Sanity check re possible inappropriate touching by my mother
April 5, 2021 2:03 PM   Subscribe

This has been gnawing at me for the last 30 years or so. I've thought about it from time to time but it has only been in the last week or so that I've really sat down and thought about it. [tw: possibly inappropriate touching]

Back when I was about 12, my mum got it in her head that there was a condition where male testes could descend incorrectly and get trapped in a "canal". And if it happened before puberty kicked in, then they would be trapped permanently.

As such she brought it on herself to inspect me. My memory is extremely hazy and I can't actually remember the actual act of her touching me (at least I'm not 100% confident of fragments of memory I do have are accurate). That said, I do have a very strong memory of me waiting for her on my bed with my pyjama pants around my knees and then her then sitting next to me. Even though I can’t remember the actual act of her inspecting me, in my heart of hearts, I know that she did. I also have a very vague memory that I needed to be inspected every six months and that this was not something I could get out of.

I don't think she got any sexual pleasure out of it, but that's based on my knowledge of my mum, not on my memories (my mum's always suffered from extreme anxiety and paranoia). But in a sense whether or not she got sexual pleasure out of it doesn’t particularly matter. What matters (I guess) is that I didn’t have a choice….and even more so, what that lack of choice has on my psyche and how to affects me to this day. And how it plays with all the other ways she behaved. I have a therapist and will talk about all this with her in the next session.

Irrespective of whether or not it was “abuse”, I’ve always had this nagging feeling that what happened wasn't right, but I guess I've never stopped to think about it depth. It’s been building up the last few days and yesterday was particularly confronting.

I’m meant to be asking a question here, so I guess my question is: “was my mum’s actions normal?”…the thing is, I think I already know the answer and the answer is “no, not normal”. But seeings as I haven’t told anyone this I’m fully expecting there’ll be comments like “uggh, yeah, my mum had to did this too, it’s just an unfortunate part of puberty and you just have to endure it”.

I guess it’s reassurance that at that age I had the absolute right to say “no” to her wanting these inspections. I dunno, I guess I don’t know what I’m asking. I haven’t told my therapist about this, but will so the next session.

(I just want to add that I feel absolutely rotten to my core about making this post to the point of nausea. I feel as if I’m chewing up valuable Ask MeFi resources. I also feel as if I’m wasting everyone’s time with this and that there are actual survivors of child sexual abuse that I’m taking from. I also feel sick about dumping my problems and knowing that there’ll be people who will write a few paragraphs in support etc. I know logically that these are irrational and expected thoughts, but it’s still difficult to shake. I guess what I’m trying to say is that don’t feel the need to reply or anything, this is more about me getting something off my chest that’s been nagging at me for some time. And my apologies to the mods if this is inappropriate content. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m really, really, really, really, really sorry for making this post even though I know logically I don’t need to feel apologetic. Also, it may be a long time till I look at any comments made here, so if I don’t reply it’s not that I’m not grateful for any thought people put in.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (34 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't really know how to answer your question. I feel like I've heard of the incorrect-descent thing before, and maybe even of parents inspecting their kids, although I don't have any facts one way or the other. But the real reason I'm commenting is because I want you to understand that the two options you've presented (that it was a legitimate health inspection and that it was inappropriate touching) aren't mutually exclusive. There is an enormous scandal right now at my alma mater (and a parallel one at our archrival, which indicates to me that it was probably widespread) involving athletes being touched inappropriately during physicals. The team doctor abused his position of trust while performing legitimate medical tests by going further and doing extremely inappropriate non-medical non-tests. So even if the whole "trapped in the canal" thing is real (again, I don't know), that doesn't mean that it was right, you know?
posted by kevinbelt at 2:16 PM on April 5 [8 favorites]

Undescended or retractile testicles are a thing, but if there was any concern if this, then the proper thing to do would be to bring you to a doctor to cm get it checked out. They are also normally identified and dealt with earlier than age 12.

Parents checking their children is not completely beyond the bounds of possibility, but repeated checks every six months seems a bit unusual. It would also be best if the child is comfortable with what is happening and it has been clearly explained.

That said, you are entirely within your rights to feel uncomfortable about it and should not worry about asking a question here about it. Your feelings are valid. If you have the means to do so, this might be productively discussed with a therapist or counsellor.
posted by knapah at 2:25 PM on April 5 [7 favorites]

No, this is not normal (in the sense that all kids get inspected by their mums).

I think if your mum had reason to believe she needed to inspect your testicles, it wouldn't be inappropriate in the sexual sense. But it sounds like she was merely obsessing about the possibility of a health scare?

Also, my mum insisted on inspecting my poop out of health anxiety, like, well into my teens. It doesn't have to be sexual, or abuse, to mess you up. Talk to your therapist and figure out in which ways you got messed up. It's their job.

Mostly, I kind of want to hug you because you feel so bad asking this question? You're not taking anything away from anyone. If people answer your question in the hopes of providing clarity, they do so because they consider it time well spent. It's not a zero sum game where somebody's sexual abuse issue won't get adressed because we're posting here.

