Last night at dinner my husband misspoke. In a big way. We were having our usual discussion with our sixteen-year-old about vegetables. This is the child who proudly told her pediatrician she never let anything green, except mint-chocolate-chip ice cream, pass her lips. So, while we don’t battle over these essential dietary items, we do “encourage” with choices. Last night my husband’s pro-offered “choice” was to eat all the spinach in the bottom of her soup bowl or eat salad. But it didn’t come out that way. It came out “You can have salad or sex.” At least that is what I heard. But since I am usually wrong in this regard, or so I have been told, I glanced at L to see if she had heard the same thing. Her wide-eyed and giggly look confirmed my suspicions. And his dumbfounded expression told me that he had no earthly idea what he had just uttered to his teen-age daughter. Of course, lots of laughing ensued which left my husband wondering what was so funny and infuriated our younger two daughters who had not heard it and wanted to be in on the joke. In the end we were instructed to “drop it” until we could fill him in, out of the earshot of at least the eight-year-old.
Which brings me to the topic de jeur. The “sex” talk. This funny, little episode got me thinking back to how we had come to be a family that was more comfortable, than not, with this topic. Mind you, we do not fling this word around our house. But we have sought to be more open about the basic facts, and even the fact that Dad and Mom are physically romantic beings. With three girls, it has been, in large part, about finding a balance between virtue and information.
When our youngest two were barely eight and four I tried to convince my husband that perhaps we should fill the oldest one in on the facts of life before someone else did. The theory being, that if we told her now we could prevent someone else, i.e. most likely an “in-the-know” friend, from sharing their version first. My husband thought I was jumping the gun and I argued we might miss our chance totally if we didn’t time it right. We both reminisced about how we had been “told”. He was handed a book by his father and instructed to come see him if he had any questions. Of course, questions or not, he didn’t go back and “see him”. My experience was similar, if not even more covert. After the obligatory sixth-grade health film on the female reproductive organs, I found my way to a set of four slim books my mother kept in the dining room bookcase. The books had not even been offered up, but were one of those things that I think she secretly hoped we would stumble upon, thus relieving her of her duty. I must have been about thirteen and when I finally got around to reading the volume on reproduction, I slammed it shut in total amazement and disgust. And walked around the house for weeks repulsed by my parent’s marriage mumbling to myself “there are three of us so they only did it three times…”
Ultimately, our conversation about when to tell L ended in an impasse. To be honest, though I was the one pushing to talk with her “earlier rather than later”, a part of me was hoping for later rather than earlier. I had planned a little bit, buying Marc Brown’s child-friendly book entitled What’s the Big Secret which I found shared just enough information to explain things. But still I felt a bit wobbly about the whole thing.
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The next week my husband ducked out of town for a business trip and the “you know what” hit the fan. As I sat reading a fairy tale, complete with romantic happy ending, to our two girls my youngest, a petite ball of smiles and smarts, said “Oh, is that when the boy sticks his [male anatomy] in the girls’ [female anatomy]?” (Just insert your child’s own anatomical nicknames and you get the idea.) My mind lurched and I had to will my mouth not to shift into gear before my brain had a chance to catch up (usually a difficult feat to say the least). I calmly turned to her and, in as nonchalant a way as possible, inquired, “Oh that’s interesting. I never heard it put that way. Where did you hear that?” The whole while my higher brain was speaking soothingly to me, saying “stay cool, you don’t want to send them a message that this is a ‘no-no’ topic” while my emotional brain was screaming “Ack! S%#@! Where in the world did they hear that?”
My older one, apparently wise enough to know that what her sister had just spilled some beans, suddenly became interested in her stuffed animal. However, K was blissfully ignorant and fessed up immediately, chirping, “Oh, Susan* told us all about it Mommy.”
I turned to L for confirmation. Her darting eyes gave her away immediately but her lips formed an elder sister’s lie “I have no idea what she is talking about.”
“Now what!?” my emotional parent screamed at me.
“Steady…hold your course…keep the little one out of it. If you lead her to believe she is right, who knows who she will inform at pre-school tomorrow. Yet if you don’t set the older one straight you have lost a golden opportunity to ‘own’ this topic with her,” my higher brain parent soothed.
“Oh I see. Well that’s the thing about friends,” I heard myself say. “Sometimes they tell us stuff and don’t get all the facts right. That’s why it is better to come to Mom or Dad when you are confused about anything to do with your body. Moms and Dads have all the correct information. Now let’s turn out the light and sing songs.”
As soon there eyes closed I was out of there like a shot, phoning you-know-who in California to thank him for leaving me to sort this out on my own. His usual “You’re a great mom. You will handle it fine” did little to mollify me.
But by the next night I had a plan of attack. On occasion, as a treat, my older one and I would sneak down after K was asleep and read our way through a bowl of ice cream. Tonight we did the same, but this time I chose the book – What’s the Big Secret would finally be put to the test. When L heard it was a book about “sex” she was eager to get started.
A few pages into the book, which also covers male and female anatomy (of which she was already fully informed), she got impatient and asked, “When do we get to the sex part?” It was all I could do to keep a straight face. But as we came to the salient facts I felt her recoil in the same way I had some twenty-five years earlier. She was as incredulous as I had been, and peppered me with the sweetest, most innocent, and hilarious, questions:
L: “Is this true?”
L: “You and Dad have never done this have you?”
Me: “There are two of you, so yes we have.”
L: “But you didn’t plan to do it did you?”
Me: “Well if we wanted to have you lovely girls we had to plan it”
L: “Well you didn’t know what you were doing right?”
Me: “No we knew what we were doing.”
L: “But you didn’t intend to do it?”
Me: “Yes dear we did.”
L: “Well that is just gross!”
Me: “You know what? When I found out as a child about sex I thought the same thing. I read my book on it, slammed it shut and yelled ‘Gross, gross, gross!”
L: “You did?”
Me: “Yes I most certainly did. And it is okay for you to feel the same way. It is something that adults do to show they love each other and to make babies and it is not for you to understand this all until you are an adult as well.”
Needless to say, I better that night, content in the knowledge that I had tackled this most difficult of parenting milestones, notwithstanding the fact that some eight-year-old neighborhood child had foisted the task upon me a tad “earlier rather than later”.
Are you hoping for later rather than earlier? If so, I suggest you shirk your duty no longer and get on with it.
*Names have been changed to protect the not-so innocent.