Tell Her First.

[ Note from Design Mom: I knew I would be busy at Altitude Summit today (waving from Palm Springs!), so I asked Karey Mackin to share this essay today. It’s so good you will die. ]

An acquaintance who never quite made it to friend level was having a boy baby around the same time marriage equality was legalized. During one casual conversation about names, she clasped her hands together and said, “I’m so happy my son is being born at a time when he can marry anyone he chooses.”

“Ohhhh,” I replied, waving away that idea. “Tell him he doesn’t have to get married. Tell him he doesn’t have to do anything just because society says so…” I scare-quoted my fingers when I said society. “He can do whatever he wants to do. Tell him that. And you should totally name him Oscar. I think it really gives off the vibe Don’t Mess with Me, I’m a Grouch, and also have you seen the original Odd Couple? Genius.” I scare-quoted all that, too, and then ended with a shrug and this: “Then he may not get bullied, you know?”

Her face fell, and I quick tried to fix it all.

“What am I saying? Name him anything! His name won’t matter one bit in terms of whether or not he gets bullied. Chances are, he’ll probably experience some sort of bullying anyway…tell him everyone does…but you can handle it, Mama. You got this.”

I’ve dashed very few hopes in my time, but this one seemed like it left a mark.

Sigh. I am not a hit with brand new parents.

They seem so old-fashioned to me. Kind of like an early episode of Little House on the Prairie. Full of wide-eyed optimism, polite language, and never any raised voices from the main characters. Except drunk Mr. Edwards. I always liked that guy.

See, I’m in the final season of The Jetsons. The one where Judy swears and listens to Migos, and Elroy sneaks his juul in the bathroom at school.

One of my friends has a new teenager, and she knows I’ve watched pretty much every episode of that show. Twice. I’m actually on my third viewing.

“I’ve been reading her texts to him and – OMG – his to her,” she confided, “and they’re shocking me a little. They’re shocking me a lot, if I’m being honest. And I don’t know what to do.”

I think I know. And since my friend is not nearly as fragile as a brand-new parent, I told her what I think I know. I can tell you, too, if you’d like? (Note: It’s girl-centric, as I have three of them and they’re all I know. If you have another kind of kid, I’m not sure how much of this will be useful to you. Apologies in advance.)

My advice is this: Make sure you tell her first.

Be the first to tell her what might be asked of her, initially in a flurry of increasingly persuasive texts, and then in gasp-inducing, heart-pounding photos, and then in a pitch-black closet at a party. Remove the shock, remove the shame, and make room for all her power. We all need enough room for our power, especially if we ever find ourselves in a pitch-black closet at a party.

Be the first to tell her she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to do. Except make her bed every day because that’s just a nice way to live, and also never forget to be in awe of what’s possible. It’s all possible.

Nope, she never has to say yes to anything, but she can if she’d like. That’s her choice, and hers alone. Also, tell her it’s good to remind herself why she’s a no. Tell her to check in with her values and goals every so often to make sure they haven’t strayed too far from each other. They’re most useful when they’re within reach, especially if she ever finds herself in a pitch-black place.

Tell her if she wants to send pictures of her body to anyone, to make sure she sends ones she’ll be proud of everyone seeing. That goes for words, too. Also, decisions. Be the first to tell her if someone sends her something she doesn’t want – pictures, words, or opinions she never requested – that she doesn’t have to accept them. This is her life, and hers alone.

Be the first to tell her about those moments when she’ll feel worth less than worthless. They’ll come. And when they do, tell her to look at herself hard in her mirror and deep in her heart and remind herself who she is. Swearing helps.

(This is how it goes in my house: “Remember who you are…” I say softly. There’s usually a smile, a tilting up of a chin, and then this: “I’m Gracie F*cking Mackin.” And…she’s back. You may borrow that, if you’d like. With your own name, of course.)

Listen. This advice may seem harsh as heck to you. “This will never happen to me,” you think. “None of this will ever happen to my child.” But it might. So, I’m telling you what I think I know, just in case you ever need it.

