Growing up no one ever talked to me about the essential knowledge a young girl needs to know. There were no conversations about boys, what I wanted to do with my life or how I wanted to live my life. No one talked about marriage being an essential part having a family, job choices, menstruation, sex/how babies are made. Most importantly, no one told me that I have the right to say what I can and won’t do with my body. No one told me that I could say “no” when it comes to sex. I suppose these conversations never occurred because I lived with my grandparents until I was twelve years old. My grandmother was battling breast cancer and I suppose these conversations weren’t high on her to do list after fighting cancer. My grandfather went to work everyday, to pick tobacco and coming home to discuss life issues definitely wasn’t a priority to him. As a mother, I’ve often thought about the life lessons I should have taught my daughter. How should I have I talked to her about situations she might have encountered?
Even after moving in with my parents after the death of my grandmother, there were still no conversations to be had. I do remember my father telling me in the car on my way to school, “do not have sex with a boy unless you love him.” I remember saying, “okay, Da.” I was in the fourth grade and had no clue what the hell he meant by those words. Later in my teen years, when my dad discovered I had allowed some one’s son talk me into giving him my most precious gift, he said to me, “I thought I told you not to have sex with a boy unless you loved him.” My response to him was, “Da, I was only in the fourth grade, I had no clue what you were talking about and I still don’t understand what you’re talking about.” Hell at the age of 43, it’s safe to say, I am still clueless about that thing called love.
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I mull over long nights and conversations with my daughter only to come to the realization that I didn’t have those conversations with her either. Instead, I told her what should and should not happen. I told her she had to go to college instead of asking her if that was what she wanted to do. I didn’t explain how the importance of marriage and having a two parent home would be beneficial to the child; instead I told her “do not under any circumstances stay in a marriage that leaves you feeling unhappiness and at a sense of lost within yourself. I controlled her finances instead of showing her how to manage it herself. There were no back and forth exchanges of conversation about what she thought about boys, just me telling her “stay away from boys, they are dangerous,” without any explanation as to why I thought they were dangerous.
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Recently I received a phone call from my daughter telling me she believes she’s been sexually harassed at work. I could hear panic and uncertainty in her voice as she spoke to me. She said, “Ma, I am not sure but I think I was sexually harassed.” At that moment I realized I had never had a conversation with her about sexual harassment, rape or child molestation. I just assumed she would know these type of incidents are wrong and I believed that if any of these situations happened to her, she would come to me and let me know. The words “I think” have not settled in the basement of my stomach. These two small words, “I think” have paralyzed me with so much fear that I am unraveling at the seams. How can she not be certain that she was actually sexually harassed and not have to think about it.
I reflect on the many times sexual comments were said to me or the touch of a hand that snuck across my shoulder, leaving me uncomfortable. I thought about how I chose to ignore it. I wondered if I had let down the girl that would come after me.
I listen as she tells me her story of the sexually fueled words he used and and how he grabbed and pulled her close to him. My thoughts race from calling my brothers to filing complaints back to calling my brothers. I am heart broken that she is experiencing this and I’m saddened by the fact I did not prepare her with a conversation called “Sexual Harassment: Life Lesson Number 264.” Instead I sheltered her trying to protect the innocence that would crumble with each life experience. I believe if I experienced and allowed all these bad things to happen to me that it would skip her and she would not have to the endure or face the hardships of sexism and racism because I allowed myself to go through it in order to protect her. I now see I easily handicapped her with my thought process.
As I listen to her give me detail by detail about her encounter with her supervisor, I am surprised and I am proud that she stood up for herself. I am proud that she knew she was being violated and she needed help. I am proud that she stood up and fought back for herself, not knowing she was standing up for the rights of the young ladies that will come behind her and the ones that were before her. I am proud that she brought attention to him, which has led to him being fired and placed under investigation. I think about all the other young girls that he has done this to and how many times he has gotten away with it.
Throughout my day to day routines, I allow myself to get bogged down with the many different roles I played as wife, daughter, mother and employee, that I neglected to have crucial conversations with my daughter. Outside of asking the basic “how are you doing?” did I really know how she was doing and/or did she really detail to me how she was doing. I think about countless drives in the car where there was complete silence, that I now see were missed opportunities to having powerful yet simple conversations.
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As a young mother, I didn’t realize the power I possessed in guiding my daughter. It is now twenty-three years later, I am realizing how powerful my presence and words can be. She seeks advice from me. That makes me proud! I tend to get wound up at things I feel she should already know. She says to me, “Ma, it’s your fault, you handicapped me because you do everything for me, let me at least try.” Now I realize that her words are true, no matter how bad they hurt. I didn’t give her space to spread her wings, instead I chose to clip them and allowed her to fly with mines. No matter how late I am with having these important conversations, it is still necessary that I continue to show and teach her, her value, encourage her to challenge herself to kick that glass ceiling in and know that she is worthy of all things great.
I am not sure if this essay is about sexual harassment or conversations and life lessons that are not being taught to our daughters. I wanted to write a sexual harassment piece but in the end I find myself more concerned with conversations that should have been held with my daughter. I am beginning to realize this is about the many silent conversations I have yet to have as a mother.
Shaneka Jones Cook is a former elementary school teacher who writes fiction, poetry, short stories, and creative nonfiction in addition to being a freelance writer. She is currently working on her MFA in creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. She’s been published in The Record (Trinity Washington University), and most recently Antioch University’s very own Lunch Ticket. She is currently working on a children’s book based on her two younger sons, and a collection of essays about mother/son relationships. She is the founder of the book and poetry club Chapter Chicks. She was an assistant editor for Amuse-Bouche, and the fiction team, and worked on the outreach and currently work on the interview and blog teams for Lunch Ticket. She resides in Washington, D.C. with her daughter and three sons. When Shaneka’s not writing, she’s either watching the Syfy channel or binge-watching Hulu and Netflix.