You matter. In a small sense, you even matter to us here on the green; we want you to feel better. For real. Get that stuff about your mum sorted. It's not trivial, it means something to you, it's worth sorting out.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:36 PM on April 5 [76 favorites]

This isn't normal but also doesn't sound like intentional abuse. You said that your mom suffered from paranoia, so maybe she genuinely believed she was doing the right thing. It certainly was wrong if it made you feel that way, but that doesn't mean she was doing it for anything other than acting on her paranoia. The way you described it, it doesn't sound sexual. Wouldn't there have been an escalation or more than twice a year occurrences? (I'm no expert in this area). It reads like paranoia mixed with lack of information. Male testicles normally descend within the first year, so if you were being seen by doctors over the years for normal check ups, wouldn't they have noticed? Also, if they descended, they wouldn't go back up.

There isn't much children have a choice in, but I'm sorry that at 12 you didn't have or didn't feel you had any say in your own body to be able to ask for a doctor to check this for you. You shouldn't feel bad about posting the question here, that's what the forum is for. This is something you are seeking answers on, and your therapist will be best to help you sort through what it means for you as an adult. But no, that's not a "normal" thing for a mom to do.
posted by archimago at 2:39 PM on April 5 [6 favorites]

I'm sorry you're struggling with something so difficult.

I think that the idea that children can or should have autonomy over their own bodies, and should have the option to refuse consent for physical touch, is really very recent. So it seems feasible that your mother was doing what she thought of as a medical exam that she was entitled to do because she was your mother.

I've done a little searching, because I can understand how you might not want to, and it seems undescended testicles are mostly associated with babies, but up to the age of 10 they can occasionally reascend into the abdomen, which keeps them warmer, and can affect fertility in the long run (cite) so this might be what she was worried about. Which is not to say she was doing something right or acceptable by examining you for it herself rather than taking you to a doctor. It does seem kind of unusual to do this kind of exam repeatedly to an adolescent boy. But anxiety can be very powerful and can make people behave in ways that are different from the average. If you already know she was dealing with anxiety, that sounds like it could be a likely explanation for her behaviour.

Even if she had her own to-her valid reasons for worrying and times were different, that doesn't mean you're wrong to feel what you feel about it, or that the way things were done then were right, or that your mother's level of anxiety was healthy. It particularly sounds like you're also dealing with a wider web of ways your mother's anxiety affected you, which must be very difficult and it's great that you're exploring this with a therapist.

FWIW, in case you're feeling like you should have said no, and that you somehow 'let it happen' by not refusing consent: I absolutely think that you should have had the right to say no, but I also think that back then it would likely have been just unthinkable for a child to refuse that kind of physical contact. Children just did what they were told and the notion of consent in that context wasn't even in the air, let alone being taught in schools. So I don't think you should berate yourself for failing to refuse.

I don't know if any of that helps, but consider it an internet stranger telling you that it's OK, this is not necessarily run-of-the-mill, but whether it's problematic more than anything boils down to whether it's causing you problems. Most of all that it's something it's safe to talk about, and worth you talking through in order to try and get to a better place with it.
posted by penguin pie at 2:45 PM on April 5 [12 favorites]

I can't think of a better query for the hive mind than, "I had this experience I didn't like but assumed was universal... was it actually as common as I believed?"

At the very least what you're describing is not an appropriate way to treat a 12-y.o. It's totally normal for a 12-y.o. to come to their parent and say, "Something's weird with my [body part]," and have the parent check it out or make a doctor's appointment. That's age appropriate, there's consent, and it's based on the kid noticing something about their body and asking for help. For a parent to tell a 12-y.o., "I'm going to check your genitals every 6 months," is very different. You have a sense of this feeling wrong in part because you didn't get a say in it--trust that intuition. At 12, you deserved the option to say no, to see a doctor if it was a real issue, and to not have your body be a focus of your mom's anxiety. Being denied these things was harmful.
posted by theotherdurassister at 2:50 PM on April 5 [26 favorites]

So, I have two boys, and I worry about something with each of them. With one, it's kidneys, and with one, it's hearing.

How I handle it given that they were both born in the 2000/2010s...I ask their doctor to check [whatever] at their annual physical and ask what follow up is recommended. (Kidneys while my son was younger I occasionally asked him about the colour of his urine, because it had been coffee-coloured at one point.) Then I adhere to that. Because otherwise even though it's not as intrusive as what you're talking about, it would be inappropriate for me to put my anxiety on them and be like "CAN YOU HEAR ME" and "DID YOU PEE BLOOD?"

Based on the 30-year timeframe, I think you grew up at a slightly different time and your mum may have been checking for the things listed above and she may have had different advice. However, I think regardless you would have had the right to say no.

I was born in the early 70s and although I was not able to say no, I think by grade 6 or so I understood that it was a thing that adults said you can say...if that makes sense. However, if you didn't, that is completely understandable.

I am also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I want to tell you that it is absolutely okay for you to take your lingering sense of violation seriously and seek some help in processing it. You do not have to make any kind of judgement about what the intention of your mum was, whether this met a technical definition of abuse, or anything else to get help in processing and understanding this. You felt violated.

I also had some medical issues as a kid and some of the procedures I underwent were, unlike this situation, decidedly necessary in order for me to breathe...but they were still traumatic. My younger son had eyesight-saving surgery...he still has needed some support to process that even though we were explaining everything to him as much as possible along the way.