Be the first to tell her not to judge herself on stupid stuff like how fast she runs the pacer in PE and pants sizes, reminding her that even Offset likes a b with some cellulite. She’ll know what that means. Tell her to find her comfort food, and that sometimes comfort food isn’t food at all, so maybe a better thing to tell her is to find her comfort people. Potato, potato.

Be the first to tell her to tell her to believe in something. Magic, heaven, guardian angels, Santa Claus, lucky pennies, whatever. Because people who don’t believe in anything usually have a hard time believing in themselves.

While you’re at it, be the first to tell her the unbelievable power of a few deep breaths. Tell her to root for her friends, and be the first to remind her we’re all friends in this life if we’re lucky. Tell her as often as you can how lucky she is. But mostly tell her you’re the lucky one because you got her in this life. Yes, tell her that one more than anything.

Is this easy? Is it easy to tell her first? Not at all. It’s uncomfortable and you’ll gulp a lot and turn red and your stomach may feel like it does at the beginning and middle of the most awful roller-coaster ever designed, and why the heck did you even get on this ride in the first place, anyway?

But then comes the ending…that last stretch when the wind sweeps over your cheeks and you’re pretty sure you’ve made it and your breath slows a bit and you kind of let go of your grip with a little gasp but only because you have to…it’s someone else’s turn now, see…and you look back at it all with more than a little bit of wonder and think, “Oh. I did that. I DID THAT.”

And you’ll tell yourself that it was the worst time of your life at exactly the same moments it was your best and most favorite, and you’d probably give everything you’ve got to go again and again with her, but wouldn’t you know it’s time for her to go it alone.

Tell her all that, too. She’ll hopefully need to tell it to someone else someday.

But you. Oh, you. You were the first one to ride it with her. All of it. You did this. YOU DID THIS. And so, rest assured, whenever she gets scared and thinks she’s way too far off the tracks or God forbid thinks she wants to get off for good because she’s in a tunnel and it’s all so pitch-black no matter where she looks, she’ll reach out and find all the things you told her. First.

You got this, Mama.

I was out for a run the other day, and spotted some moms and one dad playing with their babes at my neighbor’s house. The little ones were selling ball-point pen illustrations.

“Ooh! Is this the Easter Bunny?” I squealed.

They covered their giggles with their hands and politely informed me it was not the Easter Bunny because only babies believe in the Easter Bunny. No, these were dragons fighting unicorns.

“Well,” I scrunched down to their level and whispered, “The Easter Bunny, dragons, and unicorns…I believe in it all.”

I sure hope it wasn’t the first time they heard that. But I really hope it’s not the last.


Written by Karey Mackin. Follow her on Instagram here.

66 thoughts on “Tell Her First.”

    1. I appreciate your comment. I really do. I’ve always thought that people who leave comments are probably the best kind of people in real life.

    1. you and two others who are also boy moms…your comments mean a lot to me. I was worried I wouldn’t have anything good for you, so I’m happy you found something to enjoy a little!

  1. Karey — as always: LOVE YOUR WORDS!! (And miss your blog tons – more than tons! What’s more than tons? Gigatons? That sounds stupid, but whatever.) Miss your blog GIGATONS! And GODZILLA too! (Because Godzilla must be measured in Gigatons, right? Right.)

  2. This is soooo important!
    I have a friend who was once molested at the age of 12, she told her parents, who told my parents who told me. Until then, I didn’t even know this could happen (I am talking about being touched on genitalia, nothing further. UIT’s already bad enough, but I mean, I am not talking about rape). Three months later, it happened to me. I was hugged from behind by an adult friend of someone of my family and he started finding his way to touch me inappropriately. I was confused, panicky and then I remembered the story of my friend, and I managed to find the strength, courage and full anger in motion to get out of there. All I keep thinking about it as an adult is that if my parents haven’t mentioned to me (and I am ashamed for them because it wasn’t even to educate me that they told me, all adults weren’t sure if my friend wasn’t making it up…), but if they hadn’t told me, I would have been so much more shocked and surprised and defenseless… SO YES: tell her first. And from a young age. It will empower her (and she might even know that she can tell you things).

