I was on the phone with my husband when the school nurse called. I left him on hold while I took the call.
Our first-grade daughter, Molly, was complaining that her “privates” hurt, the nurse told me. Then she put Molly on the phone.
“Mommy, my vagina hurts,” Molly said.
“Hurts how?” I asked.
“Well, my teacher wouldn’t let me go to the bathroom yesterday, and I really had to go, and when I wiped, I think I scratched it. It hurts when I stand up.”
“So it feels like a scratch?”
“Yeah, like a long scratch.”
I knew I needed to cut her fingernails. They were pretty long. It was certainly possible that she’d scratched herself. I didn’t understand what the teacher not letting her go to the bathroom had to do with it, though. Maybe she had an accident, I couldn’t tell.
“Are you going to be okay?” I asked. “Do you need me to come get you? Do you need me to bring you new underwear?”
“No, I’m okay,” she said.
So, I promised her we’d cut them when she got home. And I said if it felt like she had a scratch, I’d take a look at it. Then we hung up.
When I clicked back over to my husband, I said, “That was weird. Something about her vagina hurting, but then she also said Ms. Jordan wouldn’t let her use the bathroom. Not really sure what that was about.”
He jumped in and told me that the night before, she’d said the same thing about her teacher not letting her go to the bathroom. I was out, as I usually am on Wednesday nights. Earlier in the day, Molly had gone to play at her friend Penelope’s house. When my husband went to pick her up, she’d been dressed in Penelope’s clothes. This wasn’t that unusual. They often played dress-up over there, and we’d have to return her clothes the next day. It wasn’t a big deal, except that evening at bath time, when my husband was trying to sort out whose clothes were whose, Molly repeated to him several times that the underwear she wore was her own. And then there was the matter of a stain in her underwear that surprised him.
“It looked like more than streaks,” he said.
Molly has been accident-free for years. She’s one of those kids who, once potty trained, didn’t have issues. When my husband asked her about the underwear, she gave him a story about her teacher not letting her use the bathroom. The story confused him, too, and he made a mental note to mention it to me when I got home. He didn’t.
I got the story over the phone right after I spoke to the nurse.
So, there it was: a call from the nurse about pain in Molly’s “privates”; a strange story about not being able to use the bathroom; clothes changed at a friend’s house; a bizarre repeating statement from Molly the night before about how she swore the underwear was her own; and, suddenly, my hackles went up.
In my mind, I began to scan everything I knew about Penelope’s family. Her mom is super nice (or is she?), always smiling and so kind. We can’t communicate very well. She speaks Vietnamese and not much English. I speak English and not a lick of Vietnamese. We’ve found that we communicate best in Spanish, a language neither of us speaks very well, but we have more words in common there than in any other language.
The dad, I don’t know much about (that’s not good).
The older sister, a nine-year-old, is so responsible and always so polite. (But maybe too polite? Is all that goodness and politeness an attempt to hide something? Is she trying too hard to be good? Is something happening to her at home?)
The older brother, a 12-year-old, is probably the sweetest pre-teen boy I’ve ever met. He waves and smiles from the back of their car even more than the girls do. (Is it fake?)
And Penelope, herself? Well, she’s Molly’s first best friend. They’re inseparable at school, and they beg to play together after school almost every day. But I have noticed that Molly is way too concerned about Penelope getting mad at her. She stopped eating the school lunch and insisted that I pack her lunch or Penelope would get mad. And on the day we slept in and I had to drive Molly to school, she cried that Penelope would be mad if she wasn’t on the bus.
The mind-scan of Penelope’s family told me nothing solid, of course. All I knew was that my daughter wasn’t telling me the whole truth. Something wasn’t right.
I called the school nurse back and told her I was coming in. I wanted to talk to my daughter. I wanted to look her in the face and find out what had happened that she wasn’t telling me. The nurse said she was glad I called back. The story was strange to her, too. Just too messy and unclear.
“The RN is here,” she said. “Maybe you can talk to her.”
I went to the school, and the district RN, a woman named Mindy, happened to be on campus that day for eyesight and hearing screenings. But she had been in the office and overheard the phone call.
“It sounded a little off to me,” she said.
Nurse Mindy and I went into a private conference room to chat before I pulled my daughter out of class.
The first thing she said to me when she closed the door behind us was, “When we hear the beating of hooves, we should think horses, not zebras.”
I had never heard that saying before, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. I couldn’t think straight. A panic was beginning to rise in me. Something had happened to my daughter, something she was afraid to share. I could feel it.
