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Personal Essays

Photograph by Geomangio

Kiss and Tell

When you’re four years old, a kiss is an accessory in a game of dress-up. When you’re the four-year-old’s mother, that kiss comes with a costume trunk of questions.

There are some things that I could never have prepared myself for as the mother of two young girls.

Things like how fatigue does not simply descend and ascend depending on the day, but how it is an entity that in faithfulness remains over a long stretch of several years. Or how quickly it is that children grow into their own personhood, eschewing a parent’s wisdom or presence for that of a friend’s. Or finding out that my four-year-old—while dressed in a short, sparkly dance outfit and pink plastic high heels three sizes too big—kissed a second-grade boy when asked, and that she liked it.

With one small but seismic event, the future of boy-girl dates, sex talks, negotiating curfews, and all other manner of teenage-parent conflicts make themselves known to me in one unpredictable bang.

My rational mind is telling me to calm the hell down: Children do this stuff; they get interested and become aware of gender differences around this age; they mimic the grown-up world through an ever-real world of pretend play, putting cherished stuffed animals into time-out for misbehavior, making mud cakes as if they were the real deal, promising a hand in marriage to a certain playmate on the playground one day, only to promise it to another friend the next.

Then there’s the fact that I survived a similar exploit: In kindergarten, little Georgie Stevens exposed himself to me and my friends Kitty and Kyla in the basement of his parents’ suburban home. Memory says that I told my mother about it all when I went home later that day; memory also says that I didn’t like seeing Georgie’s wee-wee at all, and that that was the extent of my exposure to that kind of thing until my first awkward kiss in the fourth grade from a classmate named Ted. When this happened, Ted had just asked me to “go with him” while we were at out at recess at school; he was holding a football with one hand, and after I gave him my answer of “yes,” he sealed our young relationship with a kiss. There was torment in the decision to take on a boyfriend of this sort at such an age. I believe we lasted a week, at which point I broke up with him because I didn’t know what “going with” someone meant—what was I agreeing to give and give up, anyway?—and because I was much too unsure of everything, including myself, to continue any sort of uncertain relationship with him.

Recalling all of this, I contemplate the literal universe, which is expanding at accelerating rates due to the cosmological mystery known as dark energy; then I think of my personal universe and how it nearly exploded over the knowledge of my daughter’s first kiss.

My friend’s younger son begins anxiously imploring my daughter, “Kiss me on the wips! Kiss me on the wips! You kissed him!”I find out about it at the end of a playdate at a friend’s house; as we’re about to leave, my friend’s younger son begins anxiously imploring my daughter, “Kiss me on the wips! Kiss me on the wips! You kissed him!” When she wouldn’t kiss the younger son, and when my back was turned for a second, he ran up to her, pulled her face close to his, and planted his lips on hers with impetuous determination. It was then that she cried.

That evening at home, my husband and I try to talk to our daughter about kissing boys and how that kind of thing should be reserved for when she’s much older. It’s a special thing, we say. Your body is yours. We hug our friends, and if a boy asks you to kiss him, you need to say “no.”

“They would never agree to that,” she says with utmost conviction, pushing around her little bits of shell-shaped macaroni and cheese on her plate. I realize that her feelings about this are much deeper than I can plumb.

“You need to say no,” I say again, now masking my fear.

“I like kissing Connor,” she says.

“Just hugs,” I say. The mass of fear swells and grows.

There are other times when I come face to face with the realization that my children are only mine for a time, and that I am not owner of their lives, but steward. Like when I drop them off at daycare for the day and see the eldest run off to play, or hug a teacher or friend with little regard for my leaving her there; or how my youngest—at 16 months—reveals her own independence when she vociferously shakes her head “no” or angrily throws a toy on the floor when her will is impeded; and how such strength is not given to her by me or my husband or by environment, but how it is all hers—an imbued birthright.

There is more to this first-kiss explosion that pulls me out of the dullness of adulthood and into the passion of youth: One night at 1 a.m., I am nursing the baby in the pitch dark of her room, and I start to think about how I remember many things from my 20s: how certain guys expressed attraction, or how other guys I liked showed indifference, brushing me off as nothing but a little girl. I recall a somewhat common child-parent struggle that followed me from true childhood into young adulthood, and how my parents wanted to protect me not only from the world and whatever dangers it dispenses, but how they also wanted to protect me from myself.