  3. All I could think while reading this is YES YES YES. Over and over as an adult, looking back I wish someone had sat down and TALKED to me about things. Things that would (maybe) happen to me as a teenager or things that had happened to them. I try really hard not to blame my mom for not ever having those conversations with me (I know she had her own stuff to go through), but I’ll be damned if I don’t have those conversations with MY daughter.

    1. same. I mean, it was a different time but I knew then I wanted to take a different approach, if that makes sense. (I love the YES YES YES, btw.)

  4. Surely you would not say it’s OK to send nude photos. Some middle schoolers just got arrested for that where I live. I get talking to your kids, I have 5, two are teens.
    I tell my kids about single parenthood. Single mom’s are the fastest growing poor. I don’t encourage them to do something if they want. There are long term consequences for people having casual sexual relationships. I encourage wisdom.

  5. Absolute perfection. I have two young daughters and I don’t have to tell them everything yet, but I will. This made me feel strong and hopeful.

  6. I’m mom of four sons and trust me, this loving brilliance works for their kind, too. I’ve also told them these things from a viewpoint of how to respect and honor “your kind of kids”.

  7. My daughter is about to turn 11 and we have these talks all the time. I tell her even when she’s not listening. I tell her when she brushes her teeth. I tell her as she’s falling asleep. And I am going to keep telling her first.

    What a lovely piece.

  8. Yup. You’re still my favorite writer, Karey! LOVE YOU AND YOUR WORDS SO VERY, VERY MUCH.

    This sentence is everything: “Because people who don’t believe in anything usually have a hard time believing in themselves.”

    My teenage daughter is giving me a run for my money, and I never was very good at money or running. But I think I can do this stuff because you said I shoudl. I can tell her first. (OMG going to take a shower/have a good cry now.)

  9. Off-topic…I was thinking of you the other day. Pat and I watched Ghost Story, I think it’s called? Casey Affleck? I didn’t remotely get it until, like, the last ten minutes and then I cried cried cried cried. And I don’t know why, but I thought you’d appreciate the movie. xoxo

  10. As a stepmom and a mom this has worked with my stepson, but backfired with my stepdaughter who is 15. I, as well as her father, told her many of these things but in retrospect I think she was waiting to hear them from her mom who wasn’t heading in this direvtion. Her reaction was to shut down completely. Could be more complicated than portrayed here.

  11. As the mother of two adult children, a girl and a boy, I agree with the sentiment of this, but I would add that boys, too, need to be walked through this process. Boys also get into situations that they don’t know how to handle. If both the boys and the girls were well informed about choices, there would be fewer incidents that result in bad outcomes, and maybe even better communication between the sexes.

    1. Yes, to amplify this: we shouldn’t think that only girls need to be told about the world. Boys need to learn to have consensual sexual relationships with whomever they choose (and who chooses them). That kinds of empowerment will hopefully help them stand up to rape culture and to refuse to perpetuate it. I imagine that requires exactly the kinds of conversations Karey so eloquently describes here. All our kids deserve this from us!

      1. YES! I AM DEAD SURE YOU’RE BOTH RIGHT! But my knowledge base happens to be girls and I didn’t feel like I could offer anything beyond what I think I know from my own experience…I didn’t want over-step, you know? xoxo and thanks for your thoughtful comments!

  12. This is superbly written and powerful and gives me optimism and hope and feels empowering, unlike a lot of parenting writing which makes me feel guilty and less than. (Usually not on Design Mom). :)

    1. Life’s too short to feel less than! You got this, Mama. Even if you’re wearing yoga pants and haven’t showered all day. Oh, wait. That’s just me. xoxo

  13. This is so good and so so important. Voicing things that we are aware of, even if they are sad/hard/almost unimaginable things, is how we overcome silencing, stigma and all the rest. I’m not a mom, but I’m trying to be the best aunt to so many kids in my life. They are worth the hard conversations.

