By E.J. Gordon
Every winter break our family packs its bags and heads down to “the grandparents” somewhere near West Palm Beach. No matter how many times my in-laws move or change another garage into yet another bedroom, their kids keep having kids, and there’s just never enough room. Last year my husband and I were given a choice: Sleep with our kids or take the air mattress into the den and sleep there. Since our marriage falls into the “sexually active” category, and since it’s two weeks of the year when my guy isn’t always tired and stressed about work, we wanted the privacy. So at about 10 p.m, we blew up the mattress, said our goodnights, and closed the French Doors to the den …
Thank God I had insisted on a “lights-off” seduction that night, because smack in the middle of our love-making, or rather just before it ended, my mother-in-law knocked on the door. We didn’t tell her to come in, we just said, “What?” — but she came right in anyway. She just wanted to know if the dog was in our room. He wasn’t. And “the moment” was definitely gone.
The next morning over breakfast my sister-in-law came running into the kitchen: “Mom walked in on us last night!”
“Us too!” I exclaimed. “What in the world was she doing?? I mean who walks into the room of a couple WITHOUT an invitation? Wasn’t she worried that she’d be interrupting?”
“I don’t know!” my sister-in-law exclaimed. “Do you think she’s being passive-aggressive?”
Just then, on cue, our shared mother-in-law walked into the room. My sister-in-law, who has known her a lot longer than I have and talks to her like she’s her own mother, put her hands on her hips and said:
“MOM! Who doesn’t knock?? You walked in on us BOTH last night! Just because you and Dad never do it anymore, it doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t!! Please don’t do that again, or you’re going to have some grumpy sons around here.”
And that’s how you handle it when your in-laws walk in on you.
But that’s an easy one. Your in-laws are NOT your parents. When it’s your own parents, that whole history of them raising you as a baby, seeing you as their little girl … that doesn’t disappear just because you’re now 40 and married with children. I still get uncomfortable talking about my pregnancies with my Dad, because the idea that I’d had sex to get that way weighs on the conversation!
But many in-laws already see their daughters-in-law as the slut who defiled their sons — so walking in on you isn’t going to really change their perception of you.
And turning the tables, walking in on your OWN parents, even now that we are parents ourselves, doesn’t get much easier. And it’s waaaay grosser now. A few years ago, a friend of mine walked in on her mother, um, shall we say playing her father’s trumpet. She flipped out! Here was a grown married woman walking into her parents’ bedroom unannounced, and she was offended that they were even doing that with their daughter in the house. But they’re married. It’s their house.
Lately, as my cohorts’ children are getting to that age when they’re staying up later than their parents, I keep hearing the stories about their kids walking in on them. When they’re three, when they’re five even, the explanation is easy: “We’re doing a special love dance. It’s only for married people. Go back to bed.” But what about these pubescent children who know that sex isn’t all about making babies, who know exactly what sex is? What do we tell them when they walk in on us?
I have a friend who told me this crazy story about how she woke up to her husband tossing and turning one night, and she asked him what was wrong. He told her that he was work stressed and couldn’t sleep, so she decided to help him “relieve” him. They then proceeded to have a session that would make a Puritan go blind, and it did, indeed, release his stress (along with making him feel like Superman), but …
What she didn’t know was that their middle-school aged child had wandered into the room unable to sleep, and she had cozied herself into a still caterpillar on the chaise lounge chair completely unaware that an X-rated show was about to begin …
Torn from her cocoon, unable to turn away and frozen into silence, the child didn’t find the restful sleep she’d sought. It was a full week later before she spilled to her mother what she’d witnessed. I’m pretty sure that if you looked up the word “mortifying” — this is the image you’d find. But they’re married. It’s their house.
I don’t know what my friend ended up saying to her daughter, and I’m hoping to not ever have that conversation with any of my own children, but what would I say? Probably this: “Sex is for people who love each other and who are committed to each other, and that is me and your Dad. We love each other. We are committed. This is what married people do. Be glad we’re doing it with each other and not anyone else. Be glad we still love and want each other. I hope for the same for you one day. If you don’t want to see it, STAY OUT OF MY ROOM!”
So what about when YOU walk in on your teenagers, and they’re obviously not married, and it’s not their house — it’s YOURS, and they’re NOT grown-ups. This is a tricky situation, and it’s incredibly dependent on the details …
If your child is 17, in a committed relationship for a long time with a partner you’re not only aware of, but one you also approve of, then the conversation should probably be more about birth control and safety, and maybe even about where it is and isn’t appropriate to have “relations”.
If you’re dealing with anything outside of that, the conversation needs to be much more parental. But mark this: the CONVERSATION NEEDS TO HAPPEN.
Regardless of how old you are, or how old your kids are, or whether it’s appropriate to be having sex where you are caught, you NEED to acknowledge it. If both parents saw it, it needs to be BOTH parents present for the ‘discussion.’ It might be painful. It might be embarrassing. You might need a drink first.
But you need to talk about it, even if your kid slams the door in your face and blasts her music — you need to find a way. Maybe you go walk the dog together, or maybe it happens in the car when you don’t have to look her or him in the eye. A good start would be to say: “I know we are both very embarrassed, but we need to talk about what I walked in on the other day. I’m sure it made you just as uncomfortable as it made me, but we can’t just act like it never happened. First, talk to me about birth control. What are you using? Second, talk to me about safety. Are you aware of the risks and where your partner has been? Third, talk to me about what’s going on with this relationship. Fourth, let’s talk about boundaries.”
And then you can discuss whether this is behavior that you are forbidding to go on, or whether it just can’t be done in your living room.
And if it’s your son that you’ve walked in on rather than your daughter, a high-five from Dad is NOT the answer. The same conversation needs to take place. Pregnancy and herpes affect boys too, as well as the emotional stuff.
The “embarrassed” line is a good way to deal with the masturbation interruption, as well. But because masturbation doesn’t come along with a series of concerns about pregnancy, health, and emotional damage — if you can act like you haven’t seen what you saw, you might want to. However, if you walk in on something that will forever scar both your memories, ACKNOWLEDGE the humiliating moment.
Tell your kid: “I’m so sorry I embarrassed you. What you were doing is very normal, and every person has done it. From now on I’ll always knock and wait for permission to enter. I’m here if you have questions, or we can just forget about the whole thing. Now that that’s over, how about them Bears?”
Last Valentine’s Day my husband and I decided to celebrate the holiday with what we refer to as a “sexcapade”. This usually includes costumes and roles and completely inappropriate bedroom talk. Just as I was about to reveal my latest purchase from Lovers’ Lane, my husband said, “Maybe we should lock the door.”
If you don’t have a lock on your door, get one. It is the single best way to prevent your kid from interrupting you and creating an image that they will remember well into their nursing home years.
And if you don’t want to walk in on your children doing anything you don’t want to talk about, then walk loudly, pause … and then KNOCK.
Lisa Barr, Editor of GW: Got an “Oh SHIT!!” Moment to share? Cough it up, Girlfriends — would love to hear what happened, and how YOU handled it.