"OK Mum, I get that the egg is inside of the mother and the sperm comes from the father, and that they meet and that's how a baby grows. What I don't understand is how the sperm gets from inside of the father's body to inside of the mother's body so it can meet up with the egg?"
Oh dear god, I think to myself. I thought I had more time?! There I am sitting outside, minding my own business on a warm May afternoon, enjoying a Pepsi Max while the kids play, and suddenly I get this thrown at me. My daughter is seven-years-old. Isn't 'the talk' something you have with them when they are teenagers? I feel panicky, what the hell do I say?
Suddenly I remember something my sister, who has an older son, told me years ago when I asked her how she handled these kinds of questions. "Children will only ask as much as they can deal with," she said sagely, "So answer their questions directly and simply. Don't offer any more information than is required as that will only confuse them."
So I take a deep breath, tell my daughter to sit down, and explain that the penis (something she's familiar with as she has a younger brother) is shaped to fit into the vagina, and the sperm is passed in this way into the mother. And that's it - that is all I say.
Although it is prefixed by the predictable bourgeois caveat: This only happens when a woman and a man love each other very much and decide they want to start a family together. After they are both well into their 30s, have been to university, had a few years of working and establishing a career, have a home together, are financially stable, and the man in question is just like your father. "You know respectful of you, non violent, angry, or scary in any way, and is kind, patient, funny and smart. And he has integrity." (Rightly or wrongly, I use every opportunity I get to influence my daughter's choice in future boyfriends.)
She looks at me, and I fear there will be more questions, but instead she says casually: "OK Mum, thanks" and then calls her brother to continue jumping on the trampoline with her. And the conversation I've been dreading since the day she was born, is over as quickly as it was raised.
A few days later I begin recounting the story to a good friend of mine and her expression can only be described as one of abject horror. She darts her eyes back and forth between her daughter, who is seated nearby, and me in a kind of 'Zip It!' way, and so I zip it. We move away and she says to me: "I don't want my children knowing this kind of stuff, they are far too young." I try to explain that my daughter had come to me, not the other way round, and how could I not answer her question honestly? But I can see that this is a topic of conversation she is deeply uncomfortable with and I shelve it.
Since both my children were roughly two years old they have been asking me questions about how their bodies work. Starting with things like 'What happens to the food I eat in my body?' And then, given the amount of pregnant women and babies on the school run, this soon became 'How do the babies get inside of the mummy's tummy?' And we have quite a few body books for children. However you are hard pressed to find a book for children under the age of 7 that talks about penetration - not ejaculation, just penetration. So my children knew about the sperm and the egg, which even my husband, who avoids such topics like the plague, is comfortable talking about in a scientific way. But it was only a matter of time before 'the special cuddle' would no longer be sufficient, and the question would become: So how does one of these things travel from one body into another? Given my daughter is doing multiplication, division, and Greek myths at school it was inevitable.
My son, who was not there when my daughter asked me the question, has not yet raised the same question himself. Right now I think he's still quite happy with the ambiguous 'special cuddle' although recently he did ask his father at the breakfast table: "Dad, did you drink champagne when you had the sperm inside of you?" My husband shot me a questioning look, and I in turn responded with a: 'How the hell am I supposed to know?' look of my own. So my husband did what any self respecting man would do in that situation and changed the subject.
While I do have what some consider to be very liberal opinions on most things, I also have a strong sense of propriety in our home. My husband and I cuddle and might share a brief kiss in front of our children, but that's it. I shut and sometimes lock the door when I use the bathroom, if not a line of children and cats come filing in and disturb me during a small time of the day I actually have to myself. My husband and I don't talk about our private life nor the private lives of others in front of the children, nor are the children allowed to watch adult TV which deals with adult themes. Also some time ago I informed my son that he was not to grope my breasts, something he enjoyed doing in public places especially. I explained that they are a private part of my body, and that since he was weaned at 11 months, I reclaimed them and he doesn't have the right to grab me there when the mood takes him. I appreciate that a lot of people have very relaxed body boundaries with their small children, but I believe children need to have an understanding of what parts of their body are private and that others require the same respect. It's all leading towards an understanding of safe body boundaries, and as with all these things, it starts at home.
But I am also a factual sort of person, and I'm not about to start avoiding the subject or making up some Stork nonsense to tell a child who has a perfectly reasonable and intelligent question with regards to a sequence of events. The fact that my daughter didn't require any further information leads me to believe that it was simply the missing element of the equation. It also made me appreciate that the 'how are babies made' talk is distinctly different from those tricky conversations you have further down the line with your children about their changing bodies, hormones, and having feelings for the opposite sex, and indeed, the actual sex talk and the safe sex talk. I've already informed my husband, that while he might have dodged a bullet up until this point, he will be responsible for having these talks with our son when the need arises. And I've told him scheduling frequent business trips during this period will not be excusable.