I am sorry you are experiencing these echoes of that experience - they are valid.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:05 PM on April 5 [24 favorites]

I think there are some things in your last paragraph that I can address as part of your question, because our experiences of mental nausea seem to overlap some.

1. Any time I'm worried about taking up "valuable resources," whether it's mental health resources, queer community resources, time, human attention, whatever, I need them. If you are in a state of mind where you get caught in the "who needs it most" pit, you are officially at the front of the metaphorical line for "valuable resources." And that's okay! Just keep in mind that, while Ask is a great place to start, it shouldn't be the end of your journey to seek personal resolution for your concerns. They deserve the attention of a therapist or spiritual counselor whom you trust.

2. re: "actual survivors of child sexual abuse." I have this same flavor of imposter gremlin - "other people had it worse, so I have nothing to complain about, really, and I'm insulting them or belittling their experience by talking about my own comparatively tame experience." This is another mental trap.

Setting aside the issue of categorizing a person as a child sexual abuse survivor or not (which is a binary you will struggle with, I think), I, as a victim of sexual assault, recognize the dismay, the hurt, the confusion, the trauma, the emotional nausea, the absolute upset and upheaval of it all in response to something that was done to you, in your description. Reflecting back on a time when you felt violated, even if you're not 100% sure it was a violation yet, is rattling. It shakes you. It's okay not to be okay.

If you need somebody to talk to who also is reckoning with a "border" case of sexual assault / trauma, where the existing sexual assault / trauma vocabulary is a little sparse due to ambiguity, please feel free to memail me when you're ready.
posted by snerson at 3:12 PM on April 5 [16 favorites]

I am sorry this happened to you.

Your bodily autonomy and general reasonable expectation of privacy and boundaries/consent were violated. You experienced trauma.

Even assuming your mother's motivation was legitimate medical concern, there would have been multiple ways to go about addressing it that were more respectful of your boundaries (and, honestly, her own). Everyone else has addressed developmental concerns, but those are largely for a) babies b) anybody who plays sports, and if you were to develop a hernia you would have been very capable of self-reporting long before the age of 12.

At the age of 12, when you are developmentally highly-individualized from parents/other family and developing a strong sense of privacy/self-protection, this kind of behavior from a parent would be traumatic even if it was necessary. I think she invented that necessity, and that leaves you some questions you may not be able to answer, but it doesn't change that it happened and it was distressing and you still find it distressing.

I hope you do come back and read this before too long, because I just want to say that memories like this that fester for a long time before they snap into sharper clarity can be incredibly overwhelming in the moment. Your whole context shifts - like you say, you're now questioning everything you've ever done through this filter of this having happened to you - and I just want to say that the overwhelming intensity of this will fade into something that is processable.

Give yourself a generous amount of time and kindness to work through this, but know that how you feel will not always be exactly like you feel today. Your Fight/Flight/Fawn/Freeze mechanisms have been initiated by really taking a hard look at the memory and attempting to contextualize it, and that's why you feel so bad about taking up space and afraid of somehow appropriating a category of victimhood you fear you may not deserve. It's okay. You are not encroaching on anybody else by trying to figure this out.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:24 PM on April 5 [17 favorites]

I agree with many points above. 12 is a pivotal time for any kid due to puberty and all the mind and body changes that go along with it. It was uncomfortable for you then and, as you have grown up, it never started to make any kind of sense. Was your mom open to you in other ways or was she very closed off such that this among many other things are ones you can't ask her about? I mean, I feel like, if I had a very open relationship with my mom (which I, personally, don't), I'd be able to ask, "Remember when you were so worried about my testicles? I've often wondered if there's something I should be worried about as an adult - what was going on back then?" I mean, what do you think she would say? Was your father not around? It seems like one of those things that would (generally) be handled by the same-sex parent if there was a real medical concern or issue. Just given, at least, how much more familiar they are likely to be with the equipment. Does it feel like this was purposely done at a time or way that was meant to be concealed from him?

I think, bottom line, you have lingering bad feelings about this. There was something very weird about it (truly, there was) and while it might have some kind of explanation, your mother didn't make it more comfortable or provide you with an explanation that makes you feel comforted today. Even if she meant well, she didn't leave you feeling well. And it seems to me that it points to an overall feeling of disconnect or unease–at a minimum–with your mother which can be deeply unsettling and carried with us for a very long time. But you are a grown up now and you can take care of that 12 year old boy and you can help him. I'm so glad you have a therapist to process this with. That is such a kind and good thing you are doing for yourself.
posted by amanda at 3:28 PM on April 5 [5 favorites]

Do you feel your mother was violating/abusive in other nonobvious ways?

Even if it wasn’t arousing for her, I have a friend who had a very invasive mother who was constantly intruding on his privacy (including in sex-adjacent ways, like trying to shop for condoms for him). It was very disturbing and harmful to him and he still talks about it regularly in therapy. She was extremely “devouring” and spending time with her to this day tends to trigger him into some self-sabotaging behavior.

