Photo courtesy of Alicia Elliott
As soon as the words “penis” and “vagina” tumbled out of my mouth, I wondered what I’d just gotten myself into. I had plunged headlong into “the talk” almost on impulse. My nine-year-old daughter, Eva, mentioned that they were going to learn about puberty in health class and suddenly there we were, discussing how babies are made. Every word felt like a tentative step on thin ice, but I didn’t want my nervousness to show. If I made the experience awkward and unpleasant, Eva might never come to me again for questions. I didn’t want that, but I also didn’t want to tell her too much. What if I went too far and broke her childhood?
When it comes to how we talk to children about sex, there seems to be an unspoken silence among parents. We don’t openly discuss how difficult it is to have this conversation. Obviously, parents feel strongly about their children’s sexual education—one need only look at the outrage and opposition to Ontario’s sex-ed curriculum for evidence. According to a 2016 Forum Research poll of 1,172 people, one in six parents either pulled their children from class as a result of the curriculum change or considered it. Many were offended by the use of anatomically correct names for body parts, acknowledgment of different sexualities and gender identities, conversations about consent and discussions of masturbation.
I know my mother would have thrown a fit. She is a devout Catholic and has seriously considered becoming a nun on several ocassions. Of course, that was before she married my father and piously followed good Catholic proclamations against birth control. In the space of 10 years, she’d had enough kids for a small basketball team. If we were farmers, five kids would have been great, but we weren’t farmers; we were a mixed-race, single-income family renting a too-small house in a suburb we couldn’t afford. Poverty coated us like a second skin and, with every new baby we squeezed into our lives, that skin got thicker and thicker.
Despite all the babies my mother was having, she never explained how those babies were made. “Sex” wasn’t a word in her vocabulary, though she made her opinions on it known in roundabout ways. She revered the Virgin Mary. She prayed to her every day and made sure we did the same. She took us to anti-abortion rallies, thrusting graphic, grotesque signs we didn’t understand into our chubby hands. She spoke of the importance of purity and abstinence with a pleading that left me both uncomfortable and confused.
Unfortunately for my mother, I wasn’t ignorant; I’d heard about sex from my peers way back in first grade, though I had no idea how it worked. In fact, I had no idea how anything to do with my body worked. There had been one lesson about menstruation at school that consisted of an outdated video with my entire fifth grade class’s embarrassed giggles as the live soundtrack. I knew this wasn’t something I could discuss with my mom.
As it turns out, she didn’t want to discuss it with me either. When I got my period two years later at the age of 12, I whispered the words to her, eyes down, ashamed. She handed over a brand new pack of pads and smiled. She was proud that I was a woman now, she said. That was it. Lucky for me, there were instructions on the back of the package.
My mother’s approach to talking about puberty and sex—which was to not talk about puberty and sex—often felt like a lie of omission. What wasn’t she telling me? Why wasn’t she telling me? Why did I have to go to such great lengths to figure things out on my own? In turn, her insistence on silence encouraged me to lie to her by the time I was 17 years old. No, I wasn’t kissing my boyfriend. No, we weren’t going to be alone at his house. Yes, I was saving myself for marriage.
I don’t want that relationship with my daughter. I want her to feel like she can talk to me and ask questions and know that I’ll give her honest answers. I want her to feel comfortable with her body and its functions. These are normal parts of any person’s life. They should be talked about normally.
“Do you know how a baby is made?” I asked Eva, trying to seem as relaxed as possible.
She shook her head. Her face was blank. I was both grateful and disappointed.
Just tell her the truth. There’s nothing wrong with the truth, I tell myself, except for Dad-style truth. Never tell her Dad-style truth.
I was 16 when my dad decided to give me “the talk.” He was definitely not raised Catholic and, unfortunately for me, had none of the associated hang-ups. He’d had more than 70 sexual partners before he met my mother—I know because that’s how he opened his talk. In perhaps one of his most simultaneously ingenious and insidious moves, he decided to teach me about the birds and the bees while we were barrelling down the highway at over 100 kilometres an hour. I couldn’t escape without risking great bodily harm.
