My girls were seven and three when we decided to raise chickens. It was a group effort until the moment the cute phase was over and the hen party became more like a work camp; then the kids were done.
“I miss the chicks when they were little. Can we have more next year?” my oldest begged while we were in the car one day.
After four months, I was done with chicken shit and chasing the birds out of my neighbor’s yard. I swallowed the “hell no” bouncing on the tip of my tongue and opted for a softer explanation that babies always get bigger, and that the six chickens we had were probably enough.
“But we have eggs,” my three-year old insisted. “Won’t those be babies?”
“Uh, no. We don’t have a rooster.”
From the rearview mirror, I could see the gears moving in my oldest child’s head.
“What does a rooster have to do with baby chickens?”
I felt a prickle of sweat break out across my forehead as I tried to keep our car between the lines, bracing myself for the parenting pile-up ahead.
“Well, see, you need a girl and a boy to make a baby. It’s the same with chickens.”
In that moment, all I wanted to do was fly the coop.
“Um, our bodies are made special…and….ugh…”
“Never mind. I don’t want to talk about it,” my oldest child said, pumping the breaks on a conversation she could sense was about to be awkward.
Thank Christ, because I didn’t want to talk about it either. But there it was, a flashing parent hazard alert, and I knew that my own chicks were growing. Whether I wanted to have it or not, this conversation was coming.
I am not, despite my Baptist upbringing and the fact my husband and I are raising children in the heart of the Bible belt, what you would consider conservative when it comes to my views on sex. I’m the first to condemn abstinence only education. I begged the principal of the high school where I teach to let me have a seminar with all the girls on masturbation, which I was certain would probably improve the astronomically high pregnancy rate when girls figured out toys could do way more than teenage boys ever dreamed of (he did not approve this plan, nor did he appreciate my idea).
My students come to me with pregnancy scares and for advice about relationships. I’m the teacher they tell before their parents that they’re gay, and the one they come to when they really aren’t sure. My students know I won’t judge them; they know I’ll just listen. When I found out I had a group of freshmen girls blowing their way through the football team because “that’s not sex,” I proclaimed to an entire ninth grade class, “It’s your face! What’s more intimate than letting someone penetrate your face?!”
And yet here I was, completely terrified of saying “the s-word” with my own little women.
I wanted to listen to anything they needed to tell me with no judgement, but I didn’t know if I was prepared to handle what they might say. These children were mine. I wanted them to respect and understand their bodies. As they matured into young women, I wanted my daughters to be confident in their sexuality without feeling the need to be validated by their peers. I wanted them to choose their partners selectively, and the more I thought about my maturing girls, the more I wanted them to remain far away from intercourse or genital encounters of any kind! I was screwed.
I did what any (writer) mother would do: I immediately looked for a book. Surely there would be magic words from actual experts that could appropriately convey the right message about sex to my children. There are about 1 million different results for different audiences and ages. How much information does a seven-year-old really need about this?
My own mother went for the NOVA video – educational and informative. The narrator was British, or at least he was in my mind. Important, foreign subjects must be told to the audience by important, foreign men. Or Tom Brokaw. I remember sex being described as “The Dance of Life,” illustrated by some lovely shadow figures dancing and intertwining. I felt certain there was more to sex than that, but I was in dance classes back then, so I was confident I could manage. But then the NOVA video ended with a graphic shot of live childbirth, killing any desire I may have had to have sex or unprotected modern dance. Birth was more terrifying than anything Stephen King was dreaming up. “It” was no longer in my nightmares; a hairy watermelon forcing itself out of my vagina took center stage. Surely I could do this sex talk thing better than a video, right?
Reading book review after book review, I began to rethink my own mother’s approach. There were too many choices. One parent would rave about a book’s presentation of the birds and bees while another was in horror at the content, insistent it was inappropriate to give so much information about sex to children. How much was too much? I considered skipping the how-to and going straight for the birthing video, maybe tossing in graphic pictures of genital warts for extra deterrence, but did I really want to scar my children? I began to ponder opening an Etsy store for chastity belts.
Since I couldn’t even craft a cotton ball lamb in Sunday school, I focused my search on children’s books. The results finally matched my comfort level. One book looked like any other kid’s book— illustrated and featuring a fun bird as the main character—but this time our protagonist was a tour guide through the reproductive process. It’s So Amazing! A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families for age seven and up. It was perfect, age appropriate, and better than a video. I placed the chosen one into my cart and checked out.
I had a plan now. I felt good about it! Until the book arrived.
Flipping through the pages, I made it to chapter four (“Growing Up”) where there was a whole page of illustrations of naked people from infant to elderly. Old, saggy, less hair down there illustrations. “How long before that happens?” I wondered with a small amount of horror, instantly feeling like I should be having more sex before time runs out. Before I could digress any further, I continued into the book, glancing through sperm and eggs, but stopping short at chapter nine (“What’s sex?”). This was the big question that my daughter needed answered, so I read each word to myself, imagining my voice reading them to my oldest:
“When a woman and a man want to make a baby, they hug and cuddle and kiss and feel very loving, and get very close to each other – so close that the man’s penis goes inside the woman’s vagina…”
My baby was seven! She picked her nose and played with Barbies! I put the book promptly in my underwear drawer, one more secret for Victoria to keep. I started thinking about Etsy again. I could learn to sew.