Which is to say this might not have been a straightforward instance of sexual abuse as we normally conceive of it, but part of an invasive, emotionally abusive pattern of violation which can also be harmful. My friend has also remarked that the sex-adjacent issues were the straws that broke the camel’s back because for the first time it was not purely emotional, but physically violating.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:33 PM on April 5 [14 favorites]

I also strongly second what Lyn Never said. I don’t know what happened, but it’s very possible your mother invented a problem to satiate her own curiosity, or took advantage of a real concern to violate you. I have unfortunately seen this happen more than once between mothers and sons; there are books about “covert incest” (Silently Seduced is the title of one) that might help you work through what happened.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:38 PM on April 5 [2 favorites]

I don't think what your describing is an "average" experience in as much as I think most moms probably don't do that- but from what you've said, it doesn't sound like abuse to me. It sounds like an anxious parent doing what they perceived to be due diligence (even if it's beyond what most parents might do), and an anxious adult ruminating about the experience in retrospect. It sounds like your relationship with your mom was strained in some ways. These examinations don't necessarily have to be tied into that dynamic.

For a baseline, my mom had to inspect awkward parts of my body a few times in my childhood / early adolescence for health reasons (for instance, when I got a splinter in my butt at the playground). Neither of us enjoyed it, sometimes I was crying if an injury was involved, and I was not given the option to consent as she considered the reasons health-related, but I think her reasons were sound, she was brief and methodical about it, and it never felt like anything inappropriate was happening.

Undescended or retractile testicles are a real thing and can be tied to infertility, so there is a real reason to check. I definitely check my toddler's once in a while, and I will continue to do so until I think he's old enough to check them himself when he's in the bath, or get his doctor to do it. I don't really like doing it- but I do anyway, because I'd hate for my personal discomfort to cause him problems later in life.

I usually get my toddler's consent to undress or change a diaper. I don't seek his consent to check his testicles, beyond the most basic, like I do generally narrate what I'm doing, and I would wait to do it another night if he was shrieking about it- but I would still do it because I would see it as protecting his health, which is my job as a parent. As with diapers, he has some agency to consent to the timing, but not the fact of it happening at some point.

Your mom may have had a reason to be more anxious / informed about testicle worst-case scenarios than most parents, especially in that era - perhaps she knew or read of someone whose testicles didn't descend, so she was more concerned than average. I think most parents don't check after babyhood because it either doesn't occur to them to do so, or they ask the doctor to check.

I will say that this part of your question is red-flagging me hardcore for anxiety and being SUPER hard on yourself!
I just want to add that I feel absolutely rotten to my core about making this post to the point of nausea. I feel as if I’m chewing up valuable Ask MeFi resources. I also feel as if I’m wasting everyone’s time with this and that there are actual survivors of child sexual abuse that I’m taking from. I also feel sick about dumping my problems and knowing that there’ll be people who will write a few paragraphs in support etc.

Reading and answering AskMe questions is how I run down my hamster brain when I'm decompressing, I find answering questions and reading others' answers to be EXTREMELY enjoyable. The only times AskMe sucks is when people are being mean to each other, and you're not at all. Your question is NO HARDSHIP on anyone, people are free to scroll right on past it, and the hive mind is a renewable resource, and there is still lots of energy left for others' problems. So the fact that you're so anxious about asking tells me you have a LOT of anxiety and negative self-talk going on- I have to say, I think that's the real problem here.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 3:46 PM on April 5 [11 favorites]

PS - I wanted to edit but ran out of time to add, I know a 12 year old is not a toddler! But I'm just giving you a parent's point of view from the vantage point I have. Even at 12, I will consider myself better-educated than my kid on the subject of my kid's physical health, and if I think he needs a part inspected for his health, I will inspect it because fundamentally I see that as my job as a parent.

Now- I will also take time to explain, and get his buy-in, and talk about his feelings about it, and give him the option to do it with his dad or doctor if he prefers! But in a way, those parts of the interaction are "soft skills" that are kind of separate from the "hard skill" of, like "check his body to prevent harm from occurring".

Like- if I think he might have a tick under his clothes giving him Lyme disease? Clothes off, I'm checking your whole body, you cannot opt-out, sorry kiddo! Retractile testicles aren't as urgent / serious as a tick so your mom could have approached the situation differently, but if she had a certain level of anxiety about retractile testicles, she may not have been able to frame checking them as "something we can defer or ignore". If so, that's not a sign of great prioritization on her part- but also doesn't mean the checking was abuse.

It definitely sounds like your mom didn't engage the time / consideration that you needed to help you feel ok about what was happening, nor did she give you options (like going to the doctor for the checks) that would help you feel empowered about it. That's a problem, and from what you've implied, that problem sounds like it may have been present in a lot of interactions you had with her. And it can be harmful for a kid and really echo through the years if a parent isn't good at helping them feel like they have agency in their own life. But personally, I see the way she helped you process the touching as a separate problem from the actual touching. I hope that makes sense!
posted by nouvelle-personne at 4:03 PM on April 5 [2 favorites]

FWIW, people who have 100% legitimate medical reasons for doctors or parents to interact with their genitals a lot when they're kids — or whose doctors and parents well-meaningly thought they needed to do a lot of that stuff, and did it with the purest of hearts — also often end up feeling pretty messed up about it.

