I learned the facts of life when I was nine years old. I was just getting over the trauma of learning that there was no Santa Claus, when I was hit on the head with this horror story as told by my friend, Susan.
It happened one lazy hot summer day, while I was sucking on the end of a piece of grass, staring up at the clouds and minding my own business…
“Bet you don’t know how babies are made,” she said, towering over me, casting a shadow across my face.
“I do so.”
“Oh, yeah? Tell me.”
“No. I don’t want to,” I said.
“That’s because you don’t know.”
And then she pointed to her crotch and said, “The man sticks his thing in here.”
“You’re disgusting!” I said. Running home at full speed, I burst through the back door, out of breath and panting. I found my mother in the kitchen, ironing my father’s shirts.
“Is it true that a man has to stick his thing in you to make a baby?” I blurted out, leaning against the wall for support.
She pressed a red button on the iron and steam hissed out. Her silence bored through me as she continued ironing, letting moments pass. The fact that she wasn’t reacting with horror, like I did, made me fear the worst – that Susan was telling the truth about the facts of life.
“Who told you this?” my mother asked, her eyes fixed on the shirt she was ironing.
She turned the shirt and pressed down hard on the iron as she methodically went around the shoulder seams.
“Don’t believe everything you hear from that one,” she said, avoiding my eyes as she turned her back to me and placed the pressed shirt on a hanger.
And that’s when I knew it was true. Since I had two brothers I knew my mother had done this horrible thing with my father – three times. It was too awful to imagine.
I was changed that day. I would never again be that innocent child, minding my own business, lying in the grass, gazing into the clouds waiting for my turn at hopscotch. I knew the truth of how babies were made and I was terrified at the thought.
I can blame my traumatic awakening on the fact that reproduction was never discussed in a casual, truthful way in my home. Talk of sex when I was growing up in the early 60’s was labeled “dirty language.” Our private parts were generically called “things.” Guys had a “thing” and girls had a “thing,” and putting those two “things” together made a baby.
Today, it’s different. While coloring a picture of a ladybug at my kitchen table last year, my seven-year-old granddaughter asked me, “Grandma, do you think ladybugs have a vagina?”
I was stunned. How did my sweet young granddaughter know what a vagina was? It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my first child and sitting through that terrifying Lamaze birthing movie (I covered my eyes through most of it) that I learned the names of all the different parts that made up my female genitalia. Saying them out loud was a different story. I still have trouble with that.
“Let me think about this for a moment,” I told her, trying to remain calm and stall for time – as my mother did with her meticulous ironing when I asked her to verify my newfound knowledge of how babies were made.
I feared where this conversation might lead. How much does my granddaughter know about sexual reproduction, I wondered. It wasn’t my place to have this discussion with her, and especially at such a young age. But, I thought, if she knows what a vagina is, she’s already light years ahead of where I was at her age.
“Well, grandma?” she asked. “Do you think ladybugs have a vagina?”
Staring out the window, I continued plunging the lettuce up and down in the salad spinner and remembered some advice I had read about answering a child’s questions about sex. Don’t go into detailed explanations, it said; just answer the immediate question. I did better than that; I played to my ignorance.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Do you think ladybugs have a vagina?”
“Hmmm,” she pondered as she colored in the little black spots on the ladybug’s shell. “I think they do.”
“I do too.” To answer otherwise would have opened up a discussion I wasn’t prepared to have. And saying the word “vagina” so many times was enough of a breakthrough for me for one day.