Sometimes it's hard to be a woman

From childhood until old age, a woman is forced to ask herself what she thinks about her body. How should she treat it? What do others see in it? What psychological changes will accompany the physical? In the first of a five-week series, Tricia Kreitman considers the pains and perils of puberty; Beverley Kemp meets a mother and daughter living through it in their own, thoroughly modern way
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The Independent Online
As the mother of near-teenage sons, I am accustomed to friends telling me how lucky I am. Girls, it seems, are far more difficult than boys. Personally I think the jury is still out on that, but looking round and reading some of the letters written to me as an agony aunt makes me wonder if we aren't falling into the same trap as previous generations in seeing female puberty as a major hurdle.

Girls do have a hard time, but so do their parents and brothers. The pressures may be different but the result is the same: puberty is about breaking away and being an individual. It is easy to concentrate too much on the physical side of the process while neglecting the equally important emotional aspects.

I asked Mary Spence, a psychologist and family therapist, what she thought was particularly hard about puberty today. She raised the thorny topic of mixed messages: "Girls in particular can become very confused as to their role. There are so many expectations of them from parents, peer group and media. One or two generations ago, young people would have a much clearer idea of how to be a teenager. They would either fit in with what their parents expected or rebel, and in that case the reasons for rebellion were pretty clear-cut."

We produce a lot of these mixed messages ourselves as parents. Small girls are encouraged to be quiet and unaggressive, but by the time they are approaching the end of primary education we are also pushing for academic success and a competitive spirit. We want our daughters to have it all, even if we didn't manage it ourselves. And that is a mighty big expectation for a girl whose My Little Ponies haven't even started to gather dust.

The question of dress becomes tricky in puberty. Like it or not, girls do care how they look. They may want to dress plain or fancy, but there is generally a much greater feedback from parents and society about their appearance. The ability to get your own way by looking nice may not be admirable, but it is something that girls learn fairly early on in life.

Many parents take pleasure in thinking their daughter looks attractive and well-presented, but when the girl starts to develop her own ideas, life can become very uncomfortable. One father I spoke to was concerned that his 11-year-old refused to wear anything but cycling shorts and little tops all summer. He had visions of a burgeoning Lolita, but the girl in question explained how important it was that she looked like her friends - besides which, given that they spent most of their time on their bikes, it was cool and practical.

Landmarks such as the first bra can also be problematic. I regularly receive letters from girls who are upset that their mother won't let them wear a bra. They are often the focus of jokes and hurtful remarks in the changing room because the majority of their friends are sporting grown-up underwear. Many of them have tackled their mums on the subject but have been told they aren't old enough or big enough. I assume these mothers are fighting a rearguard action against puberty and perhaps the girls don't have any breasts yet, but it would seem to be simply humane to allow them to wear at least a cropped bra top to fit in with everyone else.

Perhaps the most turbulent aspect of puberty is the dreaded moods. What family home with children of this age hasn't echoed to the sound of slammed doors? Becoming a teenager is all about discovering yourself, trying out different layers of personality and appearance. It means breaking away from the family, so they start to dislike us, or at least they become irritated by everything we say and do.

It is these mood swings that attack the patience and stability of parental relationships. They wreck the peace, and because bedtime, or at least going-to-sleep time, stretches later and later there's very little privacy in which parents can recoup their strength - never mind passion. Rather than complaining about it perhaps we just ought to ride it, accept that it is part of life and, where possible, talk about mood changes and emotional pressures before they happen.

Remember, it can be just as terrifying for your daughter as for you. One 12-year-old wrote me a heartbreaking letter describing her temper tantrums and how she would slam her bedroom door only to throw herself on her bed crying, wishing that somehow she could open the door and go on as if the row hadn't happened. Even budding teenagers want love - they're just not sure how they want it packaged.

Tricia Kreitman is agony aunt for 'Mizz' magazine.

Annika Wood is 12. She lives with her mother Kia and her 13-year- old brother Iain in London.

The most difficult thing about being 12 is the feeling that you're in between being a girl and a teenager. Sometimes it can be hard to find clothes your size. When my body started changing it was really embarrassing at first. I felt a bit self-conscious because other girls at school didn't start to develop until they were about 14. It's scary to think about it all sometimes. The day my periods started I can remember thinking "This is it! There's no turning back now."