Avoidance worked well for a few months… Until the drive home from school one day several months later:
“Sam was chasing us and we couldn’t make him leave us alone and he kept saying bad words…you know…like the s-word…”
“You’ve heard me say shit a million times.”
“No, Mom. The other s-word…”
“What are you talking about?” I was fluent in sailor speak, so mentally I went down the list to find another word as we pulled into the driveway.
Frustrated with my ignorance, she unbuckled, climbed forward, and whispered low enough so her younger sister couldn’t hear, “Sex, Mom.”
Ready or not, I couldn’t keep some little shit from sharing information with my innocent child. It was time.
I pulled It’s So Amazing out from hiding one summer morning. I laid it ceremoniously into the center of my neatly made bed and tried to formulate a plan. Periods, sperm, and babies, oh, my.
My now eight-year-old (I really had procrastinated on having the talk) was up early that morning, and so we folded laundry and I tried to figure out how to dive in. She knew boys had a penis and girls didn’t. My kids attended a small daycare, and when diapers were changed and everybody was learning how to use the potty, differences were established early on. I decided that perhaps the egg should come first, before the cuddling cocks and hens.
“The sperm has to reach the egg before a baby can happen,” I explained as I folded towels and pointed to the illustrations in the book. We were both still in our pajamas, casual. No formalities. I could have won an Emmy for my performance, despite the slow death I was feeling inside. This was such a monumental milestone for me as a parent, marking an end to part of my child’s innocence. I didn’t want her to feel any pressure, so I kept my face relaxed and my tone calm.
“Our bodies are like puzzles that fit together, and that’s how the sperm gets to that egg. But we don’t always want a baby, so we can do things to keep the sperm and egg apart.”
She didn’t say anything, but looked deep in thought as the gears clicked and turned. I continued.
“Remember the medicine I take to keep me from having another baby?” Birth control we had covered in the CVS pharmacy line the year before. “That keeps the egg from coming into the tube, which keeps the sperm from getting to an egg.”
“Oh. I get it.” She was keeping her cool, too. My first-born child was contemplative. She would need time to process before really asking questions, but this was a start.
I told my daughter about different kinds of love, and that sex can be a way we show love to special people, but I let the statement hang there without much explanation. How do you define “special people” without opening an entirely new box of parental horrors? Just because you think someone is special doesn’t mean they feel the same way about you. What should you do when people want to touch you but you don’t want them to? What if that person is a teacher or other adult? I didn’t want to scare her, but she needed to know that nobody has a right to touch her without her permission, so I told her that any touch that made her uncomfortable was not ok, and that she should tell them to stop. That included adults. I told her never to be behind a closed door with an adult, unable to keep myself from going to worst case scenario in my mind.
“But what if I get in trouble?” she asked. My child was a people pleaser who thrived on praise from authority figures. It was a quality that terrified me in this particular conversation.
“You stand in the hallway and tell them to call your mother, and you don’t move until they do.” The very thought made me nauseous, and I struggled with the images my imagination was conjuring.
“And I won’t be in trouble?”
“Never. You will never be in trouble for standing up for yourself, no matter what they say.”
Good and bad touches had been discussed in school. She understood what I was trying to communicate without an in-depth explanation of exactly what an adult might do and why I wouldn’t want her alone with anyone, even a teacher. There was such a fine line between biology, love, pleasure, and abuse. I was tripping all over it, fumbling with what she needed to know and what she would figure out in the natural course of her life.
Through the course of our morning talk, we covered the science and general idea that sex is a way two people can show love to each other, but I resisted the urge to mount the “when you’re married” pedestal of my youth, since I sure didn’t. I didn’t tell her to save herself for that one special man like my mother told me, but I also didn’t go into a feminist lecture. Just the basics, no politics.
As I tried to navigate what was important to discuss at this phase of life, a few things became abundantly clear:
1. Eight-year-olds just need their questions answered.
2. My kids need to know that we can talk about anything.
3. And, to my mortification, I realized that this was the just the first of many sex talks to come.
Our bodies as puzzles isn’t going to make as much sense when she starts asking about her best friend who has two moms, or when she catches on that sex isn’t only for making babies or only done between people in love. I’ll again have to decide how much my child needs to know, when it’s appropriate to tell her more, and how we’ll approach her sex life as she begins dating. Maybe by the time I have to talk about sex with her sister, I’ll be better at this.
For our first conversation though, I thought I handled myself pretty well. I closed the book, pushed the laundry aside, and hugged my first born tightly, easing the tension I was holding in my chest. I could still pick her up, so I did. I told her she could ask me anything. I would always answer her questions, and if I didn’t have the answer right away, I would help her find it.
“Or I can just Google it, right, Mom?”
“No! No Googling this. Just ask me anything.”
Photo: “Texture” by John Loo, licensed under CC 2.0