OF COURSE I was going to be the cool mom who talked to my kid about sex in frank and funny terms, totally approachable and comfortable, satisfying any curiosity, breaking it down. It was high on the list of my pre-parenting parenting plan.
But you know how those go.
For one thing, I hadn’t reckoned with the fact that there might never be any curiosity expressed.
“Do you want to know how I got pregnant?” I asked when my son was six and I finally had another bun in the oven.
“Really? Because you know, you and this baby are both a combination of me and Daddy and that’s because…”
“Maybe we can get a book that explains it.”
“Here’s the book, in case you change your mind.”
“No, thanks. I’m not going to. Can you take it back?”
Anyone who’s met my son has likely had their ears burned off by his enthusiastic diatribes on subjects ranging from Legos to lawn-mowing techniques, but I trust his resistance to the conversation is clear even to those who can’t compare his monosyllabic replies to his usual loquaciousness. What was I going to do, force him to look at pictures of cartoon sperm swimming up carefully cross-hatched Fallopian tubes? Chase him up the stairs yelling Sex is a fun, natural expression of many different emotions! Get ready to start having wet dreams!
It occurred to me for the first time that maybe a boy wouldn’t want to talk to his mom about stuff like this. (Not that his dad had better luck.) There remained hanging over me a sense of business undone, but I have to admit that being let off the hook was a relief.
Because here’s another thing I hadn’t reckoned with: that I’d keep on thinking he’s too young. He’s still so young.
A year or so after the baby was born, the four of us were out for pizza one evening when my son shared that the Spanish-English dictionary at school contained a dirty word. I smiled, fondly recalling how often I and my fourth-grade classmates looked up fart to giggle at its mysterious definition: “a gaseous explosion between the legs.” (Penis and vagina weren’t in the dictionary. We checked.)
“What’s the word?” I asked.
“I’ll spell it for you,” he said. He was grinning, bright eyed and nervous. “S-E-X-O.”
“Sex isn’t a dirty word!” my husband and I said in high-pitched unison. “You know what sex is, right? It’s reproduction! It’s… the sperm and the egg. What two people do when… Well, it’s also… being a boy or a girl. I mean it’s…”
My husband and I shut up in unison, too, because we pride ourselves on being sensitive to the subtle cues of our offspring, and it was obvious to us, as well as probably everyone within a twenty-foot radius, that with every particle of his being my son wanted us to shut the fuck up about “sexo” as we sat across from him in a pizza parlor.
OK, so we’d taken the wrong tone there over the slices of pepperoni. Let’s face it, we’d waited until the age where parental false cheer was only going to aggravate the tweenaged certitude that there’s something embarrassing and peculiar about the topic. But our bungling made me promise myself to do better. I skimmed websites, studied reviews of more forthright books. When I saw a title praised by moms who made a big point of crediting the book for upholding their values, I avoided it, thinking, again, that I was the opposite of that kind of uptight. I ordered a book that looked promising. I devoured it when it came. The kind of relatable, frank information it provided about puberty and sex seemed perfect–right up until the chapter on sexually transmitted diseases. Really? My son needs to know this right now? That floppy-haired boy using couch cushions to build a fort with his sister for their collection of stuffed owls and sea animals? I don’t think he’s quite there.
Which is what I kept thinking right up until the point during fifth grade curriculum night when the teacher announced they’d be starting the Family Living unit in January, and they’d be covering a lot of ground. Anatomical terms, slang terms, discussions of STDs, demonstrations of condoms on bananas. Please, she urged, talk to your kids before then.
A cool mom wouldn’t have to be told by the teacher to do it. So to speak. But if I’d failed in that respect, I could still be a good student.
I tossed him the book. He acted nonplussed, but I could tell he was happy to get it. “Let me know if you have any questions,” I said. He’s not asked either of us anything, but the book is well-thumbed, crammed into the crevice between his nightstand and mattress. Hey, it’s more than my parents did!
Coincidentally, all the while I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to approach the birds and the bees with my son, I’ve also been doing some writing about my own early sexuality. It’s made me recall how much sex affected my life and imaginings even before I understood the mechanics of heterosexual intercourse. Lacking any hard information, it took me a while to figure those out, but once I did, my appetite for the subject was enormous, and I stole dozens of sexy how-to manuals and novels from the public library to feed it. By the time I was twelve, I could compare what I was reading with the information shared by the several people I knew who were regularly getting laid.
