“What’s sex?” asked my 8-year-old son a few weeks ago. I was boiling pasta for dinner, trying to shove sweet potato into my baby’s mouth and mopping up the milk my 6-year-old had just knocked onto her favorite dress.
“What?” I replied.
Make your face look normal, is what I was thinking to myself, MASK THE PANIC.
“What’s sex?” he repeated, a little more tentative this time.
I knew just how to respond.
“Sex, did you say? Huh. Never heard of it. Do you mean Chex? That’s a cereal. We can buy some. Right now, in fact. Why don’t we go to the supermarket and buy ourselves a whole mess of Chex and Cheerios and Corn Flakes and try to forget that this little mix-up ever happened?”
I didn’t go with that response. Instead, I said: “That’s a good question. Let’s talk about it later, OK, because I’m a little busy right now.”
I was stalling, which I’ve learned from numerous parenting books is a perfectly legitimate course of action when faced with tough questions. Experts agree that it’s OK to acknowledge your kids’ question and them tell them you need time to consider; better to formulate a thoughtful answer than to do irreparable damage by following your gut, which has the potential to be way, way off.
My mother never set me down to learn about the birds and the bees. Her idea of sex ed was the following sentence, shouted over her shoulder into the backseat just before my 18th birthday: “You are NOT ALLOWED to have SEX!”
This speech was not devoid of positive attributes: It was succinct and to the point. But it did not impart much valuable information or foster open communication. The fact that it wasn’t terribly effective as an abstinence tool will come as no surprise.
Of course, one of the most rewarding parts about becoming a mother is showing your own mother how much better you are at the job. Not that you hold it against her – she did her best – but still, your best is far better. In the category of sex ed, I figured, I’d be a natural.
But while my mother’s gut had prompted her to categorically prohibit sex, my gut was sending me clear and convincing messages, too: Deflect! (“Who told you about that?”) and Distract! (“Look! A new update for 'Minecraft'!!").
I’ve turned into a big, fat prude, I realized. Which was surprising because up until I had kids, I was anything but.
As long as I’ve been having sex, I’ve been open about it. Not with my mother -- who may think I’m still a virgin, my three children the result of a lucky streak of immaculate conceptions -- but with most other peers, acquaintances, friends. I talked about conquests and courtships and casual encounters, comparing notes, problem-solving, bragging sometimes. I indulged in PDA, got accused of TMI. As an actress and later as a writer, I didn’t flinch at love scenes. It wasn’t just the act of sex I embraced but the trappings. I wore my skirts short and my heels high.
That didn’t change just because I became a mother. I mean, it changed a bit, because I learned there was more to my identity and even if there wasn’t -- who had the time, with work and a gaggle of children to tend to? Still, I have never bought into the madonna/whore tug of war. When I go out with my friends, I enjoy showing some leg and décolletage and the conversation inevitably touches on sex, though the challenges are different than they used to be and significantly less glamorous (getting used to sex that lasts no longer than an episode of Dora, bartering blowies in exchange for your partner installing closet shelves).
Because I’ve always been comfortable with the subject, I assumed I’d be adept at broaching it with my kids when the time came. I’d be the kind of calm, cool, collected mom who gracefully relayed the facts, simply, without editorializing, without making anyone feel embarrassed or ashamed because the human body is a wonderful thing, and there’s nothing wrong with sex between consenting adults. I wouldn’t be Dr. Ruth or anything, but I wouldn’t be a puritan.
Now, charged with composing a reply to the question at hand – “What is sex?” – I wasn’t a puritan so much as a wimp. My relationship with sex was one thing; this was something altogether different. I felt the same squeamishness I had when I was 15 and stumbled upon a box of Trojans in my parents’ nightstand, namely: Eeeew. Gross. Gag me with a spoon. Unfortunately, in this scenario, I wasn’t the kid but the grown-up.
If I’m to believe what I hear on the fear-mongering news and the not-for-the-faint-of-heart Internet, kids these days become sexually active shockingly, nauseatingly young. Now, more than ever, parents have to equip their children with the tools to make healthy choices about sex; the sooner, the better.
“But what am I going to say?” I asked my husband, David.
“Just tell him the truth,” David advised.
“Which truth?” I countered. There are all sorts of things that are true about sex, and none of them are things I want my 8-year-old to hear about.
I purchased a book, “It's So Amazing!: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families,” which seemed perfect, as it was intended for kids aged 7-10, and promised to answer the question – with cheerful banter, no less -- “Exactly what is sex?” Later that night, I lay in bed and flipped through the pages. When I got to the chapters on masturbation and STDs, I closed the book.
I needed baby steps, a way to wade into the sex ed ocean. I needed a primer – which I found, penned by the same author/illustrator team, Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley, and titled “It’s Not the Stork!”
This book was intended for ages "4 and up" and I knew my son would consider the cartoon characters and language puerile but the content was just right. There was a bit on girls’ parts, a bit on boys’ parts, a section on eggs and sperm -- all of which I’d explained to my son a while ago when I was pregnant with his sister and he became suddenly inquisitive about babies. The part I hadn’t told him was how the sperm gets to the egg: “A kind of loving happens when the woman and the man get so close to each other that the man's penis goes into the woman's vagina."
It wasn't, by a long shot, the Whole Truth About Sex. It wasn't even the Whole Truth About Where Babies Come From. Still, it was a start.
That weekend, David took our younger kids out to the park, and my son and I were having a low-key afternoon at home. As good a time as any to rip off the Band-Aid, I figured.
I retrieved the book from my nightstand and brought it over to the kitchen counter where my son was drawing a comic book about a bumbling superhero who shot himself out of cannons.
“You asked me the other day about” -- I took a breath -- “sex.”
“Yeah?” he replied, looking up. Clearly, he hadn’t been expecting me to bring it up again.
“Well, I got a book that tells you all about it,” I said, “and I’d like to read it with you.”
He half-grimaced – my sentiments exactly – and I realized this talk was no cakewalk for him, either. But it had taken a lot of cojones for the kid to ask me about it in the first place, and I wouldn’t let him down. We read the relevant chapters, he asked a few clarifying questions – nothing I couldn’t handle – and then it was done. Information transmitted. I’d hopefully bought myself a year or two before I had to deal with unwanted pregnancies, nocturnal emissions or any other topics I look forward to like root canals.
Afterward, I felt the same way I did when he cornered me into finally admitting that there is no Santa Claus -- massive relief along with a twinge of sadness. The one thing I didn’t feel was superior to my mother. Attitudes about sex and motherhood may change, but my lesson was a timeless one: This parenting business is hard.