Mum's very understanding and we've always been able to talk really openly about sex. She's told me to play hard to get at first, and to check what a boy is really like before I do anything serious. She explained all about contraception as well. It's very important if you don't want to have a baby and it stops you from getting Aids. I know Aids is passed through sex and not just kissing, and I know that you should always wear a condom. Most girls of my age are aware about Aids but they don't think it could ever happen to them.

The best thing about being my age is knowing you have a lot of different experiences to look forward to. I think there will be lots of heartbreak. Relationships don't always work out. But if I love a boy I'm not going to spend all my time with him worrying about what I'll do if we split up. I know I'll get over it by talking to Mum and my girlfriends.

Right now I can't imagine what having a boyfriend would be like. Probably like having a really close friend, but it'll also feel nice to know you have someone who loves you apart from your family. I haven't met any [boys] that I really like yet. Some of them think they're good-looking, but when you get to know them you go off them. All they care about is sport, cars and Lego, whereas girls like fashion and shopping.

Marriage is important but you should spend at least a couple of years getting to know the person. Then if you think your love will last, you should get married. My ideal age would be about 25. Personality is the most important thing about a boyfriend. He'll probably be funny but quite sensible as well. I don't mind too much about his looks. It's what's underneath that really matters.

I suppose being a teenager won't be too different to what my life is like now until I'm about 18. I know I'll be offered drugs and cigarettes and I'll go to lots of parties. Having a baby early would ruin my life. You want to go out all the time to nightclubs, and I want to go to university. But you can't do any of those things when you're tied down.

Women still don't have that much freedom. There are always men who think they should be the ones who work while their wives stay at home to clean, iron and look after children. That's not the kind of man I want to marry. If anything, he'll be the one who ends up doing the housework!

Annika's mother, Kia Bossom Wood, is 40 and divorced. She runs her own marketing company.

As far as sex is concerned I've always answered Annika and Iain's questions. I remember them both killing themselves laughing when I explained how babies were made. It sounded so hilarious they thought I was fibbing. More recently the questions have become surprisingly technical. "How long does sex last?" "Does the penis stay in for all of that time?" There has never been any embarrassment about anything to do with sex in our family. When Annika was about seven a man in a raincoat exposed himself to her. I was really worried about the emotional impact on her but she just laughed and said "You should have seen it. I wouldn't show that off to anyone!" I found it very reassuring that she could react in that way rather than taking it as a personal attack.

I've emphasised the safe sex message very strongly from both the physical and emotional point of view. I wouldn't be so old-fashioned as to say "Don't go to bed with someone unless you love them", but I have said "Know what you are doing and don't just throw it away because of a heated moment or just to be cool". The message "Condom! Condom!" is pretty much drummed into them everywhere these days. Annika and Iain have played with condoms since they were tiny. I kept some in the bathroom and they liked to use them as water bombs!

Like all parents you want to prevent any harm coming to your children. You want to envelop them in a blanket of security and you can't. I worry desperately about Annika being hurt in relationships. Any heartache she goes through with boys I will probably experience in a magnified version. But she is captain of her own ship and my job is to provide reliable navigational tools to steer her through the crises that lie ahead for her. Heartache is a normal part of growing up.

As I went on the pill myself at 15 I wouldn't have a great deal of recourse if Annika wanted to go on it at that age. We'd talk it through and if she put her case across well I would support her in her decision. I hope for her sake that she doesn't become pregnant during her teens because she has big plans for her life. But the decision about what to do would be hers if it ever happens, and I would be willing to help bring up the child if that was the path she wanted to take. Whatever happens to her in life, we will handle it.

I think it will be easier for Annika than it was for my own generation during our teens. Although we benefited from the Sixties and women's liberation there was still this expectation that once you had found your great love everything would be fine. Young girls of Annika's age are much more real and switched on. The pressures to have sex are probably even greater because of all the media influence but there is a stronger sense of achieving for yourself rather than waiting for this magic person to come along and make you feel whole. They'll look for love and security within themselves first.

Annika will always be my little baby, even when she is 50 and I'm 78. But I don't resent her growing up at all. We have such a good time together and I am a much better mother to someone who is older. Sweet as she was as a little girl it is equally nice to sit on her bed, paint our toenails and chat about boys. I feel quite excited about what is ahead for both of us. It's a bit like watching a flower unfold.

Next week: Becoming sexual