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The Most Heartbreaking Question My Daughter Ever Asked Me

01/22/2015 12:59 EST | Updated 03/24/2015 05:59 EDT
chris carroll via Getty Images

No question from my oldest daughter has torn more at my heart.

A discussion about never taking rides with strangers unexpectedly morphed into a talk about sexual assault. "Mom," she whispered tentatively. "Do you mean that someone can just sneak up and do THAT to me?" My heart lurched into my throat. Until that moment, my bright-eyed daughter lived blissfully unaware of the fact that women can be raped. I was rendered momentarily speechless.

Her question went beyond the normal conversation most parents have with their children about sexual abuse and inappropriate touching. It went right to the heart of the vulnerability women feel throughout their lives. Fear of being sexually assaulted always floats around the edge of a woman's life; we've just learned to live with it.

My mind raced. Answering her question truthfully would destroy part of her innocence forever and introduce a fear that should not exist, but unfortunately does.

My daughter's question arose about a year ago, but it's been on my mind as discussion swirls about Bill Cosby, Jian Ghomeshi and the Dalhousie dentistry school scandal.

She and I have tackled other difficult conversations -- death, war, crime, school shootings and 9/11. This felt different. How do you tell your daughter that because she is a girl, she will have to learn to live her life with the fear that she could be sexually assaulted? How do you tell her she lives in a world where a man might slip a drug into her drink and rape her while she is unconscious? Or that she might drink too much alcohol at a party and a boy will think it's okay to rape her, take a picture of it and send it to his friends? How do you explain to her that she may work hard to get into dental school only to discover that her male classmates have placed her on a list of women they would like to have "hate" sex with? How do I tell her that one day she may land her dream job only to have her male boss whisper into her ear how much he'd like to rape her? Then, how do I explain to her that if something terrible like that does happen, she will likely be blamed for it because of the way she dressed or how much she drank or how long she waited to tell someone?

I hate that I have to have this conversation with my daughters. I hate that I have to arm them with knowledge and strategies to help keep them safe from assaults. Sometimes I am filled with angst at the thought of parenting two daughters through their teen and young adult years when they will be especially vulnerable. I think often of Rehtaeh Parsons.

I felt my heart break a little and then I took a deep breath and told her that yes, indeed, attackers sometimes pop out of the bushes to assault women. I told her we live in a safe community, but I don't run alone at night for that reason.

I kept our conversation general. She's too young to get into detailed explanations yet, but it won't be long before I have to talk more to her about it. I don't know how I will tackle it, although it won't be one "talk." It will be a series of age-appropriate chats.

At least these recent awful stories have ignited a national conversation about sexual assault, sex discrimination and misogyny. Many parents of boys are having important and difficult conversations with their sons on this topic as well -- and that's good. Change will come from education and awareness. For now, though, I savour the moment at the end of each day when I check on my daughters sleeping safely in their beds. I sigh deeply and think...if only I could protect them like this always.

Li'l Girl Talk

"I love everyone all the way from the ground to the moon and back. Except bad guys, strangers, wolves and coyotes," says The Youngest, age 4.

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