Like, one person can get touched as a kid for entirely impure reasons, and another one for entirely pure reasons, and they can end up having similar issues and hangups and gross messy feelings.

Intersex people end up with messy feelings about this stuff from their childhood, even when their parents and doctors were absolutely impeccable about treating them respectfully. People who had incontinence, severe UTIs, or severe constipation as kids end up with messy feelings about it. People whose genitals got injured as kids end up with messy feelings about it.

That stuff doesn't make the news, because nobody ends up in jail about it. But it absolutely happens, and it absolutely causes feelings. Your feelings would be legitimate even if nobody did anything wrong.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:08 PM on April 5 [34 favorites]

I had to endure some stuff that made me ... uncomfortable is too mild a term ... when I was young, because it was maybe/allegedly necessary/good for me. Not a fan, and really, really glad that bodily autonomy is a thing now.

Here's an oblique example (there was much more humiliating stuff in my childhood, believe me):

I remember my parents washing my hair in the bathtub when I was super young. They held my head under the rushing water from the bathtub spigot and I was terrified to the point of crying, it was loud and awful. There's clearly nothing abnormal about parents washing their children at that age, but the _way_ it was done was, well, normal for the time, but a lot of people know better now and I'm glad for it.

I wonder if I'd be as aware of the importance of this had I not gone through that, though.
posted by amtho at 4:21 PM on April 5 [3 favorites]

That sounds like terrible parenting. The anxiety and paranoid parenting you mention is a big red flag. There’s a special hell to having a mom with untreated, major anxiety, isn’t there? There’s something about this that instantly reminded me of a parent I know.... she’s in her early seventies now, so maybe same time frame as your mom? That person has extreme untreated anxiety, often around medical issues, and reacted to her kids puberty in very weird, surprising ways. Made really inappropriate jokes and comments about their body changes, but simultaneously did not offer help or assistance or access to medical care they could have needed (say regular check ups or skincare help). Her anxiety made her both extremely worried about their health and less likely to do anything about it. It’s confounding to me, a person with supportive parents who is now a parent myself to kids in puberty. I think the fact that you don’t want to ask your mom about this says a lot about her. If she was a healthy parent otherwise, you might be able to say “hey mom, what was the deal with that?!”
I feel for you! Hear me out because this sounds random ... The person I know with the neglectful mom ... he loved listening to Howard stern jokes about his mom. Stern’s mom was overly obsessed with his bowel movements and used to inspect his underwear, that kind of thing. I think she had medical anxiety too. Something about listening to those routines is really healing I think for people with that particular kind of overbearing mom from that era. I said that would be random! Obviously ignore it if you don’t like Howard Stern.
posted by areaperson at 4:34 PM on April 5 [3 favorites]

I think what you describe is exactly the kind of thing that people mean when they talk about generational traumas. Your mom had some mental health issues and put them on you in a way that may have meant well but still did lasting harm. Her wanting to do right by you, and doing harm to you, can both be true. It’s okay if the one doesn’t entirely make up for the other. In the meantime you are 100% within your rights to ask people your trust if an experience is normal, or uncommon, or safe.

(For what it’s worth, the closest parallel I can think of in our house is doing thorough tick checks, and the exciting time that there was a tick on a child’s privates that needed to be removed. We do a lot of encouraging the kid to learn how to check their own body so that they feel ownership and control over their own health, and when it’s not possible to do so, to still give active consent as much as possible. The kind of check you describe, I’m pretty sure a 12 year old could do to themselves.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:00 PM on April 5 [4 favorites]

Anon, I just wanted to say one thing about your last paragraph. It is *such* a common reaction for men who have been abused in some form. I have seen this specific reaction both in myself and in a men's support group -- the belief that we are somehow exaggerating our abuse, that we don't deserve the right to call our abuse what it was. The paragraph you wrote there struck me as sort of the emotional equivalent of a "flee" reaction (fight, flight, or freeze) -- and it was also an act of TREMENDOUS bravery. Your body was nauseous because the adrenaline pouring into your bloodstream at that moment was extreme. (You might've even felt a metallic taste on your tongue.)

I didn't want you to feel as if you were alone.

Your mind and your body processed and stored that moment as trauma. I am not your therapist or a mental health professional, but this seems to be post-traumatic stress disorder, and I imagine that's what your therapist might say. The "good news" is that people who are versed in trauma work can help you process this memory.

I'm going to share one more thing -- if you feel like you're getting detached from your body, or that your feelings are too strong, there is a grounding exercise: name (aloud, if possible) five things you can see. Four you can touch. Three you can hear. Two you can smell. And one thing you can taste. The idea is to remind your body and mind that you are here, in the here-and-now.

Hang in there, man.
posted by metabaroque at 6:35 PM on April 5 [13 favorites]

"Back when I was about 12, my mum got it in her head that there was a condition where male testes could descend incorrectly and get trapped in a "canal". And if it happened before puberty kicked in, then they would be trapped permanently."

