Blame it on the bloody tampon in the toilet.
There it was at the locker-room by the pool where we take swimming lessons, and now I had to explain to my daughter what it was, even though she was just 6, the type of kid to screech in horror at a scratched toe, convinced of imminent amputation.
Nobody was hurt, I assured her. Everything could be explained right after her lesson, and no, she didn’t have to jump in the deep end today.
Exactly 35 minutes later, bathing suit peeled off in record speed, she demanded an answer.
We didn’t get into the birds and bees; it was enough to describe basic female biology and try to make the bloody remnant a benign symbol of the passage into womanhood. There was talk of eggs, a sense of solidarity in our shared anatomy.
Then a flash of recognition: “That’s why you didn’t let me in the bathroom last week!” Why, yes, there was an upside to this. I could finally take care of business without resorting to the normal subterfuge.
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I thought the actual sex talk was on hold for at least a couple of years, until the 1st grade baby scare.
It seems there was a shaman among the 6 to 7-year-old contingent who could determine the exact number of babies each of her friends was fated to carry based on the number of bumps in that particular girl’s wrist. The exact nature and location of these bumps remain a mystery to this day, but apparently my daughter has four, and was destined—or in her eyes, doomed—to bear four children.
From the furrow on her brow, I knew this was not going away as easily as the bloody tampon. “You don’t have to have any more babies than you want,” I said. “You don’t have to have any children. There are ways to prevent pregnancy, and you’re in charge of your body.”
The furrow deepened. I wasn’t going to get away with explaining birth control and skipping over the most important part.
If I was feeling uneasy, it may be because my parents never had the sex talk with me. Relieved that I was a voracious and completely undiscerning reader, they let me cobble together an education from Judy Blume, Jackie Collins, and Jean Auel, the great literary trifecta of the ‘80s. Nothing was off limits if it was in a book, though I wonder if their tolerance would have been tested had they known I was reading the best parts of “Forever” out loud to my friends.
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Realizing that this bump business was causing my daughter real anxiety, I, the parent who scours the internet for the lowdown on everything from rashes to sunscreen, did the scariest thing since birthing this girl: I explained to her how she came to be without consulting any message board or a TED talk.
“Bumps on your wrist do not mean babies,” I said, conjuring a voice that was both serene and matter of fact and very little like my own.
It sounded pretty good so I kept going.
The basics out of the way, the furrow smoothed at last, I gave my daughter three rules:
1. In recognition of my past sins, please don’t go and tell all your friends about this because I am very certain that their parents want to tell them in their own way and in their own time.
2. Nobody should ever make you have sex or touch your body in a way that makes you uncomfortable.
3. Sex, when you’re ready, feels nice, and it’s not just for making babies.
In the almost two years since that talk, nothing has been off limits. We’ve tackled how two mommies make a baby, how somebody born with boy parts may feel like a girl, and yes, the realization that all of us—grandparents and parents—have done this thing. (There’s a charming hand gesture she’s come to rely on in lieu of italics.)
Then, last week, she came home and asked a question that was harder to answer than all the others. Somewhere she had heard that a woman could “sell her body for money.” (It might have been related to a sudden fascination with “Les Misérables.”)
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“How do you sell an arm or leg for money; how exactly does that work?” she wanted to know, between bouts of giggles.
“I’ll explain,” I said, realizing that her laughter was a little too hysterical; there was an edge there, the kind that creeps into kid’s voices when they know something is off.
“Somebody can be desperate; they might feel they have no choice,” I said, as her eyes widened. “It’s illegal in most places, and I think it’s sad.”
All this time, I had managed to maintain a sheen of positivity and wholesomeness on everything sex-related; this was the first time she was seeing that there could be another side.
All she could say in the end was, “That doesn’t seem fair.”
No, it doesn’t.
We commiserated for a moment, and then she bounded off to have dessert and tell her little sister all about the bouncy castle at the school carnival.
She’s still a kid after all, figuring out life one bloody, bumpy question at a time.