Twenty-six percent of girls say having The Talk with their mothers has made them practice (or plan to practice) safe sex. Twenty-six percent said it made them wait (or plan to wait) longer to have it. And 18 percent said it made them use (or plan to use) hormonal birth control.
The most encouraging news from our survey is that having the conversation with your daughter really does result in her feeling more confident and making better, safer decisions when it comes to sex. As Charlotte continued to test the waters with her mother by talking about sex in the context of other people, Annie was able to act as a sounding board, and to show her daughter where she stood: "I just want it always to be on your terms, on your terms," she'd tell Charlotte. "If you're in the driver's seat—if you know what you're in it for—fine. If you don't, you're just going to end up feeling bad about yourself." The first time they talked, says Charlotte, it was a huge relief. She hadn't known how her mom would feel about her being sexual; mothers of her friends "weren't nice," as she puts it. "My mom really wasn't telling me not to do it—she was just saying, 'Think about it a lot first.' And that I could always come to her for birth control and she wouldn't judge me, and that everything would be fine." From that opening, Charlotte began to slip into their chats some of what she was thinking about, and doing, with her own boyfriends.
And then, this past fall, when Annie took her daughter for her back-to-school physical it suddenly occurred to her to ask, "Honey, would you like to go by yourself this time? Maybe you want to talk about birth control or something?" They sat in the waiting room, staring at the fish tank.
"I was just trying to put it out there, hoping there was no response," Annie remembers. "So she said, 'Yeah, I'd like to go by myself.' I was like, 'Oh, okay. I can look at the fish.'" About a half hour went by, and then the nurse practitioner called Annie in to tell her that Charlotte was interested in contraception. Annie felt a thud, reminded herself that she was the one who'd brought up the whole thing, and soldiered on. They would have to make another appointment, the nurse told them, to determine what kind of pills, shot, or patch to get.
It was a month or so later, when Charlotte asked her mom to make the appointment, that Annie said, "Okay, as soon as you know what an orgasm is, then I feel you have your license to drive."
"Well...," Charlotte answered, "I've already had one."
"Oh," Annie said. Cough, cough, cough. "That's wonderful." She promised to make the call.
As Charlotte waits for her appointment, she's anything but rash. She and her boyfriend, whom Annie has met and likes a lot—"I mean, based on the seven words he uttered"—have talked quite a bit about losing their virginity. "I'm kind of nervous because it's a big deal," Charlotte says. "But he's someone I feel comfortable with, and I would never do it if I didn't have birth control."
She continues to share her love life with her mother, sans the gritty details ("She doesn't need to know all that"), and Annie is still working on her comfort zone. Recently, during a school break, they were having one of their chats in the bathroom—a soothing space awash in ivories and greens, complete with a fireplace, artwork, and upholstered chairs—while Annie soaked in the tub. Something Charlotte told her—Annie can't remember what—caught her so off guard that she literally dunked for cover. "I just needed a moment under the water to gather my thoughts," she explains. "And then I came up and Charlotte seemed sad. I said, 'What's wrong, honey?' She said, 'I feel like you're judging me.' I said, 'I'm not judging you. I just never talked to my mother about this kind of thing. It's as new for me as it is for you in a way. I know that by the time you have a kid, if you have a kid, you're going to have done all kinds of things with people. So I'm just acknowledging that, and wanting—as I've said so many times—it to always be on your terms.'"
Annie's words capture what a survey never could. Every mother of an adolescent goes through a wrenching push-and-pull as she tries to both protect and let go of a child she loves beyond measure. How a mother knows when to trust this young creature to make the right decisions as she shares her body with another—that comes down to instinct, not numbers. But what our survey can, and does, assure us is that talking about sex with our daughters—no matter how awkward or embarrassing, no matter if we're met with utter adolescent disdain—is worth the effort.
For Charlotte, it's been easy to decide to use birth control, because her mother is supportive and accessible. "I was very comfortable asking her about it because she had talked to me so many times," she says. And Annie has to hand it to her child for leading the two of them so intelligently. "I hope she has a really rewarding, rollicking sex life. Whether she'll tell me about it going forward, who knows? But I think she's off to a good start."