to include how to use social media responsibly, how to protect one’s boundaries while remaining humane and being intrinsically and demonstrably respectful to others too. All of this while also being children.
Now, once upon a time, I felt that I had the handle on looking after children and catering to their needs that I was self-sufficient. Of course, this was when I was 15 and embarking on my first bout of work-experience at a primary school armed with nothing other than the entire catalogue of ‘The Babysitter’s Club’ books. But now, two children deep, I realise that I know nothing. However, what’s the one thing I do know?
I know to ask.
In fact, that’s the main thing I’ve learned for the first part of my puberty quest. Before venturing any further, I must ask. I must ask my eldest how much he already knows. I must ask the experts who have professional research-backed experience of handling the Talk and all that comes after. The world we live in is quite different to the one we grew up in and we need to take this into account. In light of this, do stay tuned for further articles about how to approach puberty with your own pre-pubescent. Each month, I’ll be exploring a different aspect because just as one talk is not enough, neither is one article.
Finally, when we are finally ready to have the talk, I do know where it will take place. It won’t be in the T-shirt aisle of H&M but with me standing in the liminal space of his bedroom door. So, if it’s not the right time for him, he can tell me to get lost (and come back again later).
In the meantime, I’m going to learn about how to make this less about me, and more about him. It’s the least he deserves. After all, he’s the guinea pig right? I’ll get it right five years later. Probably.
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