The spring break of my sophomore year in college, when I was home for the week, my parents caught me with a bong that I’d just bought and had stashed in my duffel bag to take back to school; that, along with a small bag of pot and some photographs, which my friend and I had taken while we were high and silly in her campus dorm room, convinced my parents that the evidence pointed to a drug problem. Their solution: a mandatory year off from college so that I could go home to live under their supervision. I protested as much as I could, but ultimately succumbed with the unspoken understanding that I was too unpredictable or wild to be trusted to live on my own. While there, I worked as a cashier at a soup-and-salad restaurant just blocks from their Irvine home, and then worked another job at a small ice cream shop owned by a writer type who introduced me to a local psychic and writers like Gabriel García Márquez. Though I abided by their wishes outwardly, they were aghast that I visited a psychic and thought all the books I was reading were no good, further confirming their opinion of me. At the time, I knew their reaction to be controlling and overblown, which leads me to consider another possibility: that my reaction to my daughter’s kissing brings out all the same fears and desires for control that my parents exhibited toward me—fears that, while well-intentioned, ultimately diminish a child’s need to grow up as a separate being.

The evening my father caught us, we were upstairs in my bedroom. My shirt was unbuttoned, Julien’s hand was touching my skin near my stomach, and the shades of my bedroom window were closed.I also remember the first time (the only time) I got caught by my father making out with a guy. The boy’s name was Julien, and he worked at a shop next to the restaurant where I worked that year I was home from college. He was a few years younger than I and was a model, with black hair and noticeable blue eyes. We started to spend time together, mostly hanging out at his parents’ house nearby—which was always full of the activity of his much younger siblings and hippie mom and dad. The evening my father caught us, we were upstairs in my bedroom. My shirt was unbuttoned, Julien’s hand was touching my skin near my stomach, and the shades of my bedroom window were closed. I remember spending time with him and how I could never get over the fact that I was with him; that I was with someone so physically gorgeous and different than the way I perceived myself; and how, because of the imbalance I felt in being with him, kissing him was like being in a movie. When my father opened the door to my bedroom, we all were startled; and just as quickly as my dad opened the door, he closed it and walked away; right after, Julien quietly went home. I know my father said something stern to me after Julien left, but his remarks were brief, and the incident was never mentioned again.

I think about all this and realize that there’s one thing I don’t recall: the first time a boy ever said, I love you. To make matters worse, I don’t even remember the first time my husband said those words to me.

I am trying to figure out what frightens me so much about my daughter and her first four-year-old kiss. It’s not that it just happened, but perhaps that she liked it, and how her liking it means that I must confront a whole universe that has been put into motion. Namely, that matters of the heart—affection, kissing, and longing—mimic particles I cannot see or dark energy or whatever it is that surrounds us: They are ever-moving, unbounded, and exist freely—abiding by their own principles.

What this also requires is ongoing acknowledgement of my own past: how I was more than willing in college to date a guy nearly 10 years older than me who’d hung Playboy centerfolds in his bedroom, and how the whole time I dated him, I suspected he was seeing another girl on the side but I never said a word; or how another long-term boyfriend who, from our first date onward, accused me of flirting with others, calling me names like whore; and how that kind of thing lasted the entire span of our too-long, four-year relationship.

It’s hard to come to terms with this and to wonder where along the way I valued myself so little that I’d blindly give myself to the guys that I did. There is no making sense of it, not even 20 years after the fact.

The line I know I need to walk with my daughter, when I hear out of her four-year-old mouth that she likes kissing a boy, is to acknowledge that the desire to be beautiful, to be noticed, and to be loved has been sewn into her, even at this age. But how can I also show her, whether now or 15 years from now, that giving and receiving love needs to be entered with care; and that retaining the integrity of one’s heart demands some bit of protection: that love, or what we take for love, can cast down as easily as it exalts, and that once you cross that line of giving your heart to another, or your lips, or any other part of yourself, it is terribly difficult to gain that back? These are the cautionary tales—lessons that are written on my own heart.