2015 was hard.
Like, a punch in the gut hard. Like, my husband opened a taco truck so I was dateless all last summer hard. And then, before I could take a breath, he accepted a long-term consulting job out of town that kept him away almost all the weekdays, all winter long.
But 2015 was wonderful, too. Our nephew who shares our home turned 13 in January. He’s been through alot, experiencing an inordinate amount of loss for someone his age. He’s a very wizened 13 in many ways, very unworldly in others. He’s a friendly but quiet, sometimes brooding gentle giant with a big heart. The summer after his mother died he spent most of it with us. He was seven. Just like we had done with our son, we taught him how to ride a bike. I took him to swim lessons so he could learn how not to sink like a stone. We took him camping for the first time. And after we swooped him up last June, this winter my husband taught him how to shave and tie a tie, and he taught him how to condition a brand new baseball glove. I hug him goodnight and I tell him I love him. He doesn’t say it back yet.
Our son turned 13 in April. And I missed the whisper that was 12.
He has a live-in cousin-brother now. He couldn’t be happier about that and I couldn’t be happier for him. They couldn’t be more perfect together, as if they were always meant to be, yet they couldn’t be more different.
My nephew is 5’8”, he plays trombone and baseball, and he’s all angles and empty stomach. My son isn’t quite as tall as me. He’s chatty, plays cello and draws dinosaurs and dragons. His belly has a capacity and I am still able to fill it. His face is soft, full, and pristine. He leans into me when I wake him in the morning with that same sigh I’ve always known, and for which I waited an eternity.
Our family dynamic has changed dramatically, for me, the only female in the house. Sometimes I feel like it’s my full time job to teach my boys how not to stink. Before my son, in the six years while I waited and hoped, I was home alone with two teenaged girls when my husband traveled for work. That was fun. We shopped. We talked! About everything and nothing. The three of us had mother/daughter “who needs a man” moments, like hauling futons up out of the basement, and secretly purchased antique dressers up the stairs. My oldest daughter and I could waste away an entire evening watching HGTV. And although our middle daughter rolled her eyes, now that my girls are both wives, it’s clear that she soaked it in by osmosis.
I am turning 50 this year. I’ve been a mother since I was 20. And my dynamic as a mother has changed in the blur of one taco truck season followed by a long, painful winter. I spent much of it just trying to focus on the daylight showing through the cracks.
Because raising boys, when I’m often alone, is different than raising girls.
It’s hard when you’ve been hurt by boys in the past. Like, the worst kind of hurt. The kind of hurt where you think they like you, but then you’re alone with them, and suddenly you’re alone with a scary stranger who means you harm. Who means to take what he wants from you, to overpower you, to show you that he’s in charge, to drown out the constant questioning and pressure in our society and prove to himself and to his boys that he’s a man.
That’s what rape is.
Rape isn’t about sex, it’s about ownership, it’s about power. It’s about taking what doesn’t belong to you. It should be the first of eleven commandments: Thou Shalt Not Rape. But because men wrote those more than two thousand years ago, we mothers have to be satisfied with teaching our sons the simpler concept of, Thou Shalt Not Steal.
Rape is stealing.
It’s stealing a woman’s soul.
It’s stealing her sense of safety.
It’s stealing a girl’s innocence.
It’s stealing her belief that her daddy will always protect her.
And it’s stealing a mother’s ability to mother teenaged boys without a fear that somehow she will fail.
That given distance and time away from her, her sweet, innocent boys, as they become men, could fall under the spell of the rape culture we’ve perpetuated for more than 2,000 years.
The rape culture that is insidious in every video game they play, blatant in every song they listen to, alluded to plenty in PG-13 movies.
The rape culture that is everywhere around us, causes mothers who have been raped to worry whether our precious boys could ever become rapists themselves.
Before our secrets were written out loud in this new age of blogging and self-publishing and before rape was defined by the feminists of today, the victims of yesterday, did any of the men I love ever “rape” anyone or coerce anyone to have sex?
Are any of the men I love and admire the stuff of some other woman’s trigger warning?
Do my rapists think of themselves as rapists?
I know that at least one of mine did.
Like a specter, he asked me to dance one night at a club. I refused. He said, “I know what I did to you. And I’m sorry. I just want to be your friend.” I was the single mother of a three-year old little girl by then. I was there for a fun night out—for a break. I wasn’t there to absolve his guilt. I did not want to be his friend. And it was too late for I’m sorry. When we had first become “friends” he was the son of a single mom, a future has-been: a center lineman, newly graduated from high school with no plans for college and zero prospects.
