I can't remember when, exactly, but a packet of condoms appeared quietly on my bedside table years before I lost my virginity. There was no big, awkward 'birds and the bees' chat. In fact, the birds and bees had been buzzing and chirping within earshot from before I could walk.
I suppose 'buzzing and chirping' is a nice way of saying "my mother spoke loudly and openly about sex a lot". I never knew any different, and to this day most of what I know about dating, love and relationships, I learned from her.
How to refrain from dominating a conversation. How long to wait before following up on an un-returned text message. How to process rejection. How to deliver rejection kindly.
You see, my mum's a relationships and sexuality counsellor who specialises in working with people on the spectrum of disability. She's the kind of mum who likes to fill you in on why sex work should be covered by the NDIS, well before you've had your morning coffee. Growing up, the house was littered with educational dolls, many of which came with their own little frankfurt penises and biologically accurate vaginas.
So it's perhaps no surprise that my approach to love, dating and sex has, from a young age, been a little different to most. And while I'm sure there's a book's worth of material I could share, here are a few of the key pointers I've picked up over the years.
1. 'Sex' isn't a dirty word
Books about sex were always visible in our house; consent and appropriate touching were things we spoke about over the dinner table while I was in primary school.
The result of this openness - of these conversations - was that I never felt a sense of shame around sex, at least not in the way many of my classmates seemed to.
The result of this openness - of these conversations - was that I never felt a sense of shame around sex, at least not in the way many of my classmates seemed to. I understood that sex could be a messy business (messy in the sense that having a packet of tissues and a towel nearby is always a good idea). The danger of pornography being a young person's introduction to sex (and I love porn, so no shade) is that it can lead to feelings of inadequacy when the real deal doesn't quite measure up (I mean, porn is often filmed on multiple cameras to create the illusion of lasting longer).
I like to think that my ongoing openness to sex and sexuality is all thanks to mum's willingness to teach me that, as I edged towards puberty, it was natural to have a number of seemingly confronting feelings, thoughts and urges.
2. There's no such thing as 'the one'
To quote my mum: "There's more than one ace in a pack of cards."
Mum has been widowed and divorced. She has been known to embrace 'circular dating' (dating multiple people at once to determine which are worth pursuing) and took to Plenty of Fish with gusto (I should know, I took her profile picture). Basically, she's under no illusion that we're predestined to find the one.
As Karen Walker once said on Will and Grace: "How else do you get to the two and the three?"
As I learned from Mum, the whole idea that each person has been designated the one perfect soulmate is entirely unhelpful in the quest to form meaningful and nourishing human relationships. Understanding this as a fundamental truth really helped me approach my dating life without viewing each match as the be-all-and-end-all.
3. Always split the bill on a first date
Something Mum instilled in me when I first started dating was the importance of being independent - in particular, how to avoid an imbalance of power on the first date.
A big part of this, she explained, was splitting the bill 50/50 - something that can feel counter-intuitive when you struggle with your sense of worth and are trying to woo some dreamboat. However, I've found it immensely helpful, particularly when it comes to avoiding any sense of obligation (read: an obligation to have a second date if the first didn't go well).
4. Self-work makes the dream work
I'm getting married early next year to my wonderful boyfriend of nearly six years. However, despite how our relationship might appear on social media, it hasn't been without its fair share of self-sabotage and doubt.
It's so tempting, as I've found on multiple occasions, to throw in the towel when things get a little tricky. Our romantic culture actively encourages it, with anything short of uninterrupted bliss and sustained lustful attraction branded as "settling".
Over the years, particularly when in a perceived crisis, Mum's advice has been the perfect balm to my anxieties. She's always quick to point out how normal it is to have rocky patches, drawing my attention to my own patterns of behaviour, many of which stem back to early childhood (namely: I've got something good here, guess I'd better f*ck it up before it f*cks me up).
As a result of her encouragement, I've sought personal help in the form of psychologists and meditation before pulling the sheet out from under my relationships.
5. Everyone deserves love
Part of what I respect so much about my mum's work is her steadfast belief that everyone deserves to experience dating, relationships and love. Aside from perpetuating this belief in her day-to-day work, she throws occasional dances - called 'Dateable Balls' - for her disabled clients to mingle and exchange phone numbers.
6. It's okay to be single
Even though it was one of the most challenging times of my life, my parents getting a divorce was ultimately in the best interest of their health and happiness. In hindsight, I think it was brave of Mum to take those first steps away from her family, staying with a close friend until she worked out her next move. While things were really sad for what felt like a long time, having the opportunity to rebuild as individuals ultimately brought out the best in both of my parents and, for a while, they were doing so well on their own. There was no great hurry to meet someone else. They were both strong in their own ways, on their own two feet.
One more lesson I received from my mum is to jump back on that horse - both my parents have since found love with beautiful (and far more compatible) people.
Watch Sam's mum Liz Dore as she helps six unique individuals with intellectual and learning disabilities journey into the world of love and romance in Untold Australia Episode 1: Love Me As I Am.
Love Me As I Am screens Wednesday August 7 at 8.30pm on SBS, and Monday August 12 at 8.30pm on SBS Viceland.