Trauma of knowing where your babies are coming from

May 19, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

"So, you want to know about sex? I'll tell you things that will curl your hair."

That was my angry father talking. When my mother found my birth control pills that summer during college, there was quite a family explosion.

I was blunt and direct. They hadn't told me a blessed thing about sex during my entire adolescence, unless you count the little booklet my mother left on my bed, so they didn't get to jump in now.

My mother was grim. She and my father, she said, had not believed in any artificial means of birth control. They had relied on prayer.

"You had four children in five years," I said, my voice arching. "What was it you were praying for?"

The curl-your-hair speech and prayer-as-a-means-of-birth-control speech have long since become the stuff of laughing reminiscence at family holidays. The description of my father's face when he learned that the first of his four daughters had gone over the fence gets more vivid at each retelling. Even my mother is amused -- now that all four daughters are married and are done having all the children they want.

But the scene of anger and accusation that represented my first and only discussion with my parents about sex left a mark on me. I was determined that it would be different with my own children. All those years ago, I wondered why it had been so impossible for them to talk to me about sex. Now I know.

When my son, then a second-grader, let slip some comment about "doing the nasty," I knew it was time. I bought the book (I always buy the books) "Where Did I Come From?" and we read it together. It is a slightly humorous cartoon depiction of the differences between men and women, the mechanics of sex and the development and birth of a baby.

I assumed a kind of science teacher persona -- tab A in slot B, sperm meets egg -- for that sex talk, and it went pretty well.

"That's gross, mom," my son said. But he has that greasy, grimy, gopher-guts curiosity of a little boy, and so neither of us was too uncomfortable. The subject did not come up again until Joe's sister was in second grade and he overheard some playground talk that made him think he had to intervene. "I think it is time Jessie read the book," he said, casting me his version of a knowing look.

I couldn't do it. I couldn't just pull my daughter up short and start reading her "Where Did I Come From?" I felt ridiculous, until I confided my profound but inexplicable hesitation to a friend and realized she shared it.

She told me about a note-passing incident at school that made her know it was time for "The Talk" with her 9-year-old. But just as she was steeling herself for this, she saw her daughter writing a thank-you note to the Easter Bunny and preparing him a dish of radishes.

"I guess I'll have to tell her about the Easter Bunny first," she thought ruefully.

That is the crux of it. We want to be open and honest with our children about power-packed topics such as sex, to tell them how the world works -- until we catch a glimpse of their innocence and it drains our nerve.

I was feeling foolish until Deidre Curry described a sex talk she had with her 8-year-old daughter, Tiffany. She is the education coordinator for Planned Parenthood of Maryland. She conducts workshops for parents on how to talk to their children about sex, for heaven's sake. And she, too, was struck dumb.

"I got to the part in the book that described intercourse, and I just stopped. I couldn't go on. I had to get up, go in the bathroom, look at myself in the mirror and say: 'Hey. You do this every day. Just do it.' I took some deep breaths, and I went back to her."

We feel like teaching our children about sex is an important part of our job and we want to do it better than our parents did it with us. We are a little cooler and a little more frank when they lob questions at us ("So," asks Joe, "how many times have you and Dad had sex?" "Twice that you know of," is my hard-eyed reply).

But we are probably no better than our parents at knowing when it is a right time to bring it up. We forget that although we are worried sick about teen-age pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and haunted by the memories of love affairs gone wrong, all our children want are a few facts.

And for us to be there when they ask. And for us to listen when it is their turn to talk.

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