When my daughter Talia turned 3, I told her about the mommy’s egg and the daddy’s seed, and how the fetus developed inside the uterus, and how the baby emerged nine months later.
And then, for a time, I waited for questions. But Talia, who can pry and prod with the persistence of a reporter, who perceives the slightest shift in my tone, who will stop whatever she’s doing when she detects an “adult” conversation nearby, made no further inquiries.
So when Talia turned 7, I asked: “What do you think? How do the egg and seed get together?” Talia, the wise Upper West Side child, explained how the surgery works, how a doctor plants the father’s seed inside the mother’s body. “Well, yes,” I admitted. “That does happen. Sometimes. Sort of. ”
Then, once again, I waited. There are some subjects a parent can’t easily touch. There are enough proverbial “hot potatoes” in my household to fry up a pan full of latkes: there’s anti-Semitism and the Holocaust; there’s God and there’s death; there’s war and there’s sex. I’d be just as happy to avoid this particular conversation a little longer, but my son Joel, who is not quite 6, has been asking questions. I promised him a book.
I wonder if my discomfort stems from America’s Puritan heritage. Surely, it can’t be blamed on Judaism, which, after all, celebrates physical pleasures, which demands that a husband satisfy his wife’s sexual desires; it is a tradition whose adherents include some of today’s great “sexperts” from Dr. Ruth Westheimer to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.
I seek out Bat Sheva Marcus, an outspoken Orthodox Jew known to discuss the female anatomy at her Shabbat table. As a sex counselor and the clinical director of the Medical Center for Female Sexuality, Marcus should be well suited to instruct me on the etiquette of The Sex Talk. “Should there even be a Talk?” I wonder. “Wouldn’t it be less dramatic to sneak these facts of life into casual conversation? Or even less traumatic, I could skip it all together, taking the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ route — as in, my daughter doesn’t ask questions, I don’t give answers.”
Marcus laughs. “Sex is a big deal,” says Marcus, who advises a formal discussion with a book on hand. “For us to pretend it’s not, is not reality.” She realizes that for children, the act of intercourse “will sound about as appalling as if you were to stick your nose in someone’s mouth and blow your nose” — an analogy Marcus borrows from “Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They'd Ask): The Secrets to Surviving Your Child's Sexual Development from Birth to the Teens.”
In the worst case scenario, Marcus offers to walk over to my apartment and break the news to Talia herself.
Kristen Perry, a child psychologist, who will be speaking about “Bodies, Birds and Bees: Talking with Your Children About Sex,” on Nov. 15 on the Upper West Side, tells me she’s “a strong believer that if they’re not asking, you can’t wait for them to ask.” Perry, who is co-founder of InParentis, which offers support groups and lectures, explains that whether parents assert themselves or not, the children “will be exposed in ways you don’t have control over.
“It doesn’t have to be the whole Megillah,” she says of the sex talk, but, “an 8-year-old needs to know the mechanics of intercourse.”
A few days later, Talia and I giggle nervously about the silly illustrations in “It’s So Amazing! A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies and Families” by Robie Harris, for ages 7 and up. It is a book that has been recommended by several friends, but which Talia pronounces “a gross book for babies” because of the goofy cartoons of birds and bees, and the depictions and descriptions of human bodies. I keep turning to the page of a naked couple entwined in each other’s arms, trying to muster the courage to say the words, and Talia keeps flipping to other sections. “Why don’t they cover the private parts with some cloth?” she asks.
Finally, I hold my nose, and jump, plunging into a sea of adulthood, and dragging my daughter with me. If I’m not at all sure I like bringing my daughter to this place, I sense that Talia likes it less. “Gross,” she says.
Next time, we’ll tackle an easier topic. Maybe God or death.
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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