Let me back up and tell it straight: as a child, I was sexually abused by a family member — for years. I became a fearful and bossy girl, sometimes mean to other kids, but mostly just deeply sad. In the years since our daughter was born, my husband has occasionally had to remind me not to project my own childhood sadness onto our daughter. For instance, when she went through an obsessive scab-picking phase, I was haunted by the idea that something was wrong, that maybe if she couldn’t talk to me about whatever it was, I should get her a therapist.
“So she picks her scabs,” my husband said. “It doesn’t mean she has some secret trauma she’s dealing with.”
For this reason, I was grateful to have Nurse Mindy to chat with before talking to my daughter. I needed an objective voice to help me sort out myself from my daughter in this moment. I needed to tell her what I knew and what I feared and where I was coming from so that she could help me do right by my daughter.
What she told me was that if anything did happen, a molestation of some kind, the most important thing was that I ask very careful questions so as not to taint the forensic psychology.
“Kids read us and if we’re not careful, they’ll give us the answers they think we’re looking for,” she said. “It’s really important that you ask open-ended questions.”
I asked Nurse Mindy if I should take Molly to the doctor. She said I could and it might be a good idea but that doctors aren’t necessarily trained in how to ask kids the right questions.
She suggested that I call a child-abuse hotline and talk to them because the counselors on the hotline know how to do it. They spend their whole days asking questions to garner information.
Nurse Mindy left the room and I spoke to a woman whose name I’ll never know. Her voice was soothing and matter-of-fact, and I trusted her immediately.
She said, “We’re going to hope for the best. It could be that there’s nothing to worry about. But if something did happen, then that’s where we are. If we’re in the middle of it, we’re going to deal with it and take care of it.”
Her words gave me courage to deal with whatever it was we were in the middle of. She also told me it was important that I approach the conversation with my daughter the way I might approach a conversation about a sprained ankle.
I remembered when, at eight or nine years old, I told my mom about what my dad had been doing to me. Suddenly, we were staying with friends, a different home every couple of nights. I never saw her freak out. I just knew she had taken me seriously and was doing what she could to keep us safe. Although it had been difficult to speak up, once I did, I felt safe.
That’s what I wanted for Molly. Whatever it was, I would fix it.
“If you talk to her with panic and worry in your voice, she’ll get the idea that this is a really big deal and that you’re afraid, and she might shut down,” the hotline counselor told me. “Save the panic for when you’re behind closed doors with your husband or in the bathtub by yourself.”
She also gave me book recommendations that would help facilitate future conversations: My Body is Private, and Telling Is Not Tattling.
I thanked her and hung up. Then I went to Nurse Mindy and told her I was ready to talk to my daughter.
Think: sprained ankle, I told myself. Think: happy. Think: no big deal.
“Hi, Pumpkin,” I said when Molly came to the nurse’s office. “I just wanted to check up on you and see how you’re feeling. Does it still hurt?”
In the bathroom, she tried to show me where she thought maybe the scratch was. I saw nothing.
“So, what happened?” I asked.
Again, she said something about her teacher not letting her use the bathroom, but I wanted to know about the day before when she’d been at Penelope’s house. Why had she come home with different clothes? She explained that they were playing dress-up.
“Okay,” I said. “Well, I’m just wondering about your scratch. Did something happen? Were you maybe touching it or something that it got scratched?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“You and Penelope? Were you guys playing around? Did she touch it?”
“Yeah,” she said.
“Okay. So what were you guys doing?”
She looked at me and then looked away.
“We were playing shower. And she scrubbed me. I think we got shampoo on it. Like, we thought it was soap, but it was shampoo and conditioner?”
I took a deep breath and smiled.
“Oh, okay. I see,” I said. “So, what do you mean you were playing shower? Did you have your clothes off?”
“Yes,” she said, “but with no water. We were pretending.”
“And who was there?”
“Just me and her. No one else saw us.”
“And did you both have your clothes off?”
“No, just me. She was pretending she was the mommy.”
“Okay, so you were playing shower? Were you playing with toys or did you maybe put something in there that’s hurting you now? You’re not in trouble, honey, I just need to know so that I can tell the doctor what happened.”
Her face crumpled and she started to cry.
“I don’t want to get a shot in my vagina,” she said.
“Oh, honey, you won’t. It’s just that if there’s something in there, the doctor has to know that.”
I once stuck a pebble up my nose and had to go to the preschool nurse to get it out. I think I had heard stories (or read them, maybe) of girls doing the same…down there. If that was the case, maybe that was why she was hurting.
