Early on in my parenting career, I read some advice that sounded very wise. “When young children ask questions about sex or other difficult subjects, tell them the truth, but only answer the specific question they are asking,” the author wrote, “Don’t add superfluous information that will only lead to more questions you are not ready to answer.”Exactly! I thought. And so I remembered it, repeated it to others, and then did exactly the opposite.
It all started innocently enough. I was pregnant with my third child, and every week I would receive those emails from BabyCenter.com that show you a picture of what the baby in your tummy might look like this week, which organs are developing, and other fun facts like, “Your baby is now the size of a kumquat.” At the time, my older children, both girls, were 3 and 2 years old. Each week I would show them the picture of the growing baby and they would get excited about their new brother or sister due to arrive in the spring.
I realized some weeks into this that they thought the Baby Center illustrations were actual photos of me and the baby in my uterus, as if it were my 3D ultrasound that someone just happened to redraw in colored pencil and post on the internet. When one illustration showed the womb in the context of the mother’s body from sternum to hips, my 3-year-old shouted — horrified — “Mom, why are you naked in this picture?!”
Somewhere around week 18, the weekly update informed me that, if the baby were a girl, she would have already formed millions of eggs in her tiny little ovaries. In a super-nerd-out moment I could not contain my excitement about this miracle of reproduction, nor could I, apparently, remember to filter information to toddlers. So I told them all about it, completely failing to factor in the number of awkward moments I would now endure as my children told perfect strangers about the eggs in their tummies that would someday be their babies.
And of course, as my due date approached the question eventually came, “How is the baby going to get out of your tummy?” Because I had to have all of my children by C-section, I had an easy “out” on this one and told the girls I would have to have surgery and the doctor would take the baby out of my tummy. At this point, Addie, now 4, declared that she would never have a baby because she did not want to have surgery.
“Well, not everyone has to have surgery, sweetie,” I said.
“Why not? Then how does it come out?” she countered.
Damnit! Why can’t I keep my big mouth shut?! I thought, and so I said, obviously, “Who wants ice cream?”
But her wheels kept turning, and she could tell I was hiding something, which only increased her mania for the truth. More questions followed, foremost being, “How do the eggs turn into babies?”
Here we were at a crucial point. The truth, I estimated, was much more than she could handle, so I came up with this:
“When you fall in love and get married the eggs can turn into babies.” My husband shot me one of those wide-eyed looks that says, “What in Sam Hill is wrong with you that you would relay this sort of crazy misinformation to our child?” Which I promptly returned with an “I don’t flippin’ know, those are just the first words that came out of my mouth, I’m just trying to get dinner on the table here, and I am like nine months pregnant, and I’m really tired, and I didn’t know I was going to be ambushed with reproductive science questions” kind of look.
Fortunately, Addie was satisfied with this answer, and no more was said for some time. Our baby was born (a boy — cue the penis questions) and things were quiet for a while — relative to the reproduction inquisition anyway. So I was particularly caught off-guard when she came to me with her next query. I was in a hurry again to get dinner on the table (I believe she senses my weakness in this regard and pounces at just the right moment) when she blind-sided me with this one:
“Mom, do dogs get married?”
Not realizing that this was a follow-up to our earlier conversation two months ago, I replied simply, “No, dogs do not get married.”
“Then how do they have babies?”
Rats! She got me again! Now I was really in a pickle. “OK, well, dogs are not like people. They don’t have to get married to have babies.”
“Uh-oh,” I said, “Baby’s crying. Gotta go.” Thank God for crying babies!
Many weeks later, she came with me when I took the dog to the veterinarian. As many dogs do at the vet, ours was acting nervous and was curled up in the corner of the room. Addie told the doctor, “I think she’s upset because she never got to have puppies.”
“You think?” asked the vet.
“Yeah,” said Addie. And then, as if it were the most normal segue in the world, she went on, “I wish I were a chicken so I could just lay my eggs instead of having surgery to get them out.”
As the vet’s expression changed from “Well, aren’t you a precocious little girl?” to total bewilderment and possible horror, she turned to me in the hopes of clarification.
“Umm… you see, ever since I got pregnant, Addie has had a lot of questions about how babies are made,” I explained, “And we’re doing our best to explain it in a way that might make sense to a 4-year-old.”
“Oh,” she said, and paused as though she might say something more, which I could tell by the look on her face must have been, “As a medical professional I have to inform you that you are doing a terrible job of that.”
On the car ride home, I felt it was finally time to tell Addie that usually a baby is born through its mother’s vagina — “WHAT?! Gross!” — but she was at least relieved that it wouldn’t necessarily involve surgery.
“But, Mom,” she persisted, “How does the egg turn into a baby?” And there we were, right where we had started about a year before. I said, “Addie, I have to concentrate on driving, but I’ll be happy to talk about this another time. “ Completely frustrated, she screamed from the way-back seat of the van, “MOM! Tell me! How did that baby get in there?!”
I didn’t answer for 6 years, when I was good and ready and armed with a book that helped me know exactly what to say and how to say it. She was, of course, totally grossed out. Her primary concern was, “How many times do you have to do ‘that’ to make a baby?”
“Technically, just once,” I said.
“Oh, thank God,” she sighed with relief and walked away. So that’s where we’re at now: Romance is gross and the very idea of sexual intercourse is repulsive. I’m hoping we can stay there for just a little while longer, until I have time to consult some more parenting books and rehearse my answers. I think I have at least until next week.