I’m lying in bed with my 9-year-old son when he looks at me and asks, “Ima, how do you make babies?” I’m caught off guard as I hadn’t expected this—not tonight and not at his age.
In general, these conversations don’t usually bother me because I don’t believe in skirting around issues. There are no cutesy names for body parts in our house—a penis is a penis and a vagina is a vagina. So I tell him that the man’s penis has sperm which needs to get inside the woman’s body so that the egg can begin to grow.
He looks at me puzzled and says, “I don’t get it, how does the sperm get inside?” At this point he opens his mouth really wide and says, “How does the woman catch it in her mouth?”
I crack up and he laughs too—yes, talking about sex is pretty funny. We are still laughing when I tell him to go brush his teeth. He’s lost interest in our conversation and doesn’t ask any more questions (for the time being). I breathe a sigh of relief, which I know is only fleeting, because sometime soon I’m going to have to tell him how the sperm reaches the egg—and this is when I begin to panic.
When my eldest daughter was 11 (she’s now 18) all the mothers of the girls in her class were invited to meet the school nurse to discuss puberty, menstruation, and body image. The majority of the mothers were modern, religious (not ultra Orthodox) Israelis. During the session, I gingerly raised my hand and in my less-than-perfect Hebrew asked the nurse if information about sexual relations was included in the curriculum. Silence fell around the circle, my cheeks reddened, and I realized I had ventured into dangerous territory by suggesting something clearly deemed inappropriate.
I was told by the nurse that the girls were simply too young and the majority of the mothers didn’t want them knowing all that information just yet. I was disappointed and somewhat surprised, but I was a minority voice and I didn’t want to push my case.
Fortunately, over the years, a quiet revolution has been taking place in religious circles here in Israel, and many more women and communities are beginning to understand the very real need to put the subject of sexuality, intimacy, and body image on the table. So it was just my luck when a friend sent me information about a course that was being offered in our community. The incident with my son encouraged me to register.
The course was run by The Eden Center, an organization founded in Jerusalem with the goal of connecting women’s health, intimacy education, and mikveh practices. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from a “Sexuality and Intimacy within Marriage” course which included a session on “How to talk to your children about sex.”
It was certainly venturing into new territory for me. Sure, I’ve taken the odd parenting course over the years, but no one ever talked specifically about sex. The course was run by a religious sex therapist (I didn’t even know they existed!) and it turned out to be extremely informative and fun.
The facilitator of the course urged openness as a key to informing, solving problems, and addressing issues. Religious communities in particular receive so many mixed messages about sexuality and modesty that it can be confusing for parents to know how to even start the conversation.
Some tips from the course included making sure that you and your spouse are on the same page, starting a conversation with, “This may be a little uncomfortable for you; it’s also a bit uncomfortable for me,” and when talking to younger kids, always ending the conversation with comments like, “Do you understand?” or, “Do you have any more questions?”
In addition to the practical advice that I received, what struck me most about the course was how attitudes have shifted within the religious world over the last few years. Today there is much more of a willingness to discuss topics previously seen as taboo.
These conversations are now taking place in supportive, positive, and non-judgmental environments, and organizations like The Eden Center are reaching out to parents and giving them the tools to be able to converse with their children. By becoming part of this dialogue we are ensuring that education about intimacy and sexuality, so sacred and central to our family life, is shared in a way that is sensitive, healthy, and within the realms of Jewish law. I hope that the schools are shifting gears too and not leaving the message solely up to the parents.
And so, while my son’s perceived image of getting pregnant might have been funny, I was able to set the record straight and impart a positive and healthy message about sex because I had been armed with the right tools. I am deeply thankful for having been given this skill—and I’m sure that as he gets older, he’ll thank me, too.