“Were you playing with bath toys or anything?”
She nodded and explained to me that they had been playing with foam bath letters and one had gotten stuck. The red letter N. “And it made it red,” she said.
The rest of the story was that something had “fallen in” and that she’d maybe gotten scratched up as they tried to get it out.
I was both freaked out and relieved. Freaked that I’d let her go spend time at a friend’s house who obviously wasn’t very well supervised. Freaked out about what kind of play they’d engaged in, partly because the balance of power felt off to me. Was Penelope forcing my daughter to do something she didn’t want to do? I was relieved for two reasons: one, because it sounded like no adults or older children were involved. And, two, I was relieved that my baby was confiding in me, that I had proven myself to be the kind of mom whose daughter felt like she could tell her the truth.
In the end, I sent her back to class and told her that I might have to come back and get her early so I could take her to the doctor. She said okay and skipped away.
Nurse Mindy and I went back to the private conference room and I told her what I’d learned. I said I thought maybe I’d take her to the doctor to see if she had something inside that needed to be taken out.
She warned me to be careful with this. The doctor most likely would perform a cursory exam with her light to see if there was any evidence of damage, bruising scratches, and so on. But you need a specialist to do an exam on the inside, and the experience with a speculum would be traumatizing for Molly.
“I would suggest you let the doctor do a brief exam and then hold off doing anything else. If there’s something in there, it will start to smell. If that’s the case, then take the next steps, but don’t do it if there’s no evidence that it’s necessary.”
Right. Of course the speculum would be an issue. Thank God for Nurse Mindy.
The next question, of course, was how to talk to Penelope’s mom.
“I’m seeing some red flags in regard to the other girl,” Nurse Mindy said. “First, that she was playing shower, and that the power dynamic was so skewed. Sometimes girls mimic what’s been done to them.”
But how to even approach Penelope’s family? They’re a religious family, and Penelope had told my daughter that people who believe in Halloween hate God. I feared that even if their “shower” play was just an inappropriate game they were playing, the family might shame Penelope. And she would turn on Molly.
I didn’t want Molly to feel like she had done something wrong. I wanted whatever conversation that followed to be one through which she would come to two realizations: 1) It’s safest to keep private body parts private, and, 2) She gets to decide what she does with her body. Even her best friend can’t tell her what to do with her body.
I also thought if something like this had happened at my house, I’d want to know, and I believed the same would be true of Penelope’s mom. But it was a delicate situation, and given the language barrier, it probably wasn’t one I could have on my own.
So Nurse Mindy set something into motion where she’d get a Vietnamese interpreter through the district and, together, she and her supervisor would decide how to move forward.
Nurse Mindy congratulated me on remaining calm and on doing the right thing and on following the protocol that allowed me to get the truth from my daughter.
I thanked her and left.
For the next half hour, I sat in the parking lot on the phone with my husband. He was pissed. He was as freaked out as I was. He went on about how he didn’t like the way Penelope spoke to Molly anyway, how she was a bossy little girl, how he didn’t think they should spend any more time together. He said he didn’t think Molly was old enough to be going into people’s houses anyway, that if they wanted to play together it should be outside.
“They’re probably going to investigate the dad,” he said. “They’ll probably investigate me. I don’t care about that because I have nothing to hide, but this is a really fucking big deal.”
And the more freaked out he became, the more anxious I became. He went back to the conversation about the underwear and how he was now convinced she had taken off her underwear at Penelope’s house.
Oh, my god. The underwear.
When I first got my period, I had no idea what it was. I told my mom I though I’d pooped my pants, and she told me I might just have loose bowels. So I thought that’s what it was.
“Was it poop or was it blood in her underwear?” I asked him.
“I don’t know. I have to be honest. I’m squeamish about that. Anytime she says anything about her vagina, I feel really uncomfortable. So I just put the underwear right there in the garbage because I knew you’d see it and when you asked me about it, it would remind me to tell you what she’d said.”
I drove home and went straight to my daughter’s room and found the underwear. At first glance, I thought it was blood and I almost vomited. Then I realized it was not blood, it was definitely feces that had been washed and wiped. So it was there, but not there. I smelled it to be sure, and it smelled like soap or something.
I was flooded with relief. And another thought occurred to me. I called my husband back.
“I think she had an accident and they tried to clean it up,” I said. “I mean, I’m still concerned about the level of supervision over there, but maybe it’s not as sinister as we thought.”
“I still don’t like Penelope,” he said.