Dad took me through an unpleasantly detailed tour of his sexual past, boasting like I was a buddy he needed to impress. In a way, I suppose, that wasn’t entirely untrue. For most of my childhood, we lived in communities where our neighbours made it clear that they weren’t interested in befriending the towering native guy who loved Kiss and whose wardrobe consisted almost entirely of Hawaiian shirts. For the most part, that left me and my mother to provide companionship. I was his eldest and, therefore, the likeliest candidate to fall into the role of right-hand child. He asked me to help him carry all the appliances every time we moved to a cheaper place. When we landed on the Six Nations reserve, he asked me to come with him to land-claims protests, Confederacy Council meetings and band council meetings, and he got me to edit his columns on reserve politics in our local newspaper.
I was his buddy, but I was also his daughter. Even his vaguest reference to sex was utterly mortifying, and here he was advising me that “monogamy is for the married” and encouraging me to “sow my wild oats”—a metaphor I don’t think he realized only applies to men. Though he acknowledged that I was female in the most basic way (he referred to me as “she” instead of “he”), he disregarded the reality of what it means to be a woman in a heterosexual relationship. Consent was never mentioned nor were methods of birth control or how to access them. It was the type of sex talk I could have gleaned from rewatching American Pie to save myself the embarrassment.
Given the circumstances, what happened next shouldn’t have surprised anyone. I had unprotected sex at 17. Of course, I got pregnant. Apparently my “wild oats” were quite fertile. Still, after I revealed my pregnancy to my parents in a hormonal rage, it became obvious that neither of them had prepared for this possibility: My mother stood there in a state of shock, alternately wailing and praying; my father yelled empty threats about killing my boyfriend. To this day, I don’t know whether either of them reflected on their own responsibilities in teaching me about sex or regretted anything they’d done or not done.
Ten years later, as I stood face to face with my own daughter, the difficulty that my parents had in talking about the birds and the bees had become achingly clear. Every option felt like a lose-lose scenario. Somehow I was robbing my daughter of her childhood by teaching her about her body. But if I didn’t teach her about her body, her childhood—like mine—could suddenly be stopped short. Which of those possibilities would I regret more?
Whether I like it or not, sexual education isn’t just about teaching my daughter the basics of human reproduction. It’s teaching her about how her body works, but it’s also teaching her how to view, relate to and respect her body and other people’s bodies and how to think about her own and her future partner’s right to consent.
Eva and I sat beside each other on my bed. She looked up at me, her face so open and trusting. I knew I couldn’t break that trust. I decided to tell her how sex works. I didn’t use any euphemisms—just anatomically correct names, said with what I hoped she interpreted as professional confidence. I decided to avoid using the stereotypical “When a man loves a woman” line—plenty of people have sex for plenty of reasons, and love isn’t always one of them. I stressed to her that it’s something that two people decide to do together when they are ready and that it isn’t the right time if one is pressuring the other person. I told her that there are more things that we could go over when she thinks it’s something she might want to do.
From there, it was a bit of a slippery slope. I had barely stopped for a breath, worried that any silence would break my fragile confidence and let doubt flood in. You can’t explain sex without having to explain puberty, so I immediately had to dive into the next lesson. I explained the changes that would soon be happening to her body—from breast growth and body hair to vaginal discharge and menstruation—went over why each thing happens and stressed what is normal and what she needs to discuss with me. I encouraged her to ask questions and answered them as best as I could. When I was done, I told her that I knew it was a lot of information to take in all at once, but I wanted her to know certain things from me so that she wouldn’t be confused when her teacher brings them up in class.
“If you have any questions, you can always ask,” I offered, desperately trying to mask my self-doubt with a smile. “It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. I’ve probably already been through everything you’ll go through anyway.”
My daughter walked away, quiet and contemplative. I exhaled.
One day not long after, my daughter came home from school. She stood beside me, impatiently shifting her weight back and forth from hip to hip. This wasn’t like her. She was already at the stage where she preferred holing up in her room over standing around talking to me.
“Everything OK?” I asked.
“I have a question for you,” she whispered, eyes darting to her father, who was sitting on a nearby couch. “It’s private.”
We walked to my bedroom and closed the door. When she asked her question, she stammered a little. At least she’s asking, I thought.
It was a good question, and I tried to answer it carefully and honestly. As I spoke, I could see relief wash over her face. Though my own parents might disapprove of the approach I’ve chosen, her reaction told me that the knowledge I was giving her was a comfort, not a burden. In that moment, I knew that I had made the right decision for her. For us.