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Meredith: Hey mom, I’d love to interview you about your experiences growing up, and how that influenced the way you communicated with me about birth control. There is so much stigma, fear, and complicated feelings around talking to your kids about sex and birth control. So, I thought it could be interesting for us to have an open talk about them. I remember how we openly talked about all these issues in our household and I didn’t even ever date anyone until after going to college, but my best friend Sadie, whose mom used to show us anti-abortion propaganda and tell us we were going to go to hell if we had sex, got pregnant while we were still in high school. She literally had a shotgun wedding. When we were 17 her dad stood on the porch of his trailer with a shotgun and told her boyfriend (who already had a wife and kids) that he had to get a divorce and marry Sadie. They did get married, and last time I talked to her, she had just had her sixth kid. That always stands out to me as proof that “talking about sex” to your kid doesn’t mean they are going to have it, but trying to scare your kids out of it can have the reverse affect.
Judy: Hey Meredith, I’d be happy to have this discussion with you. I hope I can be helpful. One thing I can remember off hand that might be interesting or a good story is that I had a friend who was 2 years older than I, and I showed her the book my parents gave me about reproduction. I don’t think they ever talked about sex with me, but gave me the book. It was an illustrated book that explained the reproduction systems, sex, pregnancy and birth. I was 8 yrs when my parents gave me the book and she was 10 or 11 when she saw it, and her parents had an absolute fit. They were very angry at my parents for letting me have a book like that and allowing her to see it. She, like Sadie, got pregnant in high school, and I didn’t. We had a similar book lying around for you and Michael since you were infants, there for you to read whenever you felt like it. I know you were young because you were still scribbling in your books, and scribbled in that one, too. We sent you and your brother off to college with condoms. “Don’t forget these!” “Oh, mommmm” was the reply.
Meredith: You mention that your parents gave you a book when you were a young kid. Did they ever talk to you when you were in high school about birth control or pregnancy? Were you or your friends able to get birth control and if so, how difficult was it? Do you know if anyone in our family ever had an abortion while it was illegal, or anyone you went to high school with? Was there a stigma around talking about these issues?
Judy: My parents didn’t really talk about birth control, etc. One or the other of them tried to talk to me, basically asked if I had questions, but it was awkward. I wish I remember it better, but I don’t. Condoms were available in all drug stores. There was some discussion about whether “the pill” would become legal. It did, but I don’t recall any of the politics around it. There was definitely stigma about abortion; and sex. When I was a teenager, people didn’t talk about sex: it was understood you weren’t supposed to do it unless you were married. Girls would get a “bad reputation” if it got out that they had sex so no one would talk about it if they did it. That is, until later, with the “sexual revolution” and then they could talk retrospectively. That automatically made talking about abortion a big “no no” also. I don’t know anyone who had an illegal abortion, but I remember people had to go to another state to have one.
Meredith: I remember that we had to write a paper in English class in 9th grade where we had to take a side on a heated issue in the media. I decided to write the paper about abortion, and I took a pro-choice stance in the paper. You helped me with research in the library. I remember the reaction from my teacher was really negative, and I got the sense that she was pro-life and didn’t like my perspective on the issue. I also have a memory from around that time of you telling me that if I was going to have sex that you wanted me to be using condoms, but that if I got pregnant you wanted me to tell you. I remember you mentioned abortion as one of the options I could consider if that happened.
Judy: I don’t remember talking particularly about abortion, but I don’t think I would have pushed you in that direction. My memory would be just that you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable coming to us, that we would help you think about options and we’d support your decision.
Meredith: Another thing I really remember was how you wanted to make it perfectly clear to us (my brother and I) that if we were gay that we could tell you and you would love us no matter who we fell in love with. Do you remember what was prompting you to have these discussions with us?
(Note: my mom divorced my biological father when I was 4 and remarried when I was 8 and he is my Dad.)
Judy: Being gay was still a stigma while you guys were growing up. I did have a fear that your biological father would make you feel bad about being gay (if you were gay), so I might have emphasized that there is no reason to feel bad about it. We have gay friends who have been together a long time and lived through the trauma of telling their parents and hiding their partner. Your Dad and I didn’t want you to feel you had to hide in the closet if you were gay.
Meredith: Aunt Fannie, who is our oldest living relative, was always very open with us about having miscarried. Was our family always open with each other about sex, pregnancy, and death? A lot of my friends tell me that their family refuses to talk about any of these issues. Why do you think our family talks about these things?
Judy: I don’t know why. Perhaps it was that my parents were more liberal than theirs, and that carried down the line.
In the early 2000’s, our country entered a problematic period of “abstinence only” programs in high schools which were funded by the Bush Administration. As of 2010, President Obama cut funding to abstinence only programs, and has dedicated funding of sex education programs that effectively reduce teen pregnancy. According to the Guttmacher Institute, “There is no evidence to date that abstinence-only-until-marriage education delays teen sexual activity. Moreover, research shows that abstinence-only strategies may deter contraceptive use among sexually active teens, increasing their risk of unintended pregnancy and STIs. Further, a 2007 congressionally mandated study found that federally-funded abstinence-only programs have no beneficial impact on young people’s sexual behavior. Strong evidence suggests that comprehensive approaches to sex education help young people both to withstand the pressures to have sex too soon and to have healthy, responsible and mutually protective relationships when they do become sexually active.” http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/FB-Teen-Sex-Ed.html