My daughter, when she was seven, ambushed me in the kitchen while I was chopping vegetables. “Mommy,” she asked, blue eyes blinking up at me, a little crease of confusion between her brows, “how does the baby get inside the mommy?”
This was a delicate moment. I knew that how I handled these first few awkward and uncomfortable questions would set the tone, determining whether my kids would come to me with their difficult questions — why does my penis get hard? why does everyone giggle when I say 69? how do I know if he loves me? — or muddle through with the counsel of that dubious neighbor kid whose primary data source is his older brother’s porn.
I too had popped the where-do-babies-come-from question in second grade. I asked my dad as he tucked me in, which illustrates both our closeness and my naivete about the touchiness of this topic. He leapt up off the bed like my rainbow comforter was electrified, leaving, “Ask your mother,” hanging in the air behind him as he bolted from the room. This was followed by a biologically accurate answer from my mother that I first refused to believe and once she convinced me, triggered my gag reflex for years after.
That was the last conversation I had about sex with my parents until my dad shoved a box of condoms in my hands as I left for college and urged me not to get AIDS.
My plan was be a more open parent, the kind whose kids would come to her with all of their sweet little problems. I would nod sagely and distribute precisely the right words of wisdom to keep them safe, healthy and not addicted to heroin. I would be Lorelei Gilmore mixed with Marmee from Little Women. Even after seven years of motherhood — seven years of my beautiful parenting fantasies blown apart by the reality of actual children — I had held on to this ideal.
As my daughter stood there in the kitchen, blinking up at me, I took a deep breath, put down the knife, and pulled out my favorite awkward-question tactic, stolen from a wise friend: “That’s a great question, honey. Let me think about the best way to answer it. Would you like orange juice or milk with dinner?” I love this formula: acknowledge the question, buy myself time for panicked research, temporarily dodge the issue. It is so successful, in fact, that I use it with co-workers, my boss, even my husband until he caught on.
My daughter chose orange juice for dinner which provided me a day to email friends for moral support, and frantically google “how to talk to your kids about sex.” I needed to craft a precisely scripted answer that wouldn’t lead down any unexpected rabbit holes. I had already learned that if I don’t phrase an answer carefully, it leads to another question that leads to another and another until I somehow find myself far off-script, muddling around the topic of cremation or the nuance between real lying and white lies or some other subject far too complex and grey for a seven-year-old.
The most promising rabbit-hole-avoidance option was a book, because I could stick to the text and stay out of treacherous waters. On Amazon, there are approximately 7012 reviews of talk-to-your-kid-about-sex books, many by adults who must be having truly terrible sex given their discomfort with this topic. My favorite review — from a parent looking for a book on sex — read, “Great book except for the page on sex. Not appropriate and I had to glue those pages together.” All I could think was, “Way to keep those communication lines open. Because when your ten-year-old child is asking about sex, glued-together pages will absolutely staunch their curiosity.”
The book I chose had great reviews for its straight-forward treatment of complex topics. But five minutes after it arrived via Amazon Prime, when I sat down to choose which pages to start with, I discovered that its hyper-inclusivity extended to some topics that felt profoundly advanced for a seven-year-old.
“We’ll just start with the basics of reproduction,” I thought, confident in the short attention span of children. “We’ve got years to cover all this.” My fantasy spun out ahead of me: dipping into this book together over the next few years, open dialogue flowing as I guide her through the rocky passes of childhood and adolescence.
When my daughter came home from school, I re-introduced the topic and showed her the book. We curled up on the couch together, and it was just like my parenting dreams. We worked our way through my chosen pages. She asked some questions and I gave her open and clear answers. She told me I looked like the drawing of the naked teenager not the adult and we laughed. The music played softly in the background and she smelled deliciously of kid sweat and baby shampoo. It was all according to script. We reached the end of the section I had marked and I started to close the book.
“No, Mommy,” she stated emphatically. “There’s more. Keep reading.”
I consider myself pretty comfortable— for an American — talking about the sexy stuff. I work in women’s health which is one of the few fields where you can talk about penises and vaginas all day long — in meetings, in emails — and not be brought up on sexual harassment charges. But this conversation? This was different. This was hard core.
Three hours later, I had covered birth control (nose wrinkled, “But why would they do that if they weren’t trying to make a baby?”), orgasm (head tilted skeptically, “That doesn’t really sound like fun, Mommy”), and artificial insemination (horrified, “Like that thing you use with the turkey at Thanksgiving?”). I had luckily distracted her for a second and skipped the page on miscarriage and abortion, two under-discussed topics in modern America but maybe not where to start with a seven-year-old.
The questions kept coming. I was tap-dancing all over the place, editing my answers as they came out of my mouth, trying to identify the minefields before I stepped on them. It was harrowing, but by the time we closed the book, she seemed satisfied. I poured myself a double scotch and patted myself on the back.
I have a son as well, who was four at the time. He was home, wandering in and out of the room with his Legos and his dump truck as his sister and I talked. He was that typical model of four-year-old where you can lean right up into his face and say his name in a sharp tone, and he will not hear you. So I smiled fondly, imagining how this conversation might be different in a few years, when he started asking questions. In my fantasies, he was sixteen and the sunlight streamed in all golden while he asked me how to tell if this was a crush or real love.
A few weeks after the harrowing couch conversation with my daughter, I picked my son up at preschool. Lisa, the teacher, stopped me and asked if she could speak to me outside. In our hippie-dippie cooperative preschool, this typically meant your child was a biter, or a nudist, and no one was in trouble so much as “there is a concern.”
Outside, she told me, “Jack asked me today if I have any kids, and I told him no.”
The corner of her mouth curled and my heart sped up a little.
“He told me, ‘Oh, well, you have to have a husband.’” Here I started to squirm a little on the inside while simultaneously making a note to correct that misconception. One day, when it would be age-appropriate.
Lisa continued, “So I told him that I do have a husband and Jack, all matter-of-fact, informed me” — here her grin is all but splitting her face — “‘Well, your husband has to put his penis inside your vagina.’”
I was equal parts horrified and proud.
Lisa was laughing as she continued. “I just nodded but Grady” — another kid in the class — “was listening to us. He turned to Jack and shook his head and said, ‘No. First, there’s lots of kissing and then he gives her tadpoles.’”
I immediately pictured Grady’s parents, curled up on their couch with their older sons, working their way through a book with too many pages, tap-dancing around difficult questions. I was overcome by a wave of jealousy because somehow, they figured out how to teach their boys about foreplay.
The post-script to all of this is that my daughter and I routinely talk about sex-related stuff. We worked our way through five seasons of Glee scene by scene when she was ten, pausing multiple times per episode to discuss what was going on. She brings home the ridiculous myths and misconceptions her friends have and returns with fact-based answers. (You’re welcome, fellow parents, and you really need to talk to your kids because this level of misinformation is not going to end well.)
But my son? I caught a glimpse of him recently, coming out of the shower, and promptly handed my husband the book on puberty and sex. “Deal with that,” I told him. “I’m out.” And another parenting fantasy died.