My son will be twelve in a year and a half. Who do I think I’m kidding?
OK. OK. I’m gonna do it. I’m going to have that conversation about what I believe about sex. That it can be fun, and weird, and funny, and … Don’t rape girls! And, please don’t start having sex when you’re twelve! Or, sex has many serious consequences. You can’t take it lightly. But have no shame and a good time!
I don’t have my talking points pinned down yet, but I’m practicing in my mind all the time.
Meanwhile, it’s November, and you know what that means. The Christmas conversations have begun. My son follows me around the house waxing poetic about the holiday—it’s not just the presents, he’s careful to say. It’s everything. The traditions, the cookies, the feast we have on Christmas Eve, the way everyone’s in such a good mood. He loves it all! And he’s really going to love the Xbox that he’s going to ask Santa for this year.
For the past couple seasons, I’ve suspected that the tables have turned, and that my son is the one who’s been pulling the Santa wool over the eyes of my husband and me, instead of the other way around. I figured that he was afraid the presents might reflect our usual sensible frugality instead of the bounty of consumerist America if the matter of who exactly came bearing the gifts was openly discussed. I’m a big believer in Santa—in the myth, I mean; the magic and fun—but I’m uncomfortable enough with the concept of lying to and manipulating children that I’ve propagated the Santa story only in the most passive of ways since about the time my son learned to read. “Mmm,” is a common response of mine to my kids’ statements about St. Nick. Also, “What do you think?” and “Maybe you’re right.”
But you know what? My son is ten-and-a-half. Closer to eleven. In a year or two he’s going to know people having sex! So when the other day at breakfast he asked a question about Santa Claus in a voice completely free of any winks or irony, in a little boy voice, I couldn’t bring myself to mutter the usual noncommittal coo as I stood there slicing a banana to serve with his pancakes.
“I think you know the truth about Santa, right?” I said gently.
In an instant, I could tell that my son had not been pulling any wool over our eyes at all, and that I had just yanked it off his. And I was like: Fuck. It’s one of those parenting moments I can’t do over. Like the time I arranged to give away our new cat on Christmas night. We were pawning off the cat because it’d been attacking my son! He’d been living in fear for weeks! I thought he’d be glad! I thought at least he’d be neutral!
I didn’t think it all the way through. We ended a lovely day with him crying for hours.
I remember when I found out definitively that Santa Claus didn’t exist. I was about nine, and our family was paying a holiday visit to some neighbors. The boys were off playing, and the parents were yakking, and I was sitting on the floor in the corner so quietly they forgot I was there. The topic of Santa came up, and my dad explained ruefully that my younger brother had announced to him years ago that there was no Santa Claus, and so that chapter of our lives came to a close. I remember the colored Christmas lights blinking on the tree while the wet cement of the phrase There was no Santa Claus poured into my heart. Like my son, I had been nursing a belief long past the time when my peers had (at least publicly) determined the issue settled. Once we’ve found something lovely to believe, we cling to it even in the face of gossip and logic and evidence, until finally the proof is irrefutable. And, I suppose, sometimes even then.
I knew enough to give my son some time to let the news sink in, but before he went out the door that morning, I tried to go for the save. I wasn’t totally prepared with a poetic explanation of the Santa metaphor—the spirit of Christmas, generosity, the way sex between two people who love each other is… etc.—but I threw some things out there along those lines. When I saw it wasn’t fully connecting, I dropped the metaphor and reverted to the need-to-know basics.
“It doesn’t mean you’ll get fewer presents,” I said.
“But Santa got me things you never would. That was really nice.”
“But the niceness will still be there. We love you.”
He could see his downcast air was worrying me. He tried to rally for my sake. “I know, Mom.”
It’s true. He’s growing up.
Parenting: you sort of learn as you go. These sexo, Santa Claus, not-quite-fiascos have taught me a lot. Next year, maybe the year after, I think that talk about the increased chance of HIV transmission from anal sex is going to go GREAT!