One of my best friends' kids actually has this; his testicles went up and down a bunch when he was younger, but decided they'd rather stay up (both of them), and as he's entered puberty and they won't come down, he'll have surgery this summer to correct it, to prevent sterility -- she was just texting me about scheduling the surgery earlier today. My friend is actually a general practitioner, who has treated this in other people's kids, but as her son got closer to puberty, they decided to take him in for more frequent checks with his pediatrician rather than have his mom do it, even though his mom's a doctor, because, well, having your mom check your testicles is a bit awkward as you approach puberty. It's a pretty unusual condition -- she was totally relaxed about it until he started puberty, assuming they'd come down and stay down on their own, and she was like "oh, goddammit" when her kid was the one-in-however-many whose testicles did not.

I was once scolded by a pediatrician (not my regular one) for NOT checking my toddler's testicles, which, nobody had ever told me I was supposed to? And I didn't know what I would have been looking for anyway? But this guy was all up in my face about it, and not very nice about it, either. (He yelled at me, I cried, and then he got mad at me for crying and yelled some more.) My regular pediatrician told me next time that she checked for that and she'd let me know if I needed to worry about it, and she'd show me what I needed to do if I did. She said if I noticed during a diaper change or bath that a testicle wasn't there in the scrotum, I should mention it, but not panic about it.

So this is a thing that can happen, and it's entirely possible that a(n incompetent) doctor told her to check. But even if that was the case, given that you were 12, I think it was enormously badly handled, even for 30 years ago. I'm about your age, and I don't remember my pediatrician asking for my permission -- rather than my mom's -- before I was about thirteen or fourteen. (It may have been tied to when I began menstruating, but I don't recall.) But they also wouldn't have suggested my MOM do the checking instead. Even 30 years ago, that ... ran counter to what kids and parents were being taught about privacy and boundaries. Today, pediatricians begin asking kids for permission for exams when they're around four or five (like, "I'm going to check your penis and testicles to make sure they're healthy, is that okay?"), and combine it with basic education about privacy and "good touch/bad touch." Here's Children's Hospital of Orange County recommending kids be taught to do testicular self-checks around age 10, not just to check if the testicles are there, but to check for abnormalities/changes. I can certainly imagine a kid who's more comfortable with a parent checking than having a doctor check or doing a self-check, and I think that'd be okay if that were the kid's preference. But you were clearly not comfortable, not given a choice, and not given appropriate information about what the medical concern was (if, in fact, it was a medical concern, and not your mother panicking over, I don't know, something she read somewhere), and that makes it not okay.

Even if it was totally well-meaning, and even if there was a medical reason for it, it was not okay because you were not comfortable with it. And you were not given enough information to cope with the discomfort. Because, yeah, sometimes kids have to go through medical things that are awkward or painful or even traumatizing, but those kids and their parents are given support through that process. One of my kids had surgery to correct crossed eyes, and parts of that were really hard and really uncomfortable! But he was given a ton of information and support, even though he was little, and we as his parents were given a ton of information and support and taught how to support him through it (and Ask MetaFilter generously gave him some reassurance) and help him with his distress.

And adults go through traumatic medical experiences too. I had an emergency C-section that saved my life, and the life of my child, and I'm grateful as fuck, but holy hell it was traumatizing. I get a little weird about certain totally normal medical procedures now! I tell the doctor or nurse or whomever, "I had a rough emergency C-section, so this makes me nervous" and they all a) totally understand and b) offer to call in a prescription for Xanax and reschedule me for three days from now. I went to therapy. I had a shit-ton of support! I'm still a little weird about things, and everyone is okay with that. Everyone is proactively seeking to help with that! So even if this was a 100% completely normal procedure (which, to be clear, I don't think it was), it is 100% absolutely okay to be upset about it, to be traumatized by it, and to need help and support to come to terms with it and deal with the fallout. Like, I had my life saved in real time while I was awake, and I 100% knew what was going on, and I was grateful for it as it was happening, and I still came out of it pretty traumatized. (And do you know what the surgeon who saved my goddamned life and my baby's life said when I told her I was kinda traumatized by her saving my life, at my 6-week check? "Yeah, that's totally understandable, that was a lot. Are you talking to a therapist?")

Whatever happened here, you absolutely deserve to feel however you feel about it, and you absolutely, 100% deserve help and support, whether it was "abuse" or not. The label doesn't matter nearly as much as you matter, and you don't feel okay about what happened to you, and that is reason enough for you to get all the help and support you need, whether from professionals or AskMetaFilter or friends. I'm glad you have a therapist you're going to talk to, and I'm glad you Asked MetaFilter, and I hope we were kinda helpful.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:49 PM on April 5 [9 favorites]

I had an emergency C-section that saved my life, and the life of my child, and I'm grateful as fuck, but holy hell it was traumatizing. I get a little weird about certain totally normal medical procedures now!

Yes, I had a major surgery go a little wonky, and it took me years before I didn't get immensely stressed just sitting in a doctor's waiting room (not only my primary care doc, but, after a little while, not even the same primary care doc!). I can't speak to the testicles issue, but it is completely valid and even common for people to feel trauma after official medical procedures, even ones they fully consented to as adults.
posted by praemunire at 8:57 PM on April 5 [1 favorite]

FWIW, people who have 100% legitimate medical reasons for doctors or parents to interact with their genitals a lot when they're kids — or whose doctors and parents well-meaningly thought they needed to do a lot of that stuff, and did it with the purest of hearts — also often end up feeling pretty messed up about it.

