The Birds and the Bees
Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal
What do you most want to know about your mom but would never ask?
When psychoanalyst Joyce McFadden posed this question to hundreds of women in an online survey that began in 2006, she was surprised by their answers: Half of the respondents wanted to know more about their mothers' sexuality.

The queries ranged from the seemingly straightforward to the profound: "Did she date other men before my dad?" "Had she had an abortion?" "Why did she have an affair?" In her new book, Your Daughter's Bedroom, McFadden explores the great value in sharing these kinds of intimate secrets—even when it's awkward to do so. Understanding our mothers, she says, is vital to understanding ourselves. We asked McFadden how to get the conversation started.

Q: Why are these discussions so hard?
It's not easy to blurt out the private details of your life to anyone. But moms often don't discuss their sexual pasts because they're embarrassed about things that happened, or worried they'll scare their daughters. The daughters then withhold from their moms for fear of being judged. It's a cycle. We're not allowing ourselves to be real, whole women together.

Q: What are we missing out on?
We lose our moms as advisers, for one. Intimate relationships are bafflingly complex, and when things go wrong, many women consider themselves failures. But if they could talk about it, they might be able to move past that shame.

Q: What were your survey respondents hoping to learn about their moms?
Many were hoping that certain aspects of their mothers' personalities might be illuminated. They said things like "I think she must have been abused" and "I have to assume she was sexually unhappy with my father." They wanted to get to know their mothers better as women, because we look to our moms as guides. We study them all the time as we grapple with our own identity.

Q: Any advice on approaching Mom?
Make sure you consider the risks first, because you may learn things that you're not prepared to know. If you feel ready, try looking for conversation starters in your everyday life—like a movie that touched on sexual relationships or a friend who is going through a divorce. I find that mothers are often happy to talk once their daughters give them an opening.

Q: How did you start talking about sex with your own daughter?
When she was little, I made sure she knew the correct names of her body parts. I didn't know what a vulva was till I was, like, 30.

Q: Now that she's a teenager, has it become more difficult?
She comes to me with questions, but there are definitely topics I have to broach. Before she started high school, I said, "We're going to have a conversation about oral sex." And she said, "I'm going to jump out of this car." But I made the conversation happen. It's my responsibility to teach her. Now we don't have to talk about it again—unless she wants to.

Unspoken Questions
McFadden asked the women in her survey what they most wanted to know about their moms. This is what some of them wrote:
  • If she's ever loved anyone as much as she loves my dad.
  • Why she stayed with my father.
  • Why she never told us that she married my dad after my older brother was born.
  • Why did she allow Grandma to push her into a marriage she wasn't sure was right?
  • I want to know about her desire for sex.
  • Why she never had an affair after my father became ill.
  • Why doesn't she get help for her marriage?
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