Our 6-year-old son, William, and 3-year-old daughter, Jessie, have been taking baths together ever since she graduated from her daily dip in the kitchen sink. About a year ago, in a stunt deemed normal by most parenting manuals, she up and reached for her brother’s member, which had been floating beneath the surface of the water like a mystery to be unraveled.
And then she did it again. And again.
These frequent incursions would send William into a tizzy of giggling, squirming and (he’ll kill me one day for writing this) positioning himself so she would do it again. Coming off the tail end of the evening witching hour, I would be sitting on the floor at the threshold of the bathroom — one ear aimed to the room across the hall where “Hardball” blared from the TV, the other in the direction of my kids — when I’d note a peculiar tone to their laughter. It would sound higher pitched and more joyful than normal.
“What’s going on?” I’d yell, summoning my inner Archie Bunker, knowing full well what was going on.
“Jessie’s grabbing my penis!” William would yell back, snort-laughing as water splashed around the tub.
So long, Chris Matthews.
I’d rush to the tub and tell Jessie she shouldn’t touch William’s privates because they were, well, his privates. Soon, I’d find myself so awash in vague euphemisms and instructions that I’d just stare at them dumbly, then tell them it was time to get out.
But knowing William didn’t really mind his sister’s incursions, I had to come up with a reason for him to stop making himself so readily accessible. I crafted the half-baked explanation that he should discourage her from touching him, or she might start grabbing the penises of all the boys in her preschool class and then she wouldn’t have any friends. (I made a mental note to use the same argument in a different context years hence.)
That seemed to sober him up, and over time, her interest in his penis ebbed, eventually dying down altogether. At least I thought so.
The other night, we were in the playroom, cleaning up toys before bed, when Jessie looked down at herself and said, apropos of nothing, “I wish I had a penis.”
My heart stopped beating, I dropped the handful of Legos I’d just scooped up and Sigmund Freud, complete with pipe and pocket watch, crashed through our ceiling to land on the couch, where he sat staring at us with a raised eyebrow. Thoughts of Jessie’s feelings of inadequacy, of penis envy, of adolescent confusion and despair flooded my mind in a tangle of maternal angst and worry. What can I say to this child to fend it all off, at least for a day?
I took a deep breath and said, in my most upbeat mom voice, “Well, you don’t have one of those, but you do have something verrry special.”
I could feel William freeze in rapt attention behind me. Whatever could I be talking about?
Jessie looked at me quizzically and said, “I do? Where?”
“There,” I said, nodding to her nether region.
Her eyes widened.
“What is it?” she asked, with the kind of anticipation one usually reserves for the opening of a much-touted gift.
I must pause here to say that, although I grew up post-sexual revolution, my parents were unmistakably pre-sexual revolution. The closest anyone in our house ever came to anatomical correctness was to utter the words “tonsils” or “appendix.” Even now, at 40, such language doesn’t roll easily off the tongue. I inherited from my mother, as she did from hers, a decided reluctance to name names. I can’t even remember when or how I learned the proper terms for the parts of my body. All of which leaves me in a bit of a pickle when it comes to teaching my own kids about their bodies. With no clear role models to summon from my past, I long ago realized I’d have to wing it.
I just didn’t know I’d be winging it so soon, with my toddler, on the playroom floor. But what could I do? I stiffened my spine, looked Jessie in the eye, and said, “You, Jessie Joan, have a vagina.”
At that she smiled wide and proud, as if shocked by her good fortune, though I don’t think she had any idea what I was talking about. But it didn’t seem to matter.
The next moment, Jessie walked over to William, put her hands on her hips and, swaying back and forth, sang to the tune of nana-nana-boo-boo: “I have a vagina! I have a vagina!”
I’d done it! I’d had my first sex talk with my daughter and hadn’t flubbed it. She was buoyant as ever in her body. She could name her private parts without shame or hesitation. And her strong sense of self had remained intact. I knew that as mother and daughter we had many more miles to travel, and some would be rocky. But at least we were off to a good start.
Later that night, William taunted her by saying, “Jessie, do you know where your vagina is?” But she didn’t take the bait. With a blasé air I’ve spent my whole life longing for, she patted her hoo ha and said, “Yes, I do. My bajina is right here.”