I was a five-foot tall slip of a girl with dreams to attend Juilliard and one-day sing on Broadway.
“Slip of a girl.”
That’s what we used to call a girl that was petite. A girl a boy could toss around at the beach like a football. A girl whose face a boy could easily hold under the water, reminding her through his every action that he’s bigger and stronger than she is.
The center lineman took what he wanted in a dark cornfield on the fourth of July, two weeks before my 16th birthday. There were no streetlights, no moon. I was alone with him in the middle of a freakish corn crop that was well past my knees. It was tall enough for him to bury his Pinto. It was tall enough to bury me. After telling him over and over again that I wasn’t ready, after failing to talk my way out of it, my feet may have walked around to the back of his car, my body may have climbed in, my knees pressing into the plywood, but what was happening inside of me was frozen in fear as black and vacuous as the night.
My hands were clasped shaking in my lap when he decided to take me home. I pulled myself out of the car. Walked slowly up to the tiny house into which my mother had recently moved her boyfriend and his two cats and two dogs. I hadn’t wanted to stay home alone with them on a promising summer night, full of fireworks and expectation. Neither of my parents’ houses felt like a safe haven to me. But where else would I go? Everything was dark inside the house. Only the porch light was on. I stood there on the stoop, my hands still shaking, unable to work the key into the lock before a river of tears and blood-tinged urine filled my new shoes. Shoes I’d bought with my own money. Shoes I had to throw away.
We didn’t know how to define rape in 1983—unless it was perpetrated by a stranger wielding a knife in a dark alley, or unless there were bruises, or unless she screamed. I didn’t know how to tell him that, by the very act of creating duress—by taking me to a dark, secluded location with no hope of anyone hearing me—that he was raping me. Can we all agree that it was rape even today?
Because for me, and I believe for him, it was a defining moment. I hope it defined him for the better. But it nearly ruined me.
I am a rape survivor, a mother to grown, married women and to newly teen boys.
I am a daughter, a sister, a wife.
Could I forgive the men I love for the unforgivable? Could we forgive our fathers or our husbands or our brothers? And if he asked again, could I forgive my rapist for what, maybe at the time, he wasn’t sure he did? I don’t know. Can we forgive ourselves for the conversations we weren’t having, for the words we didn’t know to speak? Can we forgive and move forward for the sake of our tween and teen and future sons and daughters?
Because if it’s true, #YesAllWomen—and CDC statistics released in 2014 say that one in five women has been raped—then I’m sorry, but it isn’t possibly #AllOneGuy.
In fact, in 1987 a national survey of rape (Koss et al.) uncovered that “1 in 12 college men committed acts that met the legal definition of rape, and of those men, 84% did not consider their actions to be illegal.” (Source: https://sapac.umich.edu/article/196).
Because the topic remains so contentious, and with pro-rape and “men’s rights” groups gaining followers and the availability and early introduction of porn (which is a contributing factor in making rape seem like an acceptable alternative to waiting for silly things like getting to know someone, romance, having empathy and understanding consent) thanks to the Internet, I don’t believe very much has changed today.
Except that I have changed.
I need the men I love to understand that being a rape survivor is why sometimes their words or their politics or their appetite for entertainment leave me feeling betrayed. How can they be such intimate observers of my life and not want better for me? But I read these words and I realize: I never before said them out loud. How could I? I couldn’t un-experience that night.
My silence and the shame I carried changed me forever.
It changed the girl I was.
It changed what I believed about possible, my dreams for the future, my view of the world and my place in it. It changed the mother I would become. Rape made writers of me and countless other women. It made us feminists. And I suspect rape—whether witnessed or carried out, whether with intent or out of some warped rape-culture view of what passion is—may have changed some of the men we love and made them feminists, too. I hope so. I hope they can hear me now that I am different, stronger, and saying the words I couldn’t say before.
Watching my two amazing boys grow makes me wonder about the boy who raped me, and the man he became under the weight of my rebuff. I’ll probably never know. I’m certainly nowhere near brave enough to ask.
What I do know is that I am mothering two teenage boys in the age of Promposals and sexting, and rape is a burden I don’t ever want my boys to carry. They need us—the men in their lives and the women in their lives working together—to help them navigate these waters wisely and kindly. Rape is a burden I pray none of the men I love carry. But whether or not they do, whether or not they’ve born witness to others, while they’re teaching my boys to condition baseball gloves and to shave and to tie a tie, I hope the men in their lives will talk to my boys about how not to commit rape.
Because mothering boys and girls is at once the most exquisite and the most excruciating trigger warning.
Photo: Nick Kenrick/Flickr