Like, one person can get touched as a kid for entirely impure reasons, and another one for entirely pure reasons, and they can end up having similar issues and hangups and gross messy feelings.

Yeah, this is the important part, and all the rest of it, factual and subjective—whether this is a real potential health problem (yes), whether such exams from a parent are common (no), whether your mother thought she was doing the right thing (I think probably), whether was drafting you into her health paranoia (I think definitely), whether this "counts" as abuse (unhelpful framing)—is beside the point. You are having fallout from it, and you deserve to be free of those feelings. The things that reverberate from our childhoods don't always follow logical rules; something doesn't have to be sinister to do harm. Your feelings about this would be real and valid even if every person born with testicles had them examined by their parents every day until their bar mitzvah.
posted by babelfish at 9:24 PM on April 5 [8 favorites]

This was absolutely inappropriate.

Testes usually descend by the time an infant has reached a year. If there are problems, it's dealt with by a doctor, and discovered during regular well-child checks, of which there should be several by school age, and many by 12.

Regardless of whether your mother was deliberately abusing you or doing it because she got some crazy idea in her head - or even if she was told to do it by some family member or trusted religious figure - it was still sexual abuse.

Absolutely nowhere in your post do I see mention of it ever being brought to a doctor's attention. Did you receive other medical care, or were you also a victim of medical neglect? Both of those possibilities are telling in their own way.

Don't hold back when you talk to your therapist. I know it's difficult to talk about this. Your discomfort is valid, and I'm hopeful you're able to be open with your therapist. It may be that your brain has decided that this is the time to stop blocking and make you deal with these events. I'm a little concerned because your words suggest there may be more that is still blocked.

I wish you luck and strength and offer (((hugs))) if you want them; this will be rough, but you *can* get through it, and it will be better on the other side.
posted by stormyteal at 9:47 PM on April 5 [3 favorites]

I am a little bit surprised by the somewhat blasé tone of some of the answers in this thread, and I just want to validate your feelings that this was, at best, extremely unusual, misguided, and inappropriate. Frankly, I don’t think anyone’s experiences with toddlers is at all relevant to how a mother treats a TWELVE YEAR OLD. At 12, you were old enough to do any necessary examining yourself. I know this to be true because children of the same age handle the monthly experience of menstruation just fine on their own, without any hands-on help from adults who are not doctors.

I’m glad that you have a therapist you can further unpack this with. I’m sorry that it happened, and that you’ve been struggling with the memory all this time. Take care with yourself.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 10:11 PM on April 5 [11 favorites]

Well, I don’t have kids (or testicles) so grain of salt, but I was 12 30 years ago, and the thought of a parent checking an intimate part of my body when I could’ve checked it myself or had it checked by a doctor is seriously, seriously upsetting.
posted by kapers at 11:14 PM on April 5 [2 favorites]

Is it possible that your father may have had an issue in this area? Your mothers vigilance may be related to her knowledge of a hereditary condition?
posted by mani at 12:45 AM on April 6

it’s just an unfortunate part of puberty and you just have to endure it

It was certainly an unfortunate part of your puberty. Also, you already have endured it, so the question of whether or not you have to is moot.

What you're dealing with now is trying to make sense of it, trying to find an appropriate category to file it in within your personal history of your life. And unlike then, you do now have a choice about how that's going to play out.

The primary obligation of a parent is to help their children not die. Sounds simple; isn't. Nobody actually knows the best way to do this ahead of time.

Children are manifestly incompetent in all kinds of ways, which makes some degree of denial of their autonomy necessary to keep them alive, and parents only ever get one crack at the job per child; children are all different, and what seems to have worked well for one won't necessarily work well for another. There's really no one-size-fits-all way to parent that's guaranteed to get everything right.

So it usually turns out that even with the best of intentions going in, parents are pretty much doomed to do things to their children, on occasion, that their children experience as egregious autonomy violations. The emotional scars from these can cause ongoing distress for the rest of their lives.

Mental illness makes getting the balance right even harder. And some parents are just so incredibly bad at parenting, and violate their children's autonomy so grievously and/or so often, that even if their kids don't die they reach adulthood wishing that they had.

My best advice to you on this particular issue is to file it under weird shit your anxious mother saw as her best option at the time, for reasons you never will have access to regardless of how good your guesses are. Whether or not most other mothers have done the same thing isn't actually super relevant (although most wouldn't have, obviously) because every parent is going to have done something traumatic to their kids. Comes with the territory.

The way to keep the associated post-traumatic stress from persisting for another thirty years is to acknowledge that what happened was indeed an egregious violation of your autonomy regardless of intent. Not because it either was or wasn't sexual abuse, but because that's how you experienced it. And then work on reinforcing your perception of your current self as the fully autonomous adult you now are. Right now, you're in a position where you do get to dictate who shall or shall not inspect your testicles, and that's a good thing.