      1. Aunts & uncles have very important roles to play for all kids, especially perhaps adolescents on up! Sometimes it’s just easier to bring a sensitive issue up with a close aunt or uncle than with your own parent. You might worry about judgment more from a parent so it can almost be a ‘way to think things through out loud with someone you trust. It’s wonderful that you’re so available for all these conversations.

  14. Oh, my goodness. I hope I remember all this when I’m a parent someday. Thank you, Karey, and thank you Gabrielle for sharing Karey and her words with us.

  15. Yes yes to this! Thank you so much! Will keep saying it first and last and in between, even if they seem not to be listening.

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  17. oh gosh, tears. thanks for this good words. regardless of what my ideas are for my kiddos, boys and girls, i completely acknowledge they might go completely their own way and at least i want them to have gotten some real truth from me…!

  18. The follow up to Tell Her First is Tell Her in Her Own Language. My kids are competitive swimmers, so when I talked to my son about consent I made it simple: sex is swimming, rape is drowning.

  19. Such amazing, powerful and important words here: “Remove the shock, remove the shame, and make room for all her power. We all need enough room for our power, especially if we ever find ourselves in a pitch-black closet at a party.” Thank you for this great thought-provoking shit-kicking essay.

    Yes, and please please don’t wimp out and wait until your son or daughter is in late adolescence to start these conversations, about sex, drinking, drugs or how to be a good adult. I have 2 daughters (now in their 20s) and a teenage son. We made a point of commenting on lots of different situations they observed from the time they were little. Try not to lecture, listen hard and let them know their opinions matter to you. It can be incredibly hard sometimes to keep strong reactions to yourself, but if your indignation spurts out (a problem for me, I only wish being indignant were an Olympic sport), it will shut them right down, because you’re taking ownership of an experience that isn’t yours.

    Be available for random conversations. Say you’re sitting and watching TV together and a character isn’t being treated kindly or with respect, in the break ask your kids what they think of the relationship that’s portrayed, what would they do if they witnessed that, what would they do if they were either person? What would they say to a friend who was going through that? What might they want to hear from a friend, what would help him protect himself/what would help her to turn away from unkind behavior? It’s about helping them observe and understand the world a little better, and just how much their choices matter.

    Driving them in the car is great for this, as it can be easier to share if you don’t have to factor in a lot of eye contact. And of course one learns so much just shutting up and listening to the kids talking in the back seat as you chauffer them around to school and games and parties and later, sleep overs. They forget you’re there and it’s mesmerizing.

    Because our kids are witnesses, they’re soaking it all up, all the time, and what they see is an unspooling series of lessons. Help them be emotional detectives, so they can decode situations, their own feelings, and stand up for themselves and others. Help them be good citizens with character.

    I really think lots of short age-appropriate conversations over years is so much better than one or two big heavy conversations their senior year of high school. It all needs time to percolate.

    The more your kids are used to talking to you about messy, difficult things, the more they’ll be likely to bring you their scariest problems — hopefully before they’re insurmountable.

    And please don’t forget to talk about /get them birth control, however awkward it might be. How will you feel if your daughter tells you she’s pregnant, that she was scared to tell you she was having sex, so she didn’t turn to you? I read somewhere that pregnancy rates are much higher in communities where sex before marriage is considered a heinous sin, because ultimately some kids will still have sex, they just won’t have any protection.

    I don’t know about BYU, but at every other college in America, the fact is that kids are having sex, a lot of sex, probably not with the right partners and often drunk sex. A friend who has two sons, one a junior in college, the other heading off next year, keeps a bowl in the boys’ bathroom stocked with condoms. Wasn’t she embarrassed? I asked. She looked at me: Embarrassed? No, she said she got over that fast when one of her friends’ sons got a girl pregnant and both their lives suddenly changed direction.

    Sorry, my comment has gone on and on. This essay offers so much to think about!

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