Thanks to Kirsten Gillibrand, my 7-year-old now knows all about how babies are made. Not that New York’s junior senator actually sat down with the boy to lay out the facts, with infographics and pie charts and Wikipedia references — though if I’d thought she would have obliged me, I’d have certainly asked her.
No, the good senator was the subject of an NPR Morning Edition profile I was listening to recently on the drive to school. NPR is my go-to station in the morning for the 10 minutes of news I might pick up to keep me connected to the larger world that exists outside of Cartoon Network, the Disney Channel and PTO scuttlebutt. My kid never listens to NPR. He’s usually far too engrossed in whatever book he’s reading on his Kindle to even notice something as old media as the radio. Or me (also old, I might add). Which is why I never get more than a distracted Uh … or, on a good day, an Uh, okay, sure … when I ask him anything while we’re in the car.
“Fletcher, how was school today?”
“Fletcher … you’re on fire.”
“Uh … okay … sure … Huh?”
See what I mean?
But when the Morning Edition reporter described how Gillibrand was made of such steely stuff that she’d endured 12 hours of painful pre-labor contractions when pregnant with her second child, all because she didn’t want to leave her committee meeting, that little tidbit, THAT my son heard.
“Mommy –” came his little-boy-voice, mere seconds later from the backseat. “Do boys have babies? … Do I have to have a baby?”
And with about seven minutes left of the drive to school, I realized THIS WAS IT. The Moment that most parents dread even more than swimming lessons, potty training and busting open the first Lego kit that has more than 20 pieces. We were about to have The Talk.
I still remember when my mom had The Talk with me. I was six. We sat down. She came prepared. She had a book. With pictures. I think one was of Michaelangelo’s David, who, on reflection did not live up to that maxim about the size of a man’s hands, which in David’s case were, um … quite huge. Sigh … anyway … My mom was great. We read the book together. She answered questions. We spent time talking about the Sperm + Egg = Baby equation. Never once did she get embarrassed or hedge a question.
I didn’t think much about this particular Hallmark moment until years later when I noticed that friend after friend would tell me that their moms never had The Talk with them. Or that they’d simply been handed a book and a box of maxi pads and were left to piece it all together on their own. I was grateful my mom had the confidence and comfort level to be so direct and matter-of-fact with me.
I’d planned to do the same thing for my son. I just hadn’t planned to do it on this particular morning. Otherwise, I’d have spent some time rehearsing. And maybe doubled up on my anti-anxiety meds.
But perhaps it was better that I was caught unprepared and so had to handle this on the fly. I’d read somewhere — no doubt in one of my many How Not To Screw Up Your Kid Too Horribly guides — that the trick to navigating these kinds of potentially land-your-kid-in-therapy-for-life conversations was to respond as if you are a prisoner of war. Provide only the information requested and nothing more.
My 7-year-old had asked about babies. So given our time constraints, I figured I could skip the hot-n-heavy part and go straight to the Cliff’s Notes version of baby-assembly mechanics. There’d be time enough for the sex portion of The Talk later. Much later. Like when he hit middle school. (And don’t think I didn’t know that delaying would also give me four more years to stockpile the small cache of prescription anxiety meds I knew I’d need to keep calm and carry on through that ‘tween minefield. Hey, there’s a reason they call that stuff Mother’s Little Helper.)
But back to the task at hand. With five minutes left and counting till we’d pull into the drop-off lane, I calmly explained that Daddy has sperm —
“Sorta like tadpoles …”
And Mommy has an egg —
“No, you can’t scramble this kind of egg … you just can’t … because we don’t eat these kinds of eggs … yes, they’re small … much smaller than your thumbnail, yes…”
And I wrapped up with the explanation that after the sperm and egg meet up (sidestepping exactly how for the moment), they go into a special sack in Mommy’s tummy, where the sperm+egg can grow into a baby.
That was easy, I thought as the school came into view. The facts of life in under five minutes. And I hadn’t even sweated through my super-high-powered antiperspirant that I’d been fortunate enough to swipe on that morning.
“So why was that lady hurt?” my boy asked.
“When it’s time for the baby to be born, the sack starts squeezing to push the baby out. Like a tube of toothpaste. That squeezing is what hurts.” I explained.
“So, do boys have babies?”
“Oh good,” he said, clearly relieved.
“So, did I answer your question?” I asked as I turned into the school’s drive.
“Well … I was afraid I’d have a tummy ache like that lady on the radio. I do not want to have a baby because I do not want to have a tummy ache.”
Oh … Huh.
So maybe I’d answered the wrong question. But at least my boy still got the answer he needed.
A version of this essay appeared on Lifescript’s Health Bistro blog on June 14, 2013.