And give your mother the credit she's due for her part in getting you there. It may not have been the smoothest ride, but she did help you not die, all the way to adulthood. That job is yours now. Do it to the best of your ability. It can be a lot of fun.
posted by flabdablet at 1:24 AM on April 6 [2 favorites]

Nthing what everyone has said, no it's not normal and you shouldn't feel the least bit bad about asking the question.

Re this:
(my mum's always suffered from extreme anxiety and paranoia).

You might want to talk that part out with your therapist too. It's possible that she suffered from something-mental illness, substance abuse, previous trauma herself--that may shed light on the incidents.

Regardless of whether she had a condition of any sort--your body belongs and belonged to you, twelve is way too late for that sort of thing, the typical thing would be to have a doctor check, and it's completely understandable that you feel weirded out, violated, or confused by it (or all of the above.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:40 AM on April 6 [2 favorites]

I want to tell you: Your asking this question, and inviting the responses here, has helped me deal with my own issues around this. I'm very glad you did. Thank you.
posted by amtho at 11:25 AM on April 6 [4 favorites]

Very sorry you're dealing with this. I think there are a lot of ways to process that are not wrong, and I don't disagree with what anybody wrote above. But just as a data point: At something like 11, I needed a procedure, and had to do some stretching 'exercises' for I don't remember how many days afterward. For the first night or two, my father observed, to make sure I was doing it right. If he hadn't, I don't think I would've done it right/for very long. My dad is not your mom, but I never doubted for a second that he did NOT want to be there; he was not really a good father, but he felt obligated to make sure I got the benefit of the surgery. So for me at least, it's not a huge leap from what he did, which am confident was a selfless act, to someone doing what your mom did.
posted by troywestfield at 11:49 AM on April 6

I'm not sure if anyone else has really done more than touch briefly on this aspect, so I decided to add a comment here. Sexual aspects aside, suspecting that there is a medical issue with a child that is serious enough a doctor should be dealing with it, and not actually taking the child to see a doctor is not right and can be considered a form of abuse.

I had various things a parent focused on around "this is wrong with you" as a child (not sexual or sex characteristic related things in my case), things that if there actually had been an issue would have been appropriate to see a doctor or specialist for at some point, but there was a lot of basically blaming for the imagined problems and weird insisting that I had to participate in various "fixes" for these. Only to have the matter completely dropped after a while for some new focus. Along with a lot of blaming and shaming around ordinary puberty things like acne.

I mention these things not to make any sort of excuses for your parents behavior, but because as you are trying to make sense of it, there may be similar aspects going on -- and while in one sense these feel a lot "less wrong" than the more sexual aspects, this other dynamic can definitely have an impact on you as well, and the interaction of the various types of wrongness can be a confusing thing to work your way through. Even *if* it was legitimate for your parent to do this (and I'm not saying it was), even *if* they had anxiety that you had a serious medical problem, even (and especially) *if* there was a family history around this -- they should have consulted a doctor about it! And by "consulted a doctor" I mean actually bringing you to see a doctor where you would have been the patient and they doctor would have physically checked for a problem, not randomly chatting with a doctor at the grocery store or reading a magazine article written by a doctor.
posted by yohko at 4:42 PM on April 6 [1 favorite]

I don't know what genuine concerns your mother might conceivably have had, and it can't be justified even if she meant no harm. It doesn't sound normal. It doesn't sound acceptable. It does sound profoundly upsetting. The question of what your mother was thinking can't be answered in a way that undoes the trauma (and it sounds traumatic.)

this kind of thing can be profoundly humiliating even when done by an ethical and fully competent medical professional in a medical setting, even just one time. Done by a parent, repeatedly, in your own home, I must assume would be much worse. Knowing that they are not enjoying it does not make it better for you, the person it's happening to.

By the time you're the age you remember, you do, yes, absolutely have the right to refuse that kind of order from a parent. If your mother was concerned for your health, the right thing to do would have been to take you to a doctor; that also might have been unpleasant, but you would have been able to go home to safety and privacy afterwards. You had the right to that. You had the right to say no, but you didn't have the obligation to say no; you should have been protected no matter what you were able to say.

you do not have to attribute bad intent to your mother if you don't think that is right; you don't have to make a determination on her character to acknowledge that you are profoundly affected by what she did. What happened to you is more important than how she felt about it.

and if a male relative had done some equivalent to me, a girl, no fucking way would people be equivocating and bringing up theoretical real medical concerns.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:58 PM on April 6 [4 favorites]

OP, I’m your age and so I can confirm this wasn’t something that was somehow okay due to “the times.”

Even way back then (lol), the terminology may have been different—like, “bad touch” vs. today’s “bodily autonomy”—but the standard was the same. NO—normal, non-abusive adults did not touch 12 year olds’ genitals!! for made up reasons!! That parent would have been thought unfit and a child abuser.

In fact, what would have been strange then is what you’re seeing here: bending over backwards to justify and excuse the behavior due to the parent’s mental health. Like no shit, a parent who touches a pubescent kid’s genitals has mental health issues. Doesn’t mean it’s not an abusive behavior.

Your mental health is what matters here. Take care, and I think sexual abuse is an appropriate box for you to put this in if that is how you see it now and if it helps you engage in your own healing process.
posted by kapers at 1:54 PM on April 7 [3 favorites]

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