TW: Mild themes of child sexual abuse and sexuality
MIRIAM: Just a few minutes after leaving the neighborhood pool, the summer sun had already dried my bare shoulders, but I still smelled the chlorine from the pool water on my skin and in my hair. I trailed home with other children ahead and behind me as we passed the local gas station. The moment that I neared the station’s payphone, it rang. At seven-years old, I loved to answer phones, so I hopped to it and answered the ring.
The caller on the line did not ask for someone else, he just started talking to me. He asked me to say something. The words he asked me to say were strange, but I said them. He asked me to say them again. I did. After a few times, I decided the man sounded unpleasant, and I hung up the phone.
Only later did I understand this: some person in the neighborhood, presumably in sight of the gas station’s pay phone, had seen children passing and decided to call. He asked me to say vulgar words to him, although at the time, I didn’t know they were vulgar.
I was a child and he used me.
About seven years later, I visited a vacation house with my best friend and her extended family. Her older cousin was among them and, without my consent, he groped me. Flustered, I was able to collect myself and get away from him.
I carried these memories around as a teen with mixed feelings of guilt and indignation. How dare they? And yet, how could I be surprised? The world is fallen after all, and it was my job to stay away from such experiences. I learned at baptism—and constantly as a youth—that I was charged with keeping myself spiritually clean. Fortunately, a very kind bishop’s counselor disabused me of the notion that I carried guilt in those experiences. There was nothing in them that required my repentance.
I am grateful for the comfort that counselor offered me, and yet I still recognize that the comfort came from his decision, and not my own ability to know my own worth.
Years later as a young mother, I insisted on my young children knowing about consent as early as possible. “No” means no, even no to a hug or a kiss from me or their father. As most young parents do, I was constantly amazed at their individual personalities and strong wills.
I also noticed as their innocence grew into greater awareness. Young children will touch themselves or move their bodies in ways that feel good, completely oblivious to any concept of it being wrong. Witnessing such things as a mother, I might have opened my mouth to speak. However, in every case, something kept me from upbraiding them for those actions. My instinct was to give them their privacy and to teach them to confine such behavior to their own private spaces.
As my oldest ones grew into teens, I grew anxious about what they would experience in the church. I wanted their membership to be uplifting, and tried to protect them from any harmful notions they found at church. I have one child who is particularly oblivious to some social cues, and I did not want this youth to be caught unawares by the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet. I told this teen about the church’s position on masturbation.
Unfortunately, this was a shock that I could not mitigate. After that conversation, my child abstained from taking the sacrament for several years. I strongly suspect that this teen felt unworthy because of masturbation. Do I blame myself for burdening my child with guilt for what is a normal and healthy behavior? Yes. I caused exactly the opposite of what I intended, but from then on I hoped and tried to do better.
More years passed and more children became teens. The inevitable happened: dating. As a family, we did what came naturally. Their friends—including mutual crushes—became friends of the family.
Recently my teen daughter had her first appointment with our new dentist. With rain softly pattering against the office windows, I filled out the typical medical history questionnaire.
I worked the pen down the list, checking boxes, adding details. Then I got to a question I couldn’t answer, to the patient: “Are you or could you be pregnant?” I left it blank and then I placed the questionnaire with my daughter to finish in private. I think the answer is no, but such answers are no longer my province. I won’t ask her and I don’t expect her to tell me.
When my adult and teen children come home from dates and time with their friends, the idea of inquiring about their chastity never feels like a correct question. So, I don’t ask. Aside from information they wish to talk about and volunteer themselves, their sexual lives (or lack thereof) is their business, not mine.
I know this might be considered a dangerous approach to child-rearing, but in my experience, this is as safe as I can make it for my children. Honoring their privacy and consent is among the best protections of their safety and feelings of worth that I can provide them.
I know what it is like to feel like human garbage. Still a teen myself, it was an afternoon in my BYU dorm, and my roommate was away. I had rested and, being alone, had finally allowed myself to think about my choices of the previous night. I had broken the law of chastity, and it felt like an envelope of darkness was closing around me. I’d failed myself and most importantly, I’d failed God. This time, there’d be no priesthood excusing the incident as no fault of my own. I’d never be able to go back to before.
Eventually, my mind turned to prayer. “Dear Heavenly Father…”
Light! Light shot to and through me. An overpowering feeling of warmth and love filled my insides. All this after only three words! I continued praying. I begged for forgiveness. I found the courage to see my bishop and begin the repentance process. When I married in the temple, I felt clean and worthy and new.
However, decades later, I think about this moment. The light and warmth didn’t come only after I was married in the temple. Nor did it delay until I spoke to my bishop. The love didn’t fill me up after I asked for forgiveness. All I did was open my mouth to God, and the light came.
I was always worthy.
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