William (age 10) hit me with a couple of difficult topics right in a row the other night. This post is part one.
Many parents struggle with how to talk to their children about where babies come from. When I was growing up, I had many friends whose parents completely ignored this essential topic, leaving them to be instructed God only knows by who, how, or when. Lucky for them they got to go to Girl Scout camp with me. No joke, I drew a diagram and labelled female body parts–they had never even been taught the proper names.
I was raised to call things by their right names. And when I was four, and my little sister was on the way, my mother showed me pictures of birth, which fascinated me. I remember getting in trouble for telling a friend how babies got out of stomachs. Her mother had told her they were all cut out (almost true nowadays, sadly, but not in the early seventies) and she was upset with me for telling her the truth. I remember being puzzled as to why this mother, who was by profession a nurse, would lie about this.
When I was seven, my mother took the occasion of my aunt expecting to read me a book entitled Where Do Babies Come From? It was a simple book with artistic illustrations in soft colors (I hate the cartoony sex ed books that are popular these days). I remember being extremely skeptical and asking her to show me exactly where it really said the part about how babies are made!
I admired my mother’s approach and saw no reason to deviate from it in the raising of my own kids. I wanted them to be informed, and I also wanted them to be comfortable asking us anything. So when Emily was little, I picked up my very own copy of the previously mentioned book at the used bookstore. Then I waited. I had always heard that you shouldn’t give kids more information than they were ready for, and to follow their cues. With two brothers arriving in quick succession, Emily knew plenty about pregnancy at a young age. Finally, when she was seven, she asked me what the daddy had to do with it. Voila, I pulled out the book and read it to her. Then I let her read it again herself.
The hysterical sequel to this was when her Daddy came home, and she was so excited that the first thing she did was to share this information with him, and then demanded that he read her the book as well. He was horrified but hid it well. Then she asked us. “Did YOU do that?”
I don’t have as clear a memory of talking to Jake and Teddy–Jake says that Emily actually told him surreptitiously at some point–but I know I read them that same book, and taught them the right words, and answered all their questions. I recall Jake saying something like, “Well, you must have done it three times, since you have three children.”
This approach was a success with my three big kids. True, occasionally someone would holler, “Penis!” while standing in line at the grocery store. And I have been amazed at some of the questions they asked me, without any embarrassment. But today, they are not shy about saying anything in front of me, which can be disconcerting but is better than the alternative.
So now we come to William. He’s ten–will be eleven in March–so you would think we would have had this talk by now, right? I kept waiting for him to ask me the questions that would start us down the path to the conversation. But here’s the thing about William–besides being extrmemely innocent for his age (he’s homeschooled and doesn’t have close contact with any other little boys except his cousin) he also doesn’t pick things up unless they are the things he is vitally interested in–at the moment, xenomorphs, transformers, Godzilla, and animals. He knows just about everything there is to know about those topics. I have frequently heard him refer to animals mating, and I wondered what he thought that entailed. I assumed he probably knew a lot–how could he not, in a houseful of teenagers with their computers and movies and uncensored conversations–even though we had never had an official conversation.
Because William is so oblivious we often carry on conversations right in front of him and assume he is not paying attention. So the other night John and I were working and I asked a question that involved the very young mother of a client, who was married to a boy who was not the father of our client. William wasn’t even in the office but he heard me and started asking questions. “How could her husband not be her baby’s father?” he asked me. I said, “Well, she was married, but she had a boyfriend at the same time.” He mulled this over for a moment and then said, “People don’t mate like animals, do they? I mean, you just have a baby with someone if you spend a lot of time with them, right?”
I could just feel John cringing at his desk and knew I wasn’t going to have any help in this conversation! I said, “Actually, people do mate.” “How?” said William. Buying time, I asked him, “How do you think animals mate?” “I don’t really know,” he responded. “I know they have to be near each other, and bugs have to actually be touching each other.”
So here’s where I should have been able to reach for my trusty book, right? Oh wait.
Right. The book was in the house. The house that BURNED DOWN. Damn it.
Flying solo, I started with the part about each parent having a seed that will make the baby and that the seeds have to get together. “How?” was the natural next question. So trying to sound completely at ease, I briefly described the process. “Really?” he said. “That sounds disgusting.”
“It sounds strange,” I said. “I didn’t believe it myself when I first heard it. But it’s really not disgusting, it’s nice. It’s something people want to do when they love each other.”
“I still think it sounds disgusting,” he said. Then he turned to John to continue his discussion of the Cloverfield monster.