The topic of sex education came up again on FB recently when a friend of mine posted some pictures from a badly illustrated children's book, and again the questions ignited the debate: When is the right time to tell our children, should we even be telling our children about these things? What about Sex Ed at school? What about their innocence? Aren't we sanctioning and encouraging this kind of thing by telling them about it at a young age?
I don't believe sex is some nasty or shameful or verboten thing if it is done between two consenting people that are of age. It would be kind of bizarre and hypocritical for me to communicate otherwise to my children given it, sex, is was what brought them into the world in the first place right? Also, I would much rather my children learn about these things from their father and me, with perhaps the help of age appropriate books, and have the facts, rather than hear about it at school from some kid with an older sibling, as I did. I think I was eight, and this girl told me a dirty joke, and then seeing my blank face she asked: "You do know about sex right?" And I was like, "Yeah, yeah of course I do," not wanting to come off as ignorant. And she pressed me for information and then laughed and told me her version of what sex involved. And I was so disgusted, and it sounded scary and nasty and horrible. So much so that I never once asked my parents or older siblings about it because the whole thing revolted me to such an extent that it was simply something I did not wish to discuss with anyone, even if I had questions. And later when I did have questions, I asked my friends. No internet back in those days for research alas, but then again, given what's out there currently, maybe it isn't such a bad thing after all.
Also, I think if you have the matter of fact age appropriate talk with your children, even as young as mine, and attempt to answer their questions simply and honestly, they have an understanding about how their bodies work, that certain things are perfectly normal and healthy, and what is and isn't appropriate. And perhaps being informed in this way means that should they as tweens or teenagers find themselves in an awkward situation they can identify it and have some sense of what is OK and what is not. Because as much as we like to think we can, we cannot be with our children every second of the day. My view is to inform them and equip them with the necessary tools, in this case, information.
I appreciate that this is a very personal and not to mention contentious subject. Unlike pretty much everything else, it's not something that I argue about with my friends. Each one of us decides what is appropriate in terms of how we approach or don't approach this subject with our children, this is just my take on it.
On a separate note, yesterday my daughter and I found an insect in my sons hair. True to form, my daughter was disgusted, my son was rather proud of the fact and asked to see the insect once it had been removed. And then the discussion became whether or not he had a flea or he had head lice. I don't know what lice look like and it didn't look like a flea. He maintained, rather indignantly, that he had lice.
Me: So, have you had an itchy head? (Even though I have not seen him scratching his head of late.)
Him (Scratching his head): Yes
Me: Well, maybe, just to be safe, we need to get you some of that shampoo
Him: Yes, but I don't want to kill the lice. It's not right to take a life
Me: I agree with you, but at the same time, it's just to wash them off. You don't want an itchy head right?
I comb through my son's hair and there is no sign of anything else at all. My daughter then uses this opportunity, after I have already called my husband and asked him to stop off at a pharmacy on the way home, to tell me that that singular insect might have had something to do with the fact that earlier that day they had been playing games in a garden with lots of tall plants and trees.
Rewind even earlier that day to the walk to art camp.
My son: Mum, can you take me to space?
Me: I'm genuinely flattered that you think I have the ability to do that, but unfortunately I don't. There is however a man called Richard Branson who is working on it
My son: So can I go?
Me: Well, perhaps when you are older yes
Him: But what about black holes?
Me: What about them?
Him (worried): I don't want to go near one and get sucked into it
Me: I'm certain that whoever is operating the space tours will know about such things and avoid them
Him: But if you cannot see them, how can you avoid them?
Me: I don't know.
My son is either worrying about black holes or earth being hit by an asteroid. I don't say as much, but the latter bothers me from time to time too.
And then a car passes that is emitting black smoke from its exhaust, and my daughter waves her hand in front of her face and starts talking about how the entire human race is going to be wiped out by pollution. "I'm telling you Mum," she says earnestly, "unless people stop all this polluting and start getting better about recycling, we are all going to die - every last one of us." And she repeats this loudly and while pointedly looking at a man in a hardhat who is having a cigarette on a bench. The only plus side to this unfortunate neurosis, is that with all the black holes and pollution preoccupying their minds, I think I might be off the hook with any further sex talks for now.