by Wendy Fontaine
We were lying in bed on a Monday night when my daughter asked the questions I’d been dreading since the day she was born.
“Mom, how do babies get made?” my eight-year-old asked. “Like, how do they get inside their mamas in the first place? What puts them there?”
Her curiosity came as no surprise. Earlier in the day, a stranger had remarked on how much my daughter, Angie, looks like her stepdad. Not thinking, I had said their similarities were coincidence, not biology, and that while she got a lot of things from him, like her love of superheroes and hot sauce, her physical traits came from her father and me. Angie hadn’t understood, but she waited until bedtime to ask about it.
“Well,” I told her, “a mama and a daddy make a baby.”
“I know,” she said. “But how?”
She wanted details, the real nitty-gritty. The only problem was I wasn’t ready to tell her.
“It’s late,” I said. “Can we talk about this tomorrow?”
“Sure,” she said, then rolled over and fell asleep.
I spent the next 24 hours freaking out, wondering whether to tell her the truth and worrying that the truth might scare her. How much do you tell a third-grader? Where do you begin? What about the complicated parts, the delicate stuff, and the things you don’t completely understand yourself?
The next day, while Angie was in school, I bought a book with age-appropriate language and cartoon birds and bees on each page. I flipped through, taking notice of the illustrations of boys’ and girls’ bodies with all the corresponding parts labeled: ovaries, fallopian tubes, testicles.
How could I say these words out loud to my daughter? There was no way. But I wanted her to hear it from me, not from some other kid.
My lesson on the reproductive system came about the same time as Angie’s, but instead of learning it from my mother, I got the carnal details (some of them right, most of them wrong) from my elementary-school classmate Lisa, whose teenage brothers sported hairy armpits and constantly grabbed their crotches. On our walk to school, Lisa told me about sex—then laughed when I reacted with confusion and fear.
My parents never spoke about it, and I never felt comfortable asking. So I grew up feeling shame about my body and misunderstanding some of its functions, such as hormones and ovulation (which is still somewhat of a mystery to me). And I thought, for too long, that anyone who wanted to have sex with me was entitled to.
I didn’t want my daughter to feel that way. I wanted her to feel strong, confident and informed.
By Tuesday, I was ready.
“Hey, remember when you asked me about babies?” I said, sitting on the bed in her room. “Did you still want to know about that?”
She said yes.
I told her that boys and girls have different private parts, and they use those private parts when they are adults to make a baby. I told her the penis goes inside the vagina, the sperm comes out and swims to the egg, and if the sperm and the egg meet, an embryo forms. The embryo grows and grows until it becomes a baby.
She was truly shocked because, let’s face it, that kind of information is shocking.
“I don’t want that to happen to me!” she said.
I told her she can choose to have a baby or not, that her body belongs to her and nobody else.
“OK. Good,” she said.
She was most interested in sperm, specifically how fast they swim and whether their tails smack into anything en route to the egg.
“I’m not sure,” I told her. “But I will look it up and let you know.”
A few days later, we read the birds and bees book cover to cover, and Angie learned the kid-friendly version of everything—and I mean everything, from erections and foreskin to clitorises and ovaries. It felt strange to use the actual words, and even stranger to see her reacting to them, but she seemed relieved to know what her body parts were called and what they do.
Talking to my daughter about sex wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Sure, it was awkward, but it also brought us closer.
Now, whenever Angie has a question, she takes me by the hand, leads me into her room and asks about whatever is on her mind. She appreciates that I’m honest with her and that I talk to her in a way that makes her feel big and in charge of her body. Neither of us feels shame. Neither of us feels scared or confused.
Next, Angie wants to know about puberty and the changes she can expect in the years to come. I have a book for that as well, when she’s ready. This time, I’ll be ready too.
Wendy Fontaine is a writer, teacher and mother in Los Angeles. She is a contributor to Huffington Post and Role Reboot, and has been published in Readers Digest, Literary Mama, Hippocampus Magazine, Mutha Magazine and Grace Magazine. Follow Wendy on Twitter at @wendymfontaine.
TapGenes TakeAway: Beyond the awkward silences and real body part labels, here’s how one mom found the words to tell her daughter the nitty-gritty about sex.
Read more on TapGenes:
What to Know About Sex
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