When we hung up, I wept. Not out of relief but out of pure confusion. I went back over my conversation with Molly at the school. I realized I had not asked the open-ended questions I was supposed to ask. First, I had ignored what she’d said about having to go to the bathroom. More than once she’d said it. She’d said it to me. She’d said it to the nurse, and she’d said it to my husband. But I didn’t understand, so I’d dismissed it.
Instead, I’d said, “Were the two of you playing with it?” and she said “yes.” I’d asked, “Were there toys involved,” and she said “yes.” Everything I’d asked, I’d planted.
And, now, it was looking more like she’d had an accident, and while I still wasn’t clear on what happened at Penelope’s house, all I knew was that I couldn’t trust myself. And now I had no idea what was true and what was not true.
Maybe my own history, the fear that I live with every day — that I won’t be able to protect my daughter from the bad things that can happen — maybe that’s what led me here.
I called Nurse Mindy back and told her to please not go forward with talking to the parents. “I think they were trying to clean up a mess and hide an accident,” I said.
She said she’d withdraw her request for an interpreter.
When I picked up Molly at the bus stop that afternoon, Penelope ran up to me and asked if Molly could come over after school. And if not, could she come to our house?
“Not today,” I said.
Looking at Penelope, I saw the same cute, bold little girl I’ve known. The one who bosses my kid around sometimes but who is also her best friend and who wants to be with my daughter as much as my daughter wants to be with her. She may, on occasion, get huffy with Molly because she wants her to herself, but she also shows up with little gifts and cards for Molly, just as Molly does for her.
I was mortified at the idea that just a couple of hours ago, I’d imagined her sexually manipulating my daughter, forcing her to do whatever terrible things had been done to her, when instead she’d been trying to help.
When Molly and I got home, I sat her down and told her I’d found her underwear.
“What happened?” I asked. “Why was it in the garbage?”
And she’d repeated the same story she’d said before, the one I’d ignored. She’d had to go to the bathroom, but she didn’t get there in time. She’d had an accident. She didn’t tell me because she didn’t want me to be mad.
“So, what happened at Penelope’s?” I asked.
She looked at me.
“You can tell me the truth,” I said. So she did.
“Nothing,” she said. “I made it up.”
“Which part did you make up?”
“All of it.”
I believe her. She affirmed it again later, stating that she’d played dress-up at Penelope’s, the way they always do. That her underwear stayed on. That they had not played shower. That the whole story was meant to cover up the fact that she’d had an accident.
The rest of us had jumped to conclusions.
So, why, in the end, did the story of her vagina hurting start with a story about how her teacher wouldn’t let her go to the bathroom?
Because any other time she’s ever mentioned her vagina hurting, I’ve asked if she had been wiping well, if she’d wiped from front to back, and I’ve suggested that when she takes a shower, she should make sure to clean it really well.
It turns out that the day the nurse called, the first thing she’d told her teacher was, “My stomach hurts.”
“Your stomach?” the teacher said.
“Yeah, but lower.”
“You mean your privates?” the teacher asked.
“Yeah,” she said.
And that’s how she ended up at the nurse’s office.
By the time she got there, she’d already decided that she was in pain because she’d had an accident the day before, which meant feces had come into contact with her vagina. But because she’s a six-year-old smart enough to make the leaps herself, but not grown enough to fill in the blanks for the rest of us, none of us understood what she meant when her explanation began with, “I had to go to the bathroom really bad, but my teacher wouldn’t let me.”
The next morning, Nurse Mindy called me and said she’d given it some thought, and while it looks like the girls were trying to clean up a mess, she was concerned about the fact that they were in the shower. It was something she thought the mom needed to know.
“Oh, it didn’t happen,” I said hurriedly. “There was no shower. Molly told me she’d made the whole thing up. None of it is true.”
She said she’d leave it alone. And then she repeated, “When we hear hoof beats, it’s usually horses. Not zebras.”
I am clear about how close we were to the edge of disaster.
In a drawer at home, I have a copy of the official transcript from the day, 30 years ago, when a social worker interviewed me at eight years old about the molestation by my father. I have read it once. I imagine that when I go back and read it again, I’ll understand more clearly what an open-ended question looks like. I pray there’s no next time. But if there ever is, I will follow Nurse Mindy’s advice and consult an expert, by hotline or otherwise, before I make any inquiry myself.
I am relieved that my daughter is okay. I’m relieved, too, that Penelope is okay. And that her family is okay. But I am also haunted by how differently this almost turned out.