When I was 16, my mother found my contraceptive pills in my top drawer.
She brought them and held them out in front of me, like something dead and dirty, accusing:
“What are these, and where did you get them?”
“They’re my pills,” I said. “I didn’t want to get pregnant.”
“Are you having sex?” she demanded, her face angry.
“No, no,” I denied, lying to her face. “I just want them…just in case…you know…” My voice drifted away into nothing.
That was how the brief conversation went, all those years ago, but I remember it clearly.
Pressure from all sides…
What I didn’t tell my mother was the fact that those pills were like gold to me. Three months earlier, I’d started having sex. We’d used condoms that time, but then my boyfriend had asked me to go on the Pill.
Of course, it was the woman’s job to get contraceptives and sort all that out. It still is mostly, here, nearly thirty years later from back then.
But I did what I had to do. The sexual health clinic was nearly two hours away by bus, and I didn’t have a car. I was 16. I arrived way too early for my appointment, and walked around the block near the clinic about three or four times before I summoned up the nerve to go inside.
I felt like a criminal. All I wanted was to not get pregnant. You wouldn’t think it would be so difficult to avoid that. Yet it was, for me. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. I’d been taught to think of sex that way.
The people in the clinic were friendly, and put me on a low dose pill, but it was really expensive. I wasn’t earning much at that point, and it used up all the money I had just to get three months’ supply. But what else was I supposed to do?
I remember wondering if my boyfriend, who had a lot more money than me, would chip in for some of the cost, then threw that idea right out. Guys didn’t pay for this sort of stuff. Sex was free for them.
My mother held my pills in her hand. “I’m throwing these out. You shouldn’t be having sex yet. You’re too young.”
And she took them away.
I looked in the bins to see if I could find them, and even went through the garbage cans outside, but no luck. They were gone. And I started bleeding a couple of days later, because I’d stopped in the middle of taking them.
The next day, I rang the sexual health clinic again the moment my parents were out of the house. They couldn’t get me in until the following week, and I asked if I could pay for just one month of pills, not three. I couldn’t. They were sorry about that.
I said I’d see what I could do and made the appointment anyway.
That was the only thing I ever stole money from anyone for: I took the money I needed from my mother’s purse.
I don’t think she missed it.
Next time I got hold of my pills, I made sure Mum wouldn’t find them – I hid them in my secret hiding spot that even she didn’t know about, under the bottom of my wardrobe at the back. If she found them, she never said anything.
From then on, whenever I needed more money for more pills, I just stole it from my mother.
I think that was the point at which I began to grow up: when I stopped trusting my parents. When I realised they would steal my things and they weren’t on my side.
I stopped trusting them when they stopped trusting me.
Sluts and whores
Looking back, there is so much wrong with my experience that I don’t know where to begin.
The fact that contraception was, and still commonly is, solely a woman’s responsibility.
The fact that I had to deal with all this alone, even though I was hardly still a woman.
The fact that my boyfriend was absent from the conversation and from responsibility.
The fact that my mother felt she had control both over my body and my property.
The fact that my mother judged me, and felt she had the right to judge.
The fact that caring for my body was seen as a shameful thing by my mother, as was sex.
The fact that, even at 16, my mother had still never talked about sex with me, even though I desperately needed her support and help.
Most of all, looking back, I’m amazed that my mother was angry that I took care and responsibility for my own body.
If I had a daughter do that, and go get pills all by herself, no matter what age, I’d be proud of her actions and initiative. I’d be glad she was keeping herself safe from pregnancy.
I’d be sorry I didn’t get a chance to help her first, but glad she respected her body enough to care for it and plan ahead.
But maybe I don’t see sex as something we should be ashamed of.
For my mother, women who had sex before marriage were sluts and whores. I don’t know whether she was silly enough to believe that taking my pills away would stop me having sex, but if she was, she was wrong. All it did was make me steal from her, lie to her, and not trust her.
The contraception conversation
Contraception – and sex generally – is the conversation we desperately need to have with our children.
And it’s the one conversation we’re not having.
Over and over, I hear parents say that they want to talk to their kids about sex, but “just not yet”.
If not now, then when?
When they steal from you for their contraception?
When they get pregnant, or get someone else pregnant?
Or maybe when they get an STI?
“Tomorrow” is too late.
We need to talk today.
It is our responsibility to keep our children safe, until they’re able to do that for themselves. That’s what parenting is.
Our kids need to be able to trust us, and in order to earn that, we need to start the conversation by trusting them.
We need to talk.